A banned Pakistani militia whose formation can be traced to its loyalties to a Sufi cleric is now positioning itself as the last bastion of hope against extremists intent on controlling regions surrounding the historic Khyber Pass.
Ansar ul-Islam, which in recent days has been engaged in bloody skirmishes with the most hard-line and violent Taliban faction in Pakistan, has a history of fighting against fellow militant Islamist groups in the region.
In recent days residents of the Khyber Agency, located in Pakistan's northwest FATA tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, are crediting Ansar ul-Islam with fiercely resisting the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Since January 25, more than 80 civilians and fighters have died in skirmishes between the two groups in the remote Tirah region of Khyber.
Ansar ul-Islam, like the TTP, is officially banned by the Pakistani government and has been accused of reprisals and killings. Critics claim it aims to control the Afridi tribe, the largest tribe in Khyber Agency, in order to take over the lucrative trade that passes through the district.
'They Are Not Terrorists'
Latif Afridi, a secular politician from the region, says that Ansar ul-Islam is fighting against a coalition of the TTP, Al-Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Islam -- its hard-line nemesis in Khyber.
Afridi says Ansar ul-Islam is essentially acting as a defense force for the region.
"They are not terrorists. They have never been involved in terrorist activities such as suicide bombings," Afridi says. "They are just fighting for protecting their region. They have always helped the government in its efforts to establish peace in the region."
Ansar ul-Islam arrived on the scene when followers of an Afghan Sufi preacher, Pir Saifur Rehman, formed the militia in 2004 to counter the Lashkar-e-Islam (Army of Islam) formed by Mufti Munir Shakir, a hard-line Sunni cleric who opposes Sufism.
Rehman and Shakir followed two different sects of Sunni Islam. The former preached Brelvi Islam inspired by Sufism, while the latter advocated puritanical Deobandi Islam.
The two engaged in a propaganda war, branding each other "infidels" through their own illegal FM radio stations.
Pakistani authorities expelled both clerics from Khyber in 2006 and Rehman later died in Lahore, but their followers kept Ansar ul-Islam and Lashkar-e-Islam alive as rival militias.
The two groups moved their fight from the lowland trading town of Bara into the highlands of Tirah, where clans and families among the Afridi Pashtun tribe supplied their fighters.
Ansar ul-Islam counted on local support and covert government aid, while Lashkar-e-Islam established an alliance with the TTP.
Thousands have died and tens of thousands of families have been displaced by the fighting between the two groups since 2006.
Afridi says that, over the years, Ansar ul-Islam has emerged as a more moderate faction focused on protecting its supporters.
'Government Needs Such Groups'
Most significantly, it has moved away from preaching sectarian hatred, which wins it more support among the Afridis of Khyber.
"In a way, they are good people. Pakistan today needs such people," Afridi says. "They do not engage in sectarian hatred and are tolerant. You can sit with them and they will even listen to your advice or criticism. The government needs such groups."
According to Farhad Shinwari, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in Khyber Agency, Ansar ul-Islam helps the local authorities to deliver health care and education in regions it controls.
"They often meet officials and always ask for more development projects," Shinwari says. "All the schools are open in the regions they control. None of the public schools has been blown up. A large number of students regularly attend these schools. They have also helped in administering successful polio-vaccination campaigns here."
Afridi says that the current fighting erupted after Ansar ul-Islam resisted a TTP move to expand its control within Khyber Agency. Recently, the TTP began to move eastward into the district's Maidan region, which is controlled by Ansar ul-Islam.
He says that the TTP forcefully evicted some 1,300 Pashtun families from the western part of Khyber Agency in the summer of 2012 to provide shelter for Al-Qaeda fighters targeted by relentless drone strikes in their North Waziristan base, some 300 kilometers south of Khyber.
Afridi says that a defeat of Ansar ul-Islam would have far-reaching consequences.
He says that if the TTP and Al-Qaeda were to establish control over Maidan in Tirah, peace in Khyber and the surrounding regions would be severely threatened. A stranglehold over the mountainous region would facilitate their attacks against targets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province's capital, Peshawar, which abuts Khyber to the east.
"It will make it very difficult for the displaced Afridi tribesmen to return to their homes and will also stir an even greater displacement crisis," Afridi says.
In recent weeks, the TTP has intensified its violent campaign. It has staged numerous high-profile attacks in Peshawar, including the assassination of senior government minister Bashir Bilour in late December.