A key figure, often identified with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has issued a video statement congratulating the faction of the Pakistan Taliban responsible for attacking a university in Charsadda, Pakistan, on January 20.
The seven-minute video, released by the media arm of the Pakistan Taliban, shows Mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi standing alongside Pakistan Taliban commander Umar Mansoor and embracing him, suggesting a close alliance between the two leaders.
Al-Burmi made headlines in 2012 when he issued a statement condemning Western hypocrisy for decrying the Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousafzai while killing Pakistanis themselves. Mansoor also authored that assault.
It is unclear whether al-Burmi still identifies with IMU or has shifted allegiances entirely to Umar Mansoor’s Pakistan Taliban faction. The latter say that he is serving as a senior religious scholar to Mansoor, but Al-Burmi’s links with IMU further solidify long-standing alliances between the two networks.
The IMU has a history of aligning itself with local opposition fighters since the movement’s members shifted to Pakistan’s tribal areas following the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2002.
To maintain its sanctuary in the tribal region, IMU has backed the most hardline elements of the Pakistani Taliban and supported strengthening those positions within the Taliban network, explained the regional analyst Simbal Khan. “For them it’s important that Pakistan Taliban does not cut a deal with the state because that will compromise their sanctuaries.”
IMU received a boost in 2013 when a US drone attack killed Maulvi Nazir, an opposition fighter based in South Waziristan, Pakistan, who had developed differences with the Pakistan Taliban after he cut a deal with the Pakistani state. Nazir had also accused the IMU of stealing from locals and forcing the Uzbek fighters out of Wana, the largest town in South Waziristan.
Hardening the Pakistani Taliban
Al-Burmi thanked the gunmen who raided Bacha Khan University.
He said that the philosophy of non-violence advocated by the university’s namesake, Bacha Khan, who led a movement against the British, was un-Islamic. Islam calls for “force towards disbelievers, compassion towards believers,” claimed al-Burmi. Bacha Khan was “no helper of Muslims”, he said.
He declared that the fight was against Pakistan’s un-Islamic structures that included the court system, democracy, the health system and education.
Recently, however, Umar Mansoor gave a different motive for the attack. In a clip released on January 22, Mansoor said that schools and universities were “nurseries” for lawyers, military officers and parliament members, all of whom “challenge the sovereignty of God”.
He reiterated that message in a second video calling on Pakistani Muslims to withdraw their children from schools and universities. Like al-Burmi, he drew on religious rhetoric alleging that education at these schools turned children away from Islam.
But, the Pakistan Taliban fighter also provided more material reasons for his attack, pointing a finger at the government’s sweeping operations and arrests under the government’s counterterrorism strategy codified in the National Action Plan.
Mansoor cited governmental figures that showed thousands had been arrested and 332 people executed. “The government alleges that these people are mujahideen who aid Islam,” said Mansoor.
Implying that those arrested were his supporters because they were believing Muslims – a tendentious claim – Mansoor declared: “If you hang those who support us, and you imprison those who support us, do you expect that we will allow those who favour you to rest?”
Such claims are predictable for propaganda purposes, said Khan, but there are issues with government strategy, especially the establishment of secret military courts and indefinite detention.
Amina Masood Janjua, a human rights activist who advocates for the detained and the forcibly disappeared, noted: “The people who are being picked up include activists. They also include Muslim religious scholars, there are practising Muslims, and some are just ordinary people.”
These indefinite detentions can compound the problem, said Khan. “Extended circles of the same people who get picked up by the state who actually in the end – or who have grievances against the state where illegal or coercive means were used against them – join [these groups],” she explained.
“So, issues of justice are very, very central in this, but it doesn’t really mean that you are per se supporting the militants.”
School security – whose responsibility?
Following the attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, the federation and others shuttered schools in various cities including the capital, Islamabad.
A statement by the federation said that its schools had complied with the security regulations that were put in place after the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar and killed more than 130 students and staff members in December 2014. “Additional requirements, mostly verbal, are now being imposed in an ad hoc and unlawful manner,” it said.
“The state is responsible for the safety and security of its citizens and of our children. It cannot pass on the entire responsibility for security to educational institutions.”
Although schools reopened this week after a round of negotiations between the government and the association, parents still fear sending their children to school.
“Anybody with school-going children feels this threat, rich or poor,” said Sadaf Aziz, whose daughter attends primary school in Islamabad. “It’s heart-stopping.”
But, parents from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas say that the Taliban are not the only problem. Bombing during the Pakistani military operation in the region has destroyed many schools, and security forces are using schoolhouses for military purposes.
For those in the cities, however, the Pakistan Taliban loom as the primary threat.
Gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University in the early hours of January 20 and opened fire on students and faculty. The victims included several students as well as a chemistry professor, Syed Hamid Hussain, who, eyewitnesses say, fought against the assailants to protect his students.
While the Pakistan Taliban’s spokesman Umar Khorasani condemned the attack, Mansoor, a key leader from the Pakistan Taliban’s Dara Adam Khel network, accepted responsibility for it.
The raid occurred as 600 guests gathered at the university for a poetry recital to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Bacha Khan. A towering historical figure also known as “Frontier Gandhi”, Bacha Khan has become the symbol of non-violent resistance, especially among secular Pashtun ethno-nationalists.
But he worked closely with religiously inflected anti-colonial movements of the time, including the Faqir of Ipi, a religiously inspired leader of the armed resistance against the British in Waziristan.
“Publicly, there should be more questions,” said Khan. “But I don’t think there is a neat solution that a state like Pakistan can come up with to deal with this issue.”