September 5, 2012: Pakistani intelligence officials admit that there about 5,000 foreign terrorists in their tribal territories. But the Pakistanis now believe that over the last few years the foreign terrorist population has stayed about the same but gone from a slight majority of Arab and African to only 30 percent Arab and African. The majority are now Asian and other non-Arabs. This includes Chinese Uighurs and Central Asian Uzbeks, Turks, Chechens and Dagestanis, Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos, and non-Arabs (or their children) who had migrated to Europe but had been attracted to all the Islamic terrorist activity in the Pakistani tribal territories.
The change in the ethnic composition of the terrorists has a lot more to do with ethnic, than religious, tensions. It has been happening over the last six years as Pakistan turned into a dangerous place for al Qaeda. The terrorist organization has been in the region since it moved to Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In late 2001, most surviving al Qaeda members fled to Pakistan. There, many of them married women from Pushtun tribes. While some of the newly married remained in the terrorism business (either in Pakistan or farther away), the rest sought to make a living locally. This brought them into conflict with their new neighbors. This was partly because the al Qaeda men sought to impose their Islamic conservative customs on their neighbors and partly because al Qaeda Arabs were competing with, or stealing from, their neighbors. Over the last six years this has led to increasing hostility between the al Qaeda foreigners and local Pushtun tribes. Over a thousand al Qaeda (or foreign Islamic terrorists in general) men have been killed by angry tribesmen.
It’s mostly about ethnic tensions. One of al Qaeda's weaknesses is that it is dominated by Arabs. This often causes resentment when the non-Arabs find themselves left out of decision making or on the short end when it comes to distribution of resources. This was first seen in Afghanistan, where the al Qaeda Arabs made themselves very unpopular in the years preceding September 11, 2001.
Soon the bad feelings spread to Pakistan. There, the thousands of al Qaeda members hiding out in tribal areas along the Afghan border eventually split along ethnic lines. The Arab al Qaeda, who still had access to a lot of cash, made themselves very unpopular with the Central Asian al Qaeda members. The Central Asians, particularly Islamic radicals from Uzbekistan, always felt this was their turf and that the Arab al Qaeda should recognize that and not throw their weight, and money, around in a disrespectful (to the Uzbeks) manner. Over the last few years Pakistani and U.S. intelligence operatives were able to use these bad feelings to get information on where al Qaeda leaders were hiding out. These men were either captured in Pakistan or killed by American UAVs firing Hellfire missiles.
The Arabs do have an attitude problem. In Afghanistan they viewed the Afghans as a bunch of uneducated hicks and the Afghans picked up on this. It's true that many of the senior Arab al Qaeda were well educated, much better than the average Afghan, but they would have been wise to keep any feelings of superiority to themselves. But they didn't, and while there appear to have been attempts to act more diplomatically after al Qaeda survivors were driven into Pakistan, this didn't last. The basic problem was self-preservation. The Pakistani army and intelligence forces came down hard on al Qaeda after the terrorists declared war on the Pakistani government in 2002. The terrorists killed thousands of Pakistanis in bomb and gun attacks and made several assassination attempts on the Pakistani president. When the Pakistani army showed up in the tribal territories seven years ago, many of the tribes were no longer willing to host, and protect, the terrorists.
The army had never come into the tribal territories before, and the tribes knew the soldiers were there because of the al Qaeda threat to the government. The tribes could understand that and knew that the army meant business. The army was also willing to negotiate and eventually get out of the territories if the al Qaeda members were handed over. Some tribes, or tribesmen, refused to do this. But there were fewer hiding places now and the Arabs used their greater cash resources to save themselves, at the expense of Central Asian terrorists. Whatever bad feelings that existed between the Arabs and Central Asians before now became much worse. This led to captured Central Asians giving up information on where Arab al Qaeda might be. This, combined with information obtained from tribesmen and other captured terrorists, led to the round-up of dozens of key al Qaeda leaders over the last six years.
However, the presence of the army in the tribal territories angered many of the locals. Since Pakistan was created in 1947, the tribal territories along the Afghan border have been ruled by a special "tribal law." This was inherited from the departing British colonial rulers. The bottom line was, soldiers stay out of tribal territory and the tribes won't go raiding (as they had done for centuries) into areas where the government law applied. The presence of the army caused many tribesmen to join the Taliban, which had also fled to Pakistan after 2001. The Taliban has tried to maintain good, or at least civil, relations with al Qaeda. But that effort has frayed to the point where al Qaeda big shots spend most of their time staying hidden from U.S. UAVs, Pakistani troops, and hostile Pushtun tribesmen. Pakistani officials believe that the multimillion dollar rewards on al Qaeda leaders may now be practical. You can't capture an al Qaeda big shot without the assent of local tribal leaders. For a large chunk of that reward, that assent may now be had from some chiefs and the al Qaeda leaders know it. It's bad enough that al Qaeda is losing senior people, it's worse that they are now seen, by local tribesmen, as a way to get rich. Al Qaeda leaders (most of them Arabs) now know what it's like to be terrorized.