On 20 March 2022, Barrick Gold — a Canadian company — inked an agreement with the Pakistani government to restart the suspended Reko Diq mine project in Chaghi district of Balochistan. This new revamped agreement allows the Canadian company's Chilean partner, Antofagasta PLC, to withdraw from the reconstituted project, thus abandoning its claim of $3.9bn and instead being compensated to the tune of $900m.
The two companies have won an award of around $11bn from the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) against Pakistan’s decision to deny their joint venture a license to develop Reko Diq. The Pakistani government claims that the new agreement will help it steer away from the crippling and unpayable fine of $6 billion while bringing in an investment of $10bn and creating 8,000 new jobs in the province.
The shareholding arrangement has now changed, with Barrick Gold holding 50%, the local government of Balochistan holding 25% (without any financial obligation as 15% of operating expenses will be met by the federal government while the remaining 10% will be borne by the parties to the project) and the government of Pakistan holding 25% through a consortium of the state-owned enterprises.
The project, once it enters the production stage five to six years from now, is billed to be potentially the world’s largest gold and copper mine, with deposits capable of producing 200,000 tons of copper and 250,000 ounces of gold a year for more than half a century.
But the new arrangement raised eyebrows in some other circles. Three days after the signing of the agreement, Baloch Raaji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS) — an umbrella organization of four Baloch insurgent groups — issued a threat to the company. In a statement, the group rejected the agreement and warned Barrick Gold Corporation to immediately walk away from the deal as Baloch militants “have been ordered” to target Barrick Gold's employees, security forces, installations, and any convoys present in Balochistan.
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This threat was reiterated by Dr. Allah Nizar Baloch, the leader of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), in a video released on social media at the end of the month in July.
A team of senior officials from Barrick Gold paid a visit to Gwadar in the last week of July. This tour was preceded by another attack in which a security post at the main entry gate of Gwadar seaport was targeted with a hand grenade on July 24. BLF claimed credit and simultaneously issued a “warning” in the statement, saying that the company should not rely on security provided by the Pakistan Army and advised Barrick to “save its investment from sinking.”
Baloch Separatist Movement
The Baloch nationalist movement is not a monolith. The nationalists can roughly be classified into two categories:
The moderates -- They seek political autonomy and control over the natural resources of Balochistan within Pakistan. They believe that the political system of Pakistan is not a democratic system and is dominated by a single ethnic community — the Punjabi community — and the Baloch have little or no representation in the political system and decision-making process in Islamabad.
The militants -- This group is of the opinion that the land of Balochistan and its people were forcefully integrated into Pakistan and thus pinning hopes on the Pakistani state and its institutions is like flogging a dead horse. They advocate for separation through violence and demand that the Pakistani military (and paramilitary forces) leave Balochistan.
Regarding the latter, some reports claim that more than a dozen Baloch militant groups have been identified in Balochistan. However, the most prominent and active groups are: 1) Baloch Liberation Army (BLA); 2) Baloch Liberation Army - Non-Aslam Baloch/Pro-Hyrbyair Marri faction; 3) Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF); 4) Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA); 5) Baloch Republican Guards (BRG); 6) United Baloch Army (UBA); 7) Lashkar-e-Balochistan (LeB); 8) Baloch Liberation Tigers (BLT).
Another important development took place in November 2018 when the Baloch militant groups decided to repair their intra-group differences and subsequently formed an alliance called the Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), comprising four militant groups: Balochistan Liberation Front, Baloch Liberation Army, Baloch Republican Army, and Baloch Republican Guards.
In 2020, BRAS went a step further and established a trans-provincial alliance against CPEC (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) with a Sindhi separatist group, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA).
In 2010, BLA saw the first defection when Hyrbyair Marri's brother Mehran decided to leave the organization. A new outfit, by the name of the United Baloch Army, was formed. Hyrbyair Marri accused Mehran of mismanaging the affairs of BLA and stealing $3 million and weapons worth Rs. 800 million with which he created UBA, while Mehran alleged that Hyrbyair's leadership style was authoritarian.
In 2017, the BLA split once again. A detailed statement was posted in the Baloch Liberation Voice messaging application channel. The crux of the statement was that the commanders Aslam Baloch (alias “Aslam Achu”) and Bashir Zeb Baloch had been suspended from the organization on the allegation that they, along with the BLF and Naela Quadri, tried to overthrow the leadership of the outfit. Azad Baloch was named the sole spokesperson of the group (pro-Hyrbyair Marri faction) and secondary spokespersons Jeehand Baloch and Meerak Baloch were expelled.
Another faction called the Baloch Liberation Army emerged under the leadership of Aslam Baloch and Bashir Zeb Baloch. Aslam Baloch was killed, along with five others, in a suicide attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan in December 2018. He was also responsible for the formation of the deadliest branch of BLA: the Majeed Brigade — known for its suicide attacks.
