New Threats, New strategies

New Threats, New strategies


Countries throughout the region adapt to evolving challenges


In the wake of a five-day spate of suicide bombings that shocked the nation — including one at a busy Muslim Sufi shrine that killed 86 devotees — the Pakistan Army announced the launch of a nationwide military operation to eliminate the terrorism threat.

The new campaign, launched in February 2017 and dubbed Radd-ul-Fasaad, or “Eliminating Discord,” represents a shift in strategy for Pakistan’s counterterrorism forces, whose efforts have focused for a decade on the country’s ethnically diverse northwest tribal region. The government is sending the Armed Forces to Punjab province — a region increasingly viewed as a source of extremism and a threat to Pakistan’s stability.

“In Punjab, particularly in southern Punjab, there are sanctuaries of hardcore militants which have not been targeted before,” said Amjad Shoaib, a retired Army lieutenant general and defense analyst. “This time they will be taken to task, and that will help a lot in eliminating terrorism not only from Punjab but from other parts of the country, too.”

fter meetings with Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, as well as senior officials in Punjab, the government agreed to send the Army into the province. Officials said the new operation would send 2,000 Army Rangers into Punjab for stints of several months. Unlike previous Army operations in other parts of Pakistan that have chiefly used force to flush out or kill terrorists, officials said, this one would involve mostly intelligence gathering. Missions will also include disarming extremist groups hiding throughout the country.

Syrian refugees in a makeshift camp between Syria and Jordan visit a medical clinic in March 2017. Jordan has deployed more forces to protect its border against Daesh. AFP/Getty images

Border security

Pakistan is not alone in adopting new and improved strategies to counter evolving threats. Iraq and its neighbors, observing the continued success of the Mosul offensive, are preparing for a world in which Daesh has lost most of its territory yet still poses a security threat. As Daesh leaders and fighters flee, surrounding countries must tighten security at their borders and in refugee camps.

In a January 2017 interview with The Associated Press, Brig. Gen. Sami Kafawin, chief of Jordan’s border security, noted that Amman is deploying “more and more forces” at the border to safeguard against Daesh. In fact, nearly half of Jordan’s military personnel and resources have been deployed along the Iraqi and Syrian borders.

“We reinforced our borders, especially in the northern part and eastern part,” Kafawin told CNN. “We are reinforced by manpower, equipment and the whole weapons system. We need to make a balance between the security and the fighting, if it happens.”

Commanders stationed at the northern border report nearly daily attempts by smugglers and infiltrators to cross into Jordan. But the troops are prepared for possible terrorist attacks, Kafawin said, because they know Daesh will attempt to expand its reach beyond Iraq and Syria.

Defeating sectarianism

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces have begun to turn their attention to a post-Daesh reality. Even after Daesh is defeated in Mosul, it will remain vital to promote Iraqi national identity above the narrow sectarianism and tribalism that created space for extremist ideology to take root. To this end, Iraqi Soldiers have worked hard to ensure that all Iraqis feel enfranchised and included in the country’s political, economic and social life, protecting civilian lives and property even in the densely populated battleground of Mosul.

Partnering with civilian organizations, Iraqi and coalition forces are also combating extremism online, countering terrorist propaganda that radicalizes followers in the name of establishing a “Virtual Caliphate.” The Iraqi government established a tip line for citizens to report instances of administrative corruption and repeatedly dropped leaflets advising Mosul’s civilians of safe routes out of the city. The Iraqi Directorate of Media and Morale Guidance, created in 2013, monitors social media sites for Daesh activity, tracks the location of terrorists and exposes the dishonesty of their posts online. Employing psychologists and counterterror specialists, the ministry debunks terrorists’ online propaganda with hard evidence and photographs.

Since establishing the directorate, Iraq has seen vast improvement in its efforts to counter Daesh. The directorate now has official websites and a verified social media page, which allows it to “respond swiftly to counter Daesh lies and inform our followers,” said Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim al-Khafaji, director of media and morale guidance.

The formation of this unit has fostered cooperation among Iraqi agencies in crafting a cohesive national narrative. In response, citizens have increasingly followed the directorate on social media and voluntarily offered information to expose Daesh lies.

The struggle in the Sinai

Egypt’s military, too, has recognized the need to combat a growing violent extremist presence in the Sinai Peninsula. Wilayat Sinai, a local affiliate of Daesh, has waged a campaign of terror and extremism. Recently, the group appears to have expanded its targets to include civilian Christians in addition to members of the security forces. The spate of religiously motivated killings prompted many Egyptian Christians to flee.

The Egyptian Army is working to maintain the upper hand in this battle. In February 2017, the Egyptian Armed Forces assumed control of a mountain in central Sinai where extremists had been seeking refuge. In March 2017, Egyptian forces killed extremists in an airstrike and a month later killed one of the group’s founders.

Investing in special forces

With an attack on a military hospital in Kabul in March 2017, Daesh signaled a shift in strategy in Afghanistan. Where the group used to target large public gatherings — like a Shia Hazara minority group protest in 2016 — its hospital attack suggested a new approach requiring more planning, intelligence and reconnaissance to carry out effectively, analysts say.

In part, this shift in tactics may be due to effective Afghan and NATO efforts to reduce Daesh’s numbers in Afghanistan to under 1,000 and their territorial control from more than 10 districts to fewer than five. The Kabul attack suggests, however, that Daesh may be adapting and adjusting to its diminishing numbers.

“They have gone underground,” said Barnett Rubin, associate director of the Center on International Cooperation.

In response to the shifting threat, Afghanistan in March 2017 announced plans to double its elite special forces from the current 17,000 troops. In early 2017, special forces — which represent only a small fraction of the 300,000-strong armed forces — carried out nearly 70 percent of the Army’s offensive operations across the country.

Recruitment and training are already underway to create more commandos, as well as special forces support units handling first aid, intelligence, logistics and communications, NATO coalition spokesman Capt. Bill Salvin said.

During exercises at the Afghan Army’s special operations training base just outside Kabul, Soldiers were confident that they could handle the workload.

“There has been an increase in our operations, but we will keep up our efforts,” said Fawad Kamal, a special forces commander. “There hasn’t been any interruption.”

Sources: IHS Jane’s 360, The Washington Post, Hilal, The Tribune, Fox News, CNN, Wired,, VOA News, Reuters

Radd-ul-FasaadThe final showdown

Maintaining civilian trust is crucial to defeating terrorists in Pakistan


A fresh wave of terrorism, particularly deadly terrorist attacks in Lahore and Sehwan Sharif, has forced the Pakistani government to launch countrywide security operations against militants, their facilitators and sanctuaries.

The long-anticipated campaign, called Radd-ul-Fasaad, or “elimination of discord,” places a major focus on urban centers, compared to earlier hard-fought military operations that focused on peripheries such as tribal areas and the adjoining districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The campaign was apparently launched as a reaction to a fresh wave of terrorism; however, well-informed sources believe this campaign is part of a grand military strategy prepared and followed for years. When this strategy was formed, a fear of militants was widespread in society. In certain areas, they took control of territories and targeted security forces, law enforcement agencies and government installations.

It was decided to start gradually, first by denying militants physical space, and then targeting militants and their facilitators in their underground sanctuaries, particularly in the urban centers of Punjab.

No doubt, by its very nature Radd-ul-Fasaad is not going to be easy. It’s going to be tougher and more complicated because it brings the war against militants into the streets of densely populated centers.

Additionally, the operation does not focus on a specific area but rather covers the entire country. Law enforcement agencies cannot merely sweep the surface; they must go deep to clear the groups’ underground sanctuaries.

During earlier military offensives, battles were limited to certain geographical areas, which allowed for the evacuation of civilians and the isolation of terrorists. This gave security personnel more freedom to use heavy weaponry, including artillery, helicopter gunships or jet fighters. In Radd-ul-Fasaad, the inability to separate terrorists from the population precludes the use of heavy weaponry. Authorities must adopt a more intelligence-based approach, identifying targets using actionable intelligence before removing them from the populace

Since its launch in February 2017, this “final showdown” against the enemy has had a different tempo than previous operations, which were conducted in conventional military style. This nationwide intelligence-based campaign conveys a message to the enemy and its facilitators: They can no longer run from one area to another to avoid capture.

In addition to the Pakistan Armed Forces, the operations also include police and other law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, police involvement has created the impression that the campaign targeted those of a particular ethnic or regional background. Though unintentional, this impression could impede the operation and be exploited by Pakistan’s enemies. To avoid these consequences, Pakistan Army leadership must address these concerns without delay.

Planners of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad foresee a results-oriented exercise that uses elements of surprise. The goal is not to strike randomly or arrest people on the basis of mere suspicion or ethnicity. In the past, the usual target areas were slums and localities where low-income people live. Such police work is sometimes good only for optics and generating reports.

But terrorists are not ordinary thieves or street criminals to be browbeaten or rounded up chaotically. The sooner these actions are reorganized, the better. Otherwise, the campaign may fail to produce the desired results. All efforts must be taken to make it a decisive blow to the enemy.

By virtue of the fact that the “battleground” lies deep in population centers, Radd-ul-Fasaad is a complicated endeavor. It is a test of both the political and military leadership — failure is not an option.

To create the desired national impact and send a strong message to the enemies, political leadership, civil society and all law enforcement agencies must be on the same page. All branches of the security apparatus, including the Army, Air Force, Navy and Rangers, must be involved, with law enforcement agencies assisted through actionable intelligence.

Once the direct and latent terrorist threats are eliminated, the next phase must target sectarian and other extremist organizations. Such organizations may not pose immediate or direct threats, but they nevertheless serve to radicalize society and give the country a bad name. A majority of militants who join terrorist or jihadi organizations were once members of sectarian groups.

Radd-ul-Fasaad will be difficult because unlike past counterterrorism operations, in which heavy weapons were used, Soldiers will be combing the population for suspects using good intelligence. For such intelligence operations to succeed, the Armed Forces must win the hearts and minds of the people. Failure to do so risks spoiling the gains of past military offensives, to the benefit of the enemy.

To its credit, the military has conducted tough campaigns against militants, and Radd-ul-Fasaad shall prove to be a culmination of these — a test of the country’s new military leadership.

Of all the military operations, Rah-e-Rast, launched in May 2009 in Swat valley, was the most difficult. Militants had taken physical control of Swat following a peace deal with the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Within three months, Swat was cleared and handed over to civilian administration, and millions of displaced people returned home.

The military earned additional credit for taking the fight to the heavily forested valleys of Shawal and Tirah in North Waziristan and the Khyber Agencies by launching Zarb-e-Azb. This operation destroyed the command and control centers of hardened militant organizations.

As the battle against militants enters the urban centers, the people have high expectations for the new commander of Pakistan’s Army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who, though new to the job, is deeply experienced.

A version of this article was originally published in March 2017. Hilal is the official magazine of the Pakistan Armed Forces.

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