It was a quiet Sunday on 24 June 2007 when vigilante groups from Red Mosque or Lal Masjid raided a Chinese massage parlour and acupuncture clinic in sector F-8, Islamabad, and abducted seven Chinese staff and two Pakistani policemen. The militants included ten burqa-clad women armed with batons, part of a “vice and virtue” squad that took their victims to the Jamia Hafsa madrassa. Jamia Hafsa spokesman soon announced to local press that “this place was used as a brothel house and despite our warnings the administration failed to take any action, so we decided to take action on our own.” The Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Luo Zhaohui, demanded that the Pakistan government take all measures to secure urgent release of the hostages, and so China mounted huge pressure on the Pakistani establishment.
On 3 July, Pakistani security forces surrounded the Lal Masjid complex and ‘Operation Silence’ began. Seven days later, there were more than 100 people dead, hundreds surrendered, including many of the baton-wielding, burqa-clad female vigilante troops. It took more than twenty hours for the Pakistani commandos to battle their way through the basements, bunkers and tunnels of the heavily fortified enclave, guarded by militants armed with automatic weapons. Of the 15 non-Afghan foreigners killed, 12 were Uighurs. Maulana Abdul Rashid ‘Ghazi’, an ethnic Baloch from the Sadwani clan of the Mazari tribe, who ran this institution, was also killed.
Red Mosque and the Jamia Hafsa madrassa are located only a few blocks from the Pakistani Presidential Palace, and at a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI.
There were several bomb blasts and suicide attacks throughout Pakistan as a reaction to ‘Operation Silence’, most of them in the Pashtun dominated north western Pakistan. The crackdown also galvanised many Pashtun tribal militants, especially in South Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur, and the Swat district to unify their efforts for implementation of Sharia.The outcome was the establishment of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud (an ex-student of the Red Mosque) at the end of 2007 as a unified jihadi entity to fight the ‘apostate’ Pakistani State. Most of the deadly retaliatory attacks were initially carried out by the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, killing over 700 security personnel in a matter of days. In Mohmand Agency, the TTP gained huge momentum after the Lal Masjid operation. The militants created a replica of the Lal Masjid and openly challenged the Pakistani army to raid it— several operations of the security forces were repelled by the militants.
In no time, the TTP emerged as one of Pakistan’s deadliest militant organisations. It maintained close ties with al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and a host of other militant groups including the India focussed Punjabi militants, and even Daesh (ISIS). The TTP’s most deadly attacks include a 2011 assault on the Pakistani navy’s largest airbase; 2014 attack on Karachi airport; claims on assasination of ex-Prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and in 2014, a massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed 150 people, mostly students.
Crackdown in Pakistan
The Pakistani State has responded to this existential threat with a slew of measures that include military operations and peace initiatives — from signing peace agreements in May 2007 to forming a committee to initiate dialogue with various militant groups in 2008, to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif claiming negotiations in 2013. However, these initiatives had limited impact as the TTP was also important to the Afghan Taliban, and was formed of multiple semi-independent factions, unlike its more centrally organised neighbour.
The TTP carried out strikes outside the tribal areas, and its daring on Karachi airport in the summer of 2014 prompted the Pakistan army to launch operation Zarb-e-Azb, named after the sword of Prophet Muhammad. It virtually dismantled TTP and its support structure in tribal belts, including its sleeper-cells across Pakistani cities, with the group losing fighters in tens of thousands. The outfit also lost its territory and resources.