Violent Islamist groups in Pakistan have coalesced under the Taliban umbrella to become the world’s most significant terrorist threat and are the most capable of obtaining nuclear weapons, according to a report released Wednesday.
The Pakistani “Neo-Taliban,” as the report from the Federation of American Scientists calls the coalition, has emerged as a major threat to the security of the Pakistani state, perhaps posing an even greater one than the country’s longstanding enemy, India.
“They have conducted the most sophisticated, ambitious and operationally complex terrorist attacks in this century,” said Charles P. Blair, director of the Terrorism Analysis Project for FAS. “They can essentially attack at will any time they want.”
The report says the threat posed by the Neo-Taliban is largely the result of a strategic miscalculation by Islamabad after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States — allowing violent Islamist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda to seek refuge from U.S. troops in Afghanistan and operate in Pakistan’s tribal areas as a buffer against Afghan, U.S. and Indian influence.
The entry of those foreign fighters into the tribal areas led to a dramatic spike in terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, from 29 in 2003 to 1,916 in 2009, resulting in some 30,000 deaths.
“They (the Pakistanis) really played a very dangerous game,” Blair said, “They didn’t think that when the Taliban and Al Qaeda came into the tribal areas that they would target the Pakistani state.”
Pressure from violent Islamists is one of the reasons elements in Pakistan’s government — particularly in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency — continues to support Taliban control in Afghanistan, he said. Lacking confidence in their ability to control the militants, Pakistani officials are looking for a place to dump them, he said.
The report comes amid increasing congressional and public pressure for Washington to get tough with Pakistan, which has sparked a similar pushback from Islamabad. But senior U.S. officials and leading lawmakers insist that the relationship, while complicated and at times frustrating, is too important to abandon.
“We are now working with our Pakistani partners to overcome differences and continue our efforts against our common enemies. It is essential that we do so,” White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said in a speech outlining the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. “As frustrating as this relationship can sometimes be, Pakistan has been critical to many of our most significant successes against Al Qaeda.”
Numbering between 15,000 and 30,000 fighters, the Neo-Taliban pose such a serious threat because they combine decades of experience against state-sized forces with revenue obtained through the operation of shadow governments and an Islamist ideology that includes strong apocalyptic leanings.
“They are violent Islamists with a global agenda,” Blair said. “It’s a highly capable group that can seek and will seek nuclear weapons.”