What is behind the rising violent attacks in Pakistan?

Pakistan Taliban has denied involvement in the Peshawar mosque blast, but officials say it has intensified attacks since November.

People and rescue workers gather to look for survivors under a collapsed roof, after a suicide blast in a mosque in Peshawar
A suicide blast in a mosque in Peshawar was one of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan in a decade [Fayaz Aziz/Reuters]

Pakistan has been reeling from a deadly suicide bombing at a mosque located inside a high-security police compound in the northwestern city of Peshawar amid a rise in attacks in the past several months.

At least 100 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in the deadliest attack in a decade. A commander of the Pakistan Taliban, also known by the acronym TTP, claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack in which almost all the victims were police officials.

But soon after, TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani distanced the group from the bombing, saying it was not its policy to target mosques or other religious sites.

The Pakistan Taliban has been blamed for more than 100 attacks since walking out of a ceasefire with the Pakistani government last November.

Here we take a look at the Pakistan Taliban, which has waged an armed rebellion in the country for 15 years:

Why is the Pakistan Taliban fighting?

Angered by Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States in its “war on terror”, TTP was officially formed in Pakistan in 2007 when different outlawed groups agreed to work together against the government and support the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, which was fighting US and NATO forces.

“Once the so-called war on terror started, it led to thousands of people in tribal belt being killed by state action as well as American drones. This also caused a lot of resentment as [it] resulted in many people deciding to pick up arms,” said Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher on armed groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan decided to cooperate with the US when it invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks. US forces targeted armed groups, including TTP, along the Pakistan-Afghan border for decades.

Washington-Islamabad ties have remained cold since 2011, when al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. The US accused Pakistan of sheltering the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.

The ties further deteriorated in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, but it seems to have warmed up since the removal of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister last April. Khan opposed US drone raids in Pakistan tribal areas.

Among its many demands, the Pakistan Taliban seeks stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, the release of its members in government custody, and a reduction in Pakistani military presence in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province bordering Afghanistan that it has long used as a base.

One of their key demands is to reverse the 2018 merger of Pakistan’s tribal districts from the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

For most of the past two years, the TTP insisted it was taking actions only as defensive measures. But it stepped up attacks on Pakistani soldiers and police since November when it unilaterally ended a ceasefire with the government. The months-long ceasefire had been brokered by the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistan Taliban has repeatedly warned police not to take part in operations against its fighters in border areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Researcher Sayed says the region was already ripe for armed conflict due to colonial-era laws that were seen as counter to tribal customs and in some cases discriminatory.

The tribal region with more than seven million inhabitants, which was merged into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018, was governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) law. Enacted by British colonial rulers in 1901, the FCR allowed the punishment of entire tribes for crimes committed by members.

Riccardo Valle, a Venice-based researcher with The Khorasan Diary – a non-partisan platform run by journalists, says it is evident that armed organisations thrive on the lack of socioeconomic opportunities and take advantage in its absence.

“It is safe to assume that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including tribal districts, have been neglected for years by the central government, whereas at the same time, its people have suffered the brunt of the war against terrorism and the backlash of the insurgency in Afghanistan,” he told Al Jazeera.

Valle says ever since the ascension of its new chief Noor Wali Mehsud, the TTP has changed the tone and tenor of its propaganda, particularly highlighting the basic needs of people such as water, gas and electricity.

“The new chief put an emphasis on the lack of services and opportunities for the people in the region,” he said.

“With the deteriorating economic situation in the country, the TTP increases its chance of capitalising on these grievances,” he told Al Jazeera.

Mohsin Dawar, Pakistani legislator from North Waziristan, one of the seven tribal districts, says people’s vulnerabilities were exploited by armed groups.

“Armed groups do take advantage of people’s misery due to lack of facilities and infrastructure and convince them to join ranks,” Dawar told Al Jazeera.

“The merger of tribal districts into mainstream cannot be considered a major cause of increase in militancy since it has been there for two decades and been going on across the board. However, armed groups do take advantage of people’s misery due to lack of facilities and infrastructure and convince them to join ranks,” Dawar said.

What is the relationship between the Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban?

The Pakistan Taliban is separate from but a close ally of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s return to power seemed to have emboldened the TTP, which shares its ideology.

Pakistan Taliban fighters used to hide in the country’s tribal northwest and also had sanctuary in Afghanistan, but they mostly lived as fugitives.

However, Pakistani authorities have accused the Taliban of sheltering the TTP fighters and releasing its leaders arrested by the previous administrations in Kabul.

The Taliban has repeatedly said it would not allow anyone, including the TTP, to use Afghan soil for attacks against any country, including Pakistan. But Pakistani officials say there is a disconnect between the words and actions of the Taliban, which could stop the TTP from launching attacks in Pakistan but failed to do so.

The Pakistan Taliban’s operations have largely been aimed at targeting Pakistani forces, similar to the Taliban’s agenda of kicking foreign forces out of the country. The US-led forces left Afghanistan in August 2021.

Why has violence increased recently?

Security analysts fear that Pakistan will see a surge in violence in the coming months as the country grapples with an unprecedented economic crisis amid political instability.

Pakistan has seen innumerable armed attacks in the past two decades, but there has been an uptick since November, when the TTP ended the months-old ceasefire.

The Pakistan Taliban regularly carries out shootings or bombings, especially in the rugged and remote northwestern Pakistan, a former TTP stronghold.

The violence has raised fears among residents of a possible military operation in the former tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, now two districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Hours after Monday’s mosque bombing, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the independent Geo News channel that Taliban rulers of Afghanistan must stand by their commitment to the international community to not allow anyone to use their soil for attacks against another country.

“They should honour their promises,” he said.

But acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Amir Khan Muttaqi on Wednesday said Pakistani authorities should avoid “sowing seeds of enmity” between the two countries.

“We advise them to conduct a thorough investigation into the Peshawar bombing,” Muttaqi said.

Additional reporting by Al Jazeera’s Abid Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies