At least 55 Pakistanis were killed in the contested tribal agency of Khyber today in a suicide bombing outside a mosque and an ambush on a military outpost. The outburst of violence takes place just two weeks after Khyber’s political agent said military operations have “broken the back” of terrorists operating in the tribal agency.
In the first attack, the Lashkar-e-Islam, a radical, Taliban-like group that operates in Khyber, killed 10 Pakistani soldiers after ambushing a military checkpoint in Khyber’s Tirah Valley. Pakistani troops manning the outpost returned fire and claimed to have killed 23 Lashkar-e-Islam fighters.
In the second attack, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his vest outside a mosque in the Tirah Valley known to be frequented by members of the Lashkar-e-Islam. Twenty-two people were reported killed. The Lashkar-e-Islam claimed that only six of their fighters were killed in the attack.
The Taliban claimed credit for the suicide attack, and said it was carried out to avenge the deaths of several Taliban fighters at the hands of the Lashkar-e-Islam last month, according to the BBC.
Today’s attacks cap a week of violence in Khyber, which included the killing of two women and a child in an IED attack on Feb. 29, and a clash on Feb. 24 that resulted in the deaths of seven Lashkar-e-Islam fighters and three Pakistani soldiers.
The week of violence occurs after the tribal agency’s political agent said a military operation designed to sever the Tirah Valley from other areas of Khyber was so successful that it has “broken the back of Lashkar-i-Islam that has remained unchallenged in the area for seven years.”
The Lashkar-e-Islam is run by Mangal Bagh [for more information, see LWJ report, A profile of Mangal Bagh]. The group has established its own Taliban-like government in large areas of the tribal agency, including in Bara, Jamrud, and the Tirah Valley. It also provides recruits to battle US and Afghan forces across the border, and has attacked NATO’s vital supply line moving through Khyber before it was shut down by the Pakistani government last November. The Pakistani military has targeted the Lashkar-e-Islam during multiple operations over the past five years, each time declaring the group defeated. But the military has failed to dislodge the group from power.
The Lashkar-e-Islam occasionally allies with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and occasionally feuds with the terror group. Tariq Afridi, a powerful Taliban commander based in Darra Adam Khel, has taken control of Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan’s operations in Khyber.
Lashkar-e-Islam’s main enemy, particularly in the Tirah Valley, was the Ansar-ul-Islam, a rival radical Deobandi group based in the area that is supposedly banned by the Pakistani government. In the past, the two groups have fought each other for control over the Tirah Valley, and have even attacked each other using suicide bombers. The Lashkar-e-Islam has gained the upper hand over the Ansur-ul-Islam over the past several years.
Both the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Islam are known to operate bases and training camps in the Tirah Valley as well as in Bara and Jamrud. These safe havens in Khyber enable these terror groups to launch attacks inside Pakistan as well across the border in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. In November 2008, the US military attacked Taliban forces in the Tirah Valley after they retreated across the Pakistani border from Nangarhar. US strike aircraft and artillery killed seven Taliban fighters during the hot pursuit.
The US has also launched several drone strikes in Khyber while hunting senior terrorist leaders. In 2010, US Predators killed Ibn Amin, a Taliban and al Qaeda commander, in one of four strikes between Dec.16 and Dec.17 in the Tirah Valley. Amin was the commander of the Tora Bora Brigade, one of six formations in al Qaeda’s Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army. He operated in the Swat Valley.
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