Abstract: The death of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’sa (TTP) leader Mullah Fazlullah in June 2018 was followed by a return of the group’s leadership to the Mehsud tribe after nearly half a decade. But TTP’s newly appointed leader, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, has inherited an organization experiencing a precipitous decline due to internal divisions, state-led operations, and competition from Islamic State Khorasan. An examination of a recent Urdu-language document, released by TTP for its members, reveals the new leadership’s plans to reconfigure the group for a potential comeback. The document delineates remedial strategic and tactical level principles, which predominantly seek to reinforce central control and structure, while discouraging indiscriminate targeting and excessive brutality.
The death of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) notorious leader, Mullah Fazlullah, in June 2018 in Kunar province, Afghanistan,1 has generated cautious optimism about the imminent demise of TTP. The death of Fazlullah, whose leadership oversaw the group’s brutal attacks against the Army Public School (2014)2 and Bacha Khan University (2016)3 in Pakistan is certainly a mark of progress in counterterrorism efforts against the group. But to what extent is Fazlullah’s death a devastating blow to TTP? Amongst other factors, TTP’s future trajectory depends partially on the leadership of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the new leader appointed by TTP’s Shura council after Fazlullah’s death.
The return of the TTP leadership mantle to the Mehsud tribe after almost half a decade warrants examination to assess the future direction of the group. This article briefly highlights some of TTP’s current challenges and then delves into a 13-page, Urdu-language document released by TTP in September 2018, titled “The Code of Conduct: For the Mujahideen of Tehrik-i-Taliban.” The “Code of Conduct,” released on TTP’s website, provides valuable insight into the group’s intended plans under its new leadership as it discusses organizational strategy and structure, martyrdom operations, targets, and policies governing loot, prisoners of war, and defectors.4 The document was released four months after the change of leadership, and indicates its authors’ acute awareness of TTP’s inherent weaknesses and the necessary corrective measures to prevent internal collapse. Drawing on the Urdu-language document, this article elucidates TTP’s designs to remedy the cracks in its foundation.
TTP’s Ongoing Woes
TTP officially emerged on the Pakistani landscape in late 2007 when a shura (leadership council) of about 40 senior Taliban leaders, belonging primarily to the Federally Administered Tribal Areasb (FATA) of Pakistan, formed an umbrella organization under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud from South Waziristan.5 TTP’s stated objectives were to enforce sharia, fight NATO forces in Afghanistan, and, perhaps most importantly, unite against the Pakistani Army’s post-9/11 military operations.
TTP gained regional and global notoriety through a series of prominent events. In 2007, it occupied parts of Pakistan’s Swat Valley. May 2010 saw U.S. officials link TTP to the failed Times Square bomb plot in New York.6 In October 2012, TTP was linked to the shooting of Malala Yousafzai.7 But it was TTP’s brutal attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 that stunned Pakistan. The attack resulted in the deaths of at least 141 individuals, including 132 children.8 Indiscriminate violence against civilians, and especially children, played a significant role in rendering unprecedented countrywide support for the Pakistani army’s operations against TTP.9
Despite being one of the gravest internal threats faced by the Pakistani state to date, TTP has long suffered from organizational dysfunction and operational degradation due to both internal and environmental factors. Externally, the group has faced a massive onslaught by the Pakistani Army in both urban and rural areas,10 which has significantly undermined TTP enclaves, infrastructure, and recruitment ability. The Pakistani Army claimed to have killed approximately 3,500 militants in its Operation Zarb-e-Azab, launched in mid-2014, which targeted TTP operatives amongst others.11 In Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan, U.S. drones regularly target TTP leaders.12 Collectively, these efforts have resulted in a significant decline in terrorist attacks across Pakistan since 2013,c as well as in TTP-claimed attacks. Per the Global Terrorism Database, compared to the year 2014 in which TTP claimed 163 attacks, the group’s total attacks in 2015 fell by 33% and were almost 42% lower than the 2014 figure in 2016 and in 2017.13
Internally, the appointment of a leader from outside the Mehsud tribe (i.e., Fazlullah in November 2013) created numerous fissures in the organization, and resulted in the emergence of splinter groups such as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.14 More recently, TTP suffered a substantial setback when several of its commanders defected to the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) in late 2014 and Hafiz Saeed (TTP’s Orakzai faction commander) was appointed as ISK’s first emir.15 The combination of battlefield losses due to counterterrorism efforts, warring factions, and competition from ISK poses an existential threat to TTP. Against this backdrop, the TTP shura’s decision to appoint a member of the Mehsud tribe16 as its new leader clearly reflects a strategy that seeks internal unity.