In October 2021, the United Baloch Army was divided. Differences arose between UBA spokesperson Sarfraz Bangalzai (alias “Mureed Baloch”) and other commanders. A statement from UBA official Mazar Baloch said that Sarfraz Bangalzai had been fired from the outfit and the former would be the sole spokesperson of the organization.
On January 11, 2022, a press release was issued announcing the amalgamation of the United Baloch Army (Mureed Baloch faction) and a faction of the Baloch Republican Army (led by Gulzar Imam). A new entity called the Baloch Nationalist Army came into existence. Gulzar Imam Baloch became the “supreme commander” of BNA. The statement identified Mureed Baloch as BNA's spokesperson. The group was formed, according to the statement, “to further expand and unite the Baloch resistance.” A central command was also created to organize and plan attacks. It was also announced that the group would remain part of BRAS (a point of contention between Mureed Baloch and Mehran Marri).
One consequence of U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan has been that the illegal weapons markets are now thriving and many militant groups operating in the region have greater access to modern Western weapons.
On February 2, the BLA’s Majeed Brigade launched one of the deadliest attacks since its formation. Two separate attacks were launched on Frontier Corps bases in Balochistan’s Panjgur and Noshki districts which also coincided with the then PM of Pakistan Imran Khan's visit to China. A total of 16 militants were part of the attacks and 12 Pakistani soldiers were killed. According to a media report, the attackers were armed with “high-tech military gear, far superior to that carried by Pakistan army soldiers.”
On the night of January 25-26, 10 Pakistani soldiers were killed after a security force checkpost was attacked in Dasht, Kech district. The Balochistan Liberation Front took responsibility while also claiming that 13 soldiers were allegedly killed at the guard post and 4 soldiers, who were approaching the site of the attack on two motorcycles, were allegedly shot dead.
In the past, the BLA has carried out several high-profile attacks on Chinese interests. In 2018, the Chinese consulate in Karachi was stormed by 3 militants. Seven people (including 3 attackers and 2 policemen) were killed and several others were injured.
Half a year later, on 11th May 2019, five people (4 hotel employees and a Pakistan Navy sailor) were killed after three BLA gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in the port city of Gwadar. Six others (including 2 army captains, two navy sailors, and 2 hotel employees) were also injured.
A video released after the attack showed a BLA militant flanked by fellow armed fighters delivering a warning “to China and Pakistan to withdraw immediately from Balochistan.” The speaker went ahead to say that “Gwadar and the rest of Balochistan belong to Baloch and as such it's our duty to protect our land and sea.” He added:
This is a continuous operation that has been initiated to safeguard the Baloch from China, Pakistan and other foreign powers. China, you came here without our consent, supported our enemies and Pakistani military, invading our villages, but now it's our turn. The Baloch Liberation Army guarantees you that CPEC will fail miserably on Baloch land.
He further went on to say that the Majeed Brigade “has been formed particularly to attack Chinese officials and establishments” and delivered a stern warning to the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) saying “President Xi Jinping, you will still have time to quit Balochistan, or you will witness a retaliation from Baloch sons and daughters that you will never forget.”
In June 2020, four BLA militants launched an attack, with the help of the SRA, on the Pakistan Stock Exchange Building in Karachi. Seven people (four attackers, two guards, and a policeman) were killed in the attack according to official figures. The attack was viewed as an assault on a Chinese consortium including China Financial Futures Exchange Company Ltd, Shanghai Stock Exchange, and Shenzhen Stock Exchange which holds a 40% strategic share in the Pakistan Stock Exchange.
More recently, on April 26th, three Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver were killed in a suicide bombing at Karachi University, outside the Confucius Institute (a Chinese cultural and educational outreach center supported by the Chinese Ministry of Education). The Baloch Liberation Army (Majeed Brigade) took responsibility while also claiming that the attack was carried out by a female suicide bomber, identified as Shari Baloch.
At the beginning of August, BRAS said in a statement that its militants shot down a “low flying (military) helicopter” with an anti-craft weapon. Six military officials, including a top army commander, were killed. A senior Pakistani military official dismissed the claim as propaganda and fake news and said that the helicopter crashed as a result of bad weather.
In addition, one notable emergent trend has been that certain Baloch militant groups have incorporated a strategy to target economic and infrastructural targets.
The author has recorded more than 30 attacks on infrastructures since the beginning of this year, with data collected from both primary and various secondary sources. Some of these attacks are listed below as illustrative examples.
- A railway track was blown up in between Sibi and Nari Gaj. BLA took responsibility.
- Two Ufone mobile towers, vehicles, and machinery at a fluorite extraction site were destroyed by BLA in different areas of Qalāt district.
Note: The reason why Ufone towers have been repeatedly targeted is that, from the point-of-view of Baloch militant groups, the Pakistani government “is using Ufone telecom service for communication and tracking down Baloch fighters in different areas,” and “the state agencies are (allegedly) involved in spying on and abducting Baloch youth” through this communication system.
