June Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

On June 29, 2014, after 15 years of militant and ideological struggle in Iraq and the Levant, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as IS) announced a global Islamic caliphate. In September 2014, the first IS-supporting pamphlets appeared in Pakistan, with a booklet titled Fatah distributed in Peshawar. In the next few months, graffiti and literature supporting IS was found in other major Pakistani cities, including Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

In December 2014, a few days before the Peshawar school attack, Jamia Hafsa students from the Lal Masjid issued a video message in support of IS. The Arabic message started off with: “We thank Allah Almighty for bestowing upon us the great tidings of ISIS.”

In January this year, IS announced the creation of the state of ‘Khorasan,’ an area historically encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan. A statement released by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani from the IS media wing read: “We bring the mujahideen the good news of the Islamic State’s expansion to Khorasan (a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nearby lands). Therefore, we call upon all the mujahideen in Khorasan to join the caravan of the Khilafah [caliphate] and abandon disunity and factionalism.”

On April 18, 35 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani confirmed that IS had taken responsibility for the bombing — the group’s first major attack in South Asia.

A month later, on May 13, eight gunmen attacked an Ismaili bus near Safoora Chowrangi in Karachi, killing 46 people. The attack was simultaneously claimed by Jundullah, a Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter group that had pledged allegiance to IS in November 2014, and by the Islamic State itself. IS pamphlets were also found alongside the dead bodies.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, IS’ official social media accounts released a statement that read: “Thanks to God, 43 apostates were killed and close to 30 others were wounded in an attack by the soldiers of Islamic State (ISIS) on a bus carrying people of the Shia Ismaili sect… in Karachi.”

Does this mean that IS has formally announced its arrival in Pakistan?

“ISIS is present in Pakistan,” asserts Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. “Militants previously affiliated with the TTP in the Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram and other tribal agencies are formally part of the ISIS network,” he claims.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia Associate at The Wilson Centre in Washington, says “In my view, ISIS formally announced its arrival in Pakistan back in January. It made the announcement not through a bomb blast, but through a simple declaration.

“The group’s chief spokesperson said that it had formally expanded its presence into Afghanistan and Pakistan through the formation of a new ‘Khorasan’ faction. ISIS announced that several former Taliban leaders would be the representatives of this new ISIS faction,” Kugelman adds.

He continues: “This announcement was huge. It’s one thing to see pro-ISIS flags, wall graffiti, or pamphlets in Pakistan. It’s quite another thing for ISIS to actually come out and formally recognise the group’s presence in the country, and to appoint official representatives.”

Even so, should we buy IS’ claims without introspection?

“The problem is that sometimes there are multiple organisations claiming responsibility for the same attack,” says Zia Ur Rehman, journalist and author of Turmoil in Karachi. “Sometimes it’s just a pompous show of strength.”

Rafiq says it is still unclear who was actually responsible for the massacre of Ismaili Shias.

“There was a claim of responsibility by a dubious character, who is a self-styled spokesman of Jundullah. The Mehsud group of the TTP disseminated a claim of responsibility purportedly from IS’ ‘Khurasan province.’ And some Pakistani officials are blaming a foreign hand.

“One possibility is that the attack was perpetrated by Karachi-based jihadists who have rebranded under the IS umbrella and are now opting to conduct mass shootings against Shias in Karachi as has been perpetrated against Shias in Balochistan,” Rafiq says.

Kugelman highlights the importance of differentiating between the presence of IS and an actual operational threat. “Let’s be clear: a formal IS presence in Pakistan does not equate to the operational capacity to start carrying out large numbers of attacks. It needs fighters, arms, and money before we can start talking about it as a real operational threat.”

Myra MacDonald, author of Heights of Madness: The Siachen War, wonders “whether we are looking at the same terrorist infrastructure operating under a different brand name, or if IS is really bringing something new,” she says, adding that, “I doubt they would bring anything new in terms of manpower, but they might bring a change of tactics, and that in itself would be worrying.”

MacDonald further adds: “If the only difference is that existing militant groups are operating under a different brand name — i.e. TTP splinters are calling themselves IS — then there is no increase in the overall threat. That said, we still need to watch to see if their attempts to link up with IS brings either a change in tactics, or gives them greater ideological cache in attracting fresh recruits.”

She believes that the only difference between IS and the TTP, anti-Shia and brutal though they both are, is “the choreographed brutality of IS. It has been unusual in using slickly produced violence videos to intimidate.The Karachi bus attack looked like old TTP to me.”

