Pakistani Fighters Joining the War in Syria

Posted: October 14, 2013 in CTC Sentinel, Published in
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ctc sentinel

Author : Zia Ur Rehman

September 24, 2013

More than two years since the beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Syria has become an attractive destination for Sunni foreign fighters.[1] Al-Qa`ida has exploited the Syrian civil war, and hundreds of fighters from various Muslim countries have traveled to Syria to fight with al-Qa`ida or one of its affiliated groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra.[2] For its part, various Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders have claimed to have sent militants to Syria to join the fighting against the al-Assad regime.[3]

This article examines the presence of the TTP in Syria and the factors behind the group’s possible participation in the Syrian civil war. It also looks at the TTP’s propaganda toward the al-Assad regime, their global outreach and the impact of the Syrian war in Pakistan.

Reports of TTP fighters in Syria : 

Recent media reports and interviews with TTP militants suggest that the Pakistani Taliban have sent militants to fight alongside rebels in Syria. Mohammad Amin, described by the BBC as the TTP’s coordinator for Syrian affairs, said that the TTP have established a base in Syria with the help of Arab fighters who had previously fought in Afghanistan.[4] The purpose of the base, Amin said, is to assess the “ongoing jihad” in Syria and coordinate joint operations with Syrian militants.[5] Another TTP senior commander said that the decision to send Pakistani fighters to Syria came at the appeal of their “Arab friends.”[6]

Separately, a mid-level TTP commander said that the TTP are prepared to help Muslims worldwide and determined to provide manpower support to ease the hardships of Syria’s Sunni Muslim community.[7] He claimed that the Iranian regime is sending Pakistani Shi`a fighters to Syria through Iran and Iraq to join al-Assad’s forces to suppress Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim population.[8] Although there are no confirmed reports that Pakistani Shi`a fighters have shown up on the battlefield in Syria, Shi`a scholars in Iran have issued fatawa (religious decrees) directing their followers to fight in Syria.[9] Moreover, Shi`a militant leaders fighting in Syria and those in charge of recruitment in Iraq claim that the number of volunteers has increased dramatically since the fatawa were issued.[10]

The network sending Pakistani Sunni fighters to Syria is jointly run by the TTP and the banned sectarian group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), both of which are affiliated with al-Qa`ida.[11] The network has reportedly sent between 100-150 fighters.[12] Abdul Rashid Abbasi, a close associate of TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, said that 120 fighters are already in Syria where they are under the command-and-control structure of al-Qa`ida in Syria.[13] The leaders of this network are Usman Ghani, a former LJ commander, and Alimullah Umry, a TTP commander from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.[14]

According to al-Jazira, Pakistani militants in Syria fight under the platform of Katibat Muhajiroon, a Latakia-based jihadist group solely composed of foreign militants belonging to various Islamic and European countries and led by a Libyan, Abu Jaafar il Libi.[15] The Pakistani groups that have sent fighters to Syria include the TTP, the LJ and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group.[16] The TTP also asked its commanders in Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, Orakzai and Waziristan tribal agencies to enlist new fighters to participate in the Syrian war.[17]

On July 31, 2013, an Urdu-language jihadist forum posted an authentic video confirming the presence of TTP fighters in Syria for the first time.[18] The video, produced by the ISIL, showed a short clip of 10-20 TTP fighters on the ground in Syria.[19] Additionally, a media report in September claimed that 30 bodies of Pakistani jihadists killed in Syria have been sent back to Pakistan, the majority of whom were associated with the LJ and the TTP’s Punjab faction.[20]

Despite these claims, however, other reports state that the TTP’s leadership has rejected suggestions that they are sending militants to Syria. One TTP leader told reporters that some of their fighters have traveled to Syria independently, but that the TTP’s focus remained in Pakistan. He said that while the TTP supports the Syrian rebels, the TTP have their own targets in the immediate region.[21] The Pakistani government has also rejected claims that Pakistani militants have joined the war in Syria.[22] The Syrian National Council called the news of Pakistani fighters traveling to Syria as part of a “systematic” campaign by pro-al-Assad forces to smear the rebels.[23]

The Pakistani Taliban’s Global Outreach : 

It is not a surprise, however, that Pakistani militants have joined the war in Syria. Pakistanis have become involved in international jihadist violence in recent decades, and militants from Pakistan have fought in several regions, especially in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Balkans.[24] The TTP work in a close alliance with al-Qa`ida, and their recent dispatch of fighters to Syria shows their desire to play a role in foreign jihadist theaters.[25] In a January 2013 video, TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, while discussing the organization’s post 2014 objectives, described the TTP as an “international” organization.[26] When asked about the uprisings in Arab Spring countries, Hakimullah said, “We support them and we will aid them. If they need our blood, our life; if they need our people, we are ready for every type of assistance so that the democratic and secular system [in Arab nations] comes to an end.”[27]

There are other examples of Pakistani militants joining foreign conflicts. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou warned in June 2012 that jihadist fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan were training militants in northern Mali.[28] Yemeni intelligence sources claimed that al-Qa`ida was bringing Pakistani explosives experts into Yemen, and that one of them, Ragaa Bin Ali, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2013.[29] The TTP also sent Faisal Shahzad, a young Pakistani who had been living in the United States, on a mission to bomb New York’s Times Square in May 2010, a plot that ultimately failed.[30]

The TTP have also threatened to attack Myanmar to avenge crimes against the Muslim Rohingya population, and pledged to send fighters to Kashmir to wage a struggle for the implementation of Shari`a in India.[31] Several Pakistani fighters fought in the Bosnian civil war in 1992-1995, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1988-1994 on the side of Azerbaijan.[32] Some fighters also participated in the recent war in Iraq.[33

Implications : 

As Pakistani militants increasingly view the war in Syria through a sectarian lens, security analysts believe that the conflict could exacerbate Sunni-Shi`a tensions in Pakistan.[34] Since 1989, sectarian fighting has claimed thousands of lives in Pakistan, mostly from the Shi`a community.[35] Pakistan has experienced a sharp resurgence in sectarian violence in the last decade, which can be traced to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the mid-2000s and the organization’s growing ties to banned militant sectarian outfits in Pakistan, such as the LJ.[36] The TTP, the LJ and affiliated sectarian groups view the Shi`a as heretics, and they regularly attack them.[37]

This sectarian tension partly explains the movement of fighters from Pakistan to Syria. It has also reshaped the TTP’s propaganda toward the Shi`a community in general.[38] A TTP-linked leader said that they have planned more attacks against the Shi`a community in Pakistan to seek revenge for attacks by Shi`a and Alawites against Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.[39] Tehreek-ul-Ansar, a wing of the TTP, claimed responsibility for the July 26, 2013, twin suicide attacks in Parachinar town of Kurram Agency that killed 57 Shi`a, saying that the operation was in revenge for the “killing of Sunnis in Syria.”[40]

Tactically, it is not immediately clear how the small Pakistani contingent in Syria, used to fighting in the mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, could help rebels in the streets of Syrian cities.[41] Analysts, however, believe that the Pakistani militants could provide bomb-making skills, and guerrilla warfare and suicide bombing training to Syrian militants.[42] Most Pakistani fighters are poorly educated, under employed and marginalized youth, and it is feared that al-Qa`ida’s leadership in Syria could easily motivate them by paying money for more violence.[43]

The TTP and al-Qa`ida have a symbiotic relationship, and sending Pakistani militants to Syria will likely be seen as an act of loyalty toward al-Qa`ida’s affiliates.[44] This mutual cooperation likely gives the TTP access to al-Qa`ida’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members.[45]

Zia Ur Rehman is a journalist and researcher who covers militancy and security issues in Pakistan. He has written for the Friday Times, The Jamestown Foundation, the New York Times, The News International and The National. He is also the author of the book Karachi in Turmoil.

[1] Personal interview, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, a BBC journalist based in Islamabad, August 8, 2013.

[2] Bruce Riedel, “Al Qaeda is Back,” Daily Beast, July 26, 2013.

[3] Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, “Pakistan Taliban ‘Sets up a Base in Syria,’” BBC, July 12, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Maria Golovnina and Jibran Ahmad, “Pakistan Taliban Set Up Camps in Syria, Join Anti-Assad War,” Reuters, July 14, 2013.

