Accueil arrow Foreign analyzes arrow A brief history of islamist violent non-state actors in Pakistan


Dr Farhan Zahid






Dr Farhan Zahid
Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).

A plethora of Pakistani Islamist Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) joined hands with al-Qaeda around Global War on Terror (GWOT) since Al-Qaeda came under attack after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001. But where had these Pakistani VNSAs come from? To learn that, one has to revisit Pakistan's history, taking stock of the country's brush with Islamism.

Origin of Pakistanese islamist violent non-state actors

Throughout Pakistan's history, scholars argue, religion has been used at the tool for arousing nationalist feelings among the nation's varied ethnicities. Pakistan, after all, is not homogenous ethnically. Religion appears to be the country's only binding feature.

In the country's wars with India, religious doctrines like jihad have been eagerly propagated to galvanize support and mobilize people to form private militias, the contemporary "non-state actors".

First phase : India-Pakistan wars

In the first India-Pakistan conflict, in 1947-48, fought over the disputed territory of Kashmir, thousands of tribesmen, on the behest of the state, rallied against India.[1] The nascent Pakistan and its army were too weak to confront the large and regular Indian armed forces. Six decades later, Pakistani security forces would fight in the tribal areas the Islamist militants, some of whom can be considered as descendants of the tribesmen who participated in the 1947 Kashmir war. [2]

The inherent weakness of Pakistani armed forces persuaded it to go for a similar strategy, in second India-Pakistan conflict, again fought over Kashmir. Fought in 1965, Pakistan used Kashmiri nationalist groups to strike against Indians (Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam).[3]

The third war, in 1971, was somewhat different. This time, anti-nationalist forces were mobilized against an insurgency in the country's eastern wing, East Pakistan. India, in-between the two Pakistani wings, trained and armed the insurgents, fighting to liberate the eastern wing.[4] In what is considered as the first time the military establishment cooperated with Islamist forces, workers of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamist party, were systematically recruited, trained, armed, and transformed into militias to fight the nationalist insurgents. JI's armed wings al-Badar and al-Shams took on Mukti Bahini (the Bengali nationalist/separatist group, the militant wing of Awami League) in what turned out to be bloody asymmetrical war, which ended after nine months with the defeat of Pakistani forces and their Islamist protégés, and with the creation of new state of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan.[5]  

Second phase : from Bhutto policy to CIA covert operations

The second phase of flirting with the Islamists began under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, prime minister from 1972 to 1977. In several aspects, Bhutto could be regarded as the initiator of supporting and appeasing Islamist forces nationally and internationally. Apparently he colluded with Muslim dictators to confront the West. Bhutto also started using the term the ‘Islamic bomb'. Later the Arab oil rich countries slapped the western countries with oil embargo in 1974.

At home, despite Bhutto having parliamentary majority, he accepted several demands of Islamists, due to which religious parties with limited appeal turned into strong and vocal pressure groups. [6] [7]

In early 1970s, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto adopted a security policy aimed at patronizing anti-Afghan regime Islamist groups. Reacting to Afghan President Daud Khan's support to Pakistani Pashtuns separatists,[8] centered mostly in the tribal areas, Premier Bhutto supported Islamist groups of Afghanistan. This well-planned strategy was chalked out by some of his advisors, one of them being General Naseer ullah Babar, Commandant, Frontier Corps, a military-recruited paramilitary force.[9] (Twenty years later, the same Babar, as Interior Minister, would embark upon supporting Taliban in Afghanistan convincing Bhutto's daughter Benzir Bhutto to support them.[10])

Bhutto initiated contacts with renegade leaders of Islamist parties in Afghanistan. Professor Burhan uddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud of Jamiat-e-Islami, Gulbaden Hekmatyar and Mohammad Younus Khalis of Hizb-e-Islami, and Abdul Rab Rasool Sayal of Itihad-e-Islami and several others were provided sanctuaries in Pakistan. These leaders, the founders of modern-day Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, also stoked inspiration about Pakistani Islamist parties. To put it bluntly, Bhutto can be regarded as architect of violent Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan and also founder of Islamist VNSAs during his era. His policies outlived his life.[11]

Bhutto, ousted by the military regime in 1977 that later executed him, left behind many legacies, including Afghan policy and appeasement of Islamists. In 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, developing American interest in the region. Soon, the military-ruled Pakistan and its ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, were out of pariah.

