ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | While U.S. forces battle ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s dominant ethnic group from its most populous province, Punjab, has increasingly taken control of Taliban forces targeted by the latest Pakistani army offensive.
Pakistani authorities say they are concerned that Punjabi Taliban will flee the tribal areas and return to their home province, which already has been the scene of multiple suicide bombings as the army geared up for the ground offensive along the Afghan border that began Oct. 17.
The growing role of Punjabis marks a major escalation of the extremist threat in Pakistan, analysts say. Punjab is the heartland of Pakistan, home to its political and military elite, and some of the extremist leaders received military training that has made them far more lethal than the rural Pashtun fighters.
“What we’ve seen is a coalescence of the various militant jihadist groups,” said Bruce Riedel, a former top official in the White House National Security Council dealing with South Asia. The big danger, he added, is that these groups “are fighting for recruits from the same Punjabi families and clans that the Pakistani army recruits from for its officer corps.”
Punjab, the most populous of Pakistan’s four provinces, includes Islamabad, Lahore near the Indian border and Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani army is based. All three cities have been hit by major terrorist attacks in recent weeks. On Tuesday, suicide bombers attacked the International Islamic University in Islamabad, killing four people. The university has many female and foreign students.
“We have found through our intelligence sources that among the Pakistani Taliban the highest number is of Punjabi Taliban and obviously they would come under intense pressure from the security forces offensive forcing them” to return to the Punjab, a senior official of the civilian administration of South Waziristan told The Washington Times. The official asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to media. South Waziristan is the target of the current Pakistani army offensive.
Initially made up largely of Pashtuns — an ethnic group that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border — the Taliban movement in Pakistan is now dominated by Punjabi militant groups that were created or nurtured by Pakistani intelligence to contest Indian control of Kashmir.
Like a Frankenstein’s monster, these groups have joined forces with the Taliban and al Qaeda to battle the Pakistani government. Their goal, analysts say, is to spread an intolerant strain of Islam to Pakistan’s heartland and beyond.
Political analyst Hassan Askari told The Times after three attacks in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, on Oct. 15, that the militants “have improved their approach, added to their arsenal and made some major changes in their tactics.”
“Previously, such highly coordinated attacks weren’t taking place in Pakistan,” Mr. Askari said. “Also they seem to be targeting the army as well as the police, whereas previously only the police appeared to be the targets.”
Imtiaz Ali, a Pakistani journalist and analyst of the jihadist groups who is now a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said the Punjabis are far more dangerous than the Pashtun Taliban.
“They are more hard-line, more fundamentalist and more connected to a global agenda,” he said.
While Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs and other foreign fighters who have found refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas “have no option but to fight” the Pakistani army, Mr. Ali said the Punjabis could return to their home province and stage more attacks.
Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, acknowledged the presence of Punjabi militants in South Waziristan while talking with journalists in Lahore on Saturday. Mr. Taseer denied, however, that there were terrorist training camps in his province.
Despite his disclaimers, militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) — responsible for the attacks last year in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people — have long had training camps in Punjab. LET has a camp in Muridke town near Lahore. There have also been reports of militant camps in Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan districts of Punjab.
After the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistani government arrested the former head of LET, Hafiz Saeed, but he was acquitted because of a lack of evidence.
Mr. Riedel said LET, while sympathetic to the other jihadist groups, was not taking part in the current attacks because it “still has very close links to the ISI,” Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency.
Punjabi leadership has come to the fore in part because of U.S. success in targeting Pashtun militants.
After the death of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban movement, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in a U.S. drone attack Aug. 5, there was a succession struggle among the Pashtun members of the group that allowed Punjabi Taliban to gain prominence, analysts say.
Aqeel, alias Dr. Usman, who commanded the militants that attacked Pakistani military headquarters at Rawalpindi on Oct. 10, is a resident of Kahuta town in Punjab.
Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant leader targeted by a U.S. drone strike in September, is also a Punjabi and said to be the chief operational commander and strategist of al Qaeda in Pakistan. Kashmiri resurfaced last week and gave an interview to the Asia Times to disprove reports that he had been killed.
In comparison with the ragtag Pashtun Taliban, Punjabi Taliban are highly trained.
Kashmiri, for example, was once a Pakistani army commando, while Aqeel was in the Pakistan Army Medical Corps.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said Kashmiri was “likely involved in every major terrorist attack in Pakistan in the past two years.” The official asked not to be named because of the nature of his work.
This superior training showed in the well-coordinated attacks in Mumbai as well as the more recent incidents.
A new group calling itself the “Amjad Farooqi” Taliban, comprised of Punjabis, claimed responsibility for the attack on the Rawalpindi military headquarters, on three security forces installations in Lahore as well as a suicide attack in the North West Frontier Province.
Others say the attack on the military headquarters involved militants from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a largely Punjabi group cited in an Oct. 5 report by Pakistani authorities. The report mentioned suspicions of terrorists belonging to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi wearing fake uniforms and entering the military headquarters.
An official in the Interior Ministry who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity said authorities had become complacent before the recent attacks because they were still congratulating themselves over defeating the Taliban earlier this year in the resort area of Swat.
The official also blamed a lack of intelligence-sharing between police, “who are responsible for maintaining security inside the country and the army.”
A person who works for the militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen said the government had loosened restrictions on the group and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi imposed after the Mumbai attacks.
“It’s a lot easier to move around, even get donations,” said the person, who asked not to be named to protect himself from government retribution.
Within Lahore, the militants are making their presence increasingly felt. Sermons are becoming more radical and anti-American without apparent check by the government.
India is particularly concerned about this trend since Pakistani Punjab borders the Indian region of the same name.
Indian Home Affairs Minister P. Chidambaram warned Oct. 15 that any new attack from Pakistan would be met with a “swift and decisive” response.
In a recent interview with Sky News, the current TTP head, Hakimullah Mehsud, said he would send his soldiers to the country’s eastern border to fight Indian troops, once “an Islamic state is created in Pakistan.”
• Ayesha Nasir wrote from Lahore. Barbara Slavin also contributed to this report from Washington.