By Farhan Zahid, RSIS
Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses
Volume 9, Issue 5 | May 2017
Since its formation in 2014, terrorist attacks and violent incidents linked to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group have risen steadily in Pakistan. IS in Pakistan has been active, with varying degrees, in all four provinces of the country and has forged tactical alliances with like-minded local militant groups. Looking ahead, IS is likely to assert its dominance through local affiliates in urban centres of Pakistan, specifically the Punjab province.
In June 2014, with the proclamation of the so-called Caliphate in Iraq‘s al-Nuri mosque, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group replaced Al-Qaeda as the leader of global jihad. However, the recent territorial losses that IS has suffered in Iraq and Syria have once again rendered the global jihadist landscape a hybrid of Al Qaeda and IS. Notwithstanding its recent losses, IS has managed to retain, and even increase its strength in other conflict-prone areas around the world.
The recent spate of high-profile attacks in south-western Pakistan indicates that IS regional affiliate, the Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK), has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in Af-Pak‘s saturated militant landscape. ISK has done this by exploiting the sectarian and communal fault-lines in the country (violence against Shia and Sufi Muslims), promoting the pro-Caliphate propaganda which resonates with the university-educated and urban jihadists, and waging jihad against the ―taghoot‖ (imperial powers) namely the United States and its Western allies as well as the ―murtadeen‖ or the ―apostate regimes.
Background of IS Presence
Established in early 2015, the ISK had been able to attract support from Tehreek-e-Khilafat Pakistan, the Shahidullah Shahid Group and the Bajaur chapter of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami (LJA) and Jundullah. The leaders of these organisations, previously linked to Al-Qaeda, have taken the oath of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Initially, IS announced Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost as its Emir for the Khurasan region. An Afghan national, Muslim Dost was a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. He had re-joined the Afghan Taliban after his release and had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi in 2014. However, the IS leadership had replaced Muslim Dost with Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, a commander of the TTP Fazlullah faction, who had defected to IS in September 2014. Saeed hailed from the Orakzai district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, and was commanding the group‘s Orakzai chapter. He was later killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan in July 2016.1 IS has not appointed a replacement for Saeed, but still continues its activities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Presently, an Afghan militant commander, Abdul Haseeb Loghari hailing from Afghanistan‘s Logar province, is the acting commander of the ISK.
IS’ Strategy for Pakistan
IS is currently involved in a recruitment drive within the country, banking upon providing a safe-haven to TTP militants who fled to border areas of Afghanistan after facing military operations (Zarb-e-Azb and Rad-ul-Fasad) across FATA. Additionally, IS is consolidating its territorial control within the Nangarhar and Kunar provinces and the Salafi belt in eastern Afghanistan. The group‘s visibility in Pakistan is closely linked to multiple independent and isolated IS cells that were uncovered in the country throughout 2015 and 2016.
Despite serious setbacks in Iraq and Syria, IS has extended its tentacles into Pakistan and Afghanistan. 2016 was a crucial year for the Pakistani state as rising IS-linked incidents led to the government officially acknowledging the group‘s presence in the country, notwithstanding the erstwhile denials. In this regard, the Director General of Intelligence Bureau, Aftab Sultan, while briefing the Senate Standing Committee on Interior and Narcotics Control said, ―TTP coordinates with Daesh (IS) despite being rivals in Afghanistan… the intelligence bureau is identifying signs of the militants‘ presence in the country and carrying out arrests where necessary. There are reports of fighters being recruited by sectarian and other outfits, and being sent to Syria. The number of people leaving from Pakistan to Syria to join IS are in hundreds.
It is evident that with a population of 180 million, proximity to Afghanistan, poor socio-economic indicators, and the presence of an active network of Jihadist groups, the country provides a fertile recruitment pool for IS. The Pakistani government and military establishment are making earnest efforts to counter IS influence in the country. However, progress has been moderate due to the deeply entrenched presence of a plethora of militant groups operating in and out of the country. These groups have conducted terrorist attacks on behalf of IS, with ISK providing the funding and IS central claiming responsibility through Amaaq, its official mouthpiece.
The Extent of IS Presence in Pakistan
IS is expanding its network in Pakistan in a gradual, yet cautious manner. The apparent focus is on recruitment at different levels and bringing already existing terrorist groups into its fold. Remarkably, IS has been able to attract attention from the educated urban youth of middle- and upper-middle class who are likely to have been inspired by the global reach of the group. IS‘ ability to establish the so-called Caliphate also captivated the youths who have grievances against the state and the present establishment.
