Where have all the suicide bombers gone?

Zia Khan April 13, 2010

ISLAMABAD: If accounts of al Qaeda associates and intelligence officials are to be believed, the suicide bombing drive in Pakistan may just have run out of… well, steam.

Once touted as an army of more than 2,500 would-be fidayeen, numbers have been dwindling steadily. And now, according to both Taliban based in the tribal belt and the spooks, there’s hardly anyone left to die for the cause.

The reason is said to be the October 2009 military operation in South Waziristan Agency against the group once led by slain Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. “This has effectively limited the Taliban’s ability to strike,” insists an intelligence official who doesn’t want to be named since he’s not authorised to speak to the media.

The suspected US drone attacks in both North and South Waziristan also hit the al Qaeda leadership and thinned numbers further. “The operation disrupted their chain of command; they were deprived of sanctuaries, their network was broken and their communications were jammed,” says the official. This is the reason, he argues, for the considerable fall-off in suicide bombings across Pakistan.

A close associate of slain Afghan Taliban leader Dadullah Akhund, Qari Hussain Mehsud is one such example. Also known as Ustaad-e-fidayeen (trainer of suicide bombers), Mehsud is said to have been on the run since the death of Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009. He once had training camps in the towns of Spinkay Raghzai and Kotkay in South Waziristan. But these areas are now under the control of the military. And so, an intelligence official says, Mehsud spends his days flitting between Orakzai Agency and South Waziristan. He is now thought to be out of touch with even those he once trained.

Associates of the TTP say the suicide bombers were relocated to Shakatoi, an area controlled by militant commander Sirajuddin Haqqani’s group. Haqqani commander for Mirali Said Alam initially promised to shelter the bombers. (Haqqani’s current agreement with the military, say insiders, is one of non-interference: the group doesn’t attack the military and in return, his affiliates are not stopped from launching cross-border attacks on western troops in Afghanistan.)

But Alam was persuaded by the military to withdraw his support. The number of fidayeen waned initially and now, according to a recent intelligence report, is negligible. Security analyst Brigadier (retired) Mehmood Shah agrees with this assessment of the situation. “The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan can’t send the suicide bombers out anymore,” he says. “The few incidents you see happening these days are the handiwork of affiliated groups based in Punjab, not the TTP itself,” said Shah.

Once upon a time, the TTP claimed it had 2,500 bombers ready to launch suicide attacks on military targets across Pakistan. But for a while now, there hasn’t been any statement. “They no longer exist as a group capable of launching coordinated attacks,” explains Shah. “Otherwise, they could have launched suicide bombers on military targets inside South Waziristan.” Shah thinks the TTP is relocating to Orakzai and Khyber and these should now become the focus of military operations. “