Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: Bannu Division — Rising Storm

On November 13, 2023, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s CTD, unveiled its updated list of 30 most-wanted terrorists, of whom 15 were from the Bannu District and 13 from Lakki Marwat.

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Many in FATA and in KPK, as also outside the area, continue to be opposed to the introduction of administrative and judicial systems that are alien to the traditional ways. Credit: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters Files

On November 22, 2023, a polio worker, Hassan Tawab, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in the Miranshah area of the North Waziristan District. Police said that Hassan was called out of his house and shot dead.

On November 21, 2023, two soldiers were killed after an improvised explosive device (IED) hit a Security Forces (SFs) convoy in the Razmak area of North Waziristan District. An Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) statement identified the dead soldiers as 33-year-old Lance Naik Ehsan Badshah and 30-year-old Lance Naik Sajid Hussain.

On November 21, 2023, one soldier, Shahzeb, was killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast in the Gharyoum area of North Waziristan District.

In the night of November 20, 2023, at least six SF personnel were injured when a group of terrorists stormed an SF camp in the Sarband area of Lakki Marwat District. The attack lasted for an hour and the terrorists managed to escape under cover of darkness.

On November 19, 2023, one Policeman was killed and another sustained injuries when two unidentified assailants opened firing on a Police squad near the Mandan Police Station in Bannu District.

The Bannu Division in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa comprises three Districts: Bannu, Lakki Marwat and North Waziristan.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the Bannu Division has recorded at least 259 terrorism-related fatalities (45 civilians, 82 SF personnel and 132 terrorists) in 2023, thus far (data till November 26, 2023). During the corresponding period of 2022, the Bannu division reported 256 terrorism-related fatalities, including 16 civilians, 75 SF personnel and 164 terrorists. Another six fatalities were reported in the remaining part of 2022, taking the total to 262, including 16 civilians, 77 SF personnel and 169 terrorists. There were 120 terrorism-related fatalities in 2021, including 17 civilians, 46 SF personnel and 57 terrorists.

The 2023 tally, with over a month still to go, is the highest in a year since 2009, when fatalities peaked at 399. Fatalities in the Division have been on a rise since 2018.

SF fatalities in 2022 were the highest in a year since 2007, when 106 troopers were killed. The 2022 civilian’s fatalities were the highest since 2010, when 114 civilians were killed. Meanwhile, the decline in terrorist’s fatalities from 169 in 2022 to 132 in 2023 is matter of concern, even as fatalities in the other categories surged.    

The Bannu Division has accounted for a total of 2,559 fatalities (393 civilians, 677 SF personnel, 1,327 terrorists, 162 Not Specified) since March 6, 2000, when SATP commenced compiling data on conflicts in Pakistan. These fatalities were recorded in 676 incidents of killing.  

The District-wise distribution saw 1,562 fatalities in the North Waziristan District (77 civilians, 421 SF personnel, 912 terrorists, 152 Not Specified); 691 in the Bannu District (174 civilians, 181 SF personnel, 327 terrorists, nine Not Specified); and 306 in the Lakki Marwat District (142 civilians, 75 SF personnel, 88 terrorists and one Not Specified). [North Waziristan was an Agency of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) till May 28, 2018, when FATA was merged with KP.]

The Bannu Division which had recorded a declining trend in terrorism-related incidents as well as fatalities, dropping into the double digits, once again saw a reverse as the Taliban began to consolidate its hold on neighbouring Afghanistan, and as the US-Western withdrawal became a certainty, and surged further after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 14, 2021. Though the Afghan Taliban denies supporting or patronising Pakistan-based terrorist groups on itd soil, there is no hiding the reality that such groups have their bases in the bordering provinces of Afghanistan. Though an attempt to start a direct dialogue between the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistan Government was initiated under the auspices of Afghan Taliban in May 2022, it came to an end in November 28, 2022 without any progress.

While violence continued throughout the ‘peace talks’ process, the first major strike after the negotiations collapsed fell on the Bannu Division, when TTP terrorists created a hostage situation at the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Complex in Bannu Cantonment (Bannu town). A detained terrorist overpowered a constable and, after snatching the constable’s weapon, freed another 34 associates. As soon as they were freed, the terrorists seized more weapons from the armoury and started firing. The terrorists kept the CTD complex captive for two days, though efforts to induce them to surrender unconditionally continued. On December 20, SFs took action killing 25 terrorists, and arresting three, while seven surrendered. Three SF personnel were killed during the operation. 10 soldiers, including two officers, were injured. A TTP ‘spokesperson’ claimed responsibility for the hostage incident and had demanded safe passage for the prisoners to either South or North Waziristan.

The Bannu Division is strategically crucial from the TTP’s perspective, as it connects mainland Punjab (Pakistan) with Afghanistan. Tochi Pass, which is in North Waziristan, connects the Ghazni province of Afghanistan with Bannu. North Waziristan was once considered the most dangerous place on earth, and was long home to the Haqqani Network, now a major partner in Afghanistan’s Interim Government. 

In a meeting on July 18, 2022, with the crisis in the Division worsening sharply, Bannu Commissioner Arshad Khan, had asked the relevant officers to prepare a comprehensive report on the Police infrastructure and working mechanisms in North Waziristan.

Further, on December 23, 2022, Additional Inspector General of Police (AIDGP)-Operations, Mohammad Ali Babakhel, declared that the “southern districts, including North and South Waziristan [from among the newly-merged tribal districts] as well as Lakki Marwat and Bannu districts [from settled areas], are trouble spots.”

On November 7, 2023, Akhtar Hayat, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, observed that the KP Police faced security challenges in the southern parts of the province, but claimed that the law-and-order situation had improved in the rest of the province. The southern Districts include Bannu and Lakki Marwat.

Significantly, releasing details of its activities during October, TTP asserted, on November 3, 2023, that it was continuing to inflict heavy casualties on the Pakistani Forces, with 97 soldiers killed and 114 injured in 83 attacks in the month. Out of 83 attacks, 24 armed engagements took place in the Bannu region alone.

On November 13, 2023, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s CTD, unveiled its updated list of 30 most-wanted terrorists, of whom 15 were from the Bannu District and 13 from Lakki Marwat. The highest reward on a terrorist is for the head of Habibullah, who belongs to Lakki Marwat, with PKR five million; Maulvi Naimatullah, the terrorist group’s leader from Bannu, has a PKR four million bounty on his head.

While the region has been facing the threat of Islamist extremism and terrorism, local religious scholars have left no stone unturned to radicalise society even further. Most recently, on November 24, 2023, a group of Imams (religious scholars) in Bannu District issued a statement demanding a ban on girls’ participation in sports activities in the District immediately. “We are not against girls’ education but their participation in sports promotes vulgarity and if this doesn’t stop, we will launch a protest movement,” their statement declared.

The present and escalating TTP onslaught in the Bannu Division, with the implicit support of the Afghan Taliban, is raising alarm in Islamabad, even as the entire region along the AfPak border is destabilized. While the military struggles to contain the troubles, the reality is, Pakistan’s weakened and disorderly political, economic and social profile can only tempt its adversaries to play precisely the same game that Pakistan has long played across its borders into and beyond its neighbourhood. The TTP-Afghan Taliban have adopted an intransigent posture, and this can only bode ill for Islamabad.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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