[7] Personal interview, TTP commander who identified himself as Omar because he was not authorized to speak to the media, August 5, 2013.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Suadad al-Salhy, “Syria War Widens Rift Between Shi’ite Clergy in Iraq, Iran,” Reuters, July 20, 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Zarar Khan and Sebastian Abbot, “Islamic Militants Leave Pakistan to Fight in Syria,” Associated Press, July 14, 2013; Shoaib-ur-Rehman Siddiqui, “Taliban Joining Syria Conflict?” Business Recorder, September 1, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Saima Mohsin and Joe Sterling, “Syrian Opposition Questions Taliban Rebel Role,” CNN, July 19, 2013; “Islamic Militants Stream Out of Pakistan in Growing Numbers to Fight in Syria,” Associated Press, July 14, 2013.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Rania Abouzeid, “Inside the Battle for Assad’s Heartland,” al-Jazira, August 28, 2013; Rania Abouzeid, “On Syria’s Front Lines: A Night in the Field Clinic,” al-Jazira, August 28, 2013.

[16] Personal interview, North Waziristan-based journalist who requested anonymity for security reasons, August 8, 2013.

[17] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “First Batch of Fighters Reaches Syria, Confirms Pakistan Taliban,” Dawn, July 16, 2013.

[18] “Video Confirms Pakistani Taliban’s Presence In Syria,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, August 1, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Aqeel Yousafzai, “Taliban se muzakraat Hukmaran band gali mai,” Hum Shehri [Lahore], September 9-15, 2013.

[21] “Pakistan Taliban Say No shift to Syria,” Fox News, July 16, 2013.

[22] “Pakistan Denies Reports of Taliban Cell in Syria,” Dawn, July 16, 2013.

[23] Saima Mohsin and Joe Sterling, “Syrian Opposition Questions Taliban Rebel Role,” CNN, July 19, 2013.

[24] Mujeeb, “Pakistan Taliban ‘Sets up a Base in Syria.’”

[25] Personal interview, Aqeel Yousafzai, author of several books on militancy, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 2013.

[26] “In New Video, Taliban Commanders Discuss Jihad Against America And The ‘Crusader-Zionist Alliance’; Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Described As International Organization,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, January 9, 2013.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Afghans, Pakistanis Training Militants in Mali: Niger,” Dawn, June 8, 2012.

[29] “Al Qaeda Bringing Pakistani Explosive Experts to Yemen, Claims Official,” Dawn, August 10, 2013.

[30] Andrew Clark and Declan Walsh, “Taliban Behind Times Square Plot, Says US,” Guardian, May 9, 2010.

[31] “Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Threaten Myanmar Over Rohingya,” Express Tribune, July 26, 2012; “Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan Pledges to Fight in Kashmir, Implement Sharia in India,” Indian Express, January 8, 2013.

[32] Mujeeb, “Pakistan Taliban ‘Sets up a Base in Syria.’”

[33] Personal interview, Aqeel Yousafzai, author of several books on militancy, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 2013.

[34] Personal interview, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, a BBC journalist based in Islamabad, August 8, 2013.

[35] “Sectarian Violence in Pakistan 1989-2013,” South Asia Terrorism Portal,  undated.

[36] Huma Yusuf, “Sectarian Violence: Pakistan’s Greatest Security Threat?” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, July 2012.

[37] Banned Shi`a militant groups in Pakistan, such as Sipah-i-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), target the Sunni community as retribution. See personal interview, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, a BBC journalist based in Islamabad, August 8, 2013; Faraz Khan, “Sectarian Hit-Men Move from Killing Individuals to Targeting Families: Police,” Express Tribune, September 28, 2012.

[38] Personal interview, North Waziristan-based journalist who requested anonymity for security reasons, August 8, 2013.

[39] “Parachinar Bombings: Death Toll Rises to 57,” Pakistan Today, July 27, 2013.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Jason Burke, “Syria Conflict: Why Pakistani Taliban is Pledging Support for Rebels,” Guardian, July 14, 2013.

[42] Personal interview, North Waziristan-based journalist who requested anonymity for security reasons, August 8, 2013.

[43] Burke.

[44] Personal interview, North Waziristan-based journalist who requested anonymity for security reasons, August 8, 2013.

[45] Personal interview, Aqeel Yousafzai, author of several books on militancy, Peshawar, Pakistan, August 2013


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