Syrian conflict has become a favorite destination of foreign jihadists; many of them are linked with Al-Qaeda and its various different associated movements. The emergence of Pakistani jihadists in Syrian conflict is a matter of grave concern. A plethora of Pakistani Taliban groups has been involved in creating havoc in Pakistan since the commencement of Global War on Terror. More than 45,000 people have hitherto lost their lives in Pakistan since 2001.
Al-Qaeda Central (based in Pakistani tribal areas) considers Syrian conflict as a holy war to establish an Islamic state after overthrowing the incumbent Assad regime. Thousands of jihadists have flocked to the conflict zone from Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and many others during last two years.
The surfacing of Pakistani Taliban affiliated jihadists in Syria comes at a moment when there are reports of discontent amongst the radical Islamist groups. The dispute between Free Syrian Army and militant jihadists is no secret and apart from that Nusrah Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Levant appear to be occasionally at odds with each other. There have been incidents of infighting between the two resulting in the death of leaders of these groups.
Among scores of groups "Jaish al Muhajireen" (JM: Immigrants Army) appears to be the strongest faction in Syrian conflict with hard line Islamic orientation and alliance with Nusrah Front. Jaish al Muhajireen only recruits jihadists of non-Syrian origin, initially Chechens and later from many countries including radical Wahabi/Salafist youth from Western Europe and North America. The Jaish has also developed a rapport with Jaiah-e-Mohammad, another Islamist violent non-state actor in Syrian conflict. Despite of disputes the overall cooperation amongst the jihadist is growing in Syria mainly because of confluence of their interest and common enemy. The western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) seems to be biggest loser as most of its battalions have defected to Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups (The Long War Journal, Oct 17).
The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (after its merger in April 2013) has managed to bring in Pakistani Taliban for providing training and expertise to the jihadists against the forces loyal to Assad regime. The Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP: Movement of Pakistani Taliban) acknowledged the presence as to "assess the needs of jihad" in Syria. The TTP has designated Mohammad Amin as its coordinator in Syria. (BBC Urdu, July 12, 2013).
In July the TTP claimed through a video of its opening camps in northern Syria and sending hundreds of fighters to participate in the fighting, to help support Islamist groups against the Syrian regime in the Levant (BBC Arabic, 12 July). According to Taliban sources the decision to send trainers to Syria was made at the request of ‘Arab friends' and "since our Arab brothers asked for help we are obliged to help them in Syria." In another statement one Taliban official explained "some of our brothers went there and then came back after spending some time in fighting and setting up camps in the rebel-controlled territories." (Almayadeen [Beirut], 14 July)
One Pakistani jihadist Abu Musaab al-Pakistani tweeted that the camps were established after supreme commander of Islamic State in Iraq and Levant Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi (Abu-Duaa) personally wrote a letter to TTP commander Hakeemullah Mehsud (later killed in a drone strikes) and asked for assistance. Abu Duaa requested Mehsud to join the "global jihad in the land of Sham because their common goal is to fight the tyrants of infidelity and establish an Islamic Caliphate". According to Abu Musaab, Mehsud replied by issuing orders to all battalions in the seven tribal districts (tribal areas of Pakistan) to recruit fighters for Syria. In July and August they sent the first batch of militants, and in particular to the province of Idlib, northwest Syria, more than two hundred fighters from Pakistan are involved in fighting. (Syria Truth, 1 Dec).
Last September, a high-level security source in Pakistan said that the Pakistani Taliban received 336 bodies of fighters so far killed in Syria fighting alongside Nusrah Front. He further said that the bodies were transported via Turkey to Islamabad. Source said that the Taliban made a prison break in Dera Ismail Khan, north-western Pakistan and freed hundreds of Taliban inmate, mainly to transport them to Syria in order to participate in fighting alongside jihadist groups against the Assad regime (Al-hadath News [Beirut], 17 Sep)
Prominent among Pakistani killed in Syria was Adnan Khan in a battle against government forces near Aleppo in November 2013. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) later confirmed his death. The killing of Adnan Khan shows the involvement of high-level Pakistani Taliban in the Syrian conflict (As Safir newspaper [Beirut], 2 Dec)
According to sources close of Pakistani Taliban the jihadists from Pakistan prefer to join the ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant because of its close ties with Al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan, with which TTP is associated with; rather than Nusrah Front which is at times odds with Al-Qaeda's central leadership based in Pakistan.
It is not known up till now the stance of the new leader TTP Mullah Fazlullah who has taken over leadership of the movement after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike a month ago. Previous leader Mehsud was in direct communications with Abu Duaa (As Safir newspaper [Beirut], 2 Dec).
There are reports that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (suspected to be based in tribal areas of Pakistan, strongholds of TTP) is keenly watching the Syrian and personally sent Al-Qaeda's senior leaders to fight alongside jihadists (Al Jazeera, 8 Nov; Al hayat [London], 10 Nov).
The involvement of Pakistani Taliban (TTP) in Syrian conflict could have serious repercussions. The setting up of training bases by TTP is alarming as hundreds of foreign fighters in Syria could take advantage of the facilities and then attempt to target western countries from where many of them have come to fight the Syrian regime. In recent past we have seen many terrorist attacks both attempted and successfully executed had received training in bomb making and sabotage at TTP training camps in its base of operations in tribal areas in the north-west of Pakistan. One good example was of Faisal Shahzad the Pakistani-American who attempted to bomb Time Square in New York City in 2010. Shahzad was trained in bomb making by the TTP and was personally sent by TTP supreme leader Hakeemullah Mehsud to bomb Times Square. The TTP is unique in a sense as it is closest to Al-Qaeda, and hosts Al-Qaeda Central at areas under its control. It appears that Al-Qaeda is hell-bent to capitalize the Syrian conflict for the purpose of recruitment and training of radicalized western Muslim youth involved in Syria and could cause serious troubles in Western Europe and North America.