LAHORE/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani militant groups are increasingly supporting each other and penetrating into the country’s heartland, threatening not only Pakistan but the region.
The Pakistan Taliban who attacked two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore on Friday trained in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan and arrived in the city a week before the assaults.
“They have links with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the arrested attacker told us that his brother is working with the group in Miran Shah,” said Akram Naeem Bharoka, a police spokesman in Lahore.
Miran Shah is the main town of North Waziristan, a rugged land which has been a traditional rebel hideout, and considered a stronghold for TTP militants.
Ties like these between the Pakistan Taliban and Punjab groups and organisations are worrying to Pakistan and its ally, the United States.
The mosque attacks in Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, killed between 80 and 95 people and wounded more than 100. It was the worst attack on the Ahmadi minority group in Pakistan’s 63-year history.
The Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, but many in Pakistan, including the government, do not. In 1974, Pakistan became the only Muslim state to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims and prohibited the open practice of their faith.
Mohammad Umer, a Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman, told the daily newspaper, The News, that the attacks had been carried out by their agents in eastern Punjab — Pakistan’s heartland and centre of economic and political power.
Such links reflect those found in the failed Times Square bombing, in which the main suspect, Faisal Shahzad, said he contacted members of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Punjabi group, who delivered him to the TTP in the northwest.
The United States is now pushing Pakistan to go into North Waziristan, where it has run its own campaign of drone strikes that have killed hundreds of low-level fighters.
That’s going to be a hard sell, as Pakistan has no wish to attack North Waziristan right now. But the Shahzad case and now Lahore show that the notorious militant sanctuary near the Afghan border is fast becoming a major threat for Pakistan itself.
A land of high and difficult hills with deep and rugged valleys suitable for guerrilla warfare, North Waziristan has served as a safe haven for Islamist militants since the 1980s, when Pakistan acted as a frontline state in the U.S.-backed jihad, or holy war, against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The ethnic Pashtun tribal lands, particularly North and South Waziristan, became a hub of Islamist militants after al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, fleeing a U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks in 2001, took refuge there and forged ties with Pakistani militants.
But the area has since turned into a hub for a wide variety of militant groups.
The militants operating from North Waziristan can roughly be divided into four categories:
* al Qaeda linked militants, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and Chinese Muslims who have focussed their fighting in their native countries as well as in the West
* Afghan Taliban, led by militant commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, who are fighting Western forces in Afghanistan
* Pakistani Taliban fighting the Pakistani state
* “Punjabi Taliban” suspected of fuelling militancy in central Pakistan
These militant groups apparently pursue independent agendas, but cooperate if they share objectives, security officials say.
“These groups are inter-linked. Sometimes they will collaborate directly. Sometimes they will provide logistical support and sometimes they will have just an understanding,” a security official said.
Suspected links between Times Square suspect Shahzad and militants in the northwest have seen the United States add pressure on Pakistan to take concrete steps to tackle the mounting threat from North Waziristan.
The mosque attacks in Lahore will now add domestic pressure to the military to move against North Waziristan.
The military has conducted offensives in six of the seven tribal regions, known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in recent years except in North Waziristan where authorities struck a peace deal with militants in 2007.
Pakistani officials say they are over-stretched, with rising attacks in South Waziristan, and do not have enough resources to open another front.
Some analysts and security officials say any action in North Waziristan may also depend on political and military developments in Afghanistan. A traditional gathering of Afghan tribal elders starts this week to discuss prospects for peace while NATO plans a major offensive in Taliban strongholds in the south.
Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore and Kamran Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Michael Perry