Home to more than 50 militant groups, religious extremism plagues Pakistan, despite an ongoing army clampdown on militants, as reflected in January's Global Extremism Monitor.

On a misty morning on January 20 this year, terrorists affiliated with the notorious Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) scaled the walls of Bacha Khan University killing 18 students and a faculty member. The attack came as followers of the eponymous political leader (nicknamed the 'frontier Ghandi') were set to observe the 27th anniversary of his death. It was the second assault of its kind on an educational institution in the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in under 14 months. Militants from the same outfit targeted a school in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 141 people, including 132 children.

Only a week before January's university attack, a TTP suicide bomber struck a polio eradication centre in the western city of Quetta, killing 15 and wounding 10. And there was more. Attacks on religious minorities, kidnapping of Shia civilians and bloody assaults on security forces marked a violent start to 2016 for Pakistan, a fact reflected in the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Global Extremism Monitor for January. Pakistan topped the month's worldwide rankings in terms of violent and non-violent extremist incidents combined. Some 130 people were killed in 21 incidents of terror.

130 died in 21 extremist incidents in Pakistan last month.

January's surge in religious extremism, which comes amid the army's ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb against militant strongholds, reflects a more general trend. In fact, the back-to-back attacks last month reflect a failure of Pakistan's counter-extremism efforts against the more than 50 militant outfits active in the country. Despite a hiatus following another large-scale push in the volatile North Waziristan Agency last year, the militants are once again in action.

Battling the extremists

Pakistan's military offensive encompasses operations in the volatile North Waziristan Agency and other tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, seen as bastions of local and foreign jihadis. An additional move in December 2014 to allow the army to try prominent extremists in military courts garnered outcry from human rights campaigners.

The birth of ISIS in parts of the restive areas on the Afghan border and renewed, sophisticated attacks by offshoots of the TTP, with alleged moral support from anti-Shia groups, has stunned both the civil and military establishment.

In addition, the conflict in Syria has triggered a new recruitment drive for young jihadis in a country already rife with militancy. This month, the head of Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau acknowledged before a parliamentary panel that ISIS' presence in the country is growing. Though ISIS and the Taliban are rivals, he said that the Pakistani Taliban had worked with ISIS.

One result of the military offensive is that the militants have fled strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Area and travelled to cities across the country. The Bacha Khan University and polio centre attacks demonstrate a capacity to strike widely. The fact there has been little let-up in extremist violence, despite robust security activities, shows the need for the state to get to the root by discouraging Salafi-jihadi ideology.

The government has, in fact, long spoken about reforming madrassas with extremist links, but despite headline-making statements there has been slow progress.

An extremist climate

Pakistani militant groups are able to strike widely.Banned outfits affiliated directly or indirectly with militant religious extremists still actively operate in Pakistan under new names, despite the pushback from authorities. The now-defunct anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) operates under the name of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The group's activists holdrallies in the heart of Islamabad, spewing sectarian rhetoric against Shia Islam. Usually they demonstrate after Friday prayers.Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM), which ran training camps in the mountains of Kashmir before 9/11, now operates under the name of Ansar ul-Ummah Pakistan, its leader Maulana Kahlil preaches jihadi literature in a seminary in Islamabad. Heads of religious political parties and extremist outfits like ASWJ, HuM, and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD) arrange rallies under the platform of the Defence of Pakistan Council, an umbrella group of conservative organisations.With some extremists tolerated while the state targets others, this has further encouraged religious violence and provided a breeding ground for the new recruitment drive of foreign Islamist insurgents. For instance, the state has allowed ASWJ to continue peaceful and political activities while banning outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and SSP, which once led the ASWJ. Last year, the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Shari appealed to TTP militants not to attack Punjab.Neighbouring Afghanistan provides succor to extremists in other ways, too. The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan has provided a new and lucrative employment opportunity for the disgruntled members of the Haqqani network and other Taliban factions.Pakistan, being a participant of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group on the Afghan peace process, is now convinced that a political approach to ending religious extremism in Afghanistan will be more effective than a military one for the problem in Pakistan. Islamabad attended the four-nation meeting in Kabul on 23 February, pleading to chalk out a political solution to the ongoing Islamist insurgency. But a purely political solution is interpreted by some critics as not going far enough to address the roots of the issue.