Recent articles published in the US media are giving the impression that Islamic State, with a global Jihadi appeal, is struggling hard to get a foothold in Pakistan but the authors of these articles are either downplaying the tell tale signs or the articles lack the necessary framework in which emerging terror organizations flourish.
As the Taliban lose steam as a result of the death of their supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and splintering and internal fighting, stage is set for a new group to take over. A cursory look at the metamorphosis of Jihadi organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past two decades indicate that they are getting deadlier, sophisticated and high tech savvy with every passing year; from Mujahideen groups willing to negotiate to Taliban willing to blow up and finally to Islamic State willing to behead innocent people. This is a worrying development not only for the South Asian region but for the entire world as well.
More recently, the expansion of the Islamic State into eastern Afghanistan has led U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter to undertake a surprise visit to the Jalalabad Base in Nangarhar province where some 600 US troops are stationed. Mr. Carter warned of the Islamic State threat amid worsening security situation in Afghanistan creating more fears for the stability of the national unity government in Kabul. Khorasan Group, the Islamic State’s branch for South and Central Asia, opened its first radio station in Nangarhar province which is clearly audible in the tribal regions of Pakistan and its presence in Afghanistan will have a spill over effect in Pakistan across the porous Durand Line.
There are certain unmistaken sings that suggest the emergence of and a strong footprint of the Islamic State in Sunni-majority Pakistan. With a population of 200 million, nine percent of Pakistanis support the Islamic State but more troublesome is the fact that 62 percent don’t know the answer to this question, reports a PEW research survey.
Presently, Deobandi terror groups are giving way to Salafi/Takfiri terror groups inspired from the Islamic State. Taliban splinter groups announcing their support for Islamic State and pledging allegiance to its so-called “Caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and more importantly, Pakistani terror organizations such as JuD and LeT, waging a Jihad in Kashmir, are completely aligned with the same ideology that Islamic State is propagating in Iraq and Syria.
Arif Jamal, author of a book on LeT recently told me “The Islamic State and the JuD and LeT are two sides of the Salafism coin. They are actually natural allies. They are closely cooperating in Nuristan, Kunar and Nagarhar and other places in Afghanistan. JuD leaders’ anti-Islamic State statements are meant to take us away from the ground reality”.
In the capital Islamabad, Mullah Abdul Aziz, the famous cleric of Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) uprising, has publicly denounced the constitution of Pakistan and openly supports the attackers on Pakistan’s security forces. However, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has refused to issue orders to arrest him. Jamal said, “We now know that the then ISI Chief General Kayani unleashed the Red Mosque Brigade to destabilize the regime of General Musharraf in 2007. The rise of the Red Mosque Brigade and Lawyers’ Movement simultaneously were not mere co-incidences. I would say that the rise of the Red Mosque and Lawyers’ Movement and the murder of Benazir Bhutto later were closely interconnected.”
Though wall chalking and pamphlets in support of the Islamic State in various cities in Pakistan have been showing up since 2014, two recent incidents in Karachi indicate more support for the group. The Vice Chancellor of a private university is being held on charges on material support to the Islamic State, and a group of 20 influential women were arrested by Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in Karachi are now said to be the financiers for the group. The accused were behind the Safoora carnage in which 46 Shias were ruthlessly massacred on a bus in May 2015. Reports have started to pour in from all major urban centers of the country about active recruitment for the group. The latest revelation came out on Dec 27 that CTD has busted an Islamic State cell in Sialkot and according to investigators, the eight operatives arrested from the cell have vowed to “overthrow democracy and introduce Khilafat in Pakistan through armed struggle”.
Pakistan has about 20 percent Shia population and some 500 Shias have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight against the Islamic State. A recent car bombing in the Shia-majority Para Chinar city of the tribal region of Kurram killed 25 and injured dozens. Those who have recently joined the fight in Syria are now actively using social media to lure others in to joining the Islamic State.
The Pakistani terror group ASWJ accepted the responsibility and put the blame on Shias traveling to Syria and Iraq. The ASWJ purportedly had an electoral alliance in Punjab with the ruling Muslim League of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The Pakistani officials have consistently refuted the presence of Islamic State operatives in the country and Nisar as recently as May this year categorically denied their presence. On October 3, Army Chief Raheel Sharif said in an address to The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London “even a shadow of IS will not be allowed”.
The Pakistani state is in denial for three main reasons - first the military establishment does not want to give the impression that their Zarb-e-Azb operation in the tribal regions of Pakistan is anything short of complete victory over terrorists. In essence, most of these terrorists have been pushed to the Afghan territories where they are strengthening the Afghan Taliban ranks. Secondly, they want to assure the United States that Islamic State is not a threat to either Pakistan or the United States and the funding should continue to flow to Pakistan and its armed forces. Thirdly, the National Action Plan, initiated after the horrific school massacre in Peshawar in December 2014, is sluggish on many fronts and has not yielded the desired results, especially curbing funding sources to the seminaries.
Pakistan continues to ignore the threat posed by its more than 30,000 religious seminaries and Pakistan’s Interior Minister declared it on the Parliament floor that “these seminaries are partners of the government and not our target”. He added “why should we target them if they had not committed any terrorism.” All attempts to regulate these seminaries have failed due to religious backlash or political opposition.
The recent case of radicalization of the San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik is just the tip of the iceberg. Founded by an ultra conservative Farhat Hashmi, the school system where Malik was radicalized is known for radical conservative teachings and has worldwide presence. Arif Jamal told me, “al-Huda school system is closely allied and linked with a Pakistan-based Salafist jihadist group Tehreekul Mujahideen which is waging jihad in Kashmir. Tehreekul Mujahideen is the armed wing of Jamiat Ahle Hadith of Pakistan, which is hugely funded by Saudi Arabia.”
As Henry Kissinger famously said “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full”. Can the world deal with the Islamic State in a nuclear armed Pakistan? Let’s not forget that Pakistan is manufacturing tactical nuclear weapons by the tons and they can not only be used by the State but also actively sought after by the non-state actors as well.