Acts of terrorism by Baloch insurgent groups have increased in Pakistan. A new wave of high-impact terrorist attacks in Balochistan started on January 26 with the Balochistan Liberation Front assault on a Frontier Corps check post in the Dasht area of Kech district. Ten soldiers were killed.

Since January this year, different Baloch groups have carried out at least 17 attacks, including 10 against security forces. The attacks took 51 lives and injured 97 people. That has put security forces in the province on high alert, prompting them to increase surveillance.

The banned Balochistan Liberation Army and its lethal guerrilla cell, Majeed Brigade, have carried out eight attacks this year.

They have included some major fidayeen-style attacks in Balochistan’s Nushki, Panjgur and Sibi districts. Multiple Baloch insurgent groups are active in the province, including the Balochistan Liberation Army, the Baloch Republican Army, the Baloch Republican Guard, the United Baloch Army, Balochistan Liberation Front and the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar that is an umbrella grouping of Baloch insurgent organisations. While most of the attacks by these groups have taken place inside the province, the new Baloch insurgent group Baloch Nationalist Army carried out a terrorist blast in Lahore.

Surge in attacks

In February, the Majeed Brigade carried out two major gun-and-bomb suicide attacks on Frontier Corps camps in Panjgur and Nushki districts. Several hundred soldiers are usually stationed at these camps. Militants not only infiltrated the latter but also kept the security forces engaged for three days. In March so far, three terrorist attacks have struck Sibi.

First, a suicide bomber detonated himself near security officials and people returning from a festival, martyring six Frontier Corps officials. The militant Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter claimed the attack. A week later, Balochistan Liberation Army militants targeted a Frontier Corps convoy on its way to Sibi with a roadside improvised explosive device in the Sangam area of the district.

Four Frontier Corps personnel lost their lives. The banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan also claimed an attack that took the lives of two policemen in Quetta in late February. These attacks suggest that increasing insecurity in Balochistan is encouraging violent sectarian groups to intensify their onslaught too.

Many analysts connect the apparent surge in terrorist attacks to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but it is difficult to establish a clear link. However, the leadership of many insurgent groups is still hiding in Afghanistan, where the Afghan Taliban are reluctant to decide their fate. There have been doubts about the Baloch insurgents developing operational linkages with the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan as the insurgents subscribe to secular nationalist ideologies.

Though Baloch insurgents in Afghanistan are worried about their future and a few have fled to Iran or come back to Balochistan after receiving death threats from unknown quarters, the Afghan Taliban regime will also consider its own Baloch population while taking a decision on the insurgents. No doubt this is frustrating for Pakistan, which thought that the Taliban takeover would help fix the Baloch insurgency.

The overall regional environment may have encouraged the Baloch militants, but those coming back from Afghanistan have also contributed to restructuring the insurgent groups. Importantly, the groups operating in Balochistan have also been making efforts to develop operational alliances.

For instance, in January, the United Baloch Army and a faction of the Baloch Republican Army joined hands to form the Baloch Nationalist Army. The spokesperson of the newly established group, Mureed Baloch, has said that the purpose of their unification is to strengthen the Baloch resistance movement. The Baloch Nationalist Army has also reportedly joined Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar.

The Baloch Nationalist Army has already claimed three terrorist attacks, including one in Lahore and another in Panjgur. The main Baloch Republican Army group, which is reportedly led by Brahamdagh Bugti, has condemned the Lahore attack, suggesting it wants to distance itself from the Baloch Nationalist Army.

Indeed, a faction of the Baloch Republican Army led by Gulzar Imam is part of the Baloch Nationalist Army. He had formed his faction in 2018 after being expelled from the parent Baloch Republican Army.

He hails from the southern Panjgur district and his faction has more influence in the Makran region where the Balochistan Liberation Front is also very strong. The other group in the newly formed Baloch Nationalist Army is the United Baloch Army, a breakaway faction of the Balochistan Liberation Arm led by Mureed Baloch.

New ranks

The emergence of different factions and alliances reflects a major shift in the insurgency. First, traditionally the Baloch nationalist struggle, both political and militant, was led by the tribal elite or elders, but the Balochistan Liberation Front, Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar and now the Baloch Nationalist Army are largely led by middle-class educated Baloch youth. Second, this phenomenon could also be a reflection of growing dissatisfaction among the insurgent leaders on the ground regarding the Baloch leaders living abroad in self-exile.

The new ranks of Baloch insurgents are educated and politically radical and are transforming the insurgency into guerrilla warfare. Contrary to their previous leadership, which was not averse to reconciling with the government whenever it sought to secure tribal and family interests, the new leadership has few compulsions on this score, as most of them come from humble backgrounds. This makes the counter-insurgency challenge a complex one.

The surge in terrorist attacks can be interpreted in many ways. First, the Baloch insurgents view these attacks as a mark of success that has brought them into the international spotlight. This has also boosted their confidence in unleashing high-impact attacks on security forces.

Second, according to some local accounts, the attacks could help Baloch insurgent groups inspire and recruit more youth.

Third, although nationalist political parties see in these attacks an opportunity to become more relevant as stakeholders in the peaceful resolution of the Baloch conflict, they are also threatened as the Baloch insurgents could increase their attacks against moderate Baloch segments.

As far as counter-insurgency is concerned, state institutions are reviewing their strategies. But one factor needs to be considered: countering the nationalist insurgency through the use of religion and religiously motivated groups will once again prove counterproductive.

It will not only aggravate anger among Baloch youth, it will also create a conducive environment for militant operations by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter and sectarian groups. The Afghan Taliban are a major source of inspiration for all these groups. What Balochistan needs is a long-term political strategy, as well as a gradual reduction in muscular demonstrations.

This article first appeared in Dawn.