The Balochistan Liberation Army and insurgency in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province
A profile of the BLA, focusing on the their past operations, size, capacity and distinct anti-Chinese stance at a time when China’s influence in Pakistan is being rapidly extended via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Balochistan is the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, bordering Afghanistan and Iran and boasting rugged and remote terrain traversed by isolated highways. Balochistan’s human geography has also presented a challenge for the Pakistani Government, which has struggled to maintain stability and contain violence in the ethnically diverse province. Whilst the heaviest fighting in Balochistan has largely subsided, the ethnic chasm between the people of Balochistan and the government has allowed a low-level insurgency in Balochistan Province to persist despite frequent operations carried out by security forces. The most prominent of the Baloch groups active in this insurgency is the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA,) responsible for high profile attacks such as the storming of the Karachi Stock Exchange (June 2020) and the Pearl Continental Hotel attack (May 2019).
Overview of the BLA
The BLA is an ethno-nationalist militant group designated as a terror group by the Pakistani Government as well as foreign governments such as the US. The group formally began operations in 2000 and at the time consisted mostly of experienced fighters drawn from pre-existing Baloch militant groups.The group’s primary aim is to establish a Baloch state encompassing majority Baloch areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
The BLA recruits mostly from tribe members – specifically the large Marri and Bugti tribes – which at times has allowed the group to gain valuable levels of passive support in Balochistan’s remote rural regions where government forces struggle to extend influence. Currently, the group is led by a commander named Bashir Zaib, who took on the role following the death of BLA leader Aslam Baloch in a bombing in Kandahar in 2018. The BLA is also believed to have close links with a number of Baloch activists currently residing in London, UK.
The numerical strength of the BLA is not clear, with estimates claiming that in the early 2000s after the group formed, there were approximately 6,000 fighters in the BLA. More recent estimates have suggested the total number of fighters is closer to 600. Within the BLA exists a sub-group, often referred to as the Majeed Brigades which carries out the majority of the BLA’s high profile attacks. More details on the Majeed Brigade will be provided in the ‘BLA Activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan’ section.
Armament-wise, the BLA relies almost exclusively on domestically sourced weapons for which ammunition can be sourced with ease as well as IEDs. The BLA is often pictured using weapons commonon in the area such as AK pattern assault rifles and SVD Dragunov rifles/PSL marksman rifles (ammunition for both of which can be sourced easily from Afghanistan.) M16s have also featured heavily in images of BLA fighters, with many of these weapon systems being captured from Afghan security forces by the Afghan Taliban, and then being sold on.
Despite the BLA seeing a reduction in numbers and strength, the group continues to be able to recruit fighters due to a series of ‘pull factors’ which make the group appear to be an attractive alternative for potential recruits. A key pull factor to the BLA is a feeling among members of the Baloch community that the Pakistani government has exploited the resources of the majority Baloch province, with Baloch people receiving very few benefits or social development which reflects the scale of Balochistan’s contribution to the broader Pakistan economy. Other local grievances have included poor infrastructure, socio-economic development and access to basic facilities in Balochistan. Even with these pull factors working in favour of the BLA, it should be noted that the group’s militancy has not gained universal support among Balochistan’s populace.
BLA Activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan
BLA activity is mostly carried out in Balochistan Province or the port city of Karachi, but the group also maintains a significant presence in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province across the border. Afghanistan provides a relative safe haven for BLA commanders, with Afghan security forces being faced by an emboldened Taliban insurgency and struggling to maintain security in rural areas. Despite this, Kandahar City has still hosted a number of assassination attempts targeting BLA commanders, such as a suicide bombing in 2018 which killed Aslam Baloch, a group commander.
BLA-associated media, like many groups reliant upon domestic support for its survival, consistently attempts to highlight measures taken to reduce civilian casualties when carrying out attacks. This concern is at times reflected in recent attacks attributed to the BLA, with the group claiming after the Karachi Stock Exchange attack that the intention of the attack was never to inflict major casualties, but instead to damage the legitimacy and economic capacity of the Pakistani Government. However, despite the rhetoric, BLA attacks are often the cause of civilian casualties, with the group actively targeting civilians working with the Pakistani government or on economic projects which are seen as exploitative (such as CPEC-related projects.)
Despite the leadership having a strong presence in Kandahar, the BLA carries out its attacks in Pakistan. The attacks are generally low level, consisting of ambushes and IED attacks targeting convoys of security forces in remote parts of Balochistan. However, as noted in the introduction, the BLA has not shied from carrying out major attacks in population centres. These attacks have mostly been carried out by the BLA’s ‘Majeed Brigade,’ and prevent the group from being regarded as a minor threat restricted to rural areas. The Majeed Brigade acts as a shock troop unit for the BLA, and claims to have carried out its first suicide attack in December 2011, marking the introduction of a new level of violence into the Balochistan insurgency. Since then, the Majeed Brigade has been linked to a number of attacks, including the Chinese Consulate attack in 2018, the Gwaddar attack in 2019 and the stock exchange attack in 2020.
The Pakistani Government acts as the main target for the BLA, but the group is increasingly becoming known as a proactive attacker of Chinese interests in Balochistan. Chinese influence in Balochistan is linked to the CPEC project, a series of infrastructure projects traversing Pakistan, which the BLA has accused of being exploitative of Baloch resources. The result is that the BLA has explicitly targeted projects such as mining and infrastructure projects backed by Chinese investors or have attacked security forces assigned to protect the civilian assets. Attacks have included targeting Chinese nationals as well as Pakistani labourers from other regions with abductions and IEDs.
