Riven internally, debilitated by the death of successive leaders, and forced from its strongholds, the armed group Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was seen as a largely spent force.
But the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has reemerged over the past year, unifying squabbling factions and unleashing a spate of deadly attacks across the country’s tribal belt.
Underscoring its resurgence, the TTP last month carried out a deadly car bombing outside a heavily guarded luxury hotel in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, beyond its stronghold in the northwest.
But the TTP is no longer the same militant outfit that wreaked havoc in Pakistan from 2007 to 2014, when a major army offensive drove the group across the porous border into Afghanistan.
Under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, more of a religious figure than a fighter, who has been in charge since 2018, the TTP has retained its close links with Al-Qaeda, the U.S.-designated terrorist network.
But it has also become organizationally decentralized and reduced indiscriminate attacks against civilians, observers say.
“The TTP mostly targets Pakistani security institutions and their officials, seldom attacking soft targets,” says Abdul Basit, a Pakistani counterterrorism and security expert, in a reference to the targeting of civilians. “Rhetorically, the TTP has moved away from a global to local jihadist narrative."
There are also signs that the TTP has opened a new front against Chinese interests in Pakistan, where Beijing has considerable political clout and is spending billions on infrastructure projects.
New Front Against China
The TTP’s attack on the Serena Hotel in Quetta, the capital of the restive province of Balochistan, showed the militant group’s growing operational strength, observers say.
It was the first attack in Pakistan in years in which an explosive-laden car, or what military experts call “suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” (SVBIEDs), was used.
It was also the TTP’s first attack in a major urban center since its reunification.
“This shows that the TTP has regained the capability of assembling SVBIEDs and striking heavily guarded landmark targets,” says Basit.
But the car bombing that killed five people and wounded a dozen others was also significant because it was in Balochistan.
Not only is Balochistan outside the TTP’s traditional stronghold, but it is a vast and resource-rich region that has acquired greater significance in recent years.
It is the site of a new deepwater port in the city of Gwadar that is a flagship Chinese investment within the $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The project -- which includes the port, an airport, a highway, and a hospital -- is intended to link China's Xinjiang Province with the Arabian Sea.
Ethnic Baluch separatists have frequently targeted Chinese construction in Balochistan, the scene of a separatist insurgency and a brutal state crackdown that has killed thousands of people since 2004. There is widespread resentment among the Baluch people, who have complained that their home province is being exploited by the state.
Observers say the TTP’s attack on the Serena Hotel, where China's ambassador to Pakistan was staying but was not present at the time, suggests that the militant group has joined the local fight against Chinese interests.
Following the attack, the TTP issued a statement saying that “locals and foreigners” were the target. Curiously, it then retracted that statement and issued a second one that omitted the word “foreigners.”
Experts say this could be part of the TTP’s new policy of not openly challenging major powers, as it did in the past.
A local researcher in the South Waziristan tribal region who was permitted to visit TTP training camps tells RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that the militant group has joined forces with Baluch separatist groups.
The source, who did not want to reveal his name for fear of retribution, says the TTP provides military training to Baloch fighters. In exchange, the Baluch separatists assist the TTP with logistics in Balochistan.
The alliance has coincided with a sharp uptick in attacks against Pakistani security forces in Balochistan in recent months.
Experts say Baluch separatists, many of them secular, have entered tactical and transactional forms of cooperation with extremist Islamist groups in the past.
That includes the TTP’s key ally, Al-Qaeda, but also the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and Lashkar-e Jhangvi, a sectarian Sunni Muslim militant group in Balochistan that has attacked Shi'ite Muslims from Quetta's ethnic Hazara community.
Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan’s troubled tribal belt, is home to an array of sectarian, separatist, and foreign militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban.
“IS and Al-Qaeda have had a strategy of reaching out and connecting with local movements and local issues,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani author and security expert.
“Baluch groups have been cooperating with groups that they are ideologically opposed to,” she adds.
The TTP and its allies have also increased their anti-China rhetoric recently.
Mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi, an influential ideologue who is allied with Sunni militant groups including the TTP, in an audio statement released in March condemned China for its crackdown on that country’s Muslim minority.
The United Nations has estimated that at least 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other indigenous Muslim minorities have been forced into internment camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Beijing insists that the facilities are "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allowing them to be reintegrated into society.
Burmi, a Pakistani national of Rohingya descent, accused China of “occupying” the region and claimed Chinese security forces were raping Muslim women in the region.
“Muslim countries remain silent,” Burmi said in the statement. “I request the mujahedin and the Taliban to do something for those Muslims and those sisters." Mujahedin refers to Muslims who wage jihad, or holy war.
In 2012, the TTP claimed responsibility for the killing of a Chinese tourist in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, saying it was revenge “for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers in their Xinjiang province.”
Experts say the TTP has maintained close ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a militant group made up mostly of Uyghurs.
Before it was evicted by a major Pakistani military offensive in 2014, the TTP hosted ETIM militants in the South Waziristan tribal region, where the Chinese group ran its own training camps.
ETIM militants took refuge in northeast Afghanistan after they were driven from Pakistan’s tribal regions by a military offensive in 2014. Many ETIM fighters moved to Syria, where they fought alongside Al-Qaeda-linked groups. But local sources say most have returned to Afghanistan.
ETIM has ties to the Afghan Taliban. In 2018, U.S. forces in Afghanistan said air strikes destroyed Taliban training camps in the province of Badakhshan that supported the ETIM.
At the time, James B. Hecker, commander of NATO’s Air Command in Afghanistan, said the “ETIM enjoys support from the Taliban in the mountains of Badakhshan.”
The United States estimates that there are around 100 ETIM fighters in Afghanistan. The United Nations reported in July 2020 that “approximately 500” militants linked to the group operate in Badakhshan.
'Improve Image Of TTP'
Several local sources say the TTP is operating from the Bermal district of Afghanistan’s eastern province of Paktika, which is adjacent to Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region, the TTP’s former stronghold. Previously, the group was headquartered in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
Although most of the 2,640-kilometer border has been fenced by Pakistan in recent years, TTP militants have managed to cross the mountainous border by destroying sections of the barrier.
Experts who study the TTP say the group has significantly increased its financial resources from extortion, smuggling, and taxes on locals and businesses in areas where it is active.
Under the new leadership, the TTP has also become increasingly decentralized, with significant authority handed to local commanders. Each commander heads a unit that numbers around 25 to 30 fighters. This contrasts with previous leaders who appointed commanders for certain zones.
A report by a UN monitoring team released in July 2020 assessed that there were up to 6,500 Pakistani militants in Afghanistan, most of them members of the TTP.
The militant group has also reportedly reduced indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
“The new policy is similar to the strategy of the Afghan Taliban,” says a researcher focused on the TTP speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “That means exploiting the weakness of the government and grievances of the people to improve the image of the TTP.”
There are fears in Pakistan that in the absence of a peace deal Afghanistan will plunge into civil war after the international military pullout in September.
Such a situation could strengthen and embolden the TTP, allowing it to carve out sanctuaries from where to increase attacks on Pakistani soil.
The TTP and Al-Qaeda leadership have sworn allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Both groups have close ideological and organizational ties with their Afghan ally.
Some experts say the TTP also poses a threat to Afghanistan, where it does not have a history of carrying out attacks.
“Post withdrawal, Pakistani authorities expect the TTP to continue supporting the Afghan Taliban and get more involved in Afghanistan,” says Siddiqa. “There will be far too much to destroy and fight for there than in Pakistan.”