By Dr Asim Yousafzai
There are certain unmistakable signs that suggest the emergence of a strong IS footprint in Sunni-majority Pakistan
Recent articles published in the US media are giving the impression that Islamic State (IS), with its 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 describing how emerging terror organisations flourish.
As the Taliban lose steam as a result of the death of their supreme leader Mullah Omar, splintering and internal fighting, the stage is set for a new group to take over. A cursory look at the metamorphosis of jihadi organisations in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past two decades indicate that they are getting deadlier, more sophisticated and high tech savvy with every passing year, from mujahideen groups willing to negotiate to the Taliban willing to blow up and finally to IS 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 IS into eastern Afghanistan led US Defence 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 IS threat amid the worsening security situation in Afghanistan creating more fears for the stability of the national unity government in Kabul. The Khorasan Group, the IS’ branch for South and Central Asia, opened its first radio station in Nangarhar province, which is clearly audible in the tribal regions of Pakistan; its presence in Afghanistan will have a spill over effect in Pakistan across the porous Durand Line.
There are certain unmistakable signs that suggest the emergence of a strong IS footprint in Sunni-majority Pakistan. With a population of 200 million, nine percent of Pakistanis support IS but more troublesome is the fact that 62 percent do not know the answer to this question, reports a PEW research survey.
Presently, Deobandi terror groups are giving way to Salafi/takfiri terror groups inspired by IS. Taliban splinter groups are announcing their support for IS and pledging allegiance to its so-called ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and, more importantly, Pakistani terror organisations such as the Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), waging a jihad in Kashmir, are completely aligned with the same ideology that IS is propagating in Iraq and Syria.
Arif Jamal, the author of a book on the LeT recently told me, “IS, the JuD and LeT are two sides of the same Salafism coin. They are actually natural allies. They are closely cooperating in Nuristan, Kunar and Nagarhar and other places in Afghanistan. The JuD leaders’ anti-IS statements are meant to take us away from the ground reality.”
In Islamabad, Mullah Abdul Aziz, the famous cleric of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) uprising, has publicly denounced the Constitution of Pakistan and openly supports the attackers of Pakistan’s security forces. However, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has refused to issue orders to arrest him. “We now know that the then Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, General Kayani, unleashed the Red Mosque brigade to destabilise the regime of General Musharraf in 2007. The rise of the Red Mosque brigade and the Lawyers’ Movement simultaneously were not mere coincidences. I would say that the rise of the Red Mosque and Lawyers’ Movement, and the murder of Benazir Bhutto later were closely interconnected,” according to Mr Jamal.
Though wall chalking and pamphlets in support of IS 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 of material support to IS and a group of 20 influential women was arrested by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) in Karachi, who are said to be the financiers for the group. The accused were behind the Safoora carnage in which 46 Ismailis were ruthlessly massacred on a bus in May 2015. Reports have started to pour in from all major urban centres of the country about active recruitment for the group. The latest revelation came out on December 27 that the CTD had busted an IS cell in Sialkot and, according to investigators, the eight operatives arrested from the cell had vowed to “overthrow democracy and introduce khilafat in Pakistan through armed struggle”.
Pakistan has a 20 percent Shia population and some 500 Shias have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight against IS. A recent car bombing in the Shia-majority Parachinar 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 IS. The Pakistani terror group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) accepted responsibility and put the blame on Shias travelling to Syria and Iraq. The ASWJ purportedly had an electoral alliance in Punjab with the ruling Muslim League of Chief Minister (CM) Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of PM Nawaz Sharif.
Pakistani officials have consistently refuted the presence of IS 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 that “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 a complete victory over the terrorists. In essence, most of these terrorists have been pushed to the Afghan territories where they are strengthening the Afghan Taliban’s ranks. Secondly, we want to assure the US that IS is not a threat to either Pakistan or the US and that 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 parliament’s floor that “these seminaries are partners of the government and not our target”. He added “why should we target them if they have not committed any terrorism?” All attempts to regulate these seminaries have failed due to religious backlash or political opposition.
The recent case of the radicalisation of the San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik is just the tip of the iceberg. Founded by the ultra conservative Farhat Hashmi, the school system where Malik was radicalised is known for radical conservative teachings and has worldwide presence. Arif Jamal told me, “The al-Huda school system is closely allied and linked with a Pakistan-based Salafist jihadist group called the Tehreekul Mujahideen, which is waging jihad in Kashmir. Tehreekul Mujahideen is the armed wing of the 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 IS in a nuclear-armed Pakistan? Let us not forget that Pakistan is manufacturing tactical nuclear weapons by the tonnes and there lies the chance that they can also actively sought be after by non-state actors as well.
Asim Yousafzai is a Washington DC based geopolitical analyst and author of the book Afghanistan — From Cold War to Gold War. He can be followed @asimusafzai