A key project which is particularly under threat from the BLA the construction of a large airport in the coastal city of Gwaddar (expected to be completed in 2022) as part of the CPEC project. The airport’s construction has been made possible by a large grant from China and is therefore seen by the BLA as an extension of Chinese influence, constructed using labourers mostly sourced from outside of Balochistan. As previously mentioned, Chinese business in Gwaddar has been explicitly targeted by the BLA when the group targeted the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwaddar, a hotel known to house Chinese businessmen working on the project.
Currently, China takes a back-seat role regarding security in Pakistan even as its assets are repeatedly targeted. However, as the CPEC project begins to gather momentum, attacks targeting its infrastructure can also be expected to increase as more targets are made available and tensions continue to rise between locals, the Federal Government and foreign business. With this in mind, analysts have speculated that China may be forced to take a more proactive role in securing the region. How China would accomplish this is unclear, but China’s foreign policy has typically shown reluctance to deploy personnel abroad, particularly to a volatile region abroad where Chinese personnel would likely be engaged by local militants. For the time being, China appears content to apply pressure on Pakistan to provide security, rather than become directly involved itself. Pakistan has taken heed, and a sizable security division has been created solely to protect CPEC-affiliated assets. Chinese companies are also known to have hired their own private security in other instances.
However, as tensions between China and India continue to escalate, it is possible that China may consider taking a more active stance in Pakistan not only to provide security but also to apply pressure on India. The completion of a major port and transport hub at the vital port city of Gwaddar could also serve as a vital military position granting China easier access to the Middle East in times of great stress and reducing its reliance on routes passing through the contested South China Sea. And so, from a strategic perspective, Chinese military presence in Balochistan is not unthinkable.
Foreign Support for the BLA
The Pakistani Government has accused India of providing support for the BLA via its consulates in Kandahar City and Jalalabad City, both in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Government narrative claims that the support for the BLA is part of a broader Indian campaign to destabilise Pakistan’s rural areas. The accusation is plausible as India does feel threatened by the close relationship between Pakistan and an increasingly assertive China, but little evidence has been seen which can support the claim. It is also worth noting that both India and Pakistan frequently accuse each other of interference in their own internal security, often as a way of shifting blame and generating anti-India/Pakistan feelings at times of political tensions.
Whilst the Afghan Government has not openly supported the BLA, members of the Afghan security forces are believed to have had connections with the group. For example, the late Kandahar Police commander, Abdul Raziq Achakzai, is believed to have close connections with the group, allowing them to base their leadership in parts of Kandahar City. Abdul Raziq’s brother a successor to the role of Kandahar police commander has also posted on his own social media, showing sympathy with the Baloch cause and commemorating the anniversary of the death of a late BLA leader Aslam Baloch.The presence of BLA in Kandahar City has been noted following a number of assassinations targeting the BLA leadership in the city (although this merely confirms the group’s presence in the city, not necessarily cooperation with local security forces.)
BLA in the Broader Militant Environment
The BLA works closely with other Baloch militant groups and is part of an umbrella group called Baluch Raji Ajohi Sangar (BRAS) known in English as Baloch National Freedom Movement. The BLA is the biggest group in BRAS, but other members include Balochistan Republican Army (BRA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF.) References have also been made to the Baloch Republican Guards group as being part of the BRAS. The alliance of the three groups is thought to have started as a relationship between the BLA and the BRA with the BLF joining in 2019. BRAS is also believed to have a relationship with the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA,) although how much coordination takes place is unclear. The coordination of the groups has increased the coordination of operations and thus, created a more potent insurgent threat to the Pakistani government. Despite close relations with other Baloch groups, smaller Baloch groups have also opposed the BLA in the past. Clashes have been recorded between the BLA and the United Balochistan Army (UBA,) a group formed by the brother of a London-based BLA commander Hyrbyair Marri over a personal dispute.
The relationship between the BLA (and the broader BRAS group) and IS is unclear. IS does maintain a presence in Balochistan and has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, one of which involved kidnapping workers from a Chinese project.
The BLA and the broader BRAS group states in its media that it is opposed to Lashkar-e-Tayba (LeT,) accusing them of being a ‘fanatic jihadi group’ and its its own social media posts, has accused the Pakistani security forces of supporting LeT. Similar language has been used to describe other Baloch groups such as Jaish ul-Adl (based in Iran,) a group which has clashed with the BLA and BRAS in the past. The largely secular BLA has claimed that the religious aspect of groups such as Jaish al-Adl divides the insurgency along religious lines.
Conclusion and Future Assessment
Despite being a relatively small insurgency with relatively few major international connections, the BLA should still be considered a major threat, particularly to business related to the CPEC project or foreign business operation in Balochistan. This threat is partly influenced by the fact that the BLA has shown that it is willing to utilise force relatively frequently to target vulnerable civilian and military assets. In addition, the BLA, despite only being formed in 2000, represents a general long term feeling among elements of the Baloch minority in Pakistan that Baloch people are being sidelined by the mostly distant central government. These long term grievances within Balochistan, mixed with the BLA’s relative safe havens in Afghanistan and insufficient development in the region carried out by the government is expected to grant the BLA an element of longevity. This longevity will allow the BLA to continue to carry out a low level insurgency, with attacks in rural areas being interspersed by major attacks carried out in population centres.