The deputy Taliban commander in the Arakzai tribal agency took credit for today’s suicide attacks at mosques in Lahore and Nowshera, and said the strikes were designed to avenge military operations in Pakistan’s northwest.
“We claimed responsibility of suicide attacks at the seminary in Lahore and a mosque in Nowshera,” a Taliban leader who identified himself as Saeed Hafiz told Dawn. He also took credit for the June 9 complex suicide assault at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, and claimed his group would release video footage of the strike. Hafiz is the deputy to Arakzai Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, who is a senior deputy in Baitullah Mehsud’s Pakistani Taliban movement.
The Lahore attack killed Dr. Sarfraz Naeemi, a popular, outspoken anti-Taliban cleric, as well as several soldiers praying at the mosque. Naeemi had issued fatwas against suicide attacks and called the Taliban un-Islamic.
Hafiz said the attacks were conducted to avenge the Pakistani military’s recent attacks in the districts of Hangu and Arakzai, as well as its operations in Swat, Bannu, and South Waziristan. On Thursday, the military launched artillery and air strikes against Taliban camps and a seminary in the two districts.
The attacks in Hangu and Arakzai killed more than 47 people, including a cleric and his 12-year-old son. Reports indicate the military shelled homes in civilian areas, although the military claimed it only targeted Taliban haunts based on specific intelligence. The military said that Maulana Mohammad Amin, the slain cleric, was a Taliban supporter in Arakzai and his seminary was used to plot and conduct attacks and to shelter Taliban fighters. Dozens of women and children are reported to have been killed in the military strikes.
The military also shelled Taliban hideouts in Arakzai and Hangu. A Taliban camp in the town of Guljo in Hangu was hit during the attack. The Ghazi Force is one of several deadly Taliban groups based in Arakzai; it runs a training camp in Guljo. The Ghazi Force took credit for two recent suicide attacks against the Pakistan security forces in Islamabad.
Since military operations began in the Northwest Frontier Province in late April, the Taliban have ramped up attacks nationwide and have struck in Islamabad, Lahore, and throughout the Northwest Frontier Province.
Arakzai a Taliban hub
Hakeemullah and Hafiz’s Taliban group is the second to take credit for the Pearl Continental Hotel attack. Another Araksai-based group, which calls itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, also claimed credit for the June 8 attack at the Pearl Continental.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigade had yet to claim an attack in Pakistan until a spokesman named Amir Muawiya spoke to the media earlier this week and said that the Taliban and al Qaeda shura had directed that all future strikes would be claimed by this group. Amir Muawiya is a leader in the Commander Tariq Group based out of Darra Adam Khel in Arakzai.
The group is named after Abdullah Azzam, the influential jihadi ideologue who co-founded al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden. Azzam was killed in a bombing in 1989. Osama is widely believed to have killed his mentor after Azzam disagreed with the decision to make al Qaeda an international terror group.
Previously the Abdullah Azzam Brigade took credit for attacks at resorts in Egypt, including the deadly July 2005 attack at Sharm al Sheikh that killed 88 people. The brigade was formed to conduct attacks in Syria and Egypt, but likely moved its operations to Pakistan’s border areas after a brutal crackdown by the Egyptian government. Thought to be manned largely by Egyptians, the Abdullah Azzam Brigade is an offshoot of Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Egyptian Islamic Jihad is known to base its operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In October 2008, Abu Jihad al Masri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, was among 21 Taliban and al Qaeda operatives killed in a US Predator airstrike on a Taliban safe house in Mir Ali in North Waziristan.