That men with such obvious sympathies with militants in Pakistan would be targeted is a startling indicator of the extent to which Pakistani militants have severed ties with all they consider agents of the state. However, even more worrying are the insights revealed by an examination of the obviously orchestrated ‘confession’ released by Khawaja’s captors. In it, the bitterness felt by militant groups targeted by the Pakistani Army towards old guard factions that continue to draw support and sanctuary by the Pakistani establishment is apparent, particularly in the naming of well established groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jamatiul Mujahideen and al-Badr — all of whom Khawaja claimed continue to operate and fundraise freely in Pakistan with explicit ISI support.
Statements released by the media arm of the Taliban after the execution of Khawaja also confirm this trend. Mohammed Omar, a spokesman for the Punjabi Taliban told a Pakistani journalist that Khawaja was executed because he would call the Punjabi Taliban, i.e. those who mount attacks inside Pakistan “terrorists” while referring to the Afghan Taliban as “mujahideen.” Usman Punjabi, the leader of the Asian Tigers himself, clarified the militant’s declaration of war, claiming, “For us Colonel Imam was not a mujahid. If he was assumed in the past as the father of the Taliban, he did that as a government employee – being an army officer. He still receives a pension from the Pakistan army. To us he is their man”
The true identity of the Asian Tigers remains shrouded in mystery, but the general consensus has been that they represent splinter elements of the Pakistani Taliban and/or Kashmir-oriented militant groups, operating potentially with the tacit knowledge of senior Pakistani Taliban commanders. This is supported by the released transcript of a conversation between Hamid Mir, a top TV anchor known to be sympathetic towards the militancy, and an unidentified militant. The transcript provides damning evidence that Mir sealed Khawaja’s fate. He alleged that Khawaja worked for the CIA and Indian agencies and detailed his alleged role in arranging the humiliating capture of Red Mosque leader Abdul Aziz, who was captured by Pakistani security services disguised in a burqua. The transcript also alludes that Khawaja and Tarar’s captor is Tariq Afridi, a known Pakistani Taliban commander in Darra Adam Khel and that the capture is being orchestrated under the directives of Hakeemullah Mehsud.
Khawaja’s son has a slightly different take, blaming Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for his father’s execution. The name Usman Punjabi is also shared with the driver of Ilyas Kashmiri, leading to suspicion of his involvement. Kashmiri’s group the Harkatul Jihadul Islami (HUJI) is known to be feuding with other Kashmir-centric jihadi groups since they continue to be supported by the ISI while Kashmiri has been declared a wanted fugitive.
Whoever the true mastermind behind the operation is, the episode reveals troubling evidence of growing collusion between splinter factions of Punjabi militant groups who have traditionally composed the mainstay of Pakistan’s strategic proxies, and the Pakistani Taliban drawn from the tribal provinces.  This process is generally believed to have begun in the aftermath of the Red Mosque incident when some Punjabi militant commanders shifted their bases from Azad Kashmir into the tribal provinces, and came into contact with the TTP and al-Qaeda. Their ranks have been burgeoned by the inclusion of sectarian Punjabi groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. This fracturing of the Punjabi militant organizations and the formation of what is generally referred to as the Punjabi Taliban by way of distinction is of significant concern given their access and experience in the Punjab as well as their generally higher levels of technological and operational expertise. The recent coordinated attack on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore on May 28, 2010 that killed over 70 individuals is just the most recent example of their potential for extreme violence deep inside Pakistan. Another worrying possibility is these groups’ ability to strike into India, using the escalation of regional war as a means to distract Pakistani attention from operations in the tribal provinces, and degrading the state’s monopoly on violence against India as a strategic tool.
Operating outside the moniker of their parent organizations offers these militants greater autonomy and freedom of action, but they may have grown increasingly disillusioned by the restrained ideologies of their former leaders. In particular it is startling that police have felt it necessary to beef up their security presence for Hafeez Saeed, the leader of the notorious anti-India group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, after reports emerged that the TTP had threatened his life in the wake of his condemnation of suicide bombings within Pakistan against civilian targets.
The LeT has long been considered one of the most extremist and tactically capable of Pakistani militant groups and as of yet has remained scrupulously loyal to the Pakistani establishment. The threats on Saeed’s life are the first indicator that its firewall from the Taliban may be under siege. Terrorism experts such as Rohan Gunaratne have also warned that Musharaff’s ending of LeT infiltration into Indian Kashmir has eroded ISI control and allowed “Al-Qaeda to make inroads.” The group’s current idling mode provides the danger that “if it is not rehabilitated, more of its members will join the Taliban.” Other ISI proxies such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed may already have succumbed to this pressure with elements of their militants already believed to have joined the Punjabi Taliban and their leader Maulana Masood Azhar named in Khawaja’s confession as a militant commander who retains links to the ISI.
This extent of the challenge extended to old guard factions is seen in the Asian Tigers’ willingness to defy even Mullah Omar. It is known that Mullah Omar has sent a jirga to North Waziristan to petition for the release of Colonel Imam. Some journalists have even reported that he personally traveled to North Waziristan, exposing himself to considerable danger to organize the release. This is unlikely, but the fact that his explicit directive to free Colonel Imam has failed is a damning indicator of the independence with which new factions are willing to operate.
It has also been reported that the Asian Tigers sought not the release of Mullah Baradar and other Afghan Taliban leaders but rather a transfer of custody potentially as a result of Baradar’s alleged intentions to enter into negotiations with the Americans and the Karzai government. Interestingly in this vein it is also reported that one of their key demands centered around the rescinding of Khawaja’s petition to the Lahore High Court seeking to block the extradition of captured Quetta Shura members to American custody.
Part of the willingness to defy the Afghan Taliban may stem from anger at their insistence on remaining regionally focused. In a speech released at the end of 2009, Mullah Omar appeared to publicly distance himself from Al-Qaeda’s global war strategy and announce his goal to engage in friendly bilateral relations with Afghanistan’s neighbors while purging rogue elements from Taliban ranks who do not adhere to their codes of conduct. Omar has also consistently stated his aversion to attacks on Pakistani targets characterizing them as “bringing a bad name to Mujahideen, and harming the war against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.”To many Salafi jihadists this has been seen as a form of retreat and unacceptable compromise with regard to Western countries as well as “infidel-ruled” Islamic and Arab states.
There have also been inklings of growing disenchantment between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Los Angeles Times recently quoted U.S. military and counter-terror officials as claiming that Afghan Taliban militants are beginning to distance themselves from al-Qaeda, refusing sanctuary and assistance even for payment in an effort to ease the pressure from Pakistani intelligence agencies and American drone strikes. Accounts have also emerged suggesting that relations between bin Laden and Mullah Omar may have been significantly overstated and instead been rocky from the outset. A document penned by Egyptian jihadist Mustafa Hamid claims that Al-Qaeda’s global ambitions and antagonism of the United States constituted a direct threat to the authority of Mullah Omar and details the alleged reluctance of bin Laden to pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar as was customary.