An independent think-tank

Pakistan’s response and focus don’t match the mounting terrorism challenge

 – Over 82% terrorism-related deaths in Pakistan in 2023 caused by TTP, IS-K and BLA

 – For the third year in a row, terrorist attacks posted an upsurge in Pakistan: Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ Pakistan Security Report for 2023

Islamabad (PR) – As the incidence of terrorist violence marked an upsurge of 17 percent in Pakistan in 2023, Pakistan’s response and focus were no match to the mounting challenge of terrorism and militancy. The country’s negotiation bid with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and dwindling political focus on countering terrorism due to persisting political and economic crises emboldened the banned TTP and others to regroup and escalate terrorist violence in Pakistan.

The key actors of terrorist violence were also more pronounced in the year 2023; over 82 percent of the terrorism-related deaths resulted from attacks perpetrated by three major groups including the TTP [and its subsidiaries such as Tehrik-e-Jihad Pakistan], Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). These three groups carried out over 78 percent of the total terrorist attacks recorded in the country in the year under review.

These findings were revealed in Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ Pakistan Security Report for 2023, which was released here the other day. The report includes the comprehensive data on violent incidents including terrorist attacks, comparative analysis of various security variables, the changing targets and tactics of militants and nature of state responses, as well as policy recommendations.

The report also noted that for the third year in a row, the number of terrorist attacks and consequent casualties posted an upsurge in 2023. This upsurge in terrorist violence in Pakistan also coincided with the Taliban’s rise to power in the neighbouring Afghanistan.

Data on terrorist attacks

A total of 306 terrorist attacks took place in Pakistan in the year – including 23 suicide bombings – which killed 693 people (330 security personnel, 260 civilians, and 103 militants) and injured 1,124 others. These attacks marked an increase of 17 percent from the year before, and the number of people killed in these attacks also represented an increase of 65 percent from those killed in similar attacks during the previous year.

That comparative upsurge of 17 percent in terrorist violence was contributed by an increase in the number of attacks reported from all four provinces. Compared to 2022, the frequency of terrorist incidents in the Balochistan province increased by 39 percent, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by 3 percent, in Sindh by 87 percent and in Punjab by 100 percent.

Religiously inspired militant groups perpetrated a combined total of 208 terrorist attacks, which killed 579 people and injured 938 others. Different Baloch and Sindhi nationalist insurgent groups carried out 86 attacks that claimed 90 lives and wounded another 151 people. Meanwhile, 12 sectarian-related terrorist attacks were recorded in 2023 that claimed 24 lives.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa faced the highest number of attacks for any one region of the country. PIPS recorded a total of 174 terrorist attacks in the province, which claimed 422 lives and injured 782 others.

Balochistan was the second most terrorism-affected province in 2023, after Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where a total of 110 recorded attacks claimed 229 lives and wounded 282 others.

As many as 15 terrorist attacks took place in Sindh province including 14 attacks in Karachi alone, and one attack in Jamshoro in interior Sindh. These attacks killed a total of 16 people and injured 26 others.

Six terrorist attacks took place in Punjab in 2023, which claimed 16 lives and injured eight others. One, apparently, sectarian-related terrorist attack was recorded in Diamir (Gilgit-Baltistan), which claimed 10 lives and wounded 26 others.

State response

Security and law enforcement agencies stepped up anti-militant kinetic actions in 2023, especially in the second half of the year. They conducted 129 anti-militant operational strikes in 2023, compared to 87 in the year before, which caused a total of 425 fatalities or deaths (373 militants, 43 army soldiers, five policemen, two Levies, and two civilians), as compared to 327 in 2022, besides injuring 51 others. Out of the total 129 operational strikes recorded in 2023, as many as 97 happened in KP, 28 in Balochistan, three in Punjab, and one in Sindh’s provincial capital, i.e., Karachi.

Security and law enforcement agencies also entered into in a total of 24 armed clashes and encounters with militants – compared to 11 such incidents in previous year. These armed clashes and encounters claimed 55 lives (37 militants, 16 soldiers, and two policemen) and injured three others including two militants and one policeman.

Security and law enforcement agencies also arrested 377 suspected terrorists and members of militant groups in as many as 87 search and combing operations they conducted all over the country in 2023.  These arrests do not include those who were detained and then released after preliminary investigations.

However, experts argue that while successful in the short-term, such kinetic or hard approaches of countering terrorism fail to address the wider issues or causes factoring in violent extremism. For instance, even as hard approaches eliminate terrorists already on the ground, as long as the ideology driving them survives, more will continue to take their place. Therefore, “soft” approaches must be an indispensable component in any counterterrorism framework; more so in the case of Pakistan, where not just terrorism but also religious extremism is rampant.

Challenges and recommendations

  • The deteriorating Pak-Afghan bilateral relations and the absence of some practical initiative of bilateral state-to-state engagement are the key challenges at hand, which are compounding Pakistan’s problems in dealing with the threat of terrorist violence and border insecurity. Pakistan needs to hold talks with Afghanistan as bilateral engagement with Taliban-led interim government in Kabul is the ultimate solution of all bilateral problems.
  • There should be a consistent zero-tolerance policy towards terrorist groups, and there should be no negotiations with those who are unwilling to quit violence.
  • There is a need to increase capacity and role of civilian law enforcement agencies, mainly the police’s CTDs in KP and Balochistan, which will prevent the terrorist threat to a significant extent.
  • Pakistan needs to take a different, multi-dimensional approach to deal with the factors, dynamics, and actors of Pakistan’s growing extremism challenge, which is not confined to fighting the terrorists militarily only. Efforts to counter terrorist narratives can benefit through engagement with a wide range of actors, including youth, families, women, religious, cultural, and education leaders, and other concerned groups of civil society.
  • There is a need to reduce the appeal of insurgent ideology and cause among the Baloch people and that can be done by winning hearts and minds of the people. As the Baloch insurgents and even the TTP tend to exploit the issue of enforced disappearances in the province to win the public support and recruits, the government needs to evolve a plan or policy to manage this particular issue amicably and in accordance with law so that people don’t fall for militants’ narratives.