ISLAMABAD - The announcement of Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab Chief Maulana Asmatullah Muawiya to give up “armed struggle” and to start “preaching and relief work” has caused uproar in the Pakistani media. Some reports called it a setback to the Taliban movement in the country and the end of the Taliban in Punjab, others say that the Maulana made the decision after seeing that his group’s “influence was decreasing” while some analysts claim that the decision would help improve the country’s law and order situation, especially in Punjab.

Will this decision really weaken militancy in Punjab? What is the strength of the Punjabi Taliban? Are all militants with Punjabi background following Maulana Asmatullah Muawiya? Have all or most of the major attacks in the Punjab been carried out by his group? Are there any other groups of Punjabi Taliban operating in the region? These are some questions that need answers.

The fact is that there are a number of militant factions consisting of Punjabi militants. It is only the word “Punjabi” that apparently shows that all Punjabi Taliban belong to Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab. The tribesmen of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) usually term all those people “Punjabi” who do not speak the Pashto language. Whether they speak Seraiki, Hindko, Kashmiri or Urdu, all are Punjabis in their eyes, despite the fact that all these militants do not belong to the Maulana Asmatullah Muawiya group.

Muawiya previously worked as a commander in Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) until 2007, when he left the organisation and went to the tribal areas to avenge the killing of Lal Masjid students. He was accompanied by dozens of his comrades and they formed the Punjabi Taliban, which worked under Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) until August 2013. He was ousted from TTP after he opted for talks with the government. With the passage of time he lost his power and strength and according to well-placed sources among the Taliban “at the moment he is leading around a 20-member team. He was always termed as a dubious character in Taliban circles”. They further added, “almost all major attacks in the Punjab were carried out by TTP, not by this group independently”.

Maulana Asmatullah Muawiya also calls his group Janud-e-Hafsa, which he named after the women’s seminary in Islamabad, which was destroyed during the military operation in 2007. But the seminarians of Lal Masjid, instead of joining the Maulana group, formed their own faction — the Lal Masjid Group - which is still active in the tribal areas and in the Punjab. Qari Hilal is leading this Lal Masjid group with a considerable number of fighters who were previously students at Lal Masjid, according to the sources.

A large number of the Punjabi (non-Pashtun) militants are part of al-Qaeda. According to militant circles, the recent appointment of Maulana Badar Mansoor as head of the newly-launched chapter of Al-Qaeda in the Sub-Continent have encouraged the Punjabis to join the international terror group which is also active in Pakistan including the Punjab. “Mansoor is respected by all mujahedeen but the Punjabis feel proud of his selection to such a high post”, said a militant commander.

Maulana Asmatullah Muawiya joined the Pashtun Taliban in 2007 while other Punjabi Taliban factions like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are based in the tribal areas since the last decade. After the killing of LeJ head Amjad Farooqi in 2004 the group was dispersed. The scattered members of LeJ rushed to the tribal areas of the country where one of the senior commanders of the group, known as Aslam Ustad, reunited them and named the group the Amjad Farooqi Group. The group was reportedly involved in major attacks all around the country especially in the Punjab. At the moment the faction is known as the Ustad Aslam group.

Ustad Ali Group is another faction of the Punjabi militants. This group contains former members of the banned Harkat ul Mujahedeen and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. This group operates in the tribal areas of the country and in South Punjab as well.

Sheikh Abu-Bakr heads another group of the Punjabi Taliban. This group is respected by all Taliban factions like TTP, Commander Sajna and Ahraar ul Hind (AuH). It is much closer to al-Qaeda but operates independently.

Abu Ibrahim Punjabi is a commander of the Ihrar ul Hind (IuH) militant group in the Punjab. IuH is an active militant group that has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in the country. It was behind the Islamabad Kachehri attack, which was carried out in March 2014.

JuA, the newly formed militant outfit, also claims having dozens of Punjabi fighters. “The majority of our fighters in the Punjab are highly educated people”, said a member of JuA.

Meanwhile, Abu Baseer, the head and spokesperson of Ansaar ul Mujahedeen, while commenting on the decision of Maulana Asmatullah Muawiya, said in a statement, “He was spying for intelligence agencies and he pretended to be a Mujahid. His selection as Ameer of the Punjabi Taliban was a wrong decision of the Taliban leadership.”