TTP’s New Leader
Who exactly is Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud? Mufti Noor is a religious scholar and writer with significant experience in the jihadi sphere under his belt.17 Hailing from South Waziristan, Noor Wali was reportedly heading TTP operations in Karachi as well as TTP’s publication department, prior to being named the group’s new leader.18 He is known for his staunch opposition to polio vaccination campaigns and for endorsing violence against health workers in Pakistan.19 Noor Wali also authored a 588-page book released in November 2017, entitled “The Mehsud Revolution in South Waziristan: From British Raj to Oppressive America,” in which he claims that TTP was responsible for the Benazir Bhutto assassination in 2007. Noor Wali’s book also discusses the controversial topic of TTP’s internal power struggles in Karachi.20
Noor Mufti seems eager to make TTP’s presence felt. Under his leadership, the group has already launched numerous provocative attacks. Shortly after the deaths of Mullah Fazlullah and his son in separate drone strikes in Afghanistan in March and June of 2018, respectively,21 TTP immediately unleashed attacks against Pakistani politicians in July 2018. On July 10, the Awami National Party (ANP) leader, Haroon Bilour, was killed along with 12 others in a suicide blast in Peshawar.22 Less than two weeks later, another political party’s candidate, Ikram ullah Gandapur, was killed in a suicide attack in Dera Ismail Khan.23 The surge in attacks against prominent politicians during Pakistan’s election season was likely an attempt by Noor Mufti to establish his legitimacy as a leader and reinforce TTP’s opposition to democratic voting process.
Noor Wali Mehsud (center), the new leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, is pictured in a screen capture from a video released by the group. “Interview with the Leader: Noor Wali Mehsud,” Umar Media Video, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, July 2018.
TTP’s Code of Conduct
TTP’s code of conduct, released on its website in September 2018, is largely directed toward its members. Divided into 67 points, the document sketches TTP’s overall strategy, organizational design, policies regarding target selection and looting, and the management of prisoners and defectors.24 Below, some of the prominent themes in the document are discussed and contextualized with regard to TTP’s organizational and environmental challenges.
Theme #1: Reinforcing Central Control and Structure
First and foremost, the document embodies efforts to unite differing factions under TTP’s central leadership, as obedience to the leadership (both the emir and shura council) is a principal theme in the opening sections of the document. The section titled ‘Principles Governing Internal Matters Affecting the Mujahedeen’ emphasizes the obligation of every fighter to obey the decisions of his factional emir, who in turn must submit to the decisions of the central emir.25
With regard to structure and discipline within the organization, various principles are provided at both the individual and group level. The document endeavors to delineate clear lines of authority, responsibilities, and constraints on individual behavior to minimize intragroup conflict. For example, one of the principles emphasizes that every mujahid must treat all assigned responsibilities as essential duties, and warns against transgression of granted authorities or interference with the activities of another. Any individual who misuses his mujahid status or creates difficulties for his faction will be punished accordingly. At the factional level, several principles outline how to manage intra- and inter-factional disputes. Internal disputes within a faction, or ‘constituency,’ must be resolved locally. Failure to do so will result in the conflict being forwarded to the central shura council, which may then split disputing members across different constituencies. Thereon, such members will be prohibited from interfering with the business of their former constituencies and will not be assigned any major responsibilities in their new constituencies.
The next section lays out specifics about the internal organization and functioning for individual factions. Every locality is recommended to create its own shura council consisting of at least six members who can issue decision-making advice on important matters to the faction, and also maintain contact with the central shura council. The document provides further guidance on setting up courts and a ‘corrective center’ for members, with an emphasis on maintaining regular communication with TTP central. For example, one of the points specifies that the appointed qazi (judge) of each locality must provide the shura council with a record of all decisions made in the past six months.
