Lashkar-e-What? Tehrik-i-Who?

A whirlwind tour of the many Pakistani terror groups.

An anti-U.S. protester

Pakistan asked the United States to suspend air strikes and limit covert activities in the country, which would hinder U.S. efforts to disrupt terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehrik-i-Taliban. How many terror groups are there in Pakistan, and what do they all want?

At least a dozen, and all sorts of things. Keeping tabs on every terrorist organization in Pakistan is a daunting task, in large part because they regularly change names, merge, and splinter. There are currently six Pakistan-based groups on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations, but that’s an undercount.  Full-time observers have identified no fewer than 12 terrorist factions currently operating in the country. If you’re not ready to quit your day job and become a South Asia expert, the best way to think of the groups is to classify them by their relationship with the Pakistani government, their domestic or international focus, and their ideological pedigree.

Consider, for example, Lashkar-e-Taiba. While the Pakistani government has banned the group, and the State Department considers it a foreign terrorist organization, LeT is essentially a covert arm of the Pakistani military. The Pakistani intelligence service has helped them with training, money, and weapons for at least 15 years. The founder of the organization, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, moves around in Pakistan with impunity. Their original goal was to bring Kashmir under Pakistani control, and they focused attacks on the Indian military and Indian civilians. In recent years, however, observers have seen evidence that LeT is becoming a global, anti-Western terror presence.

Ideologically, Lashkar-e-Taiba adheres to Ahle-Hadith, a fundamentalist Islamic movement closely related to wahhabism—the rigid, literalist form of the religion that dominates Saudi Arabia. The group changed its name to Jamaat-ud-Dawa in an attempt to dodge U.S. financial sanctions, but most news articles continue to use the old name.

Far more groups belong to the Deobandi movement, which attributes the decline of the Islamic world to their failure to resist Western materialism. It’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the Deobandi-derived groups: Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Sipah-e-Sahaba, etc. But two are particularly noteworthy.

Jaish-e-Mohammad appears to have had government ties in the past, but now is fiercely antagonistic to the powers that be in Islamabad. For example, they appear to have been involved in the 2003 assassination attempt on President Musharraf. While most of their activities are limited by Pakistani borders, the group is anti-Western and anti-Jewish. A JeM leader was involved in the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. Another Deobandi group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is known mainly for its violent attacks on the Pakistani Shiite community. 

There are also a handful of organizations that are interested almost exclusively in Kashmir, like Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. These terrorists don’t break into U.S. news all that often, but they’re worth keeping an eye on. Like Lashkar-e-Taiba, they could broaden their focus.

Finally, there’s the mysterious and controversial Tehrik-i-Taliban, or TTP. It’s a loose affiliation of mainly Pashtun cells that work in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. While some elements have agreed not to attack the Pakistani government—and may even be receiving government assistance—others are part of an anti-Islamabad insurgency. They also seem to have international ambitions, claiming responsibility for the 2010 Times Square bombing.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks C. Christine Fair of Georgetown University, Nicholas Howenstein of Indiana University, and Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute.