December Issue 2015
The IS Footprint in Pakistan
The best chance for the so-called Islamic State (IS), or Daesh as it is commonly known, to prosper in Afghanistan and, by extension, in Pakistan was the growing differences among the Afghan Taliban factions following the death of their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Though the Taliban subsequently split into two factions and some of their members began fighting each other in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, IS has yet to benefit from the situation as the Taliban dissidents didn’t opt to join it. The breakaway Taliban faction organised itself under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Rasool, who served as governor of two provinces during the Taliban rule from 1996-2001, and began operating independently instead of aligning with IS.
While the founder of the 21-year-old Taliban movement, Mullah Omar was a unifying leader, his hurriedly chosen successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, predictably proved a divisive figure. The manner in which Mansoor manipulated his appointment as the new Taliban leader in late July annoyed many stalwarts of the group, who refused to pledge loyalty to him.
Having already attracted to its fold some Afghan Taliban fighters, notably Abdul Rauf Khadim, who due to his imprisonment in the US prison at Guantanamo had earned fame among the Taliban, IS was hoping to bolster its ranks by luring the dissidents. It publicly made an appeal to Taliban members to join IS by reminding them that following Mullah Omar’s death, their group had gone into the hands of the controversial Mansoor and, therefore, it was time to wage real jihad against the infidels and their agents, from the platform of IS under the leadership of their ‘caliph,’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As it turned out, the appeal fell on deaf ears.
Though Afghanistan and Pakistan presented the best opportunity for IS to gain a foothold, the militant group has also been actively seeking adherents in the wider South Asia and Central Asia regions. In most cases, Muslims, inspired by IS, have on their own been announcing allegiance to it or joining its forces in Iraq and Syria.
Controlling territory, benefiting from oil revenues and running a sophisticated propaganda campaign, IS has emerged as arguably the biggest militant organisation after edging out Al Qaeda and winning affiliation from a number of local militants, such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabab in Africa, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and those operating in Yemen, Libya and Egypt.
There are reports that Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang province and Chechens and other Russians from the Caucasus are fighting alongside IS. One of the top five IS leaders is stated to be from the Russian Caucasus.
In Tajikistan, the ex-commander of the elite special forces, Gulmorad Khalimov appeared in a video declaring his allegiance to IS. Reports in the media said 400 Tajikis are fighting alongside IS in Iraq and Syria. More could join IS now that the authoritarian Tajikistan ruler Imamali Rahmon has placed curbs on the Islamic Renaissance Party, which had joined the government years ago as part of a deal to end the civil war.
Nearer home in Bangladesh, IS claimed responsibility for the assassination of secular bloggers and publishers and also for the first-ever bombing of a Shia religious gathering in Dhaka. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s secular government in Bangladesh has been insisting that there is no evidence of IS presence in the country. In fact, government officials asserted that the attacks could be linked to local extremist Islamic groups.
In the Maldives, President Abdullah Yameen survived a bomb blast in his speedboat in late September and soon afterwards got his Vice President, Ahmed Adheeb, arrested on suspicion of his involvement in the attack. Prior to this, and intriguingly enough, three masked men in a video that showed the black flags of IS in the background, threatened to kill the president and other government functionaries.
It is obvious that IS has been trying to exploit the acute political problems besetting both Bangladesh and the Maldives. Even if IS has no presence in these two politically unstable South Asian countries, it managed to cause a scare by claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks that may have been organised by local militant groups.
The case of India is interesting. Despite its best efforts, Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda had failed to attract recruits from among the Indian Muslims. However, one known Indian who finally joined it was Maulana Asim Umar, who was appointed head of Al Qaeda in South Asia by bin Laden’s successor, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, in September
2014. It is not known if Asim Umar, born in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, has been able to recruit other Indian Muslims for Al Qaeda, which has been active in the Af-Pak region but has yet to carry out any attack in India.
In comparison, IS has been far more successful in influencing Indian Muslims and recruiting them, from among the diaspora in the Middle East, to fight for it in Iraq and Syria. Indian analysts have been saying that dozens of Muslims from India are fighting and dying for IS and the body of at least one was returned to Mumbai for burial.
