Pakistan’s current government and the Pakistani military have proudly proclaimed many times in recent memory that their operations against the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Haqqani Network, and Al Qaeda hubs in the tribal areas of North Waziristan have been a great success.
Yet on Monday night a police academy in Quetta suffered a devastating attack in what looks like a new alliance of previously splintered jihadist factions in possible coordination with the so-called Islamic State.
Three terrorists wearing suicide vests hit late in the evening and engaged in a protracted gun battle before one was killed by government force and the other two blew themselves up. Latest reports say at least 59 cadets and guards died in the assault.
The ISIS propaganda site Amaq quickly claimed responsibility for the operation. But Pakistani authorities, citing communications intercepts, said they believed the group responsible was Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant Sunni group that has been active for about 20 years.
LJ, as it’s called, has a record like ISIS of waging war on Shia Muslims, a factor which may have helped bring the two organizations together. The putative caliphate has tried to build its networks in South Asia over the last two years. But that connection would not explain the attack on the police college in Quetta.
This hit appears to be part of campaign to show the Pakistani government and Pakistani people that the militants are still present and ready to act. It comes after a series of attacks on softer targets, such as schools and hospitals.
“Recently all the militants group held a meeting and agreed to make an alliance to intensify attacks against Pakistan,” a former TTP commander who withdrew from combat after suffering serious wounds tells The Daily Beast.
Lashkar-e-Jangvi was among the groups at the meeting. Collectively these groups have “lots of sleeper cells within Pakistan and now they are slowly waking them up,” said the veteran.
"It is true,” he said, “that Pakistani army operation against the bases of the TTP in Waziristan interrupted all militants groups, but anyone who says this was the end of the TTP and its allies is simply silly. "
"In Afghanistan, the Afghan [government] forces killed some of our men, but the Taliban’s territory is expanding in Afghanistan, and that is good news for Pakistani militants looking to shelter there," said the veteran.
“The Afghan Taliban are helping us now, exactly as they used to be helped by us in the Pakistani tribal areas,” said the commander. "Today’s attack in Quetta shows militants are still capable, intact, and preparing for more attacks in Pakistan."
Whatever alliance may be cobbled together by previously fractured jihadist organizations must be particularly worrisome for the United States, which has been targeted by Al Qaeda, ISIS, and indeed the TTP in years past.
The U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center offers a succinct description of the risks posed by the TTP and Mullah Fazlullah, its overall leader:
“Fazlullah is staunchly anti-Western, anti-Islamabad, and advocates harsh tactics underscored by his ordering the November 2012 attempted assassination of education rights activist Malala Yousafzai. TTP since 2008 has repeatedly publicly threatened to attack the U.S. homeland, and a TTP spokesman claimed responsibility for the failed vehicle-bomb attack in Times Square, New York City, on 1 May 2010. In June 2011, a spokesman vowed to attack the United States and Europe in revenge for the death of Usama Bin Ladin. A TTP leader in April 2012 endorsed external operations by the group and threatened attacks in the United Kingdom for its involvement in Afghanistan.”
The veteran TTP commander says the group has grown more sophisticated, and that when a sleeper cell is mobilized, it is for one job only. “Mullah Fazlullah is more active, but he has been closely watched, and many times has just barely survived the bombing and shelling by Afghan army forces.”
From the perspective of the Pakistani military, all this is part of a broader picture, with the intelligence services of Afghanistan and India lurking in the background.
“We are at war,” says Ghulam Muhammad Mohatarem, a retired Pakistani brigadier general, noting the growing ties between Islamabad and Beijing through what’s called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which he says are opposed by India and the United States.
Baluchistan, the province where Quetta is located, “is particularly vulnerable,” says the general. “The enemy is looking for opportunities to create problems for the corridor and took advantage of our inefficiency.”
Whatever the original reasons for the attack, the implications are grim.
“Militants commonly believe that fighting jihad in Pakistan is easier than anywhere else in the world,” said the veteran TTP commander. “It will never come to an end."