On July 25, Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS) – a conglomerate of four Baloch ethno-nationalist militant groups – announced an operational alliance with Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a Sindhi ethno-nationalist militant group. This latest development in Pakistan’s ethno-national militancy landscape is not something new, but has merely confirmed the existing links between Baloch and Sindhi militant groups. However, the official confirmation of this alliance means that Pakistani state authorities need to revisit and revamp their counter-terrorism approach against these groups, otherwise these groups can seriously impact Pakistani and Chinese interests in short and long term by deterring potential foreign investments, disrupting the pace of work in Chinese-funded projects and targeting Chinese nationals to create uncertainty in Sino-Pakistan relations. This analysis attempts to understand the reasons behind this latest alliance and what will be the future implications of this new alliance.
According to BRAS’ communiqué, the decision for creating an operational alliance between BRAS and SRA came following the meeting of senior commanders of Baloch Liberation Army (Bashirzeb Baloch faction), Baloch Republican Army (Gulzar Imam faction), Balochistan Liberation Front, Baloch Republican Guards and SRA at an undisclosed location. The common objective of creating a united front against Pakistan is to ‘liberate’ Balochistan and Sindh. Moreover, opposition to CPEC and ethno-nationalist grievances are other factors which have contributed towards the alliance. Additionally, this new alliance announced that it will get in contact with other ethno-nationalist militant groups to build a strong and vast united front against the Pakistani state.
The nexus between the Baloch and Sindhi militant groups is not something new. In past, these groups have collaborated in various ways. Drawing inspiration from Balochistan’s ethno-nationalist insurgency, the Sindhi militant groups – Sindhudesh Liberation Army (SLA) and Sindhudesh Revolutionary (SRA) – emerged in 2010 and started carrying out small-scale explosions across the province. With the passage of time, these groups were able to increase the capacity and frequency of their low-profile terror attacks with the support of Baloch militant groups, in the form of knowledge and resource sharing. Following operationalisation of CPEC, SLA reportedly collaborated with original BLA and BLF in targeting Chinese nationals. The collaboration was not restricted to Pakistan only, but also extended to Afghanistan. Security officials also point out the fact that recent attacks by SRA and SLA prove that these groups received assistance by ‘experienced helpers’ i.e. Baloch militant groups. After the recent foiled attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, BLA (Bashirzeb Baloch) indirectly acknowledged the support provided by Sindhi militant groups.
It remains unclear till now what will be the modalities of this new alliance in terms of target selection. Baloch militant groups have in the past killed Sindhi labourers working in Balochistan. It will be interesting to observe whether Sindhi labourers will be removed from Baloch militant groups’ target list. Moreover, it will be important to see whether Sindhi separatist groups will increase their areas of attacks beyond Sindh to Balochistan. Apart from this, the common factors influencing future targets of this new alliance will be political and symbolic importance of the targeted place, potential of international media coverage if the targeted place/individual comes under attack and economic implications of targeting a particular place. Additionally, Chinese nationals could also be a target choice in near future.
The cumulative strength of this new alliance is not clear. However, the strength is conservatively estimated to be somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 active militants. Additionally, the alliance has a significant component in the form of Majeed Brigade. Recently, Bashirzeb Baloch stated that any Baloch militant could join Majeed Brigade irrespective of the fact that it is not associated with BLA. Similar offer can be extended to SRA. The capabilities of BRAS will assist SRA in carrying out lethal attacks. In future, SLA, Mohajir Freedom Fighters and other less active Baloch militant groups can possibly join this alliance.
An anticipated danger that Pakistani authorities need to be wary of is the possibility of cooperation between this alliance with Islamist militant groups at tactical level in future. Efforts for such tactical cooperation have been undertaken in the past, but have largely remained futile. However, materialisation of such cooperation will prove to be devastating. The common denominator for such cooperation will be the mutual hatred for China and Pakistan.
With the CPEC entering into second phase, the recent surge in ethno-national militancy demands that Pakistani state authorities revamp the monitoring and counter-terrorism framework implemented against these groups. Intelligence gathering mechanism in urban centres like Karachi needs to be enhanced to identify collaborators and sympathisers of these militant groups. However, law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to be extra cautious in locating collaborators and sympathisers, otherwise it can contribute to further alienation and marginalisation among vulnerable segments of Baloch and Sindhi communities, especially youth, and provide propaganda ammunition to militant groups.
On diplomatic front, Islamabad needs to reach out to Beijing and apprise of how these ethno-national militant groups threat Chinese nationals and their shared interests (CPEC and other investments) in Pakistan. In this regard, intelligence-sharing mechanism should also be formulated so that Pakistani authorities could inform the Chinese authorities about the presence of Baloch militant groups in Iran and Afghanistan, and financing of these groups by India.
Up till now, Beijing has publically refrained from naming any country behind attacks on Chinese nationals or its interests in Pakistan and has expressed confidence in Pakistan’s efforts to safeguard Chinese nationals and interests. However, China should pressurise Afghanistan and Iran to take action against Baloch militant groups residing in their territories. Additionally, Chinese Ministry of Public Security should add Baloch and Sindhi militant groups to its list of terrorist organisations because of the involvement of these groups in targeting Chinese nationals and interests in Pakistan. Lastly, efforts need to be undertaken to address the existing structural factors of violence in the form of poor socio-economic conditions and ethno-nationalist grievances.