However, it is Afghanistan and Pakistan that are the focus of IS attention due to the history of militancy in the two countries and the greater chances of attracting young men, mostly unemployed, into its fold. The Afghan and Pakistani militants began organising under the IS banner in the two countries late last year. The announcement of its emergence was made by Shahidullah Shahid, a former spokesperson for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who belonged to Pakistan’s Orakzai tribal agency. He later became the IS spokesman, but was killed in a US drone strike in the summer of 2015 in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
Militants seeking allegiance to IS had to wait for almost five months to gain acceptance from the group’s headquarters in Iraq/Syria, when its central spokesman Abu al-Adnani announced in January 2015 the launching of the Khorasan unit of IS. He referred to it as the Khorasan province of the IS-led caliphate by evoking the ancient name of this region. A Pakistani militant, Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, who once headed the TTP in Orakzai Agency, was named as its ameer (head) and the former Afghan Taliban commander, Abdul Rauf Khadim as his deputy. The two names were proposed by Afghan and Pakistani militants in a video they had made in Arabic, swearing allegiance to the IS head al-Baghdadi and showing the flying of its black flags by horse-riders. The delay in accepting the pledge of loyalty from the members of the IS Khorasan chapter based in the Af-Pak region was due to communication and logistics hurdles as they had to avoid being tracked down while interacting with the central leadership in the war zones of Iraq and Syria.
By appointing a Pakistani and an Afghan militant to the top positions in IS Khorasan, al-Baghdadi reinforced the IS belief that it doesn’t believe in borders between Islamic countries and considers all of them as part of a caliphate. Another noteworthy aspect of the composition of the IS Khorasan was that all its members had developed differences with their original organisations such as the TTP and the Afghan Taliban and were seeking a new career with the rising IS. The new IS Khorasan head, Hafiz Saeed, had quit the TTP when Maulana Fazlullah became its leader after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike, as he too was an aspirant for the job. His deputy, Abdul Rauf Khadim, had developed differences with the Afghan Taliban leadership and was ready to join IS when it set up its unit in the Af-Pak region.
In Afghanistan, the largest IS footprint is in the eastern Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan, as it has occupied territory in some districts and unleashed a reign of terror. It tried to find support in Farah, Zabul and Helmand provinces, but didn’t receive any positive response. In Helmand, the death of Abdur Rauf Khadim dealt a severe blow to its efforts to challenge the Afghan Taliban. Though the UN had reported that IS has a growing number of sympathisers and was able to recruit in 25 out of 34 provinces, this wasn’t established by any credible evidence. The presence of a few hundred militants from IMU in Zabul province, who had fled North Waziristan after the Pakistan military action there last year, gave hope to the IS as the IMU had pledged allegiance to it. However, the Afghan Taliban loyal to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor attacked its base and also that of dissident Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah to destroy IS’s chances of gaining strength in the area.
The IS Khorasan lost its top leaders such as Abdul
Rauf Khadim, Shahidullah Shahid and Gul Zaman before it could establish itself. Presently it does not have anyone of stature to attract support and recruits. Differences in its ranks also became visible when one of its Afghan leaders, Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, resigned after accusing Hafiz Saeed of committing atrocities against civilians in Afghanistan. This also revealed tensions between the Afghan and Pakistan members of IS.
The governments in the region are cognisant of the IS threat and are taking measures to tackle it. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a speech to the US Congress in March, said Afghanistan was the “front line” against the “terrible threat” posed by IS.
Pakistan Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has repeatedly said there is no IS presence in Pakistan. Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif said he would not even allow the shadow of IS in Pakistan.
A Pentagon spokesman, in early 2015, said the IS presence in Afghanistan was “nascent at best,” but recently the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, conceded that it had become “operationally emergent,” with a presence in Helmand, Farah and Nangarhar.
In fact, there is a consensus in the region not to allow IS to entrench itself. The regional countries, along with the US and its allies as well as China and Russia, could fight IS together if they overcome distrust and increase anti-terrorism cooperation.
In Pakistan, the jihadi space is already over-crowded due to the presence of several militant groups and ostensibly there isn’t much room for IS. However, the Orakzai Agency is home to most IS fighters from Pakistan due to the presence of Hafiz Saeed Orakzai, and there are some in other tribal areas and districts. There were reports that around 100 Pakistanis had crossed over to Afghanistan after the military action last winter in the Tirah valley of Orakzai and Khyber, and become part of IS.
Recent media reports that young educated men from Karachi, who were involved in terrorist activities, were ‘inspired’ by IS-created confusion. The police issued a denial but the confusion persisted. Pakistani officials have continued to claim there is no IS presence in the country, though pro-IS wall-chalkings have been witnessed in some cities. The IS booklet Fatah, translated into Pashto and Dari, was also distributed in Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar.
Authorities in Khyber and Orakzai are concerned about the return of militants to Tirah valley. The authorities recently convened a meeting of tribal elders to seek their help to stop militants from returning. Pakistani militants from IS could be trying to return from Afghanistan where they are under attack from all sides, including US drones, Afghan government forces and the Afghan Taliban.
IS was nothing until a year ago, but now that it is emerging as a formidable force in the Middle East, Pakistan needs to be on high alert. Its prospects of growth do not appear to be bright at this stage, but it could pose a threat in the future. It certainly has its sympathisers and possibly sleeper cells too. There is a constant need to remain vigilant as IS has been looking for opportunities to gain support in the Af-Pak region.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.