The principles discussed above clearly demonstrate the new leadership’s efforts, at least in theory, to reinforce the internal structure of the organization, minimize sources of in-house dispute, and circumvent further internal divisions. These efforts at centralization are not surprising given that TTP, as a conglomerate of various militant factions, has faced continuous fractionalization and defections since the appointment of Fazlullah in late 201326 and the arrival of ISK in late 2014.
Theme #2: Legitimate Targets and Martyrdom Attacks
The section ‘On Targets’ identifies broad categories of legitimate targets and those that members are prohibited from attacking. The guidelines in this section illustrate another attempt to unify the factions within TTP by providing a standardized target list, as well as resolving the controversy surrounding the permissibility of targeting children and educational institutions.
State institutions—including the military, police, judiciary, and civilian government—are identified as enemies and thus legitimate targets for attacks. This list of targets aligns with TTP’s previous and current strategy of targeting all Pakistani state actors and retaliating against all military operations. The July 2018 suicide attack on the ANP, for example, was claimed by TTP as “revenge for the previous government.”27 Any militias “openly fighting with the Army against the mujahideen” are also presented as fair game. Revenge and reprisal attacks are a recurring theme in TTP propaganda since the military’s counterterrorism operations, which were triggered in 2014 after the TTP bombing of the Army Public School. Revenge attacks targeting civilian and military representatives and infrastructure will likely continue unabated in the months ahead.
In what seems to be an effort to rebrand itself, and especially stop its association with indiscriminate attacks, TTP distinguishes between hard and soft targets and affirms that educational institutions will not be attacked. In addition, the document specifies that religious seminaries, public gatherings, and markets will be avoided as targets to prevent mass casualties and loss of civilian life.28 Again, any disobedience in this regard warrants punishment for those held responsible. This explicit policy seems to be a direct outcome of the backlash TTP received after its attacks on Army Public School and the Bacha Khan University.29
However, not all civilian targets are out of the question. All NGOs and institutions that promote “obscenity” in the country are deemed to be legitimate targets of the group, although the criteria for obscenity appears to have been left intentionally vague.30 The document also talks about attacks against groups or communities, which have been declared non-believers or kafir. In the past, the TTP has not hesitated in launching attacks on certain Muslim minority sects in Pakistan. The guidelines dictate that members of such communities may not be targeted simply on the basis of their association with the ‘kafir’ group unless they are observed to be working in collaboration with the Pakistani state, or are guilty of insulting Islam in any way. In the past, TTP has attacked Shi`a, and in 2010, it claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore, which killed at least 80 individuals. Although TTP’s attacks against minorities are likely to continue it is possible, given its attempts to pivot away from the blatant use of indiscriminate violence as discussed above, that TTP’s attacks against minorities’ places of worship will diminish in the future.d
The guidelines also dictate that martyrdom operations are reserved for “extremely important” targets and that this highest reward must not be wasted on non-valuable targets.31 Although what constitutes an important target is not defined, it likely refers to attacks on hardened targets such as the military or police. Once again, in an attempt to retain control over the group’s operations, the code of conduct states that “the right to select targets or plan attacks has only been accorded to the emir and deputy emir and any inappropriate targets will result in punishment for the mujahideen held responsible.”32 This could be a reference to the January 2016 attack on Bacha Khan University, where TTP commander Umar Mansoor claimed responsibility for killing 21 people. Subsequently, contradicting Mansoor’s claim, the group’s spokesperson Muhammad Khorasani and Fazlullah released a statement denying TTP involvement in the attack, revealing key internal differences about the acceptability of targeting youth in non-military educational institutes.33
Even though the document does not identify any specific countries, those that have an active alliance with and presence within Pakistan represent possible targets. The code of conduct sustains that “all non-Islamic partners of the state are viable targets.”34 In the past, U.S. interests have been strategic targets for TTP as U.S. drone strikes have killed several of the groups’ key leaders. Presently, China’s strong economic and military ties with Pakistan, coupled with the persecution of the minority Uighur population, could drive attacks on Chinese interests. In 2012, TTP claimed responsibility for killing a Chinese tourist and deemed it “revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers in the Xinjiang province.”35
Theme #3: Dealing with Prisoners, Spies, and Defectors
Lastly, the document incorporates guidelines regarding the group’s stance on brutality and defections that differentiate it from ISK in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The code of conduct advises members against ruthlessness and vigilante justice when dealing with “enemy prisoners” or “spies,” and urges all decisions regarding punishments to be directed toward the shura council. This distinguishes TTP from ISK’s routine tactics of torturing and beheading prisoners. ISK has released multiple videos modeled after the Islamic State that show spies and other prisoners dressed in orange who are violently executed by ISK members.36 The code of conduct concludes by stating that “no member is permitted to have an alliance or link with rival groups whose ideology conflicts with that of the TTP” and that doing so would result in an appropriate punishment.37 Since TTP has experienced defections to ISK since 2014,38 this overt statement reveals the group’s concerns regarding a similar trend post-Noor Wali’s appointment.
