TTP leader Ehsan’s escape to Turkey queers Pakistan’s anti-terror stance

How Ehsan could escape high-security detention and how he could reach Turkey, along with his family, remains a mystery that Islamabad is unable or unwilling to answer, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Feb 13, 2020
Ehsanullah Ehsan former spokesperson of Pakistani Taliban

The escape of Ehsanullah Ehsan, a former spokesman of the proscribed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a high-profile militant, from high security custody is posing multiple problems for Pakistan. The most urgent of them is Ehsan’s claimed escape to Turkey. This has come close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Pakistan. On February 14, he is scheduled to attend the sixth round of the Pakistan-Turkey High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Erdogan has stood by Pakistan, monetarily and diplomatically, during its current crisis. Talks on trade and defence and an address to Pakistan's parliament form part of his itinerary.

In what comes as additional embarrassment just ahead of Erdogan’s visit, parents of the children of Army Public School, Peshawar, who were killed in the terror attack that Ehsan had masterminded in December 2014, held a protest demonstration asking how Ehsan could escape and why he has not been put on trial nearly three years after he surrendered.

The surrender was part of an understanding in which Ehsan provided information about the TTP and other militant outfits that operate across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In the diplomatic world, however, his surrender and subsequent living in security and comfort, even marrying and fathering a child during that period, is being likened to that of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden – except that Osama was located and hunted down in 2011 by the United States Navy Seals.

Ehsan also earned infamy for ordering the attack on Malala Yusufzai, who opposed the diktat of the Taliban through her writings and broadcasts. She survived the gunshot wounds after being flown to Britain and is the world’s youngest Nobel Peace laureate.

In response to persistent media queries, Pakistani authorities, both civil and military, have maintained a stoic silence that the Dawn newspaper editorially calls ‘ominous’. Following the school attack in which scores of children were killed, the Pakistan Army launched the Zair-e-Azb operation and, over months, cleared the tribal areas of the TTP’s presence. In April 2017, it described Ehsan’s surrender as “symptomatic of the low morale of terrorist organisations because of military operations.”

“Even when he surrendered, no details were released. Nor was it made clear if his surrender was part of a deal,” Dawn stated, noting that Ehsan’s “name was not among those terrorists who were tried and sentenced by military courts.” On the other hand, Ehsan became a bit of a media celebrity giving television interviews and engaging critics on social media.

The ‘deal’ has apparently not worked. How Ehsan could escape high-security detention and how he could reach Turkey, along with his family, remains a mystery that Islamabad is unable or unwilling to answer.  

In the absence of any confirmation or denial of Ehsan’s exit from a Peshawar safe house, sections of the Pakistani media have found an India alibi. Ehsan’s claimed escape, announced on January 11, was first reported by an Indian web site, “within a week”, on January 18. It is a moot point whether the same Pakistani media would have cast this suspicion if the news of the “great escape” had emanated from some Western media source.

Now, in his announcement through an audio clip, he has threatened to tell all, naming people in the government who dealt with him. He has also threatened to release “terms of the agreement” he had entered into with Pakistani authorities, the “approving authority” and “the individual who had furnished assurances” with regard to its implementation.

Under these circumstances, the Pakistani media is questioning exactly how Ehsan managed to escape, whether he was made to escape, if it was a security failure and, as Dawn puts it, “if his ‘escape’ was a massive security failure or part of an immunity deal negotiated before his surrender.”

(The writer is a veteran journalist and analyst, He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)