On July 2, the United States branded Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a global terror outfit. The designation of BLA as a terror outfit by American authorities is a severe blow to Baloch ethno-nationalist militant groups and pro-independence Balochistan activists who have been projecting ethno-nationalist insurgency in Balochistan as a ‘freedom struggle’ and referring militants associated with ethno-nationalist militant groups as ‘freedom fighters’.

According to the US Department of State, the designation of BLA as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) is undertaken to deny BLA the resources to plan and carry out terrorist attacks. Additionally, the SDGT designation means that any BLA’s property and interests in property subject to American jurisdiction are blocked. Similarly, American nationals are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them. It is pertinent to mention here that designation of BLA refers to the splinter faction of the militant group, which was founded by Aslam Baloch and Bashirzeb Baloch that officially splintered itself as a unique entity following the suicide attack in Dalbandin in August last year.

Prior to BLA’s designation, the United States has described activities of BLA as ‘terrorist attacks’ as far back as 2007. It has become the third country, after Pakistan (2006) and United Kingdom (2006) to proscribe BLA as a terror outfit. Despite the allegations of American support to Baloch ethno-nationalist militant groups and few Congressmen calling for an independent Balochistan state, the United States refused to support Modi’s attempt to internationalize Balochistan issue in 2016. Similarly, no significant action has been taken on the resolution calling for Balochistan’s right of self-determination and an independent state, which was introduced in American Congress in February 2012.

Pakistan has welcomed the designation of BLA and hoped that it will ensure the “BLA’s space to operate is minimized”. Foreign Office also added that “it is important that the perpetrators, organizers, financiers and external sponsors including those glorifying these acts of terror against Pakistan are held accountable and brought to justice.”

Reacting to the designation, Jiyand Baloch, spokesperson of BLA’s splinter faction, termed American designation as “beyond comprehension and unjustified.” The spokesperson further said that “if fighting for national defence and independence is terrorism then the founder fathers of US that fought during US war of independence are also terrorists.” BLA spokesperson also quoted how Americans proscribed Kurds but time proved that they were “the most trustworthy and steadfast allies [for the United States] in the war against terror.” Balochistan Liberation Front chief Dr. Allah Nizar tweeted that American designation of BLA is an injustice to Baloch nation. He appealed the United Nations and other international human rights organization to send their fact-finding mission to Balochistan so that the ‘civilized world’ can know about the ground situation of the province.

Experts have suggested a number of reasons for the designation of BLA by the United States. Firstly, Trump administration wanted to send a positive message to Pakistan ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Washington visit. Secondly, the decision of designation could also be linked to America’s current tensions with Iran. Apart from Afghanistan, BLA fighters have reportedly undergone medical treatment in Iran. BLA has also reportedly established its safe havens in Iran.

BLA’s designation will also be a cause of concern for India. Although India is likely to either endorse the designation or maintain silence on the matter, Indian linkages with the BLA has come to surface for quite some time in recent years. Indian spy Kulbhusahn Jadhav confessed of having teamed up with Baloch ethno-nationalist militant outfits to carry out terror activities in Pakistan. The reason given by Jadhav for crossing into Pakistan was to meet leaders of Baloch ethno-nationalist militant outfits. According to Indian journalist Kallol Bhattacherjee, BLA commanders, in the past, had sought medical assistance in Indian hospitals under disguise or with fake identity.

Escaping from Balochistan following a security operation in March 2016, Aslam Baloch reportedly went to India for medical treatment. Prior to breaking away from the main BLA organization, Aslam Baloch visited India in June 2017 for medical treatment and attending conference. Naela Quadri, President of World Baloch Women’s Forum who advocates for an independent Balochistan state through political activism, is reportedly accused of financially helping Aslam Baloch in establishing his splinter faction of BLA. She visited several Indian cities in October 2016 and seek Indian assistance for forming ‘Balochistan government in exile’.

Thirdly, the branding of BLA as a terror outfit is American acknowledgement of Pakistan’s “constructive and positive” role in facilitating the Afghan peace process. The American designation of BLA has been done to demand Pakistan to deliver substantially on the Afghan peace process. Fourthly, American designation of BLA is a concession to China for not objecting to UN designation of Jaish-e-Muhammad’s Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.

The most probable reason which can be deduced from State Department’s media note is that shifting trend of BLA’s modus operandi has played a vital role in the designation of it as a terrorist group.  The media note refers to three recent high-profile terror attacks:

  • August 2018 – Targeting of Chinese engineers in Dalbandin by a suicide bomber
  • November 2018 – Targeting of the Chinese consulate in Karachi
  • May 2019 – Targeting of a five-star hotel in Gwadar

Following Dalbandin suicide attack, I wrote in one of my previous articles that Baloch ethno-nationalist militant groups will be designated terror outfits by several countries if they adopt suicide bombing as one of their tactics in future. In an interview four days before he was killed in the Afghan city of Kandahar in December last year, BLA’s splinter faction previous chief, Aslam Baloch, told in an interview to political expert Malik Siraj Akbar that the decision to resort to suicide bombing was taken due to its effectiveness.

Although not much is expected to change in terms of BLA’s modus operandi, the American designation is believed to give Pakistan further legitimacy in cracking down the militant group. The branding of BLA as a global terror outfit will also delegitimize efforts of pro-independence Balochistan activists who have been trying to shape up narrative of Baloch people fighting for their right of self-determination.

Irrespective of the fact that what might actually have contributed in branding BLA as a global terror outfit, the designation is an important development with respect to US-Pakistan relations and especially just weeks before Prime Minister Imran Khan’s America visit. Pakistan should fully utilize the branding of BLA as a global terror outfit to its advantage across all domains from military action to delegitimizing the narrative of BLA and like-minded entities and individuals. Similarly, Pakistan should also reach out to all those countries where such entities and individuals exist to designate them as terrorists and nab active supporters of such terror entities.

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