Pakistan militant group jumps to prominence with attacks
One of Pakistan’s most vicious militant groups has dramatically stepped up its attacks over the past month – striking mosques, Christians and security forces. The attacks have killed over 60 people in what appears to be a backlash to military operations.
Ever since it broke away from the Pakistani Taliban in 2014, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or the Freedom Movement had been carrying out sporadic attacks, often weeks or months apart.
But since the beginning of September, it has struck 10 times, including a horrific bombing at a mosque earlier this month that killed 36 people, many of them children.
The spike in violence points to how Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which the US declared a terrorist organisation last month, has eclipsed the Pakistani Taliban as the main, most aggressive militant group in a country, where multiple armed extremist factions operate.
The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban, have been struggling in the face of a two-year offensive by the military against its bases in North Waziristan, along the Afghan border. The assault has hampered its ability to carry out attacks and fueled splits by factions breaking away from the movement.
In contrast, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has continued its blows even after military assaults on its home territory in Mohmand, another tribal area in the northwest of the country along the border with Afghanistan.
It gained notoriety in late 2014 when it took responsibility for a vicious attack on an army school that killed 125 people, mostly children, and again in early 2016 with a series of brutal strikes, including suicide bombings against Christians in Lahore on Easter that killed over 70 people.
In a sign of its success, other groups have tried to claim responsibility for its attacks.
For example, the Islamic State (IS)group, which has been trying to make inroads into Pakistan made a competing claim to have carried out an August suicide bombing in Quetta that killed 80 people, mostly lawyers. But security officials say they believe Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was behind the attack.
A counter-terrorism official in northwestern Pakistan said Jamaat-ul-Ahrar is the most extreme of the militant groups operating at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and poses a “serious challenge” to security forces.
Pakistan’s military in recent weeks picked up chatter among Jamaat-ul-Ahrar militants that warned of increased attacks, said Mahmood Shah, a retired army brigadier and former military intelligence official, who still has close military ties.