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Saturday, September 24th, 2022

Pakistan: Backgrounder on Khyber Agency militancy

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Karachi: The Khyber Agency in Pakistan has emerged in recent times as a centre of sectarian conflict – partially as a result of the spill over of deep-rooted differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the nearby Kurram Agency and partially as a reaction to efforts by hardline Sunni groups to establish their writ in the area.

One of seven tribal agencies located along the Pakistan-Afghan border, the strategically significant Khyber Agency offers easy access to Afghanistan, and is located close to the mountainous Tora Bora cave complex, from where Osama bin Laden is believed to have escaped US forces in late 2001.

The Agency covers 2,576sqkm and has a population, according to official figures of 546,730. Named after the historic Khyber Pass, the area is seen by observers as well-suited to the purposes of criminals, drug mafias and most recently militants.

Khyber borders Afghanistan to the east, Orakzai Agency to the south, Mohmand Agency to the north and Peshawar District in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province to the east. It is divided into three administrative units, Jamrud, Bara and Landi Kotal. The remote Tirah Valley in Bara sub-district is important to militants because of its proximity to Afghanistan.

Khyber’s tryst with militancy began in 2003 when a Taliban-style organization was set up by a local from the area, Haji Namdar, who had just returned from Saudi Arabia. The ban on music and harsh enforcement of dress codes, which included head coverings for women and beards for men, shocked many residents who had previously enjoyed a relatively relaxed religious lifestyle.

Namdar, who established illegal FM radio stations and used the Tirah Valley area for attacks inside Afghanistan, paved the way for other militant forces in the area. Today, three major groups operate in Khyber:

Lashkar-e-Islam (LI)

Founded by Mufti Munir Shakir in 2005 and currently led by the charismatic Mangal Bagh, the group follows the hardline Deobandi school of Islam, which opposes the tradition of saints and mysticism that has for centuries dominated Islamic belief in the Indian sub-continent. LI has been responsible for actions such as the 2008 kidnapping in Peshawar of 16 Christians who were later freed, and other acts of violence.

Mangal Bagh has also been responsible for bans on music and action against those deemed to be guilty of “immorality” including liquor and drug sales or keeping TV sets. His status as a poor member of a minor Afridi tribe clan provides him with support among impoverished locals. He also enjoys the support of the Pakistani military establishment, which sees him as a counter to the Taliban in the region. Clashes between the LI and other groups have added to the violence.

A series of conflicts with Zakakhel tribesmen displaced hundreds of families in March and April this year. The Zakakhels are one of eight major Afridi clans. Mangal Bagh, the LI leader, belongs to a relatively weak Afridi clan, Sepah. Much of the violence, involving tit-for-tat murders and abductions is based around a quest to control the Tirah Valley.

Ansar-ul-Islam (AI)

The rivalry between this group – founded in 2006 by Pir Saifur Rehman and currently led by Qazi Mehboob ul Haq – and the LI, fuels much of the fighting in Khyber. Clashes first broke out in 2006. Though both groups are Sunni, the AI follows the Barelvi school which believes in saints and has other theological differences with the Deobandis. While both LI founder Mufti Shakir and Pir Rehman, who belong to areas outside Khyber, were exiled from the Agency in 2007 as a result of government action backed by local tribesmen, the tensions continue.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

In the presence of strong groups, the Taliban have struggled to gain a foothold in Khyber. Efforts over several years to woo Haji Namdar failed, and he was killed in an August 2008 missile attack for which TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud claimed responsibility. Since then the Taliban, led by local commanders such as Nazeer Afridi but controlled from their headquarters in Orakzai Agency, have established a stronger hold in Khyber, where convoys carrying supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan have been periodically attacked.

Tribes in Khyber

The Afridi dominate the Khyber Agency, and are divided into eight clans. The Afridi’s, like other clans in the tribal belt, have built a reputation over the centuries as fierce fighters. The major ones other than the Afridi’s are the Shinwari, Mullagori and Shimani. The eight Afridi clans are Adamkhel, Akkakhel, Kamarkhel, Qamberkhel, Malik Dinkhel, Kukikhel, Zakakhel and Sepah. The Shinwari have three clans, Khugakhel, Mirdakhel, and Mazsokai. The other two are small. The clans are led by `Maliks’ or elders who usually wield considerable influence over their clan members.


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