The Role of Lashkar-i-Islam in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency
October 1, 2010
Pakistan’s Khyber Agency remains a bastion of militant activity. Insurgents have frequently destroyed NATO supply convoys in Khyber, including an attack on four NATO oil tankers at the end of August. Most recently, a remotely-detonated bomb killed three Pakistani security force personnel traveling through the agency on October 20. The Torkham border crossing is located in Khyber, which is essential for supplying international troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Militant groups also use Khyber as a base from where they can launch attacks on Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province). This latter threat is especially concerning to Pakistani authorities and explains why they have carried out a number of recent strikes in Khyber, hoping to shut off or reduce the flow of militants into Peshawar. At the end of August, for example, Pakistani security forces launched a series of airstrikes in Khyber’s Tirah Valley, killing at least 45 people. According to Pakistani security officials, the strikes “were carried out after intelligence information [revealed] that militants were preparing to launch suicide attacks in Peshawar and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KP) during the next week.” Airstrikes continued through October, with Pakistani helicopter gunships targeting militant hideouts in the Bara area on October 9.
This article profiles Khyber Agency, showing how it is suffering from a blend of sectarian violence and Talibanization. It also reveals how at least one militant group in Khyber, Lashkar-i-Islam (LI), has morphed from a vigilante crime fighting organization into a terrorist group allied with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Khyber Agency is home to approximately 546,730 people, and it is divided into the administrative sub-units of Bara, Jamrud and Landi Kotal. Khyber is geographically significant because it borders Peshawar, the capital of KP, as well as Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan. It is also a critical hub of the area’s weapons trade. Khyber has been a hotbed of militancy ever since the Tirah Valley, a desolate but strategic area, was reportedly utilized by al-Qa`ida militants to escape into Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The Tirah Valley has been the site of repeated Pakistani airstrikes in an effort to destroy terrorist cells planning suicide attacks in the settled areas of Pakistan, and the valley acts as a key territory used by anti-state militants.
Militancy became entrenched in Khyber when local tribesman Haji Namdar founded the organization Amr bil Maroof wa Nahi Anil Munkar (Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, AMNAM) in the Tirah Valley. The group was based on the Afghan Taliban template, and unsubstantiated rumors ascribe this to Ustad Yasir, a prominent Taliban commander who reportedly prompted Haji Namdar to establish AMNAM. On the prompting of Yasir, Namdar established an FM radio station and employed a radical tribal preacher, Mufti Munir Shakir, to spread Islamist sermons. Namdar could not compete with Shakir’s firebrand oratory, and many AMNAM cadres defected to Shakir, who would later create LI in 2004. The other significant group in the area was Ansar-ul-Islam (AI), led by an Afghan, Pir Saif ur Rehman, who had settled in the area. Even though both AMNAM and AI were militant, AI was initially less inclined toward violence because of its leader’s Barelvi inclinations, which were more moderate than the brand of Deobandism preached by Shakir in AMNAM. Both AI and AMNAM, however, began a causal loop of “outbidding” the other by flexing their militant muscle through FM radio station broadcasts. On these networks, they would deride each other and issue sectarian fatawa ordering the other group to leave Khyber.
These clashes developed into a serious conflict, which prompted the tribes to act against AI and AMNAM. Even though both Rehman and Shakir were exiled for a time in 2005, this proved even more deleterious to peace in the area by bringing to the fore more militant commanders. LI was taken over by Mangal Bagh Afridi, and it continued to clash with AI. Under Mangal Bagh’s leadership, LI became the most significant and organized militant group operating in Khyber, while AMNAM and AI were largely marginalized.
The Taliban Arrive in Khyber
Until 2008, Mangal Bagh tended to portray LI as merely a reformist organization fighting against criminals such as drug traffickers, gamblers, kidnappers and car thieves in the Bara area. This paradigm shifted in 2008. In that year, the TTP began establishing its hold on the area, and the number of attacks on NATO supply convoys rose significantly. Due to Western pressure on the state, the Pakistani government banned AMNAM, LI and AI, and it launched military operations against these groups. Since then, there have been four major operations by the state in the area, titled: Darghlum, Baya Darghlum, Sirat-e-Mustakeem, and Khwakh Ba De Shum. Despite these operations, the state did not initially believe that LI had genuine linkages to the TTP, as the first three operations did not seriously target Mangal Bagh and his group.
Indeed, Bagh rebuffed several offers from the TTP to merge with his group before 2008. He remained independent even during the major Sirat-e-Mustakeem government operation in June 2008, which directly targeted LI. Although during this time LI fit into the paradigm of Talibanization by shutting down music shops and even abducting Christians from Peshawar, the group did not engage in widespread terrorist attacks against the state, and it did not conduct suicide operations.
