The Evolution of FATA Land into a Hub of Terrorism

Author Ahmad Shah Katawazai discusses the development of terrorist elements in the largely ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, describes its implications for regional and international security, and offers policy prescriptions to combat the continued growth of extremism in the FATA.

Ahmad Shah Katawazai


Ungoverned anarchic zones outside state authority are a major international security concern. One of the foremost short-term priorities of US counterterrorism strategy is to prevent terrorists from exploiting ungoverned or under-governed areas – including physical, legal, cyber, and fiscal safe havens.[i] Weak states and lawless, ungoverned areas serve as bases of operations for terrorist groups, such as the bloody, contested zone of semi-autonomous anarchy known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Also known as the “tribal belt,” the FATA have become a melting pot for jihadis from all over the world. This mountainous, rugged terrain and long, porous borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan provide natural shelter to Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, ISIS, and Taliban insurgents; the area also serves as a sanctuary for criminals, fugitives, and rebels. Moreover, the failure of the central governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to gain popular legitimacy has further weakened the notion of citizenship among the inhabitants of the FATA region.

The purpose of this research is to understand the nature of the FATA and how these dynamics turned the area into a hub of terrorism. This paper predicts that the FATA could pose serious dangers to world security if these security shortcomings are not addressed; in addition, this study seeks to understand the unique social code of Pashtunwali, or “way of the Pashtuns,” which provides an insight as why the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists found safe haven in the FATA and other Pashtun-dominated areas. Indeed, a successful resolution of the conflict emanating from the FATA is essential for addressing the root causes of terrorism in the area; otherwise, the booming balloon of terrorism and extremism in the area, once exploded, will cause much damage to regional and world security.

Why the FATA (or Tribal Belt) Matters

After more than a decade and a half since 9/11, the FATA serves as a safe haven for national and international terrorist groups where Taliban and insurgents are recruited, trained and equipped. Should another 9/11-type of attack take place it will probably have its origins in this belt, and as long as the terrorism issue in this region is not addressed, the US-led coalition forces mission in Afghanistan would face continued security challenges. Moreover, a nuclear Pakistan today is in a most dangerous position, because terrorists have established strong roots and influence in the area and, in some instances, terrorism has even extended its tentacles to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.[ii] This makes it necessary for the US and the international community to address the issue of rising terrorism and militancy from this area, which has changed into an ideological center, operational locus, and hub of global terrorism.

Nature of the Area

The FATA, with an estimated population of about 4.0 million,[iii] comprises an area of 27,000 square kilometers[iv] of rugged terrain which lies alongside the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The FATA include seven agencies (Khyber, Kurram, North and South Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur, and Orakzai). These are the least developed, poorest parts of both Afghanistan and Pakistan with a literacy rate of only 17.4 percent overall, while just 3 percent among women.[v] The inhabitants of these agencies are Pashtun majority and comprised of different tribes, which may then be subdivided into different clans and sub-tribes primarily based on kinship ties.

The tribal belt is semi-autonomous and – per the egalitarian character of Pashtun society – renowned for its peoples’ independence and martial spirit. The majority of the tribal population retains only nominal loyalty to the central governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are corrupt, unresponsive to their needs and, in many cases, exploit and manipulate the residents. Instead the tribesmen pledge loyalty to their families, clans and tribes.[vi]

Tribal people have their own “customary law” which is abided by its subjects regardless of their status and social position. This law is composed of traditional legal codes and legalistic, institutionalized procedure aimed at protecting inhabitant’s rights, and maintaining cohesiveness and order. This law is efficiently practiced in a holistic and consensual manner through certain codes that are agreed upon and respected by the tribal people. The customary law, where decisions are made quickly and in consensus by the people of the tribal areas and has been in practice from centuries, is far better than sluggish, corrupt, and frustrating bureaucratic decisions of the central government.[vii] The residents of the FATA normally owe their loyalty to the maliks, or “tribal elders,” who have great authority to represent their constituents and tribesmen. All its inhabitants speak Pashto language, and for centuries have followed a unique social code of conduct known as Pashtunwali, or “way of the Pashtuns,” which provides guidance in all situations and is central to the lives of Pashtuns.[viii]  “Pashtunwali encompasses a set of tribal virtues and reflects the fierce independence of the Pashtun male, and four key values of freedom, honor, revenge, and chivalry.”[ix]

Present-Day Tribal Belt: A Melting Pot for Terrorism

The tribal belt, once known for its unique social values, customary laws, and its strategic importance, has turned into a blood theatre, which is losing its identity as a unified entity. With the arrival of Al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorists in the area, the actual representation of Pashtuns has been hijacked by those who do not represent the interests and feelings of the Pashtun population of the area. Whoever among the tribesmen that rose against the terrorists and extremists was shot dead by the militants; elders, influential people, and local leaders of the Pashtun tribes are deliberately targeted. Even the tribal jirgas (gatherings) and traditional social activities in which only the tribal leaders participate for important decisions related to inhabitants have been victim to suicide attacks by the terrorists. The recent example is the October 31, 2016 suicide attack on a tribal jirga where four people were killed and 7 other injured in eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.[x]

Since 9/11, many sacrifices were made both in blood and treasure by the US, NATO, and Afghan forces in order to erode the foothold of insurgents in the FATA, the so-called “hub of terrorism,” but still this scourge of terrorism is not addressed despite tremendous efforts.[xi] The question still remains why this area, once peaceful, turned into a safe haven of Al-Qaeda and other terrorists. Though the root causes of terrorism are highly complex and multifaceted,[xii] major factors which provide footholds to terrorists in the tribal belt include the following:

1) Geographical factors

Geography is the key to war, which plays crucial role in every circumstance: David Galula, in his book Counterinsurgency Warfare, precisely states that, “geography can weaken the strongest political regime or strengthen the weakest one.”[xiii] The skyscraping mountains and the often long, porous border region provide natural shelter to insurgents and terrorists. With the US launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban sought refuge in the FATA along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. No prior steps were taken to prevent them from escaping and taking shelter in the mountains of the FATA.[xiv]

2) Religious Seminaries (“Madrassas”)

In the 1970s, in order to erode the millennium-old tribal order of the Pashtuns, the government of Pakistan began to build thousands of madrassas, thus paving the way for religious mullahs (religious teachers) to replace the maliks (tribal elders). Historically, the madrassas created by Pakistan nurtured what, in the 1990s, became the extremist regime of the Taliban – the insurgents with whom the Afghan government and US forces are grappling now.[xv]

3) Pakistani Establishment Links with Taliban

Moreover, in an effort to establish “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and train militants for its war against India in Kashmir, the Pakistani government turned to support and expand this chain of extremist generation in the name of the Taliban.[xvi] The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has maintained close relations with the Taliban from their origin.[xvii] Since 9/11, Pakistan apparently turned from its policy of backing the Taliban to siding with US-led coalition in the “War on Terror”; however, there are still allegations that the Inter-Services Intelligence operatives of Pakistan provide supplies, funds, and other support to Taliban commanders to the present.[xviii]

4) Uneasy Relations between State and Society

The wide political and psychological distance between the center and periphery of governance proved a conducive ground for Al-Qaeda and extremist groups to attract tribal people to extremism. Al-Qaeda, through their lavish funding, enlisted a significant number of young unemployed youth from the area; moreover, its ideology attracts certain groups that are alienated from society or fight against injustices, imaginary or real.”[xix] Relations between state and society have been deplorable, paving the way for inequality and the perception of marginalization among the inhabitants of the FATA which, in turn, provided the militants with an opportunity to gain legitimacy among the masses. Many studies suggest a strong correlation between militancy and inequality.”[xx]

5) Suicide Terrorism

The growing rates of suicide terrorism prove the tactic to be a major weapon in the hands of terrorists. Individuals normally between the ages of 15 to 25 are easily indoctrinated, brainwashed, and used to destroy pre-determined targets. Suicide attacks cost little, cause huge damage, and are difficult to trace and prevent. Such attacks also greatly attract the attention of the media, in general. Moreover, suicide bombers have become prime tools of terror for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to inflict huge psychological traumas upon both the masses and governments. These suicide bombers are mainly trained and indoctrinated in poorly governed sanctuaries that exist in the FATA, and are launched in “major cities on specified targets to create maximum impact.”[xxi]

Future Course

Given the enormity and complexity of FATA, and after more than decade and a half of the US-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan, the militants are still operating and conducting attacks against the Afghan government and US forces from that area. Immediate attention is therefore needed to chart a future course for securing and governing FATA in a way in which people are convinced to reject extremism in its all forms, and to work towards establishing a peaceful, tolerant, pluralistic, and law-abiding free society. The following are key recommendations in this regard:

  • The US, together with the international community, needs to devise a well-defined, holistic, multi-pronged strategy in order to eradicate the fertile breeding ground which nurtures and recruits ordinary people of the FATA for dangerous terrorist activities.
  • Directly appealing to tribesmen through the international community is needed as a prerequisite to address the issue of terrorist recruitment, as the regional governments have lost their trust and confidence among tribesmen.
  • A strict check has to be maintained on the religious madrassas, within which the focus on religious learning has been abandoned for the advocation of terrorism and extremism.
  • The US should address security problems of the FATA through a policy with both short-term and long-term components aimed at improving both the security and living standards of FATA residents. Foreign terrorists cannot live among the tribesmen if the US, the international community, or regional governments approaches them with a carefully considered strategy that is focused on the development of the residents of FATA.
  • Media and public diplomacy should play a pivotal role in cultivating an informed populace and building the people’s trust in government institutions and the media.
  • Economic and social inequality is one of the key factors in the recruitment of militant organizations. A robust economic recovery plan is needed which could help generate economic activity and employment for the inhabitants.