But Rafiq stresses that “it is important to note that IS presence in Pakistan consists of existing anti-state militant groups who have defected from other anti-state militant networks.

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“They were already at war with the Pakistan military in areas like the Khyber and Kurram tribal agencies. So, on a localised basis in FATA, not much has changed. It’s the same old anti-state militant cells under a new banner. The Pakistan Army has been fighting these militants since 2009 and will continue to do so for the remainder of this decade.”

Rehman explains why former TTP militants are joining IS in numbers. “There were some Taliban leaders that had an acrimonious relationship with the TTP leadership. These include the Mohmand Taliban of the Khorasan,” he claims. “Another factor that alienated some of the militants of TTP umbrella groups was the lack of fame, especially when compared to the acclaim that IS is commanding the world over.”

But considering that IS has primarily been a Middle Eastern phenomenon, what strategic interests does it have in South Asia? If it has indeed established itself in South Asia, what about the future of the existing Islamist militant organisations in the region?

“IS is a strategic competitor to Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, the primary jihadist networks in South Asia,” says Rafiq. “It seeks to supplant these groups and absorb constituent elements of their networks.”

Rehman says the arrival of IS in South Asia created a conundrum for the Pakistani Taliban. “In Pakistan, the Taliban have basically been affiliated with the TTP or Al-Qaeda. So when IS decided to penetrate South Asia it caused a lot of disturbance between the Afghan Taliban and those militant leaders that decided to join IS,” he says.

“For IS to enter the region, it meant challenging the status quo of Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Al-Baghdadi asked everyone to pledge allegiance to him as the caliph of the Muslim World, which wasn’t received very warmly by the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders. This created a conundrum for the Pakistani Taliban.”

Rafiq claims that the new militant alignments are, in fact, quite fluid. “The various TTP groups have made moves to reconsolidate under the leadership of Fazlullah once again. They still operate separately. The Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is moving closer towards IS. And Al-Qaeda’s network in the region continues to be hammered by the Pakistani military and police forces as well as the CIA. The alignments of these jihadist groups remain quite fluid.”

However, MacDonald doesn’t quite understand why Pakistan is important for IS in the first place. “We should remember, this is a group that is very focused on Iraq and Syria. It doesn’t have the same kind of history as Al-Qaeda, for example, which had its roots in Peshawar and the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

“Of course, it’s always useful for a militant group to be able to show its reach — the bigger and more important it appears, the more money and recruits it gets. But boasting about having allies in Pakistan, and actually devoting resources to it are two different things,” she adds.

Rehman agrees. “I personally feel IS would limit its main activities to the Middle East. Whatever it might be doing right now in Pakistan is just another attention grabbing stunt to showcase global reach.”

Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and now IS, each have their own ideological inclinations. And considering how each is a hardliner with regards to its own version of Islam, can there really be any ideological reconciliation?

“IS is a Salafi jihadist group and this will inhibit its ability to partner with non-Salafi, namely Deobandi, groups. It’s unlikely to make ideological concessions to non-Salafi groups,” claims Rafiq. “Al-Qaeda was far more pragmatic in this regard and this contributed to its success in South Asia.”

Kugelman agrees that the Taliban and IS aren’t natural partners, considering their respective Deobandi and Salafist doctrines and alliances, and that the Taliban see Mullah Omar as their supreme leader, while IS’ loyalty is to Al-Baghdadi. “That said, the two groups are ideological soulmates — as are most militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They both seek to overthrow existing government structures and replace them with hardline theocratic regimes,” he says. “Still, even with the ideological convergences, these are not two groups destined to join together in friendship. Most other militant groups in the region are not natural partners for IS either, because most of them, like the Taliban, are Deobandi and Al-Qaeda-allied. This is why we shouldn’t expect the militants of Pakistan and Afghanistan to welcome IS with open arms.”

Kugelman stresses that there are still several potential exceptions. “One is Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Salafist group. Another, much more logical, ally for IS is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a deeply sectarian anti-Shia group. There are indications that LeT fighters have actually joined IS fighters on the battlefield in the Middle East. I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the Khorasan faction of IS in Pakistan/Afghanistan are reaching out to LeJ fighters; IS may well view them as suitable foot soldiers,” he says. “And, in fact, if IS is to become a major force in Pakistan and beyond, this is the model it would likely follow, at least in the short term: turning to existing militant groups and, more realistically, splinter factions of these groups, to provide shock troops.”

