On 9th April, the former Pakistani Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan gave a rare interview to the Investigative Journal since his escape from the army’s custody on 11 January. He stated that despite the Pakistani military’s claims that they have been targeting the Pakistani Taliban for years in ongoing anti-militant operations in the tribal belt next to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, militants had already fled the tribal areas to a safer refuge elsewhere in the country before the military operations began. He added that the Pakistani Taliban still have considerable presence in the country. Ehsan also discussed his own escape from Pakistan’s military incarceration.
The fugitive spoke with TIJ through a cell phone registered to a Turkish number from an undisclosed location.
“The militants escaped before the Pakistan military operations began. That was the strategy. They did not fight back so there was not much loss except for losing control of the territory,” said Mr. Ehsan, who escaped from Pakistan military’s custody in January of this year.
“It is impossible to eliminate the Taliban movement from Pakistan. It still exists and has the ability to carry out attacks, and they will do so in the near future, to make their presence felt,” he added
Mr. Ehsan – whose real name is Liaqat Ali– used to be a prominent leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has killed thousands of Pakistani men, women and children since it was formed in 2007. During his time with the TTP, he was also involved in an attack on Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on October 12, 2013 on her way home from school by a Taliban terrorist affiliated with Ehsan. Malala received the Nobel laureate in 2014.
Ehsan parted ways with the TTP in 2014 and co-founded his own organization Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), which has also carried out several bloody terrorist attacks in Pakistan. These operations included an attack on a park in Lahore on 27 March 2016 that led to the killing of 75 people, mostly members of the Christian community celebrating Easter. In July 2017, the United Nations Security Council’s Sanctions Committee approved the addition of JuA to the list of entities and individuals subject to the freezing of assets, travel bans and arms embargoes.
This week, Mr. Ehsan – who had surrendered to the Pakistan Army three years back in February 2017- explained exclusively to TIJ why he was forced to flee a military safe-house where he claims he was kept under house-arrest by officials of the Army’s Military Intelligence branch.
“I was under constant surveillance with five security officials guarding me but on the night of 11th January 2020 my family and I managed to escape from a backdoor of the safe-house where we were kept and we escaped,” Mr. Ehsan claimed. He added that he decided to flee after the military renegaded on its promises made to him.
He says the agreement with the military granted him complete immunity and a monthly stipend, which they never fulfilled. He further explained his motivation for escaping:
“The military promised that I would not be imprisoned nor would I be prosecuted for any crimes. I was also promised financial help and I was told that my house [destroyed during the military operations] would be reconstructed. I was also assured that I would have no restrictions on my movements and would be allowed to use the internet and telecommunication networks.”
However, some reports from Pakistan have suggested that he escaped during an on-going intelligence operation where he was actually assisting the military on the ground.
Some experts doubt the story of his escape and hint that he may have been simply released.
“Whether he fled or was made to flee, the entire episode raises questions about both the will and competence of Pakistan’s military intelligence apparatus in taking on the country’s jihadi terrorist groups,” Husain Haqqani the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S and a scholar at Washington D.C.’s Hudson Institute told TIJ.
Since Ehsanullah Ehsan’s escape, he has been active online and has recently sent an open letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan appealing for justice. The former militant spokesperson claimed that his family members in his hometown have been arrested and some have gone missing.
“My family members have nothing to do with me or my activities and if they have done anything wrong, they should be presented in front of the courts. Prime Minister Imran Khan has always raised his voice about missing persons and drone attacks before he came in power. Now that it he is in government, he must rectify this,” he said.
The open letter mentions his contact details including a Turkish mobile phone number that he used to communicate with The Investigative Journal. When asked about his current location, and whether he was in Turkey, he did not confirm or deny.
“I am in hiding and there is a danger of being caught but I have taken precautions,” he said.
Experts say that he could be hiding around the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. However, in the past, his organization JuA has also worked with the Islamic State (ISIS) and has carried out joint terrorist attacks in Pakistan with their help, so it may be possible that Ehsanullah Ehsan is hiding along the Turkish-Syrian border where ISIS has considerable presence too.
Asked about Mr. Ehsan’s location, Mr. Safdar Dawar, a well-known Pakistani journalist who specializes in covering militant movements in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region said, “I will not rule out the possibility that he may be in Turkey, given that he has strong regional contacts, and he has been quite sympathetic to ISIS in the past. Many Taliban fighters have come back from fighting with ISIS and live in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas currently, so there are definitely those connections. The organizations Ehsanullah Ehsan was associated with had strong networks throughout the Middle East.” He concluded, “I would say he is only using a Turkish number and hiding somewhere in Afghanistan, as it’s much easier for him to be under the radar there than in Turkey, which has friendly relations with Pakistan.”
When asked about his connections with other militant groups, Mr. Ehsan says his organization had relations with several groups.
“All these groups are connected with each other. The groups I worked with had given their allegiance to to the Afghan Taliban. However, the Afghan Taliban did not help Pakistani Taliban in fighting its war, as the two have different agendas,” he explained.
He added that his group JuA worked under the “guidance of Mullah Omar”, and had been public about this reality.
The Pakistan Army is also known to have close relations with the Afghan Taliban, had been accused of harboring militants of the group, providing them safe refuge in the country. According to testimonies from insiders, Pakistan also played a crucial role in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, which led to the 29 February peace agreement between the Afghan Taliban and the American government.
“The agreement was necessary and important to bring peace to this region. It will be difficult to follow through especially with regards to the freeing of [Taliban] prisoners but I have hope that this agreement will finally bring peace in Afghanistan in the future,” Ehsan commented.
When asked about his own future plans, Mr. Ehsan says he is writing a book where he will be revealing a lot more than what he has made public for so far. One of the topics will be the nexus between the Pakistan army and the different militant groups in the country. “I will reveal details about it in my book. Also, I do not want to return to militancy. I want to live a peaceful life now. I am also looking at options to claim asylum in a foreign country, but have not yet decided on it,” he concluded.
The Pakistani government has remained tight-lipped about Ehsanullah Ehsan’s escape. However, the country’s interior minister Brigadier (retired) Ijaz Shah recently acknowledged to the press that Ehsan escaped, but he did not provide any further information. Therefore, it is yet to be seen who is responsible for this embarrassing fiasco that has brought international attention and disrepute to Pakistan, already known for its complicity and incompetency when dealing with militant threats.