Q&A: Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?

BY Larisa Epatko  May 14, 2010 at 12:31 PM EST

The botched car bombing in New York’s Times Square, and possible links to militants in Pakistan, has brought renewed attention to the group known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad was arrested last week on allegations he packed a car with firecrackers, propane and gasoline and parked it in Times Square on May 1 to detonate. Street vendors spotted the abandoned smoking car and alerted authorities.

Shahzad claimed to have been trained in bomb-making in Waziristan, a mountainous region in northwestern Pakistan along the Afghan border that is known as a base for militants. (View a Council on Foreign Relations interactive on Pakistan’s tribal belt.)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Pakistani Taliban were behind the attempted attack, but officials in Islamabad say it is too early to tell whether there is a connection.

To learn more about the Pakistani Taliban, we talked to Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who described them as a loosely affiliated group but with a strong ideological center. He discusses more in this Q&A:

What can you tell us about the Pakistani Taliban?

The group is called TTP, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. It’s basically a loose conglomerate of different kinds of groups. The core is very ideologically motivated, very similar to the Afghan Taliban — their ideology. They were people who fought in Afghanistan and then came back and turned against the Pakistani state because they claim that the Pakistani state was supporting the Americans in Afghanistan and in the tribal belt against Muslims and tribals. So the core, which includes people like Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone attack, Hakimullah Mehsud, who is now running the show, they’re mostly from the Mehsud tribe in south Waziristan in the tribal belt.

But the rest of TTP, unlike the Afghan Taliban are not dedicated, ideologically motivated foot soldiers. They are different groups, different individuals who joined under the umbrella of the TTP to gain prestige, to gain stature in their own tribe, or were basically criminals in organized crime groups and thugs who grew beards and started calling themselves Taliban because they was an element of fear attached to it, and an element of respect attached to it.

The core is very central, very ideological, very motivated, and they get these foot soldiers — teenagers — to come and train for suicide bombings. The rest of the local groups who are with them outside the tribal belt or even within are not really Taliban in the real sense of the term as we know the Afghan Taliban. They are mostly with different agendas and they continue their own agendas.

Where are they based?

The core of the TTP belongs to South Waziristan, where the Pakistani military launched an operation last year. Since the operation, which was quite successful, (the TTP) moved out to a neighboring tribal agency called North Waziristan. That’s where they’re harbored now. That is also the place where a lot of the groups who are based in Afghanistan are harbored and have found sanctuary.

What is their goal?

Their stated goal is to convert Pakistan into an Islamic emirate, like the Afghan Taliban did in Afghanistan.

Are they linked to al-Qaida?

There is some evidence that TTP is engaged as well as another sectarian group in Pakistan called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — the anti-Shia, Punjab-based group, which is also now found refuge and training centers in this tribal belt. So there is some evidence that they are connected. There’s a Kenyan-born al-Qaida man (Usama) al-Kini who was killed in a drone attack last year. He was supposedly connected with TTP and funding, supporting and training them.

What kind of connection might be found between the alleged Times Square attacker and TTP?

The connection that is being alleged is that (Shahzad) got radicalized in America for whatever reason, went back (to Pakistan), went to the tribal belt, got to the Taliban and told them that I want to be trained in how to make a bomb. And then they taught him how to make a bomb with fertilizer and told him good luck.

But the Pakistani Taliban themselves have no capacity to actually hatch a plot in the U.S. and do something here. I mean, they’re more than happy to train anybody who comes their way. But I have not seen anything which suggests to me that they’re actively recruiting American citizens to go and do something in America.

What kind of impact are they having in Pakistan?

Because this group is loosely connected and affiliated and its ideological motivation doesn’t run through and through, that is why the Pakistani military has been able to curtail it the way it has. Because the low-lying soldiers either gave up or mainstreamed themselves before they’d be caught, or got caught, etc., there wasn’t the conviction to keep fighting to the last man. So that is why you can’t compare this group in terms of conviction and danger to the Afghan Taliban.

That said, of course, given that suicide bombing is their main tactic, they can still play havoc in Pakistan and keep instability going. But that instability shouldn’t be translated to mean that Pakistan is falling apart.