For the TTP, securing a positive relationship with a group in Khyber was important for its strategic objectives. Gaining operational movement in Khyber would allow it to effectively disrupt NATO supplies to Afghanistan, which transit through Torkham in the Khyber Pass. Yet the TTP had initial difficulty establishing its influence in the agency since three strong militant groups already existed in Khyber—AMNAM, AI and LI. They all resented the TTP’s intrusion, clashing with them on occasion.
To gain influence in Khyber, the TTP reportedly sent reputed Afghan commander Ustad Yasir to the territory. It is not known when he arrived in the area, since evidence is anecdotal. Initially, Haji Namdar of AMNAM had cordial relations with Yasir because Namdar was seeking an alliance to strengthen his weakening militant position. True to its creed, however, the TTP wanted total territorial domination, and they soon soured relations with all the militant entities in Khyber by conducting a suicide attack on a tribal jirga that killed more than 40 tribal chiefs, representative of all the major factions in the agency. During the Sirat-e-Mustakeem operation, the TTP suspected Haji Namdar of siding with the Pakistani state against the TTP. For this alleged transgression, a TTP operative assassinated Namdar in August 2008.
The military operations appeared to do the TTP’s work for them, as the offensives were instrumental in pushing LI into the arms of the Taliban. After the Sirat-e-Mustakeem operation, it appears that Bagh moved closer to the TTP in the latter half of 2008. Bagh publicly changed his stance, telling the government to drop its demand for his surrender, saying, “Now it is difficult for us to live in peace. The conflict will not be confined to Khyber Agency alone; rather it will spread to the entire Peshawar region.” Shortly after the statement, reports of LI-perpetrated terrorism began to appear. A daring suicide attack on the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar in April 2010 is one of several high-profile cases linked to LI. During that attack, militants arrived outside the consulate in two vehicles, one of which was detonated near an armored personnel carrier, while armed men exited the other and shot at the consulate before blowing themselves up. They had brought ramps to help scale the metal barriers of the consulate, and would have entered the compound if debris from the armored personnel carrier had not jammed into the barrier. Police investigations have tied the assailants to LI. This incident is just one of many in a series of major LI attacks on Peshawar, all of which seemed to originate from the Tirah Valley.
In the end, the TTP managed to secure its position in Khyber by improving relations with LI, the agency’s largest faction. Authoritative sources have cited the close symbiotic relationship between LI and the TTP, including reports that LI is using TTP suicide trainers such as Said Noor to train its fighters. The TTP maintains its presence in Khyber through local commanders. These commanders reportedly consist of the TTP’s second-tier leadership, who are controlled by more senior TTP commanders in neighboring Orakzai Agency. In Orakzai, TTP leaders coordinate the group’s activities, while on-the-ground operatives tend to liaison mainly with LI, particularly regarding attacks on Peshawar. This relationship also helps the TTP destroy NATO supply convoys passing through the area; more than 700 cargo trucks and military vehicles have been destroyed through 2010.
Today, LI apparently pays recruits a monthly salary, and it offers free meals to convince fighters to join its ranks. LI reportedly has a fleet of at least 138 vehicles. The group raises funds by levying taxes on vehicles traveling through Khyber, or by smuggling goods. It also earns money through receiving protection funds from embattled minority groups in Khyber, such as the Sikhs. Nevertheless, Pakistani authorities argue that even these funding methods do not fully account for the group’s affluence. As for AI and AMNAM, they have been largely marginalized due to the symbiotic relationship between the TTP and LI.
Many analysts worry that the troop surge in Afghanistan has put pressure on Khyber to accommodate militants fleeing across the border. This concern is especially relevant considering that Pakistan’s military is heavily engaged in Waziristan and may not be able to divert its attention to Khyber Agency until other military operations are concluded. The current offensive in Khyber, which is a carryover of the Khwakh Ba De Shum initiative, is limited in scope, with only 200 troops, augmented by aerial firepower, deployed in Landi Kotal. This indicates that the Pakistan Army has not initiated full-scale COIN operations in Khyber comparable to those in Swat and Waziristan. As a result, Khyber may become a sanctuary for the hard-pressed TTP leadership, or as a conduit for Taliban fighters fleeing from allied forces in Afghanistan. In fact, the Torkham border crossing near Peshawar caters to a tremendous amount of population flow and transit trade to and from Afghanistan.
Simultaneously, LI in the Tirah Valley has emerged as a primary threat to Pakistan’s urban centers. LI, which did not get its start as a terrorist group, has now become a terrorist organization allied with the TTP, a startling development for any observer of the evolution of militant groups in Pakistan. This is an exact replication of the process that occurred in Swat, when Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat- e-Mohammadi (TNSM) militants joined the Taliban. LI resorted to terrorism after operations were initiated against it, notwithstanding the fact that it openly challenged the writ of the state in Khyber by coercing local officials, closing schools, conducting kidnapping for ransom, among other expressions of extremism. The TTP was a logical ally because of their tactical linkages, and this relationship allowed LI to sideline competing organizations in the agency.
