Ehsanullah Ehsan TTP spokesman courtesy Dawn News

The Escape of a High Value Terrorist from Pakistan: Who was Behind?

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On January 18, 2020, India’s Sunday Guardian Live published news of former Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ehsan, escaping from the custody of elite Pakistani security forces. Initially doubts were raised over the authenticity of the news since it was published in a magazine in India, the arch-rival of Pakistan. However, soon the news engulfed Pakistan after it was raised by credible Pakistani sources, as well as International media. Around the same time, Ehsan’s audio message started circulating on social media, other news outlets, claiming safely escaping along with his family and reaching Turkey. Although the authenticity of the audio has not been confirmed, his mysterious escape caught Pakistan and the world by surprise. Inside Pakistan, and Internationally, news cycles were consumed by the news. Questions on social media in particular were highly critical of the security forces, whereas others wondered whether the mysterious escape of the high value prisoner was a conspiracy and another ploy by Pakistan.

Who is Ehsanullah Ehsan?

Ehsunallah Ehsan’s real name is Liaqat Ali. He hails from Mohmand Agency – one of the former semi-autonomous tribal agencies in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) currently part of Peshawar city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province.  His name started circulating as TTP’s spokesman around 2013. He claimed responsibility for the most vicious attacks across Pakistan during the time he acted as public face of the most ruthless terrorist organization. Some of the high profiled TTP attacks include: October 2012 attempted murder of Noble laureate Malala Yousafzai in which she, along with several others, was critically wounded; December 2012 rocket attack on Peshawar airport; June 2013 killings of Ukrainian and Chinese tourists in Gilgit-Baltistan; and attacks on Shi’ite Muslims in Karachi, Pakistan.

Ehsan left TTP in 2013 creating Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA) along with several notables and acting as chief spokesman of the new terror outfit. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar organization soon became actively involved in major attacks in Pakistan that include: November 2014 attack on Pakistan-India Wahga border parade killing at least 60 people; December 2014 heinous attack on Army Public School (APS), Peshawar, executing 141 including 131 very young students; March 2016 suicide attack targeting Easter gathering of Christian minority at a park in Lahore, killing at least 60; and February 2017 suicide attack at Mall Road in Lahore, Pakistan.  It should be noted the majority of the attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar with Ehsanullah Ehsan as its chief spokesman. Although the attack on APS was claimed by TTP (Fazlullah group) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar denied involvement, Pakistani intelligence agencies and informed media sources believe the mastermind behind APS attacks was a commander of Jamaat-ul- Ahrar, Omar Mansoor Naray, later killed in a US drone attack along with his eight fighters in Afghanistan’s Paktia province.

Following years of remaining the public face of terrorist groups, Tehreek Taliban Pakistan and Jamat-ul-Ahrar, and accepting responsibility for the heinous crimes carried out by the groups, Ehsan orchestrated a dramatic surrender to Pakistani security forces on April 5, 2017. In a press conference, Pakistani Army’s chief spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, termed Ehsan’s surrender a ‘significant success’ and a major milestone towards restoring peace and security in Pakistan. He also showed a confession video of Eshan to journalists in which beside other confessions, he claimed India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) were behind the insecurity in Pakistan.

Ehsan’s surrender and confessions brought a hope that he will be tried in the courts, and justice will be served for the most heinous crimes he orchestrated as part of several major terrorist outfits. However, after two and half years, he was still not arraigned before any court, and instead remained in the custody of the security agencies. Now that Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Brigadier (Retd.) Aijaz Shah, has confirmed Ehsan’s escape, a serious question haunts Pakistanis as to how Ehsan could have escaped from such high security facility? Is it a telltale sign of the start of a new game between Pakistan and Afghanistan? Contrary to the audio message alleged to be of Ehsan, political analysts believe he most likely escaped to Afghanistan considered a safe haven for the anti-Pakistan terrorist organizations.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share mutual suspicion of each other, each blaming the other for the insecurity. There is some truth to each neighbor’s claims. The use of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban is part of a common vocabulary in Pakistan where the ‘Good Taliban’ fight against Afghanistan, carry out bomb blasts and suicide attacks, or other sabotages against Afghan government and foreign or NATO forces. In contrast, the ‘Bad Taliban’ wreak havoc in Pakistan. They are considered anti-Pakistan, and allegedly aided both by Indian RAW and Afghan NDS with sanctuaries in Afghanistan.  

Following September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Pakistani Government sources claim at least 80,000 Pakistanis have been killed –including large numbers of civilians, as well as security forces enforcing law and order– in the war against terror.

Pakistan has been in the grip of worst terrorism in past two decades. During this time, thousands of Pakistani men, women and children, have lost their lives in bomb blasts from Gilgit-Baltistan in the north to Karachi in the south. In Quetta, over 2000 members of the ethnic Hazaras –including hundreds of women and children– have been killed in over 200 targeted attacks and bomb blasts, some considered the biggest in Pakistan’s history.  The majority of these attacks have been claimed by Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) with known links with Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. Pakistan has never missed an opportunity blaming India’s RAW and Afghan NDS as the two major powers instigating terrorism in Pakistan.

On the other hand, Afghanistan’s NDS has always blamed Pakistani Army’s secretive agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as the hidden force orchestrating all bomb blasts and suicide attacks in that country. During the past years, many reports have been published in Afghan media claiming those fighting against the Afghan security forces and conducting terrorist attacks against civilians have been recruited and trained in Pakistan. It is worth noting, that based on Pakistani plan, Afghanistan has also been in the grip of the worst violence in which thousands of civilians have lost their lives. Kabul has been the visible target of terrorists. Unfortunately, the peaceful Hazaras once again found themselves the prime target of these vicious attacks that includes attacks on worshipers in the mosques, educational centers, health centers, sports clubs, political rallies, and even a wedding hall in which at least 92 Hazaras and Shias, including many women and children, were killed in August 2019. Though Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for attack on wedding hall, however, Afghanistan’s former NDS head and running mate of Ashraf Ghani, Amrullah Saleh, blamed Taliban and its caretaker Pakistan for the attack.

The blames and mutual finger pointing aside, both Afghanistan and Pakistan not only support other’s extremist factions but also provide sanctuaries to them. Many pro-Pakistan extremists have been killed in US drone attacks in Afghanistan. Similarly, Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was killed near Chaghi [Balochistan] in US drone attack in 2016. Mansoor was entering Pakistan from Iran on former’s travel documents. Later it was found Mansoor not only was doing business in Karachi, but also possessed millions worth of property in Pakistan. Separately, in February 2020, Pakistani Taliban’s important commander, Sheikh Khalid Haqqani, along with another commander was killed in mysterious circumstances. He was allegedly behind the APS Peshawar, and several other major attacks in Pakistan.

In light of the current reality, clearly both Afghanistan and Pakistan are engaged in a proxy war with no end in sight and in which both sides have lost tens of thousands of citizens. With USA and Taliban ‘reduction of violence’ deal already inked, and subsequent blessing of United States for Taliban inclusion in Afghan government, Pakistani Taliban and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s notable, Ehsanullah Ehsan’s escape from high security detention of Pakistani forces raises questions that awaits answers.

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