PESHAWAR: Little known militant group Ahrarul Hind, which had defected from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) during its efforts to pursue peace talks with the government earlier this year, announced on Friday that senior TTP leaders have joined its ranks.
The claim could not be verified from the TTP.
In a statement issued to this correspondent, Ahrarul Hind spokesperson Asad Mansoor said, the group has “a well organised structure now and some founder TTP commanders and close aides of Amir Baitullah Mehsud are its members.”
He said Maulana Umar Qasimi will be the amir of Ahrarul Hind.
Mansoor claimed that the outfit has the support of key commanders like Maulana Habibul Haq of Malakand, who was a TTP Nazim, key TTP commander Maulana Abdullah of Bajaur Agency, Shura member Mualana Hamza from Mohmand Agency, Mualana Amir Salam, the former TTP top man in Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber agencies, the Taliban Darul Qaza Chief Mufti Musbahuddin Sayad of Mohmand Agency, Commander Abu Ibrahim of the Punjabi Taliban and Mualana Sadiq and Maulana Yasin of Malakand Division.
The AH spokesman vowed to target Pakistani government and the security forces. “The security forces and the law enforcement agencies besides the government machinery would be on their hit list,” he said.
The group first came into the media limelight when it claimed an attack on an Islamabad district court on March 3 which killed 10 including lawyers and a sessions judge.
On March 13, the group claimed deadly attacks in Peshawar and Quetta which killed a total of 19 people.
The shadowy group splintered from the Taliban during the government’s peace talks with the group, and said that it rejected negotiations.
The TTP had declared a one-month ceasefire early in March, but less than 48 hours later, the dissident group claimed to have carried out the court on the Islamabad court premises, while the TTP denied responsibility.
The attacks in three major cities raised fears that the militant movement is splintering dangerously – though several analysts said they suspected the “new” factions were simply the TTP operating under another guise.
‘Suicide attacks until sharia’
According to militant and government sources, Ahrar-ul-Hind – “freedom fighters of India”, referring to the sub-continent as a whole – was formed early March by TTP fighters opposed to peace talks.
A written statement from the group sent to Pakistani media on February 9 and seen by AFP said it will not take part in peace talks and will carry on attacking Pakistani cities, even if the government and TTP reach a peace deal.
“It is our resolve that we will continue our suicide attacks and armed struggle in Pakistan until enforcement of sharia,” Asad Mansoor had said in the statement.
“As we belong to Pakistan’s cities so we will directly hit and carry (out) attacks inside cities.”
The statement described the TTP as “brothers” but said the group was going its own way and would not be bound by the umbrella faction’s orders.
Mansoor said Ahrarul Hind was led by Maulana Umar Qasmi, though several sources in militant groups said they had not heard this name before.
Few details have emerged about the group, though one militant source said many of its members were based in eastern Afghanistan.
A militant source in North Waziristan tribal district told AFP that Ahrarul Hind was largely composed of Punjabi Taliban.
Several eyewitnesses to the Islamabad court attack reported hearing the militants speaking Punjabi to one another.
It is not yet clear how much traction Ahrarul Hind is getting among Pakistan’s myriad militant factions, but one commander in the northwest told AFP the group had been in touch with four or five outfits.
The commander said the group had also contacted the remnants of a faction formerly led by Badar Mansoor, the head of the Pakistan chapter of al Qaeda who was killed in a US drone strike in February 2012.
Investigators told Reuters that Qasmi, a 38-year-old from the central province of Punjab, is experienced in organising joint operations against Pakistani cities, using fighters drawn from the country’s Punjabi heartland and tribal lands bordering Afghanistan.
“Ahrarul Hind could be the new name of one of several Punjabi factions that Taliban insurgents have teamed up with,” said one official involved in investigating the attack.
“A team of Pashto-speaking Punjabi fighters was carefully selected and given their target via a phone call,” said a second investigator. “The fighters just had five days to study the building, rehearse the attack and strike. That was all it took.”
Among those killed was a judge who ruled in October that former President Pervez Musharraf should not be tried for murder for ordering his commandoes to storm Islamabad’s “Red Mosque” in 2007 to root out militants attempting to impose Islamic sharia in the capital.
According to intelligence officers, Qasmi hails from Jhang, a southern Punjab city that is home to the eponymous Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), an anti-Shia sectarian group which supplied foot-soldiers for al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Soon after high school, they said, Qasmi moved to nearby Bahawalpur, close to the Indian border, where he is said to have enrolled in a seminary run by Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-e-Mohammad that targets India.
And in subsequent years he became dangerously well-networked as he moved between southern Punjab and the tribal lands in the northwest, notably in the Mohmand region, where a Pakistani Taliban faction executed 23 soldiers early this year – an incident that raised criticism of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for pursuing peace talks.
Officials also believe Qasmi is close to Jundullah, the group behind a suicide bombing that killed at least 78 Christians at a church in Peshawar last September.
And they reckon he could muster 1,200 fighters drawn from various Punjabi-based groups for deadly operations against Pakistani cities.