Today, the FATA remains a most dangerous place. With the presence of a fragmented Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Taliban safe havens, and failing governance this belt has turned into a dangerous hub of terrorism. From this area, suicide bombers and militants are trained and sent to attack Afghan, NATO, and US forces in Afghanistan. The causes of conflict in the FATA currently have their roots in a complex succession of historical events of the past. Impoverishment and frustration paved the way for the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Taliban to integrate in the society and take a foothold in the area, aided by the previously mentioned factors of geography, the radicalization of religious seminaries, the conservative nature of the inhabitants of the area, the inhabitants’ exploitation by the Pakistani establishment, and the consequent receptivity of the FATA youth to indoctrination and suicide terrorism.

After more than a decade since 9/11, neither the US nor regional governments have fully come to terms with the rising challenges in the FATA; regional governments, for their part, lack that capacity, while the US continues to pursue a parochial approach limited to drone attacks and few developmental projects in the area. Regardless of whether the US physically remains in the region, addressing the issue of rising militancy and terrorism is indispensible for regional and world security. Pakistan, a nuclear state, today is in a most dangerous position because of the increasing influence of terrorists in the area. It is therefore critical for the US and the international community to work together with Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring peace and security to the region by addressing the issue of militancy in the FATA and developing it economically. The US, together with the international community and regional governments, needs to articulate a comprehensive, robust, and coherent strategy reaching out directly to the people of the FATA. Reaching out to the hearts and minds of the tribal people and facilitating their development is the only answer to the ongoing insurgency.

Ahmad Shah Katawazai graduated from the Global Security Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University in summer, 2016. He currently works as a Defense Liaison at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC.  Mr. Katawazai is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @askatawazai.


[i] “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, accessed Nov. 5, 2016, 21-22,

[ii] See Bruce Riedel, “Armageddon in Islamabad,” National Interest, June/July, http: //; and Paul K. Kerr and Mary Beth Niktin, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues, “Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, RL.34248, May 15, 2009, http: //; and John R. Schmidt, “Will Pakistan Come Undone? “Survival, June-July 2009, 51.

[iii] Sartaj Aziz, “The Economic Cost of Extremism,” in Pakistan’s Quagmire, Security, Strategy and the Future of the Islamic Nuclear Nation, eds. Osama Butt & N. Elahi,” (New York: Continuum Int. 2010), 75.

[iv] Barnett R. Rubin, Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War On Terror, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 15.

[v] Ibid., 26.

[vi] David Rhode & Barbara Crossette, “A Nation Challenged: Identity; Loyalty in Rural Afghanistan Places Tribe Before Country,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2001, accessed Nov. 24, 2016.

[vii] See Thomas Barfield, Neamat Nojumi, and J. Alexander Thier, “The Clash of Two Goods: State and Non-State Dispute Resolution in Afghanistan,” United States Institute of Peace,; and Tilmann J. Roder, “Informal Justice Systems: Challenges and Perspectives,”

[viii] Ty L. Groh, “A Fortress without Walls: Alternative Governance Structures on the Afghan-Pakistan Frontier,” in Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty, eds. Anne L. Clunan & Harold A. Trinkuns, (California: Stanford University Press, 2010), 98.

[ix] Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “No Sign Until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier,” International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (2008): 61, accessed Nov. 13, 2016,

[x] James Mackenzie, “Afghan Elders Killed in Suicide Attack on Meeting,” Reuters, Oct. 31, 2016, accessed Nov. 17, 2016.

[xi] Suhail Habib Tajik, “Counterterrorism Efforts of Law Enforcement Agencies in Pakistan,” in Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Challenge, ed. Moeed Yusuf, (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 111.

[xii] Sidney Weintraub, “Treating the Causes”, Center for Strategic & International Studies Monthly Commentary 22 (October 2001).

[xiii] David Gaulla, Counter-Insurgency Warfare, Theory and Practice (New York; London: Frederick A. Prager, 1964), 24.

[xiv] Marc Sageman, “Confronting al-Qaeda: Understanding the Threat in Afghanistan,” Perspective on Terrorism, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2009).

[xv] Surinder K Sharma and Anshuman Behera, “Militant Groups in South Asia,” Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, 2014, 11.

[xvi] C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 6.

[xvii] Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014), 159.

[xviii] Grant Hold, “Pakistani Fifth Column? The Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate’s Sponsorship of Terrorism,” Global Security Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 2011), 58.

[xix] Edward Newman, “Exploring the Root Causes of Terrorism”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29 (2006), 749-772.

[xx] Syed Rifaat Hussain, “Responding to Terrorist Threat: Perspectives from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. XXX, No. 3 (Spring 2007).

[xxi] See Paul J. Smith, The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the Twenty-First Century, (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007).

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