In addition to the above-mentioned terrorist organisations that have pledged allegiance to IS, a number of IS-inspired urban cells (previously part of Al-Qaeda Core‘s broader network in Pakistan) in Karachi, Islamabad, Sialkot, and Lahore conducted recruitment activities and terrorist strikes. Overall, a sizable number of the jihadists joining IS in Pakistan were previously part of the Salafist terrorist organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and Deobandi sectarian group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
According to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) database, nine terrorist attacks were perpetrated by IS and its affiliated network in Pakistan in 2016, killing 129 people and injuring 112. A majority of the attacks were claimed by LJA, a faction of LeJ. The LeJ has tilted towards IS because both share similar ideologies in terms of opposition towards Shias and Sufis. LeJ‘s founder Malik Ishaq earlier attempted to merge LeJ with IS before he was killed in a staged police encounter in Muzafargarh district of Punjab.
Karachi, Sindh‘s provincial capital, and the mainstay of Pakistan‘s economy has remained IS‘ area of focus. In December 2015, an IS-affiliated cell of educated young militants ambushed a bus carrying Ismaili-Shias, killed 43 people, and left behind IS leaflets. Some of the cell members were arrested by January 2016 following raids across various districts in Punjab. During the investigation, the official of Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) discovered that the same cell was involved in the murder of a notable social activist Sabeen Mehmood, the targeted assassinations of a number of workers of the secular party the Mutahida Quami Movement (MQM) and police officials in different parts of Sindh. Most recently, the prominent IS attack was in February 2017 when a suicide bomber targeted the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan city, killing 75 devotees and injuring over 200.
The major breakthrough against IS in Karachi came in March 2016 when a veteran militant Kamran Aslam alias Kamran Gujjar was killed in a police encounter. Gujjar had recently joined IS in Pakistan and was previously associated with Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
One of the major operations against active IS cells in the outskirts of Karachi was conducted by the paramilitary force, Pakistan Rangers. The Rangers‘ spokesperson claimed that the militants killed in this operation were formerly associated with TTP and AQ before joining IS.
Asif Ramzi alias Chotoo, the commander of LeJ‘s Karachi chapter, was arrested in Punjab‘s Dera Ghazi Khan district in February 2016. Before his detention, Asif reorganised the structure of his LeJ cell in Karachi and planned and executed operations against the Shia community in the city. Asif was also involved in developing LeJ‘s links with IS following the killing of LeJ‘s chief Malik Ishaq by the authorities. In November 2016, Punjab police busted an IS cell in Lahore involved in propagating IS ideology through social media platforms. Eight cell members were arrested and IS literature, videos, mobile phones, laptops, and anti-army pamphlets were seized from them. The cell members had been able to send at least 14 people to Syria, including their families, and were planning to leave for Syria soon. A total of six IS cells were also busted in the first quarter of 2017 after security was beefed up in the province.
Only a few months after the fall of Iraqi city of Mosul to IS, pro-Caliphate graffiti eulogising and welcoming Baghdadi appeared in Balochistan.9 It was also reported that an IS delegation from Syria visited Balochistan in late 2014 and held meetings with the leader of Jundullah.
Despite repeated denials, it became evident that IS is present in Balochistan when the Home Minister claimed that six IS militants had been arrested in the Noshki district, with a huge cache of arms, jihadi literature, and explosives in August 2016.
So far, IS has carried out two high-profile attacks in Balochistan in collusion with LJA, with the first attack targeting the Police Training College in Quetta which killed 61 police cadets. In the second attack, a suicide bomber targeted the shrine of a Sufi saint Shah Noorani in Khuzdar district, leaving 52 people dead and 102 others wounded.11 IS and LeJA both claimed responsibility for the attacks. It appears that Balochistan is rapidly becoming a new hub of IS.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK)
IS has not been successful in establishing a stronghold or presence in the KPK province. The group has also not conducted any major attacks in the province. However, some factions of TTP, based in KPK, had earlier pledgedallegiance to IS. In a recent operation, the CTD of KPK province revealed that IS‘ plans to attack the Shia Imambargah (Shia mosque) in Kaghan Valley in district Manshera were foiled in November 2016.
Despite government efforts to curb IS influence, the group poses a significant tangible and intangible threat to Pakistan. It has not only injected the issue of Caliphate as the new theme in the country‘s extremist narrative but it is also improving its operational capabilities to mount large-scale attacks. This could be primarily due to the widerange of terrorist groups already operating within. IS has much more to offer to youth vulnerable to radicalisation and violent extremism in comparison with other Islamist terrorist groups as it has managed to govern a territory (albeit now shrinking), implemented Sharia laws, promulgated the Islamic Caliphate, and filled the vacuum left by the weakening Al-Qaeda after the death of its leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011. However, it is likely that IS may not be able to exert continued influence in the long-term, unless it finds a charismatic leader for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. As IS has not been able to bring many seasoned and experienced terrorist commanders from the existing terrorist groups to its fold, the lack of a known jihadi leader remains a hurdle to the group‘s on-going efforts within the country.
About the Author: Farhan Zahid did his Ph.D. in Counter Terrorism (Topic: Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist violent Non-State Actors in Pakistan and their relationship with Islamist Parties) from Vrije University Brussels, Belgium.