The Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI), a Mangal Bagh-led militant organization based in the Khyber Tribal Agency, is facing a serious threat to its existence after recent clashes with an LeI splinter group comprised of Zakakhel tribesmen. Efforts by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to forge a peace deal between the warring groups have failed. The Ansar-ul-Islam (AI), an arch-rival of the LeI, has now joined hands with the Zakakhel and the resulting clashes have forced hundreds of local families to flee the area.
The Khyber Agency is one of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies and borders Afghanistan to the east, Orakzai Agency to the south, Mohmand Agency to the north and the district of Peshawar in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province to the east. Sectarian violence, drug mafias and Sunni militant groups aiming to establish a Taliban-style government all fuel conflict in the region. Local militants belong to different extremist groups such as the LeI, the AI, the TTP and Amr Bil Maroof Wanahi Anil Munkar (Invitation to Virtue and Negation of Vice). These movements became active in the region after 2004 and have since wreaked havoc on the lives of Khyber’s residents. Though the militant groups often compete with one another, the LeI, which is loosely allied with the TTP, has a strong base in the region and frequently attacks and loots trucks carrying fuel and other goods to NATO forces in Afghanistan, making passage through the valley unsafe.
The LeI is based in areas belonging to the majority Afridi tribe and are most prominent in the Bara sub-division of Khyber Agency. Recently, however, the strategically located Tirah valley has emerged as a flash point in Khyber Agency and is believed to have been used by al-Qaeda militants escaping into Pakistan in the wake of U.S and NATO attacks on Afghanistan in 2001. Many locals believe the troop surge in Afghanistan has increased pressure on the Khyber Agency to accommodate militants expelled from Afghanistan.  Ibn Amin, an important commander of al-Qaeda and the TTP Swat chapter, was killed with six other militants in one of four drone attacks carried out on December 17-18, 2010 in Khyber Agency. Ibn Amin was reported to be engaged in mediating a reconciliation between the different factions of the LeI at the time (The News [Islamabad], December 20, 2010).
The recent clashes between the LeI and the Zakakhel tribesmen started after a religious scholar of the Zakakhel tribe, Maulana Muhammad Hashim, was kidnapped from the bazaar area of Landi Kotal sub-division on March 21 and beheaded a day later by a group of LeI militants led by Commander Khan, a close aide of Mangal Bagh (for Bagh, see Terrorism Monitor, May 29, 2008).
Hashim, a respected and influential religious cleric living in a remote area of Tirah valley, was a severe critic of Bagh and the un-Islamic and criminal activities of militants under his command.  The abduction and subsequent murder of Hashim enraged militants from his tribe, who then formed a dissident group to rebel against Bagh, warning him to release Khan to the Zakakhel tribe (The News, April 2). Ghuncha Gul, a Zakakhel leader of an LeI breakaway faction, was also abducted by militants loyal to Bagh two months ago and is still in captivity. The Zakakhel demanded the LeI release their fellow tribesman from detention, hand over Commander Khan, who is blamed for the killing of Hashim, and guarantee that LeI militants will not operate in the Zakakhel area again. Their demands were turned down by Mangal Bagh (Express Tribune [Islamabad], April 4).
The armed lashkar (militia) of the Zakakhel is commanded by three senior LeI dissident commanders – Shireen, Tooti and Munshi. The AI, the arch-rival of LeI, joined hands with the Zakakhel fighters against the LeI. Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between the LeI and AI during the last five years. By the latest account, at least 50 people have been killed and 100 others injured in the fighting that began on April 1. The clashes forced local people to move to safer places and hundreds of families arrived in Peshawar and other safer areas in Khyber Agency. Local media and tribal sources said that the Zakakhel tribesmen have pushed the LeI out of the area of Baazar Zakakhel and have weakened, though not completely evicted, the LeI’s militia in other parts of the valley. 
The AI’s leaders have claimed that Mangal Bagh and his associates recently fled to Afghanistan, taking shelter there with Amin Shinwari, a notorious drug baron in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Their flight came in the face of growing public opposition, which resulted from the constant vigilantism and repression imposed locally by the LeI (Daily Mashriq [Peshawar], April 18).
The recent alliance between the Zakakhel and AI has also worried the TTP militants of the Khyber and Orakzai tribal regions. Two important TTP commanders, Maulana Gul Zaman and Commander Saeed, were expelled in March by the AI from Zakakhel areas in Maidan (bordering Orakzai Agency), where they had opened training centers. Zaman has good relations with LeI chief Mangal Bagh and took refuge in the Tirah valley following a military operation against the TTP in his native tribal agency (The News, April 5). The TTP leaders, especially Zaman, held talks with the dissident Zakakhel to bring them back into the LeI fold but did not succeed.  It has also been learned that Bagh appealed to the TTP for help to fight his many enemies. Some Taliban militants have reached the area to fight alongside Bagh’s loyalists. Local residents fear that if the TTP joins hands with the LeI, the fighting would increase in intensity as Hafiz Gul Bahadar-led militants from North Waziristan are likely to come to the aid of the AI, which is ideologically close in its beliefs (Express Tribune, April 6). Many observers suggest that Bagh had the blessing of the Pakistani military establishment because he rebuffed several offers from the TTP to cooperate and merge, but now his alliance with the TTP shows that the LeI has been weakened organizationally. The Zakakhel, once a powerful supporter in the region, has now become their enemy (BBC Urdu, April 18).
The Pakistani government has targeted the LeI in five operations over the past two years in order to relieve pressure on Peshawar and secure NATO supplies through the Khyber Pass, but has failed to dislodge the group. Despite occasional claims about government “successes,” the Khyber Agency remains a serious problem. The LeI remains a serious threat in Khyber and beyond, having the capability to cause trouble in Peshawar and the adjoining Orakzai Agency.  Local elders and security analysts agree that the parting of ways of the Zakakhel fighters from the LeI was a great setback to the LeI as the Zakakhel provided great support to Bagh in the form of manpower and the use of their strategically important territory. If the government plays its cards right by supporting the Zakakhel and putting pressure on the LeI in other parts of Khyber Agency, there is a chance to eradicate a menace from the region. However, tribal dynamics are complicated and if not handled properly, Mangal Bagh and the LeI may yet survive in other parts of the tribal region.
1. Author’s interview with Aqeel Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based journalist and author of two books on militancy, April 19, 2011.
2. Author’s interviews with Zakakhel tribesmen, April 15, 2011.
4. Author’s interview with a local journalist based in Khyber Agency, April 16, 2011.
5. Author’s interview with Aqeel Yousafzai, April 19, 2011.