It is pertinent to note that similar to its code of conduct, TTP propaganda (videos, magazines, and statements) has largely been in Pakistan’s national language, Urdu,e indicating that its primary audience is based across Pakistan.
This is also a reflection of TTP’s transformation over the years from a predominately Pashtun movement to an ethnically diverse one, as it has worked closely with non-Pashtun groups and attempted to recruit from a broader demographic.39 A recent exception was its English-language magazine entitled “Sunnat-e-Khaula,” which was directed toward urban and educated women, in line with the Islamic State’s efforts to recruit this demographic in Pakistan. While the magazine indicated TTP’s willingness to evolve by bringing women into active combat roles, its code of conduct did not discuss women’s roles. It remains to be seen whether the change of leadership will have any impact on women’s participation in TTP’s ranks.
Periodically, the group has released videos and statements discussing its stances, operations, and practices governing waging offensive and defensive jihad and negotiations with the government. However, this is the first code of conduct that TTP’s media arm has released since the military operations against the group began in 2014. Releasing a code of conduct as the first publication after Noor Wali’s appointment indicates that the group’s priorities rest on reiterating its modus operandi and strategy to ensure fusion across rival or competing factions. Overall, TTP’s code of conduct seems to be an attempt by its new leadership to shift the locus of decision-making to the group’s center. The guidelines in the document are designed to promote inter-factional cohesion and reinforce control over member factions’ behavior and target choice. The discernible outcomes sought by TTP are to mitigate internal power struggles and minimize reckless attacks that have the potential to generate a backlash from the wider population. Notably, TTP’s list of legitimate targets actively shifts away from targeting civilians in a bid to not only improve its own tarnished image of targeting vulnerable civilian populations, but also to differentiate itself from groups like ISK that regularly target mosques and schools. It remains to be seen whether this amounts to a meaningful change in TTP’s choice of targets going forward. As such, while the code of conduct does not reflect a revolutionary change in the direction of TTP, it does indicate that the leadership of the group has a nuanced understanding of where TTP went wrong and what needs to be done for a revival.
TTP’s Potential Comeback
Despite leader decapitation and defections of members to ISK, TTP’s survival as an organization and its comeback cannot be ruled out. Firstly, TTP’s relationships with the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al-Qa`ida remain strong,40 and may help the group to gain momentum. In July 2018, al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) released a statement showing solidarity with TTP by expressing condolences over Fazlullah’s death.41 This was followed by a video eulogy from Ayman al-Zawahiri in which he praised Fazlullah and expressed support for TTP.42 Shortly after reports of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s death emerged in September 2018, TTP issued a message praising him.43 The continuity of a strong relationship between al-Qa`ida, TTP, and the Afghan Taliban minimizes the possibility of a strategic alliance between TTP and ISK. Conversely, the growing potency of ISK in the AfPak region presents an opportunity for its rivals44 to form a closer network.