General Zia did not introduce any new policy; he carried on with the policies of his predecessor. The only difference was the newly-developed U.S. interest in Afghanistan. Carter administration, in collusion with Zia regime, had started backing Afghan Islamists. A new chapter of history had begun from there.

In early 1980s began Islamist extremism in VNSA-styled manner. Pakistani military regime and intelligence agencies, drawing international support, adopted a broad system of backing seven Islamist parties of Afghanistan known as "Peshawar Seven".[12] These were the same Islamist parties cultivated by Bhutto administration prior to the Soviet invasion. Now, they were reinvigorated - to fight off the Soviets.

CIA launched its largest ever covert operation, Operation Cyclone[13], in collaboration with Pakistani ISI and Saudi GID.[14] A plethora of other intelligence agencies such as UK's MI-6, Israeli's Mossad, and Egyptian Al-Mukhabarat were also involved.[15] Foot soldiers were recruited from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, imparted with guerilla warfare training at camps established by CIA-ISI. In the course of time, they were provided with all the weapons to fight a successful insurgency. The Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan finally ended with the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

The period 1979-89 could be regarded as first phase of Islamist insurgency. After Soviet forces left Afghanistan, the country witnessed Islamists converting into militias, warlords, or hardened criminals. Fresh wars erupted there between these newly converts.[16]

In Pakistan, a ready-made stock of trained and well-indoctrinated Islamist militants was also available in abundance. To the military establishment, these veteran jihadists could be used in sparking Islamist insurgency in Indian-held disputed territory of Kashmir, mainly to respond to India's support of insurgents against Pakistan in 1971.

The new movement in Indian-held Kashmir began on Islamist lines (though initially it was started by nationalist Kashmiri groups), capitalizing on available strengths of Afghan veterans. The Pakistani Islamist within already existing Afghan-jihadist organizations then rechristened into Kashmiri. Thousands of Pakistani youth from all the provinces were recruited from rural and urban areas. Offices of jihadi organizations started opening across Pakistan and training camps were established. Large number of Kashmir youth, from Pakistani and Indian side, disgruntled with Indian highhandedness in Kashmir, also joined in. This was the new theatre of asymmetric warfare.

One of the parties taken into confidence was Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Much earlier, in 1983, JI's Indian Kashmir chapter, in cooperation with JI Pakistan, aligned itself with General Zia, himself an ardent Islamist and follower of Jamaat's founder, Abu Ala Maududi.

Pakistani Kashmir was allowed to serve as launching base, much alike Peshawar, city in Pakistan's west, was during Afghan War period. Strategy and tactics were also similar, only the targets were shifted from Soviet troops to Indian security forces. The Kashmir Islamist insurgency, however, lasted longer than Afghan Wars, continuing all the way in 2000s, when another military regime had to revisit the policy in the wake of international pressure after 9/11 attacks.[17]

Third phase : the anti-Shia reaction

Another phase of growth of VNSAs in Pakistan occurred after the emergence of radical Iranian state in 1979. The rise of Shia clergy and spread of Shia militarism, in Iran, affected its neighbor Pakistan too, where 20 percent people are Shia Muslims.[18]

They were further incensed by General Zia ul Haq's ‘Islamization process', which was overtly shaped on Deobandi-Wahabist lines to the disadvantage of Shia population. Shias protested against some ‘reforms' which were inimical to them. Eventually thousands of Shia protestors in capital Islamabad forced Zia regime to take back some of the reforms not in conjunction with Shia sect of Islam.[19] The process and protest had however created rifts between Zia-loyalist JI high ups and Shia clerics in Pakistan.

General Zia and JI in collusion with other Islamist political parties then started secretly began arming anti-Shia parties, the most significant one being Sipah-e-Sahaba (SeS), a virulent anti-Shia VNSA founded in 1985 in Punjab's Jhang district. 

