The emergence and significance of the Baloch Nationalist Army
On January 20, a little-known Baloch separatist group, the Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA), claimed responsibility for the IED blast at Lahore’s bustling Anarkali market, claiming three lives and wounding 28 others. The Anarkali blast coupled with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targeted assassination of a policeman in Islamabad and a spate of attacks in other parts of the country marks a new wave of terrorism in Pakistan.
For countries like Pakistan, confronting deeply entrenched religious militarism, ethno-separatism and an unstable and hostile neighborhood, a sudden rise in terrorist attacks is commonplace. However, beyond understanding and tactically responding to rising attack patterns, we need to develop a deeper understanding of these groups’ internal dynamics and inter-linkages to establish a strategic policy to deal with them. In this instance, it is critical to explore the distal and proximate causes of BNA’s emergence and what it signifies.
Here are the distal factors of BNA’s emergence on the Baloch insurgent landscape. The emergence of BNA on January 11, because of a merger between BRA and United Baloch Army (UBA), should be situated in the broader context of ongoing reunifications and alliance-making between and among Pakistani insurgent and terrorist groups. In that sense, BNA’s creation is consistent with the ongoing trend lines in Pakistan’s threat landscape.
Since 2018, splintering, infightings and defections have given way to mergers, reunifications and alliance-making across the ideological spectrum. For instance, in 2018, four Baloch separatist groups, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) of Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, Baloch Republican Army’s (BRA) Gulzar Imam faction, the Baloch Liberation Army’s (BRA) Bashir Zeb faction and the Baloch Republican Guard (BRG) of Bakhtiar Domki merged to form the Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS). Subsequently, in July 2020, BRAS allied with the Sindhi ethno-nationalist group, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army, against the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Likewise, since August 2020, more than 11 militant factions have rejoined TTP.
In a merger, two or more militant groups combine their command-and-controls, finances, weapons, workforce, and other infrastructure. Similarly, they give up their logos and narratives and adopt those of the new outfit. Furthermore, militant mergers range from strategic, tactical to transactional and their lifespan also varies depending on the nature of alliance and circumstances.
The statement issued after BNA’s formation on January 11 noted, “(it) has been created to further expand and unite the Baloch resistance.” It was also announced that BNA would continue to be part of BRAS. The statement identified Mureed Baloch, alias Sarfraz Bungalzai, as BNA’s only spokesperson and Baask as its official channel. A central command council of BNA has also been created to organize and plan attacks.
The formation of groups like BNA is a deliberate effort to emerge out of the shadow tribalism and run the Baloch separatist movement as modern insurgencies with educated-middle class forming its new core.
Abdul Basit Khan
The apparent difference between BNA and BRAS is their areas of operation, operational strategies and choice of targets. Generally, BRAS has been focused on strategic targets in Balochistan and Karachi. Furthermore, BRAS focuses on hitting hard targets such as the Pakistani security forces or the Chinese projects. On the other hand, BNA’s first officially claimed attack was a soft target, i.e., Bank Al-Habib, in Lahore. The group has threatened more attacks in Pakistan’s major industrial cities. It seems that BNA will focus on the urban centers by hitting soft targets to create a sense of insecurity, gain publicity and attract fresh recruits and funding. Attention-grabbing attacks in cities are more effective in gaining visibility as compared to far flung peripheral areas.
There are four proximate factors of BNA’s emergence.
First, the Baloch insurgency’s center-of-gravity has shifted from tribal chieftains mostly hailing from Bugti, Marri and Mengal tribes to Balochistan’s educated middle-class. BLA’s Hyrbyair Marri, BRA’s Brahumdagh Bugti and UBA’s Mehran Marri are based in Europe. In their absence and due to high-handed attitudes, the local commanders of BLA, BRA and UBA have formed their local factions.
The local Baloch commanders accuse Europe-based Baloch tribal leaders of running their respective groups like tribal fiefdoms, reducing them to profit-making entities and treating their commanders and fighters as slaves. The footprint of Baloch tribal chiefs in the new alliances and mergers of the Baloch separatist groups is almost non-existent.
The formation of groups like BNA is a deliberate effort to emerge out of the shadow tribalism and run the Baloch separatist movement as modern insurgencies with educated-middle class forming its new core. This new generation of Baloch insurgents is social media savvy, politically astute and has no baggage of tribal loyalties. In a way, the local middle-class Baloch commanders are hard-liners who believe that the Europe-based tribal leadership pays lip service to ethno-separatism. They think, over the years, the Europe-based leaders have become circumspect, unimaginative and status-quo oriented. Hence, it was time to turn a new chapter in the Baloch insurgent struggle.
Second, the non-tribal Baloch separatist leaders have called out tribal chieftains of their doublespeak and hypocrisy. They have asked them to target their brothers and cousins the same way they killed other moderate Baloch nationalists for taking part in elections and staying within the Pakistani constitutional framework. They maintained that while the Europe-based Baloch tribal chieftains were living luxurious lives with their families, their brothers and cousins were enjoying the perks of power in Pakistan, the non-tribal Baloch separatists were sacrificing their lives and were at the receiving end of the state’s retaliation.
Third, another proximate reason for the BRA and UBA’s merger is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has squeezed the space for Baloch insurgents there. Hence, various groups have been merging or forming alliances to survive and sustain their insurgency.
Finally, as long as the Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), in cahoots with the former Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), was operating from Afghanistan, it was easier to finance and arm multiple Baloch separatist groups. However, since their withdrawal, R&AW, with the assistance of some former NDS officials, is now handling these groups from India. Hence, for logistical reasons, they have been instrumental in reunifications of these groups to reduce the financial costs and simplify their handling.
In the ultimate analysis, the conflict in Balochistan is political, which has security repercussions due to the protracted nature of the dispute. The starting point of tackling the evolving Baloch insurgency resides in addressing genuine political grievances, including the issue of missing persons. Similarly, the rift between the Europe-based tribal leadership and local commanders from the educated-middle class in Balochistan should be exploited to weaken the insurgent challenge. Finally, instead of bringing pliant and hand-picked legislators in provincial and national assemblies, the Baloch masses should be allowed to exercise their inalienable democratic right to franchise in a free and transparent manner. Balochistan needs a healing touch, which only a genuine public representation can provide.
- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher.