By Syed Arfeen
The alliance of Islamic State with other terrorist and anti-sate groups is a growing concern in Pakistan. “The next safe haven for fleeing militants from Syria and Iraq would be Afghanistan, where its presence has already been established. This is a worrisome phenomenon because ultimately they will strike in our country,” cautions an official from Pakistan’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD).
In February, two explosions jolted the nation. On Feb. 13, Pakistan’s most vibrant provincial capital, Lahore, was rocked by an explosion when a Pakistani Taliban faction Jamat-ul-Ahrar suicide bomber detonated a bomb near the Punjab Assembly, killing more than a dozen people, including the Deputy Inspector General and Senior Superintendent of Police.
Three days later, on Feb. 16, a bomb blast ripped through the most revered Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan, Sindh, killing at least 88 devotees and leaving scores injured. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
Though law enforcement agencies busted an Islamic State network in Pakistan last September, the group is still a potent threat, as it is now using local militants to achieve its targets. Counterterrorism officials believe that the country is fertile ground for the continued growth of Islamic State. After receiving a huge blow in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State fighters have started shifting their focus toward the land of Khurasan (comprising of some parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). Scores of Pakistani militants went to Syria and Iraq to fight, and their ultimate return to their homeland is a looming threat.
The region holds great importance for jihadist organizations due to a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: “When you see that black flags have appeared from Khurasan then join them because Allah’s Khalifa (messenger of God) Mahdi will be among them.” Some Islamic scholars question the authenticity of this saying, however.
Most Islamist militant groups, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State, use black flags, and their top leaders wear black turbans. After declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the self-proclaimed caliph—appeared in head-to-toe black clothing. Militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan have also started adding “Khurasani” to their names.
Authorities in Pakistan were first alerted about the threat of the Islamic State in July 2014, shortly after the group declared the establishment of a caliphate in the territories it controlled in Iraq and Syria. In a seven-minute video, posted online, 12 men dressed in black tunics, wielding guns and knives, held up a banner reading: “Sympathizers of the Islamic State in Pakistan.” The video, which could not be independently verified, ended with an audio message by Baghdadi, who today is believed to be hiding in Mosul, Iraq.
On Sept. 1, 2016, the former spokesman of the Pakistan army, Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa, admitted that the Islamic State had a presence in the country. He disclosed in a press briefing that over 309 people, including foreign nationals, were arrested in connection to the terror outfit and that authorities had thwarted plans to attack foreign embassies and the Islamabad airport. This was the first confirmation of the Islamic State’s footprint in the country by any Pakistani official. The local leader was identified as Hafiz Umar, an electronics engineer and a Karachi resident. The 35-year-old militant is said to have personally overseen the organization’s first significant terror strike in the country, which targeted the Ismaili community.
On May 13, 2015, 11 gunmen stopped a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community near Safoora Goth in Karachi. The militants fired indiscriminately at the passengers, killing 45 and injuring 13. Both the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, but Pakistan’s foreign office dismissed the Islamic State’s claim and denied its presence in the country.
The connection between Pakistan and the jihadist movement are long standing. Pakistan was a base for, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, founding member of a group considered a predecessor to the Islamic State, at key junctures in his militant career. Zarqawi took up arms in Pakistan during the Afghan War from 1979 to 1989. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, he established his training camp in Herat Province. The Islamic State’s ideological father, Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, also visited Pakistan in the 1980s before moving to Jordan in the early 1990s.
The Islamic State now considers Pakistan part of its “Waliyat Khurasan,” or Khurasan chapter.
According to a report by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of Sindh titled “Pakistan as a fertile growth area for the Islamic State,” despite the support for the Islamic State among tribal leaders, the group has garnered more support among the general population in Pakistan’s settled areas. Further confirming this finding, the first pledge of allegiance by a militant group to the Islamic State came from the Karachi-based Tehreek-e-Khilaft Pakistan (TKP).
Islamic State recruitment appears to be high in Pakistan’s well-off Punjab province as well as in Karachi. Its widely available online literature has been effective in luring educated and affluent people into the fold. Propaganda videos and audio speeches aimed at recruiting young people were recovered from various cells of Islamic State during intelligence-based operations in Karachi, Islamabad, and Sialkot.
The CTD report further notes the rise in hard-line schools of thought, both within Pakistan and among Pakistanis who worked in Gulf countries, as a trend that can make individuals more susceptible to Islamic State influence. The Islamic State’s virulent hatred of Shiism has also contributed to its growth in Pakistan, as the country’s fault lines have allowed militant groups like the now-defunct sectarian terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) to operate. The top anti-Pakistan militant outfit, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is also a deeply sectarian outfit. Some of TTP’s sub-groups based in different tribal agencies are headed by individuals who were once affiliated with LeJ.
It is difficult for the Islamic State in Pakistan to establish a state similar to Syria and Iraq. Unlike in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State may find it hard to inspire foreigners to fight in Pakistan—a country where the organization controls no territory—but there are still some cracks for it to exploit.
The Islamic State’s penetration among educated individuals in urban areas cannot be denied. Umar and his second-in-command were both engineers, and most individuals arrested and identified in connection with group were well educated. The Counter Terrorism Department’s report pointed out, “the focus now is on tribal areas as a likely theater for IS expansion, but the real threat may come from IS luring individuals to its ideology in urban areas.”
“While IS may find it hard to extend its control in Pakistan, it may be able to cobble together enough adherents—fighters and polemicists—to cause turmoil in the country for years to come,” the report concluded.
The game has changed, with educated youth fueling extremism and militancy in Pakistan. There are examples of religious student bodies playing key roles in grooming future terrorists. Islamic lectures promoting extremism are being organized in posh localities, targeting educated, young members of well-off families. Some of these lectures take place in secret, few are under surveillance, and many go unreported. The security apparatus is facing an unconventional enemy with education and technological savvy, making it difficult to collect intelligence through normal means. The state will have to be one step ahead to confront this imminent threat.
Syed Arfeen is an investigative journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. He tweets @ArfeenSyyed and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo courtesy of Ali Imran]