SeS could be categorized as a split-away faction of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), as most of the SeS's leaders were once office bearers of JUI in Punjab province. SeS's amir (founder and president), Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, was earlier Secretary General of JUI's Punjab branch. Many of SeS's workers had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Funded by the Saudis and other Middle Eastern donors, the group established a chain of Deobandi madrasahs' countrywide where poor children were brainwashed.[20]

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's two eras, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996, turned out disappointing in the end. While the military establishment took the backseat of national driving, it continued to guide the security and defense policies. On her part, Benazir Bhutto appointed Naseerullah Babar[21] as her Federal Minister of Interior, who, in a déjà vu, resumed old tactic of backing Islamists in Afghanistan. This time, the group backed was Deobandi Taliban. Also this time, the government enjoyed support from military establishment, mainly because Babar himself was a retired general. As Taliban were sweeping across Afghanistan's most of provinces, like-minded Pakistani Islamists were also gaining strength in Pakistan. In years to come, it turned out that Pakistani Islamist groups benefit the most from Taliban's rule in Afghanistan.[22]

The two eras of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, from 1990 to 1993 and 1996 to 1999, too did not change much on the Islamist VSNAs landscape in the region: Afghan Taliban were taking over Afghanistan part-by-party; in Pakistan, SeS was gaining strength and many other Islamist VSNAs were turning up like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkatul Mujahedeen (HuM) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI); and in Indian-held Kashmir, many Islamist VNSAs were taking tolls on Indian armed forces.

The situation continued in the initial two years of General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted PM Sharif in a military coup in 1999. At one point of time, General Musharraf even termed Taliban as "proud Pashtuns".

America's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 impelled Pakistani military ruler to revisit Pakistan's support to Taliban government, which was hosting of al-Qaeda, the attackers of 9/11 attacks.  Providing the required support to international forces, Pakistan new policy was crucial in toppling Taliban, within two months.

As a byproduct, Pakistan's volte-face pushed several Islamists to raise arms against Pakistan. In 2007, many such militants coalesced under the banner of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, commonly called as Pakistani Taliban. Today, Pakistan is struggling to tame these militants and their allied VSNAs down.

The Islamist VNSAs in Pakistan have their roots from state-supported tribal militias to Kashmir-focused insurgency to sectarian outfits, and finally to full-fledged rebellion against the state.

Ethnic Background 

Most of Pakistani Islamist VSNAs are either Pashtuns or Punjabis, two key ethnicities of Pakistan.

Pashtuns, or Pakhtuns, forming 15%[23] of the country's population, share sympathy towards Afghanistan's Pashtuns, who are 42%[24] of that country. In Pakistan, Pashtuns live in its western part, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, tribal areas, and northern parts of Baluchistan province. In Afghanistan, Pashtuns dominate 12 out its 34 provinces. A tribal people, Pashtuns live by their Pashtun code or Pashtunwali[25], integrated with Islam. An overwhelming Pashtuns adhere to Deobandi-Wahabi version of Islam, but not all of them are radical Islamists.

Punjabis, comprising 45% of Pakistan's population, live in Punjab province. They are the country's ruling ethnicity. An overwhelming majority of Punjabis either subscribe to Barelvi or Shia Islam. In the 12th and 13th century, Sufi mystics from Iran and central Asia had converted Punjabis from Hinduism and Buddhism to Islam.[26]

Mostly Punjab-dominated military establishment used Pashtuns, first in the 1947-48 war against India and then in the 1979-89 Afghan War against the Soviets. In the first case, Pashtun tribesmen rallied for religious cause and monetary gains. In the second case, Pashtun kinship blended with nationalism also played a role, as the Soviet forces had massacred thousands of Pashtuns and driven out many of them from southern Afghanistan, who then made towards Pakistan. All key Pakistan-backed veterans of Afghan war were Pashtuns: Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayaf, and Mohammad Younus Khalis. Very few Punjabi Islamist VNSAs participated in that war and that too, with limited roles.[27]

Punjabi Islamist VNSAs were rather more active in insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir. Kashmiris are closer to Punjabis culturally, geographically, and historically.[28] The role of Pashtun Islamist VNSAs was minimal in Kashmir insurgency. Instead, they were now training and supporting the Punjabi VNSAs.

Punjab has also been dominating the sectarian VNSAs of Pakistan, starting off since the ones like Sipah-e-Sahaba that came up in 1980s. Radical Sunni VNSAs are highly anti-Shia and closely allied to Afghanistan- and Kashmir-focused Islamist VNSAs. 






