ISLAMABAD – An alliance of militant groups waging attacks in Pakistan has said several breakaway and new factions have rejoined its ranks in an effort to consolidate their violent campaign, a move critics warned could threaten the country’s counterterrorism gains.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, announced on Monday that its leadership has been working to bring all militant groups into their fold to wage their campaign from a united front instead of fighting individually to dislodge what it condemned as an “un-Islamic system” in the country.
The alliance said in a statement that negotiations with leaders of two splinter groups, Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA), persuaded them this week to pledge allegiance to the TTP chief, Mufti Abu Mansour Asim , also known as Noor Wali Mehsud. It released pictures of the purported ceremony but did not disclose the location.
Pakistani military officials have long maintained militants linked to TTP have established bases in border areas of Afghanistan after fleeing years of sustained security operations in Pakistan.
The United States has designated both the TTP and the JuA as global terrorist organizations for carrying out attacks against American interests and for their ties to the al-Qaida network.
The JuA, which broke from TTP in 2014 and is also believed to be operating out of Afghanistan, has taken responsibility for major attacks in Pakistan. They include the 2016 suicide bombing of a crowd of Christians celebrating Easter in a park in the eastern city of Lahore. The blast killed more than 70 people.
The Pakistani government has, so far, not commented on Monday’s militant merger, which comes amid a resurgence of TTP-claimed attacks in parts of the country.
An intelligence official told VOA anti-militancy actions and ensuing border security measures have significantly reduced illegal crossings, making it difficult for TTP militants to freely undertake their violent activities in Pakistan barring isolated attacks.
The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media, said “terrorists can no more arrange mass gatherings” in Pakistan because intelligence-based security operations are still ongoing.
“We should be only worried once we have insider threat, meaning militant facilitators, abettors and their sleeper cells in Pakistan. But they don’t exist anymore,” the official asserted.
Critics such as Mohammad Amir Rana, the head of Islamabad-based independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, saw the militant reunion as a cause of concern for national security.
“Indeed, the merger is threatening for the internal security and while combining their strengths, TTP can intensify its terror campaign, specifically in some districts of Punjab and Balochistan (provinces) where JuA and HuA already have active networks,” Rana said.
Last week, Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Babar told a news conference his institution was determined to build on the country’s “hard-earned success” in the war against terrorism.
“It has cleared 46,000 square kilometer area of terrorists, killing more than 18,000 terrorists and seizing more than 400 tons of explosive material,” Iftikhar told a news conference on Thursday.
Pakistani officials maintain a large number of TTP-linked militants fled security operations and have taken shelter in Afghanistan.
U.S. drone strikes have killed dozens of fugitive Pakistani militants, including their top leaders, hiding on the Afghan side of the border.
Officials in Islamabad, however, maintain the Pakistani Taliban and other fugitive extremists continue to operate out of their Afghan sanctuaries.
The United Nations reported last month that a large number of anti-Pakistani government militants, mostly linked to the TTP, are hiding in Afghanistan.
“The total number of Pakistani foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan posing a threat to both countries, is estimated at between 6,000 and 6,500, most of them with TTP,” according to the report prepared by the U.N. analytical and sanctions monitoring team.
It noted that some of them have joined the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as IS Khorasan Province (ISKP).
The Afghan government maintains its forces are determined to fight terrorism in their country and prevent anyone from using Afghan soil against neighboring countries.
Afghan officials also deny as baseless allegations their security institutions are covertly supporting the Pakistani militants. Instead, Kabul accuses Islamabad of sheltering and supporting the Afghan Taliban waging a deadly insurgency in Afghanistan.