ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The death of Osama bin Laden is unlikely to undermine the Pakistan Taliban, despite al Qaeda’s links with the militants, and it may even embolden the fighters battling to bring the nuclear-armed state down.
In the decade that the world’s most-wanted man was underground, al Qaeda established deep ties with militants in the Pashtun tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, who claimed allegiance to bin Laden.
TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said this week that ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan were unshaken and revenge would be exacted for bin Laden’s death at the hand of U.S. commandos.
“We were united before, we share the same goals and we have the same enemies. Al Qaeda, Taliban, including all mujahideen (holy warriors), will avenge the death of Osama bin Laden,” Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
While Pakistan has at times supported militants fighting in Afghanistan and the Indian part of disputed Kashmir, the Taliban are the sworn enemies of the security forces.
“The problem is not al Qadea, the problem is the Taliban,” said a senior Arab diplomat in Islamabad. “The threat is that al Qaeda uses these local militants. They are the threat.”
The Pakistani Taliban are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns from
semi-autonomous tribal lands on the Afghan border where radical Islam has for generations been a rallying cry in the fight against outsiders.
The area was a staging post for Muslim guerrillas, including bin Laden, battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s and a string of religious schools was built with Pakistani and Saudi support to churn out recruits.
It was after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, when Pakistani was pressed to back the U.S. campaign against militancy, that the Pakistani fighters began to see these armed forces as their enemy.
A bloody operation by the security forces to clear gunmen from a radical mosque in Islamabad in July 2007 was a watershed, enraging militants who ramped up their campaign of suicide bombs and other attacks and gradually took control of the Swat valley, northwest of the capital.
Pakistani security forces have launched offensives in different areas, securing places like Swat, but the estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Pakistani Taliban militants in a patchwork of factions still pose a formidable threat.
The militants have killed hundreds of pro-government tribal leaders in the northwest while showing they can hit the military not only at camps and posts in the provinces, but at its very heart with attacks on the army’s headquarters and its powerful spy agency in the city of Rawalpindi.
Al Qaeda’s influence on the Pakistani Taliban has been largely ideological, with little in the way of strategic support, and they have their own sources of funding enabling them to mount attacks independently.
“The over-arching ideology is provided by al Qaeda. That is the trans-national global jihadist agenda ... under the umbrella of al Qaeda various militant outfits are operating,” said Abdul Basit, a researcher at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
“Bin Laden’s removal from the scene is not going to change the overall dynamics of the war on terror or Taliban militancy in a big way at all,” he said.
U.S. Navy SEALs shot dead bin Laden on May 2 in his hideout in the town of Abbottabad in northern Pakistan. One of three wives detained by Pakistani authorities after the raid said bin Laden never left the high-walled compound.
That isolation over the years means his elimination now is unlikely to have much impact.
“He may have had contact with some of his people, but the fact that he was not interacting much I think means his capacity to organise attacks was not really great,” said veteran Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai.
While the Pakistani Taliban have largely been a domestic threat, there have been signs that they want to expand the scope of their attacks under the al Qaeda banner.
A suicide bombing at a U.S. base in Afghanistan’s Khost province in 2009, carried out by a Jordanian national, killed seven Central Intelligence Agency employees.
In video footage released after the attack, the bomber was shown sitting with Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, a stark illustration of growing links between the Pakistani insurgents and foreign militants.
The Pakistani-born American who tried to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square last year told a court he got bomb-making training and funding from the Pakistani Taliban.
“The Pakistani Taliban have been acting as a surrogate for al Qaeda, and they’ve been carrying out a lot of the training of these foreigners - the Americans, British, Germans - on behalf of al Qaeda,” said Pakistani author and expert on militants Ahmed Rashid.
“There’s this very close cooperation between the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda because they are the main protectors for al Qaeda in the tribal areas,” he said.
Pakistan’s civilian and the military have been embarrassed by the discovery of bin Laden hiding under their noses and they are facing a slide in relations with the United States as well as a barrage of domestic criticism.
The Pakistani Taliban, bent on revenge for bin Laden’s killing, could see this as the perfect time to strike at a weak government already struggling with a chronic economic mess.
“The TTP will probably go on the attack, a renewed attack against Pakistan,” said Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency which helped organise the Afghan war in the 1980s and later nurtured the Afghan Taliban.
“We will pay the price for it, unfortunately,” Gul said, referring to bin Laden’s killing.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)