The South Asia Channel

Militancy in Pakistan

As Pakistan fights against suspected Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militants in the tribal areas, the focus of the country is on the front line in North Waziristan. But the conflict in the country is emanating from elsewhere: Pakistan's cities and marketplaces, where militant and sectarian groups are taking root and spreading rapidly.

There is an almost daily emergence of stories of conflict from Pakistani cities. Pakistani forces recently raided a militant hideout near Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's residence in the Raiwind area of Lahore. Groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, led by Hafiz Saeed and designated by the United States as a cover for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, have a widespread presence in cities like Karachi and Lahore, and have become a major political force embedded in society through a philanthropic network. Sectarian groups opposed to religious sects such as Shiites and Ahmadis are engaged in a widespread campaign of bombings, intimidation, and targeted assassinations, most recently in Gujranwala, where three Ahmadis were killed after a mob set five houses on fire after accusing an Ahmadi man of blasphemy.

These groups are issues of concern for the United States, even if they do not pose a direct threat to the United States at home. The threat from Pakistani groups based in the country's metropolitan and urban centers is largely seen through other prisms: one, that many of these groups have had transnational ambitions and could attack American citizens and interests in the South Asian region; two, that groups opposed to countries such as India and Afghanistan could attack there, contributing to regional instability; and third, that the presence and expansion of the groups signals the steady destabilization of Pakistan.

As a Carnegie fellow at the New America Foundation, I studied and analyzed the threat posed by Pakistan-based militant and sectarian groups from a U.S. perspective.

Since 2001, the United States has largely been focused on the remnants of al Qaeda in Pakistan, the Haqqani network, and, in recent years, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. In the early years after the attacks of September 11, 2001 -- largely prompted by an attack on the Indian parliament -- the United States called on Pakistan to act against homegrown militant groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba. But the efficacy of any measures taken by Pakistan is largely debatable: Many of the groups banned by Pakistan have resurged and become key players in Pakistani politics and militancy. Moreover, the focus on al Qaeda and the "war on terror" have ignored many of the underlying causes, including the support network for terrorism in the country.

Part of this, analysts said, was prompted by the need to not lump all groups into the "al Qaeda bracket," but this has come at the cost of ignoring the mingling and cross-pollination of groups based in Pakistan. There is a realization in U.S. counterterrorism and policy circles of the latter, but this complicates the domestic narrative in the United States on Afghanistan because it undercuts the objectives behind which the United States went to war in Afghanistan in the first place. Moreover, the threat posed by groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba is often seen as secondary, with analysts saying that the real threat to the United States is still posed by groups like the Haqqani network.

There has been a concerted effort by the U.S. intelligence community to study and understand the threat posed by Pakistan-based militant groups and to analyze potential scenarios that could arise as a result of a major attack on the United States, its interests, or in South Asia that links back to Pakistan. There has also been planning by the U.S. government to parse out what potential scenarios could arise from such an attack.

However, the U.S. policy options remain limited. The key issue at stake is that despite the groups' presence in Pakistan, there is often little evidence to link this to the Pakistani state's involvement and complicity. Plausible deniability is a major factor; and while Pakistan's public narrative vis-à-vis homegrown militancy and groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba has changed, there is little belief among U.S. analysts and officials that Pakistan is seriously committed to assessing and tackling the threat emerging from cities far from the current front line in the tribal regions.

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan, and was a Carnegie Fellow at the New America Foundation in 2014. She is the author of Karachi, You're Killing Me! (Random House India, 2014) and No Team of Angels (First Draft Publishing, forthcoming). Follow her on Twitter: @Saba_Imtiaz and online at