Students at the Army Public School in Peshawar returned to classes on Jan. 12, almost one month after a devastating attack left 133 children and nine staff members dead. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which claimed responsibility for the Dec. 16 attack, is headed by Maulana Fazlullah, who ordered the attack on young Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. On Dec. 13, the U.S. Department of State designated the Afghanistan-based Fazlullah as a “global terrorist.” Remaining defiant, he has since threatened more “spectacular” attacks targeting government officials, military officers and schoolchildren. The tragedy shook the conscience of Pakistan and seemed to have finally united the country’s political leadership, opposition parties and civil society against the Taliban. Pakistan has been waging war on the militant group but has so far failed to articulate a national narrative for the fight.
Last month Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif introduced a new national action plan to combat terrorism, lifting the moratorium on the death penalty for terrorists, ordering the military to escalate attacks on terrorist hideouts and vowing to root out extremist elements in Karachi and Punjab. The government says the plan is already being executed at full speed. The operation boasts increased cooperation between federal intelligence agencies and provinces and a newly launched anti-terrorism helpline, which encourages citizens to remain vigilant and report suspicious activities. Experts have called on Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates to help cut off the flow of funds to extremist groups in Pakistan, which allegedly receive funding from allies in those countries.
Sharif’s plan aims to combat extremism and sectarianism by going after militant groups and their supporters. In addition to a two-year constitutional amendment to allow military tribunal courts, the policy calls for a ban on hate speech, urges local media not to air the views of terrorists, bans literature preaching sectarianism and extremism and sanctions those spreading sectarianism. The new directive mandates registration and regulation of madrassas, forbids banned groups to operate under different names and strengthens the country’s National Counter Terrorism Authority, which has remained ineffective because of resource constraints and legal wrangling.
Countering these initiatives, however, are clerics who openly challenge the government, preach extremism and sympathize with the Taliban. And Pakistan can’t go it alone. Ultimately, the success of Sharif’s plan hinges on Afghanistan’s cooperation and a clear narrative that unequivocally condemns terrorism and suicide bombings on both sides of the border.
There are some hopeful signs. The horrors of Peshawar’s attack have generated a renewed resolve among some opposition political parties. “Whoever supports terrorism is a traitor and will be held accountable,” Pakistan People Party’s Vice President Sherry Rehman told reporters at a press conference on Dec. 18. Even cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, a longtime Taliban apologist, has jumped on the bandwagon, pledging to stand behind all of the government’s efforts to combat terrorism, including escalated military operations.
Despite this emerging consensus, some still enjoy free rein to preach hate and flaunt their sympathy with the Taliban. For example, controversial cleric Abdul Aziz has said that the escalation in terrorist activities in response to the government’s operation was justified. He runs a number of religious schools in Islamabad, where he propagates an extremist ideology and is often invited to explain his views on the media by anchors who do not always reject or challenge his pro-terrorism stance. On Dec. 16 in an interview with Waqt News, Aziz refused to condemn the attack in Peshawar. This prompted Pakistan’s civil society groups to demand an end to giving Taliban apologists unrestricted airtime. He responded by issuing death threats against the protest organizers and warned about an “uncontrollable situation” in the country if he is arrested.
Aziz is no stranger to controversy. In 2007 there was an increase in the number of suicide bombings after his brother was killed in a standoff during a government-led operation against Aziz’s Red Mosque. Last year his full-time girls’ religious school, Jamia Hafsa, named a library after Osama bin Laden. A recent report by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence found troubling links between Aziz and the Taliban. His sympathies have extended to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). An alarming video recently surfaced in which female students from Jamia Hafsa pledge allegiance to ISIL. They can be heard inviting ISIL to Pakistan to avenge the government’s operation against the Red Mosque in 2007. Aziz has called the video an “innocent act,” but police have sought legal notice, saying the pledge of allegiance to an international terrorist group is tantamount to waging war against Pakistan. In fact, police have found explosives at one of the madrassas run by his Lal Masjid administration.
The success of Sharif’s anti-terrorism plan will be judged by how it deals with the likes of Aziz. If Pakistan is to effectively fight terrorism, those who have ties to terrorists and are involved in the indoctrination of extremist ideology must be brought to justice. Suicide attacks must be categorically condemned, and apologetic views on terrorism should not be tolerated. Pakistan must not allow its youth to be proselytized to pledge allegiance to ISIL and grow up hailing bin Laden as a hero. This will only encourage a new generation of terrorist sympathizers and recruits.
Pakistan needs an effective counterterrorism narrative. And this should be strengthened through regional cooperation. Pakistan’s security is interlinked with Afghanistan’s stability. As such, it is naive to think about eliminating terrorism on one side of the border while some advocate it on the other. For example, Aziz openly threatens Afghanistan’s security and Fazlullah is allowed to roam free in Afghanistan, where he continues to plot attacks against Pakistan.
Pakistan claims it has weakened the recently outlawed Haqqani network, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, and barred it from attacking Afghanistan and NATO forces. Sharif’s government is now asking Afghanistan to carry out a similar operation in Kunar province, which serves as a sanctuary for anti-Pakistan terrorists. Pakistan has accused the United States of not going after terrorists who are responsible for planning attacks against Pakistan. Fazlullah’s designation as a terrorist is a step in the right direction. But more regional cooperation is key to winning the war.
“All terrorism is unacceptable,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference during his Pakistan trip on Jan. 13. This message must be adopted by all stakeholders and even the madrassas and schools where young minds are being indoctrinated. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have an opportunity to send a strong message that they will no longer allow terrorists to use their soil to attack the other.
In the meantime, if he is serious about combating terrorism, Sharif must be ready to answer tough questions ahead, including how he plans to deal with clerics suspected of aiding and abetting terrorists.