Hours after four gunmen were killed in an 8-minute shootout with the police outside Pakistan’s main stock exchange this week, a banned separatist organization claimed responsibility for the attack in the southern seaport city of Karachi.
“The attack was aimed at targeting Pakistan’s economy, which stands on the 72 years of exploitation of Balochistan and the genocide of the Baluch people,” Jeehand Baloch, a purported spokesman for the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a banned group, said in a statement emailed to journalists on June 29.
But in another statement the following day, the BLA or its faction condemned the attack and accused the perpetrators of undermining its struggle.
“Such attacks only strengthen the stance of our enemy states, who are succeeding in branding the Baluch independence movement as terrorist internationally,” Azad Baloch, a purported BLA spokesman, said in a June 30 statement.
Now some see the controversy over the attack as exposing a widening divide among the supporters of a separatist insurgency in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan, where China is investing billions of dollars in mineral extraction, energy infrastructure, and trade routes.
For more than two decades, the BLA has been a major militant group fighting for what its leaders say is a demand for a separate homeland for Pakistan’s Baluch minority, whose various tribes and communities form the majority of residents in the resource-rich region, which borders Afghanistan, Iran, and the Arabian Sea.
Pakistan, Britain, and the United States have designated the BLA as a terrorist organization for attacking security forces and civilians in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province. Islamabad has accused India and Afghanistan of supporting Baluch separatist militants. But New Delhi and Kabul deny the accusations and blame Islamabad for bankrolling Islamist militants for attacks in their countries.
Journalists from Balochistan argue that the divide within the BLA in particular and the Baluch separatist camp in general is a result of a struggle in which militant commanders from middle and impoverished classes are contesting the leadership of some wealthy traditional Baluch tribal chiefs whose families had championed the Baluch nationalist cause for decades.
Kiyya Baloch, a journalist based in Norway, says the BLA’s character as a militant organization dominated by members of Marri, a large Baluch tribe prominent in nationalist militant organizations since the 1970s, has changed.
“Today, militants fighting in the mountains of Balochistan or leading political activism in the region’s cities are middle-class or ordinary people,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “The sardars and nawabs cannot digest this, so they are employing various accusations as they foment division among the separatist camp,” he added while referring to the tribal leaders by their hereditary titles.
The BLA is believed to have first emerged in the late 1990s among the followers of late Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, a Marxist leader and tribal chieftain of Marris who championed the separatist cause. They included youth and veterans of a Baluch insurrection in the 1970s. His arrest on murder charges in early 2000 prompted attacks from the BLA, which turned into an open military confrontation in 2004 following large-scale crackdowns and military operations against Baluch nationalists. His son Balaach Marri became the public face and purported leader of the BLA.
But the November 2007 killing of Balaach Marri pushed the BLA to become more amorphous. While Hyrbyair Marri, one of his five surviving brothers, was often accused of leading the group, he denied any association. Living in exile in London, Hyrbyair now leads the Free Balochistan Movement, an activist group.
Requesting anonymity because of possible reprisals from militants, a journalist in Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, said prolonged tensions between some exiled Baluch leaders and militant commanders on the ground in Balochistan have cemented the divisions within the separatist camp.
“The division is on the basis of class,” he said. “The militants on the ground have increasingly moved toward assuming a leadership role after they accused leading nationalist sardars of compromising with Islamabad.”
Members of the three leading aristocratic Baluch families among the Marri, Bugti, and Mengal tribes have members championing the separatist cause in exile as their relatives occupy senior government positions or lead significant parliamentary parties in Pakistan. “Few among the families of the sardars have suffered while commoners have mostly faced death, forced disappearances, and exile in the years following 2007,” Kiyya said.
The journalist in Quetta said the division within the BLA was apparent by early 2018, when Aslam Baloch assumed operational command. He took a more radical path by reorganizing a suicide squad called the Majeed Brigade. In August 2018, he deployed his own son to carry out a suicide attack on Chinese engineers in a remote Balochistan district. The Majeed Brigade later claimed credit for botched attacks on the Chinese consulate in November 2018 and a five-star hotel in Balochistan’s coastal city of Gwadar in May 2019.
Aslam was killed in a suicide attack in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in December 2018. He is believed to have been replaced by Bashir Zeb, a longtime student activist. Allah Nazar, a physician turned guerilla commander, heads the Baloch Liberation Front, a major militant faction. Like Aslam and Zeb, he is not a hereditary tribal chief or linked to an aristocratic family.
But Faiz Baloch, a London-based activist of the Free Balochistan Movement, sees no prominent class division among the Baluch separatists. He says the majority of sardars in the region have always sided with Islamabad. “Even today, only some among the Marri, Bugti, and Mengal sardars are in the pro-independence camp while the rest are with Islamabad,” he told Gandhara.
Faiz says that despite being some of the most underdeveloped communities in Balochistan, members of the Marri and Bugti tribes have braved a disproportionate share of suffering in the recent years. “This talk about some kind of a class division among the Baluch is a ploy to weaken and counter our movement,” he said.
Since 2000, tens of thousands of civilians, militants, and soldiers have been killed in separatist attacks and military sweeps across Balochistan. Violence has also displaced hundreds of thousands while families continue to protest over the disappearance of thousands of their relatives.
There is still no definitive end in sight for the region’s compounded problems as many among the Baluch separatists appear to be not ready to abandon what their supporters see as an armed struggle. There is no indication, either, that Islamabad is contemplating abandoning its approach toward militants.