- A mobile tower, belonging to Warid company, was destroyed and a Mazda truck, belonging to Frontier Works Organization was seized in Turbat city by BLF militants.
- An electricity tower of a main transmission line between Rakhni & Barkhan area of Kohlu district was blown up by BLA (non-Aslam Baloch faction) militants and two 107mm rockets were fired at a construction project in Kahan area of the same district by the same group, using a BM-12 launcher.
- A tower of a telecommunication company at Dolohai Takari Kor area in Barkhan was brought down and a vehicle of a company involved in construction projects was targeted in an IED attack by militants affiliated with BLA (Non-Aslam Baloch faction). (Note: The Frontier Works organization, established in 1966, is a crucial administrative branch of the Pakistan Army and is credited with the construction of numerous bridges, roads, tunnels, airfields, and dams in Pakistan)
- Baloch Nationalist Army took credit for blowing up a mobile (Ufone) tower in Nimrug, Qalāt district.
- Baloch Republican Guards claimed two attacks: a) Destroying a power transmission tower and severely affecting another of UCH Power Plant in Rabi Canal area, Dera Murad Jamali town, Nasirabad district, and b) a gas pipeline was targeted in an IED attack in the same town.
- A mobile (Ufone) tower and its machinery were torched by militants belonging to the United Baloch Army outfit in the Nagor area of Gwadar district.
- Two attacks from BLA: 1) a power transmission line was blown up near Mangochar in Qalāt district and, 2) a communication tower was destroyed in Khost, Harnai.
- The same number of attacks by BRG militants: two electricity/power pylons were dismantled in Dera Murad Jamali.
- BLF alone carried out six attacks: Setting four mobile (Ufone) towers and other equipment on fire in Gwadar, Giban, Koonshqalāt, and Kolwa areas of Kech district. One FWO camp was also targeted in the Chitkān area of Panjgur district and in another attack, a bulldozer & other machinery belonging to FWO was torched in Tump, Kech district.
- Two attacks were claimed by each UBA and BLA (Non-Aslam Baloch faction) respectively: A mobile tower was ruined in Harnai district, and a construction project came under attack at Makhmar Safaid in Kohlu.
- BLA: a communication tower was destroyed in Bibi Nani area, Bolan.
- BLF: 2 mobile towers were wrecked in Azian area of Tump Tehsil and in Mashkay Valley.
- BLA: 1) a gas plant was destroyed on 18th July in Sheekhri area of Qalāt district and 2) an IED attack targeting a vehicle of a company that was involved in oil & gas exploration in Mach, Bolan.
- BLF: A mobile tower was blasted in Jahu tehsil, Awaran district.
- BRG: A “Karachi-bound-gas pipeline” was targeted in an explosion near Sui in Dera Bugti district.
- UBA: An electricity pylon was taken down in Harnai district.
- BLA (Non-Aslam Baloch Faction) – Targeted a gas pipeline in Chasma Aab Area of Mach, a joint tower of Ufone & Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited in Shapook area of Kech District, and a communication tower in Zardalo area of Shahrag.
- Balochistan Liberation Front took responsibility for burning down a mobile (Ufone) tower along with its machinery and equipment in Ispalanji Sheshar area of Mastung district and attacking a vehicle of FWO in Kech district. The group claimed that 5 officers were killed and one was injured.
- United Baloch Army claims credit for blowing up a mobile (Ufone) tower in Maru area of Mastung district.
- Baloch Liberation Army took responsibility for an explosion at the site of Pakistan Petroleum Limited in Shekhri area of Qalat district. Local media reports indicated that one person was killed and another injured in the blast.
- Baloch Republican Guards took credit for blowing up a gas pipeline in Rabi area near Dera Murad Jamali.
- BLA (Non-Aslam Baloch faction) claimed an attack targeting a camp of FWO in Zamuran area of Kech district. The group further added that out of a dozen personnel present in the camp, three were allegedly killed and others were injured.
- Baloch Liberation Army took responsibility for destroying a telecommunication tower of Ufone company and setting its machinery on fire on 6th September in Gazag Anari area of Qalat district.
- The Baloch Republican Guards claim to have blown up a gas pipeline near Sui in Dera Bugti district.
- Balochistan Liberation Front claims to have torched machinery, belonging to Pakistan Army's construction company FWO, on September 25 in Kech district.
- Baloch Liberation Army (Non-Aslam Baloch faction) claims to have shot & disabled the equipment of a mobile tower of Telenor Company on September 30th in Karam Colony, Hub Chowki city.
Be it the Chinese or Barrick Gold, the Baloch militant groups have made it clear that they shall apply the same benchmark for any foreign entity in Balochistan. With China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the verge of a crisis, Pakistan’s economy remains in a delicate spot, with an absence of political stability, a rise in militancy, and trouble brewing in KPK province, it will be interesting to see how the Pakistani state and its security institutions will counter the challenges emerging in Balochistan, particularly.