An Illegal Militia's War for Northwest Pakistan

In the country's unruly Khyber region, two irregular forces are vying for control -- with bloody consequences.

RTR2W9DV-615.jpgA paramilitary soldier uses a metal detector to survey the site of a bomb attack in Landi Kotal, northwest Pakistan January 14, 2012. A homemade bomb exploded near a paramilitary camp in the Landi Kotal area of the northwestern Khyber tribal region, near the Afghanistan border, wounding a soldier, security officials said. (Shahid Shinwari/Reuters)

A banned Pakistani militia whose formation can be traced to its loyalties to a Sufi cleric is now positioning itself as the last bastion of hope against extremists intent on controlling regions surrounding the historic Khyber Pass.

Ansar ul-Islam, which in recent days has been engaged in bloody skirmishes with the most hard-line and violent Taliban faction in Pakistan, has a history of fighting against fellow militant Islamist groups in the region.

In recent days residents of the Khyber Agency, located in Pakistan's northwest FATA tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, are crediting Ansar ul-Islam with fiercely resisting the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Since January 25, more than 80 civilians and fighters have died in skirmishes between the two groups in the remote Tirah region of Khyber.

Ansar ul-Islam, like the TTP, is officially banned by the Pakistani government and has been accused of reprisals and killings. Critics claim it aims to control the Afridi tribe, the largest tribe in Khyber Agency, in order to take over the lucrative trade that passes through the district.

'They Are Not Terrorists'

Latif Afridi, a secular politician from the region, says that Ansar ul-Islam is fighting against a coalition of the TTP, Al-Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Islam -- its hard-line nemesis in Khyber.

Afridi says Ansar ul-Islam is essentially acting as a defense force for the region.

Supporters of Ansar ul-Islam note that the group allows and protects schools in the regions it controls, while they are the targets of attacks by other Pakistani Taliban factions.

"They are not terrorists. They have never been involved in terrorist activities such as suicide bombings," Afridi says. "They are just fighting for protecting their region. They have always helped the government in its efforts to establish peace in the region."

Ansar ul-Islam arrived on the scene when followers of an Afghan Sufi preacher, Pir Saifur Rehman, formed the militia in 2004 to counter the Lashkar-e-Islam (Army of Islam) formed by Mufti Munir Shakir, a hard-line Sunni cleric who opposes Sufism.

Rehman and Shakir followed two different sects of Sunni Islam. The former preached Brelvi Islam inspired by Sufism, while the latter advocated puritanical Deobandi Islam.

The two engaged in a propaganda war, branding each other "infidels" through their own illegal FM radio stations.

Pakistani authorities expelled both clerics from Khyber in 2006 and Rehman later died in Lahore, but their followers kept Ansar ul-Islam and Lashkar-e-Islam alive as rival militias.

The group allows and facilitates government officials to make identity papers to tribesmen in Khyber's Tirah Maidan region.

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