After General Musharraf's policy shift to side with the US in the post-9/11 scenario, many of these militants started got closer. Together they shared resources. Because of the growing linkage between Punjabi and Pashtun VSNAs, operating in different parts and against different foes, a new term ‘Punjabi Taliban' has gained currency.

  • [1] They could be considered as first generation Taliban, whereas the second generation were called Mujahedeen of Afghan War, and third generation were Taliban which emerged after the fall of Afghan-Communist government in mid-1990s
  • [2] For more information see books on Pakistan Army history such as Crossed Swords by Shuja Nawaz and Pakistan's Drift into Extremism by Hasan Abbas
  • [3] Major (retired) Humayun Amin, "Grand Slam-A Battle of Lost Opportunities", Pakistan Defence, available at:
  • [4] Mashuqur Rehman, "The Demons of 1971", Rediff  Special,, January 4, 2007
  • [5] Nadeem F Paracha, "Violent Ghosts", Dawn, March 13, 2011, available at:
  • [6] PPP, "156/200 seats in 1977 elections General Elections 1970", available at:
  • [7] Idem
  • [8] Rizwan Hussain, Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, New York, 2005, p.75
  • [9] Frontier Corps is a paramilitary wing of Pakistan Army to man the western borders of Pakistan: Afghanistan and Iran
  • [10] Peter Bergen, Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, The Free Press, 2001, p.145
  • [11] Discussions with Human Rights activists in Islamabad
  • [12] Peshawar Seven Parties were: Hizb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar), Hizb-e-Islami (Khalis), Islamic Unity of Afghanistan, Jamiat-e-Islami, Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, National Islamic Front for Afghanistan, Afghanistan National Liberation Front and Revolutionary Islamic Movement
  • [13] Cf. Dr Farhan Zahid, Research Paper n°12, Operation Cyclone and its consequences, August 2014 (
  • [14]  Robert D Billard, Jr, "Operation Cyclone: How the United States Defeated the Soviet Union", Undergraduate Research Journal at UCCS Volume 3.2, October 2010
  • [15] For details see, George Crile, Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times, Grove Press, New York, 2007
  • [16] Bergen, op. cit. pp.64-69
  • [17] For more on Indian Kashmir Insurgency see, Arif Jamal, Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir, Melville House Publishers, 2009
  • [18] "Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Muslim Population", Pew Research Center, October 2009, available at:
  • [19] Khaled Ahmed, Sectarian War: Pakistan's Sunni-Shia Violence and its Links to the Middle East, Oxford University Press (Karachi), pp.29-32
  • [20] Ibid, pp.10, 20-22 
  • [21] Ideologically, General Babar had no alignment with Islamist parties, in fact he was an Ahmadi (Qadyani), a community declared non-Muslim in Pakistan during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's premiership when the Pakistani parliament unanimously declared the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim through 4th Constitutional Amendment in 1974
  • [22] Interview with senior Pakistani diplomat who requested for anonymity
  • [23] CIA-Factbook : Pakistan,, retrieved on 28/09/11
  • [24] CIA-Factbook : Afghanistan,, retrieved on 28/09/11
  • [25] Traditionally, the conduct of Pukhtoons was guided by the Pukhtunwali. The foremost commandment of the Pukhtunwali is Badal or revenge (revenge is a dish which tastes better cold, Pukhtoon proverb). The obligations to take revenge for wrong falls not only upon the man who has suffered it, but also upon his family and tribe. Insults and retaliation hence involve clans and perpetuate blood feuds. The most frequent causes of trouble are money, women and land (zar, zan, and zamin). In rare instance, feuds are terminated when the weaker party throws itself on the mercy of its enemy, called Nanawati or acceptance of a bonafide truce, when blood money may be accepted in lieu of revenge. The third component of Pukhtunwali is Melmastia, or hospitality towards a guest, stranger, or an enemy if he seeks it. A formal escort or assurance of safety to a guest or enemy is called Badragga. The Pukhtunwali provides for law and order in a harsh environment, and is still a strong force in the tribal areas.
  • [26] CIA-Factbook : Pakistan,, retrieved on 28/09/11
  • [27] Such as Harkat ul Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), and Harkat al Mujahedeen, Jamiat ul Mujahedeen
  • [28] Kashmiris could be considered as a variant of proper Punjabi ethnic groups because of close language resemblance and proximity; more or less the same difference as we see between Flemish and Dutch.

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