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By Iqbal Khattak
PESHAWAR – It’s no surprise when the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) accepts responsibility for attacks inside, or even outside, Pakistan.
But an absurd e-mail message from the group in June that said “The TTP has claimed responsibility for Cyclone Phet” has made the banned militant group a laughingstock, officials say.
Evidence shows that TTP claims are often wrong, but the Phet e-mail — even if it was intended as a joke — supports a prevailing impression about the TTP in Pakistan. That is, it misses no opportunity to take credit, a Central Asia Online investigation reveals.
Such behaviour “aims to keep the TTP alive” in print and electronic media and also to keep the fighting force “motivated,” security analysts and journalists said. However, they add that the TTP could not estimate the price of baseless claims.
“The TTP, or other offshoot organisations, do not understand such groundless claims can have a big price, which is the loss of face”, Brig (ret) Mehmood Shah, former security chief for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, told Central Asia Online.
What later became “the biggest joke” among journalists was late TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud’s claim that “my men” killed 13 people at a US immigration services centre in New York state in April 2009.
“I accept the responsibility. They were my men,” Baitullah told reporters in Peshawar from an undisclosed location a day after the incident. The attack involved a lone killer, armed with at least two handguns, who massacred 13 people at the citizenship centre in Binghamton, New York, before shooting himself. Police identified him as Vietnamese-born Jiverly Wong.
Hours after the Baitullah claim, the FBI ruled out TTP involvement. “Based on the evidence, we can firmly discount that claim,” FBI spokesman Richard Kolko told the US media.
Baitullah, regarded as the country’s feared militant leader, was eventually killed in an August 5 missile strike in South Waziristan. Both Pakistan and the United States offered a reward for him after his organisation carried out terrorist acts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The TTP, so quick to brag about committing terror acts, was much slower in acknowledging his death. Three days after the missile attack, his deputy, Hakeemullah Mehsud, told media, “The news regarding our respected chief’s (death) is propaganda by our enemies”.
Hakeemullah did announce Baitullah’s death weeks later — August 22.
Baseless claims are still useful in swaying part of the public, Altafullah Khan, chairman, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Peshawar, said.
“The TTP relies on these claims as they have an audience that wants to hear them”, he said from Baragali, a summer resort in Abbottabad District.
Maulvi Umar, a central TTP spokesman whom authorities arrested last year, made more claims than any other militant leader.
In November 2008, he claimed the Taliban bombed the government postgraduate college in Khar, headquarters of Bajaur overlooking Afghanistan’s Kunar province. That claim later proved untrue. On April 10, 2008, he phoned journalists in Khar to state that insurgents had beheaded 12 soldiers in the Kandharo Dhak area in the bordering Mohmand tribal region. However, nothing of this sort had ever happened.
On August 7, 2007, he said the Taliban had captured 100 soldiers in the Loisam area of the Bajaur tribal district and would present them to the media. Nearly three years later and now in custody, he has never produced evidence of such a blow to the army.
Another militant leader whom the government considers a fabulist is Taliban leader Nek Muhammad. The military dismissed his claim that his men carried out the failed attempt to assassinate Karachi corps commander Lt Gen Ahsan Saleem Hayat in Karachi June 10, 2004, when at least 11 people were killed and 12 others were injured. The general was unhurt.
“They make false claims to stay alive in the media. They are liars,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial information minister, told Central Asia Online. “The terrorists use false claims to keep their own forces united. You must have noticed when their leader is killed, they don’t admit it for quite a long time. That is because they don’t want their foot soldiers discouraged by news of their leader’s killing”.