This case shows that whenever a dominant militant entity in the tribal areas is challenged by the state, it tends to rapidly evolve along trajectories of terrorism and insurgency, regardless of what its self-professed intentions once were.
Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi is the author of two books about the Taliban in Pakistan, and has written extensively about the subject in international scholarly journals. He has been a lecturer of terrorism studies at a British university. His expertise lies in the study of Talibanization and transmigration of radical trends from rural to the urban mainstream in Pakistan, and a deconstruction of jihadist discourse.
 “NATO Oil Tankers Destroyed by Militants in Pakistan,” Sify News, August 30, 2010.
 “Four Security Personnel Killed in Terror Attacks,” Daily Times, October 21, 2010.
 Khyber Agency is almost contiguous to Peshawar through the city’s suburb of Hayatabad.
 “Pakistan Air Raids Kill Scores,” al-Jazira, September 1, 2010.
 “Gunship Helicopters Target Militants in Barra,” Dawn, October 9, 2010.
 The population estimate is based on Pakistan’s 1998 census.
 The Tirah Valley is only accessible through the heartland of FATA. The terrain is rugged, there are pockets of militancy all along the way, and the area is desolate, which is why it has become a militant stronghold.
 “Pakistan Air Raids Kill Scores.”
 For details, see Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman, “Faces of Pakistan’s Militant Commanders,” Center for American Progress, July 22, 2009.
 Personal interview, Pakistani security official, Peshawar, Pakistan, May 2010. Also see Raheel Khan, “The Battle for Pakistan: Militancy and Conflict in Khyber,” New America Foundation, April 2010.
 Manzar Zaidi, “A Profile of Mangal Bagh,” The Long War Journal, November 11, 2008.
 Ibid. Ansar-ul-Islam is Barelvi in persuasion, whereas Shakir follows a strict Deobandi creed. The main bone of contention between the groups has been their different sectarian ideologies.
 Mangal Bagh started out in humble circumstances as a bus conductor driving the Peshawar-Bara route, and was initially a minor activist of the Awami National Party, the ruling secular political party in KP. He rose from a commander to the head of LI in just a few years.
 Imtiaz Gul, “Talibanisation of Khyber Agency,” Weekly Pulse [Islamabad], July 3, 2008.
 Personal interview, Khyber Agency-based journalist, July 2010. Also see Bill Roggio, “Pakistani Troops Target Extremists in Khyber,” The Long War Journal, November 24, 2009.
 Zaidi; Personal interview, Khyber Agency-based journalist, July 2010.
 Although Sirat-e-Mustakeem directly targeted LI, the government chose not to place a lot of pressure on the group. See Daud Khattak, “Forces Clear Khyber, Tirah is Next,” Daily Times, June 30, 2008.
 Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban Bitten by a Snake in the Grass,” Asia Times Online, August 26, 2008.
 “Pakistan Militant Leader Killed,” BBC, August 13, 2008; Roggio, “Pakistani Troops Target Extremists in Khyber”; Personal interview, Khyber Agency-based journalist, July 2010.
 The Taliban began appearing in Khyber in 2006, although then they were usually known as maqami (local) Taliban since the TTP nomenclature had not yet become common currency. The Taliban would later coalesce as a TTP franchise controlled by commanders from neighboring Orakzai Agency.
 Muhammad Amir Rana and Rohan Gunaratna, Al-Qaeda Fights Back Inside Pakistani Tribal Areas (Lahore: Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, 2007), p. 43.
 Personal interview, prominent Peshawar-based reporter, May 2010.
 Personal interview, Pakistani security officials, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 2010.
 Bagh has made exaggerated claims to having 180,000 volunteers. More realistic estimates by authorities, however, put the figure around at least 10,000 fighters.
 Personal interview, senior police officials, Peshawar, Pakistan, May 2010.
 Bill Roggio, “Suicide Bomber Kills 19 in Khyber,” The Long War Journal, February 10, 2010.
 Personal interviews, staff of the political agent in Khyber Agency, May 2010. These details were also corroborated by senior police officials in Peshawar, along with a prominent Peshawar-based journalist who requested anonymity.
 Personal interviews, senior police and district administration officials, Peshawar, Pakistan, May 2010.
 Bill Roggio, “Fighting Intensifies in Northwestern Taliban Strongholds,” The Long War Journal, November 27, 2009.
 Although government operations against LI appear to explain why the group moved closer to the TTP, the government had little choice. LI’s influence was encroaching into Peshawar, and the group was defying the writ of the state and flaunting its vigilante power.