Rehman, however, asserts that these ‘hardliners’ are no strangers to varying ideological inclinations in accordance with regional dynamics. “Al-Qaeda also has a Salafi identity. These Islamist groups change their agenda from region to region,” he says. “In some regions Al-Qaeda prefers having a sectarian agenda, like Pakistan — because the groups already present in Pakistan have sectarian goals. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban condemn attacks on the Shia. The ideological inclinations of the bigger groups, like IS and Al-Qaeda, vary in accordance with the regional power dynamics.”

Rafiq warns that the arrival of IS in Pakistan can further aggravate Shia killings. He claims that hostility towards the Shias can, in fact, lay the foundation for an ideological reconciliation.

“Antipathy toward the Shias is one of many similarities between IS and more established Pakistani militant groups, such as the LeJ and the TTP. These similarities may serve as the basis for cooperation between these groups in the future, especially if there is a political settlement in Afghanistan between the Kabul government and the Afghan Taliban,” he stresses.

“In the interim, IS and LeJ/TTP networks will probably attack Shias separately. This may result in a rise in Shia attacks. But there has been a marked decline in overall terror attacks in the past 15 months, due in large part to Operation Zarb-e-Azb.”

In his article titled, ‘How IS Could Become a Potent Force in South Asia,’ published in the magazine Foreign Policy in February, Kugelman presented “three distinct scenarios under which IS could position itself to become a potent force in South Asia.”

These included, South Asian splinter groups gravitating towards IS; South Asian militant groups forging opportunistic partnerships with IS; and IS going global.

“The likeliest scenario is that militant splinter groups gravitate en masse to IS,” says Kugelman. “The South Asian militancy environment is very fractured and tense at the moment. The Taliban, both the Afghan and Pakistani factions, is suffering from leadership crises and infighting. There is a good possibility that disaffected members could renounce their ties to Mullah Omar — who has barely been heard from for years — and throw their support behind Al-Baghdadi. In fact, as the Khorasan faction of IS shows, this has already started to happen. Other splinter factions of groups allied with the Taliban have started to gravitate to IS as well, including a group of fighters from the IMU.”

He adds: “There is reason to believe that other regional militant groups could produce splinter factions that gravitate to IS as well. LeT fighters, unhappy that they are not in a position to launch attacks in India, may well turn to IS. Disaffected Jaish-e-Mohammed fighters could too.”

Kugelman claims that the other two scenarios mentioned in his article are relatively unlikely, for now.

“Major militant groups aren’t poised for marriages of convenience with IS anytime soon. And I don’t think IS is ready to give up on governing its territory in the Middle East to focus more attention on developing its presence more globally.”

The federal government has regularly refuted the claims of IS being present in Pakistan. In the aftermath of the Karachi bus massacre the interior ministry categorically ruled out IS’ connection to the attack. But with a growing number of militant groups pledging alliance to IS, and the Islamic State claiming attacks in Pakistan, the government will have to wake up to the gory reality.

Rafiq advises vigilance. “As horrific as the Karachi attack was, terrorism in Pakistan is down over the past 18 months. During this time, terrorists have shown their desperation by hitting soft targets: the Army Public School in Peshawar and a bus full of Ismaili Shia Muslims,” he says.

“Mass shootings are easy to conduct and difficult to prevent as compared to complex attacks or high-intensity bombings. Pakistan-based terrorist networks might be opting to hit soft targets using the crudest methods. If this is the case, then combatting this new threat will require extra vigilance by the police and Rangers in Karachi and other local forces across the country.”

Kugelman claims there is no quick fix or sure-fire way to fend off IS. “Pakistan needs to do what it already should be doing to ease the threat of the militant scourge more broadly: eliminate the environment in Pakistan that is so inviting for terrorists by undercutting the extremist ideologies that nurture militants; by seeking out and eliminating funding sources of terrorism; and by removing all terrorist sanctuaries.”

He also stresses the need to stop distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants. “IS has earned the support of militants who have splintered off from groups representing both of these categories. And that’s something that highlights just one more reason why making this distinction between militants amounts to playing with fire that could quickly explode into a major conflagration.”

Even so, “I don’t see IS posing the type of threat that the Taliban has, or that the sectarian groups do — at least not yet,” says Kugelman.

He believes the more immediate threat is that of Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups fighting for supremacy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This could lead to more terror attacks in both countries, “as each camp tries to upstage the other with spectacular acts of terrorism in efforts to gain fresh recruits,” he says.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.