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The US has officially classified Tehreek-e-Taliban – better known as the Pakistani Taliban – as a terrorist organization, a move that will allow it to expand its campaign against the militant group beyond CIA drone strikes, the State Department announced Wednesday.
The new designation will enable the State and Justice departments to freeze the group’s financial holdings, criminalizes funding or supporting the group, and bars any known members from entering the US, reports Pakistan's Daily Times.
As US causalities in Afghanistan reach record levels, increasing pressure on the group is seen by US officials as a critical step for achieving success with both America’s domestic security aims and foreign policy objectives.
The US has long wanted to expand its efforts against Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), especially after it claimed responsibility for training and equipping the attempted Times Square bomber and its leadership vowed to carry out more strikes against US cities. TTP also maintains close ties with Al Qaeda and provides support for the group in Pakistan, as well as attacking NATO forces inside Afghanistan.
TTP is an organization consisting of a number of militant groups that coalesced under the banner of TTP in 2007. It is now the 47th group on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations (see complete list here).
Formed under the direction of militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, according to the State Department, TTP is rooted in the tribal belt along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Hakimullah Mehsud became the group’s leader when Baitullah Mehsud was killed in August 2009. Wali Ur Rehman is the TTP amir in South Waziristan. Additionally, US officials have charged Mr. Mehsud, with involvement in the CIA Khost bombing that killed seven Americans last December.
"We should be very clear about this. The TTP is very much part of the most dangerous terrorist threat the United States faces. The TTP and Al Qaeda have a symbiotic relationship," Daniel Benjamin, the US ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, said during a press briefing Wednesday in Washington. "TTP draws ideological guidance from Al Qaeda while Al Qaeda relies on the TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
"This mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both Al Qaeda's global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their relationship, TTP is a force multiplier for Al Qaeda."
The group's ties to Al Qaeda make it what the US State Department describes as one of the biggest threats to US security, reports the Press Trust of India. Additionally, TTP’s stated aim to topple the government of Pakistan poses a further threat to US interests in the region.
The US classified the group as a terrorist organization on Aug. 12, but it did not become official until Wednesday when the Federal Register was published, reports The Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper. The slight delay gave authorities time to determine what TTP assets the US may be able to target.
The new designation is also likely to increase pressure on Mr. Mehsud. The US is now offering $5 million for information that leads to the capture of Mehsud or Wali Ur Rehman through www.RewardsforJustice.net or RFJ@State.gov.
Mehsud was believed to have been killed in a drone attack in January, but a video of him resurfaced in May. The Washington Post reports today that in addition to classifying his group as a terrorist organization, US officials have leveled new charges against Mehsud:
Also Wednesday, federal authorities unsealed criminal charges, which were filed Aug. 20 in US District Court in the District of Columbia, accusing Mehsud of conspiracy to murder US citizens abroad and the use of a weapon of mass destruction – namely, a suicide bomb. The Justice Department cited a pre-recorded video released after the Dec. 30 bombing at the CIA outpost near Khost, in which Mehsud appeared alongside the alleged bomber, a Jordanian physician who had convinced the CIA that he was a US ally who could deliver long-sought intelligence on the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's senior ranks.
However, the Post notes, the Afghan Taliban itself remains off the list of US terrorist organizations, though individual members have been targeted:
Since July, the United States has also designated for sanctions the Haqqani network, affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, and three financiers: Gul Agha Ishakzai, head of the Taliban's financial commission; Amir Abdullah, former treasurer to senior Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar; and Nasiruddin Haqqani, an emissary for the Haqqani network.