Secondly, TTP’s media arm, Umar Media, remains active in dissemination of the group’s ideology. TTP released its first official magazine in 2016, the most recent issue of which was released in February 2018.45 This magazine focuses on reiterating the group’s Deobandi ideology, modus operandi, and ‘Islamic’ debates on jihad. Some specific themes discussed include U.S. drone strikes, celebration of Pakistan’s independence day, polio vaccinations, and women’s support roles in jihad.46 In one issue, the magazine discussed the “globalization of jihad,” stating that the fight will not end in Pakistan, but extend to Kashmir and India. The extension of jihad into Kashmir and India parallels ISK’s efforts to establish a Jammu and Kashmir chapter in February 2016.47 Similarly to ISK, TTP likely recognizes the potential to radicalize and recruit from a young and aggrieved Kashmiri population. While outward expansion remains a long-term goal for TTP, it is likely presently focused exclusively on operational resurgence, internal consolidation, and revival within Pakistan. CTC
Dr. Amira Jadoon is an assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She specializes in international security, economic statecraft, political violence, and terrorism. Follow @AmiraJadoon
Sara Mahmood is a senior analyst at the International Center for Political Violence & Terrorism Research of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Her research focuses on insurgency and political violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the nature of women’s involvement in terrorism. Follow @sara_mrana
[a] Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is also commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban.
[b] The Pakistani parliament passed a bill in May 2018 to merge FATA with Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region.
[c] Overall, terrorist attacks in Pakistan dropped from a peak of 2,200 attacks in 2013 to about 700 in 2017, per the Global Terrorism Database. See Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), 2018.
[d] TTP has increasingly adopted a more sectarian stance over the years, which has been partially influenced by its close ties to anti-Shi`a groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. For its claim of responsibility for attacking the two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore, see Rizwan Mohammed and Karin Brulliard, “Militants attack two Ahmadi mosques in Pakistan; 80 killed,” Washington Post, May 29, 2010. For an example of TTP attacking Shi`a, see Javed Hussain and Jibran Ahmad, “Bomb near mosque in northwest Pakistan kills at least 22, wounds dozens,” Reuters, March 31, 2017. For a more detailed discussion, see Mona K. Sheikh, Guardians of God: Inside the Religious Mind of the Pakistani Taliban (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) and “Pakistan Security Report 2009,” Pak Institute For Peace Studies (PIPS), January 2010.
[e] Some of TTP’s statements and audios are concurrently released in Urdu and Pashto. However, given TTP’s goals of challenging the Pakistani state and establishing sharia law, it positions itself an Islamist group rather than an ethnic movement, which explains its focus on Urdu-language propaganda.
 “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Strategy (Code of Conduct),” Umar Media, September 16, 2018.
 “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Strategy (Code of Conduct),” Umar Media, 2018, pp. 5-6.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Strategy (Code of Conduct).”
 “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Strategy (Code of Conduct),” p. 8.
 “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Strategy (Code of Conduct).”
 Hekmatullah Azamy, “Challenges and Prospects for Daesh in Afghanistan and its Relations with the Taliban,” in Countering Daesh Extremism: European and Asian Responses (2016): pp. 43-60; “Wilayat Khurasan, “Khurasan: Graveyard of the Apostates, July 1, 2016.
 Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan: Strategy (Code of Conduct), p. 13.
 For an overview of TTP’s evolution, see Mona K. Sheikh, Guardians of God: Inside the Religious Mind of the Pakistani Taliban (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Elias Groll, “In Battle of Jihadi Groups, Pakistani Taliban Prefers Al Qaeda Over ISIS,” Foreign Policy, May 28, 2015. See also Benn Brumfield and Naomi Ng, “Who are the Pakistani Taliban,” CNN, December 17, 2014, and Sheikh.
 “Eulogy for Mullah Fazlullah,” al-Qa`ida, August 11, 2018.
 “Condolences on the Martyrdom of Mullah Fazlullah, Leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent, July 31, 2018.
 “Great personality that forced two Superpowers to bend their knees: The Commander Jalalludin Haqqani,” Umar Media,2018.
 “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Issue 1-5),” Umar Media, November 2016 to February 2018.
 “Messages of Condolence and Congratulation Sent by the Leaders of the Islamic Jihad On the Occasion of the Martyrdom of Mullah Fazlullah and a Petition to the Leaders to Unite,” Umar Media, October 8, 2018.