By Zia Ur Rehman
December 17, 2014
Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI), the Mangal Bagh-led militant organization based in the Khyber tribal agency, is facing a serious existential threat after the Pakistani military started a full-fledged operation codenamed ‘Operation Khyber One’ in the tribal district.
The political administration in Khyber Agency claims that security forces have been targeting all militant groups including Ansarul Islam (AI), an LeI rival, and Haji Nadmar’s militant group once known as Amr Bil Maroof Wanahi Anil Munkar (Invitation to Virtue and Negation of Vice). But local journalists and tribal elders say that the main targets are the LeI and some militants belonging to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who moved to Bara and other areas of Khyber Agency after fleeing the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan.
Khyber Agency is one of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies and borders Afghanistan to the west, Orakzai Agency to the south, Mohmand Agency to the north and the district of Peshawar to the east. Militant groups such as the LeI, the AI, the TTP and Haji Nadmar group have 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.
The TTP and its breakaway faction Jamaatul Ahrar have sent fighters to help Lashkar-e-Islam
The LeI is based in areas where a majority of the population belongs to the 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 US and NATO attacks on Afghanistan in 2001. Security officials believe that a number of militant commanders belonging to the TTP and other groups from North Waziristan have also taken refuge there because of Operation Zarb-e-Azab.
Although the several counterterrorism operations launched by the Pakistani military in Khyber Agency in the past few years have failed to dislodge local militant groups, tribal elders believe that it seems that the government has decided to disrupt the command-and-control of the LeI in the new operation.
“Before the launching the operation, Khyber Agency political agent Shahab Ali Shah explained Jirga tribal elders in Khyber House in Peshawar that security forces are launching a full-fledged operation,” said an Afridi tribal elder, who attended the meeting. “In previous military operations, the authorities did not consult tribal elders,” he said. “But this time they convened meeting with us.”
All the military operations in Khyber Agency carried out in the past were given theatrical Pushto codenames, like Daraghlam (Here I Come!), Bya Daraghlam (Here I Come Again!), and Khwakh ba de Sham (I will fix you).
The TTP and its breakaway faction that named itself Jamaatul Ahrar after it separated from them in August 2014 have also announced support for the LeI and have sent fighters to help Mangal Bagh in response to a request he made.
“The LeI has never been a part of the TTP. It is an alliance of various militant groups operating in the region,” said a Khyber-Agency-based journalist. “The announcement of support for the group from both the factions of the TTP is an important development.” He said that the LeI remains a serious threat in Khyber and beyond, having the capability to cause trouble in Peshawar.
The recent operation has also forced thousands of families to flee the area. More than 30,000 people have been moved out from Sipah, Kamarkhel and Akkakhel, according to officials in the political administration. A large number of Khyber Agency’s families are already displaced and political officials say most of the new displaced families registered with them in 2009 and 2010.