(Reuters) - Northwestern Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun lands are home to militants bent on bringing hardline Islamic rule to Pakistan, defeating Western forces in Afghanistan and launching attacks in Western countries.
Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding in the region.
The government has said it expected an investigation into a suicide truck bomb attack on an Islamabad hotel on Saturday, which killed 53 people, would lead to al Qaeda and Taliban militants in northwestern strongholds on the Afghan border.
Here are some details about the Pashtun tribal areas.
* The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) cover about 27,220 sq km (10,200 sq miles) of mountainous territory and are home to about 6 million people, most of them Pashtun. They border Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where militancy is spreading.
* The seven agencies that make up the FATA are Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Many residents sympathize with the former Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, their fellow Pashtuns.
* The area is awash with weapons. Few of Pakistan’s federal laws apply and outside interference is resented. Under a system inherited from colonial Britain, a government “political agent” administers through tribal elders who are meant to maintain peace and keep open roads such as the Khyber Pass, a vital supply route for Western forces in Afghanistan.
* Al Qaeda members have lived in the area for years, particularly in Bajaur, security officials say.
* An umbrella group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, is led by Baitullah Mehsud. He is accused of a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan since mid-2007, including the murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud is based in South Waziristan and main allied factions are in North Waziristan and Bajaur.
* These factions are closest to the Afghan Taliban, are most involved in the Afghan insurgency and harbor most of an estimated several thousand foreign militants in the region.
* Fighters from these groups infiltrated the Swat Valley in NWFP, where violence surged last year and has carried on intermittently despite a peace pact signed in May.
* Other factions, usually formed by a tribe or clan, espouse the hardline, Taliban cause but have not joined the
* Some criminal gangs also profess to be Taliban.
* Pakistani troops rarely entered the area before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. A succession of military forays and peace pacts since then has failed to stem the militants’ growing strength and spread.
* The military launched an offensive in Bajaur in August and the government says more than 600 militants have been killed. Fighting has also been heavy in Swat.
* The government says it has a three-pronged strategy to tackle the militants: making peace with those who renounce violence, economic development and using force as a last resort.
* The U.S. military said recently the greatest challenge to long-term Afghan security was insurgent sanctuaries in FATA.
* Frustrated by a surge in Taliban violence in Afghanistan, the United States has stepped up missile strikes on militant targets in the tribal areas.
* On September 3, U.S. commandos launched a helicopter-borne ground assault on a village in South Waziristan, infuriating the Pakistani military, which vowed to defend Pakistani territory.
* The United States has promised $750 million in aid to develop the FATA.
Editing by Robert Birsel