By Erik Goepner
Fellow extremists quickly condemned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for their brazen attack on Pakistani school children. The attack began the morning of December 16th as seven armed TTP gunmen entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar. They killed 148 during the eight-hour siege, including 132 children. All of the attackers died, either by detonating their suicide vests or during the fighting with Pakistani commandos.
Shortly after the attack, the Afghan Taliban called the actions un-Islamic and expressed their sympathies to the grieving families. The regional al Qaeda affiliate wrote of “hearts bursting with pain and grief” over the incident.
The noteworthy criticism from the Afghan Taliban raises the question: why would TTP specifically target children and risk pushing their allies away? TTP and the Afghan Taliban both align themselves under Mullah Omar. The TTP’s top commander, Mullah Fazlullah, fought in Afghanistan during the early 2000s and reportedly had quite favorable relations with the Afghan Taliban. Additionally, Mullah Fazlullah, as both cleric and scholar, enjoyed the respect of many fellow jihadists.
Much less is known about the regional TTP commander, Umar Mansoor (aka Umar Adizai), who apparently planned the attack. He is thought to be in his mid-30s and a father of three. According to the scant reports, he attended school in Islamabad before later entering a madrassa.
So, why might TTP have targeted the children and risked alienating allies?
Did the subordinate commander, Umar Mansoor, go rogue and disobey Fazlullah or, perhaps, fail to share his plans with the TTP leader?
While there is little reported on the relationship between Umar Mansoor and Fazlullah, what exists suggests their relationship is close. If those reports are true, it becomes more difficult to accept that Umar Mansoor acted on his own.
Was the attack related to the infighting within TTP?
Somewhat, perhaps. In 2013, Mullah Fazlullah took command of TTP. His assumption represented a significant shift in TTP leadership from that of the previous seven years, as he was neither a member of the Mehsud or Wazir tribes nor a resident of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Earlier this year, the factiousness bubbled over and the Mehsud tribe formally broke with TTP.
However, it is hard to see how Fazlullah would benefit from the attack. No doubt he was familiar with Mullah Omar’s previous admonitions to be discriminant in selecting targets and the application of force. Perhaps, though, the stress within TTP resulted in the horrific, and seemingly counterproductive decision.
The most likely reason, though, may just be the one given by TTP: an attack to avenge their losses, both adults and children, from sustained Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas home to many of them. Perhaps Pakistan has finally gotten serious about fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups. When my team and I were in southern Afghanistan in 2010, Afghan government officials and village elders alike routinely criticized Pakistan and their security service for actively supporting the Taliban. Questions have long remained regarding the Pakistani government’s resolve to fight the Taliban, with many suggesting they secretly helped “good” Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, while providing an air of commitment in fighting the “bad” Taliban who conduct attacks in Pakistan. The TTP with approximately 900 attacks over the past seven years would seem to fit the bill of “bad” Taliban.
Time will tell, but perhaps Pakistan’s latest military offensive is really having an impact on the TTP. If so, the TTP may have targeted the children to both avenge their own losses and to show, in a distorted and tragic way, that their strength remains.
Image Credit: yowoto