The South Asia Channel
The Islamic State Casts a Shadow in Pakistan
Whether or not the Islamic State is actually emerging in Pakistan, smaller, weaker groups are using its umbrella as a renaissance.
The first wave of wall chalkings endorsing the Islamic State appeared in Karachi, Pakistan’s industrial capital, as early as October 2014. A photo surfaced shortly thereafter showing an abandoned police check post in a Pashtun neighborhood in the city with the lettering “ISIS” spray-painted over the blue and white façade. In November, less than a month later, four flags appeared on poles outside the Pakistan Ordnance [sic] Factories, a military-owned firearm and weapons production plant in the town of Taxila. That same month, two men were arrested in Lahore for putting up Islamic State posters. And just last month, after an attack carried out by Islamic State-affiliate Jundullah on Ismailis traveling on a bus, there were reports that Islamic State literature was left at the scene.
In an audio announcement on Twitter this January, Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, the former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander, claimed to have been appointed as the head of the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter in Pakistan; however, his role as the Islamic State’s Pakistani frontman remains ambiguous.
With no pattern or apparent material support, admirers of the Islamic State in Pakistan have announced themselves in Peshawar, Bannu, the Northwest, where the military is engaged in an offensive against the Taliban, and Quetta.
After intelligence agencies met to discuss the growing number of wall chalkings, Pakistan’s Dawn news reported that there were close to 370 Islamic State operatives in Pakistan. Despite this, Pakistani security and intelligence sources maintain that the threat posed by the Islamic State to South Asia is more abstract, with “no operational links” to the region.
The rise of Islamic State sympathizers in the country should ring alarm bells for the nuclear-armed Pakistan, a country with a climate ripe for jihadi recruitment and a propensity for religious extremes, often stemming from economic frustration. The Pakistani government’s official position, however, seems to be to deny that the Islamic State could even exist in Pakistan.
The proliferation of Islamic State propaganda may even be a last-ditch effort by Taliban splinter groups, otherwise weakened, to retain some sense of power. “The Pakistani Taliban are fragmented and want to send a message of strength,” said Taha Siddiqui, a journalist who noticed pro-Islamic State markings on the walls of an army cantonment in Bannu. Siddiqui said that while most locals were afraid to comment on the graffiti, he got the sense that that the Urdu-language messages were not written by or for the city’s Pashto-speaking residents.
When challenged about the potential of the Islamic State’s appeal within Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz, advisor on foreign affairs and national security, brushed off the threat, saying “the immediate worry is to deal with the situation at the border” and to suppress the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Yet his views may not account for the appeal of Khorasan, a confection of Osama bin Laden and other jihadis, that draws on the history of Islamic kingdoms in Central Asia. The idea of Khorasan, a region that includes the AfPak border area, has enormous appeal for the Islamic State and is prophesied as the area where Muslims will inflict the first defeat against their enemies, signaling triumph and steering the group closer to a final battle in the Levant, a region consisting of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, more than 2,400 Shiite Muslims have been killed since 2001 in either targeted attacks or while worshiping at mosques or imambargahs. Overall, sectarian violence has claimed 4,216 lives in Pakistan since 2000, according to data collected by the portal.
For Muhammad Amir Rana, security analyst and director at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, the Islamic State is a palpable threat and one that has given a lifeline to militant groups. Rana argues that with allegiances surfacing in “sectarian flashpoints” such as Hangu, Orakzai, and Kurram agencies, from TTP commanders who have “strong sectarian credentials,” vigilance is crucial to prevent new recruits to splinter groups hoping to gain traction from following the brutal sectarian methods of the Islamic State.
“Perpetrating sectarian violence will be an easier way for them to prove their loyalty to the [Islamic State],” Rana warns, also suggesting that the fear of defections and immense internal pressures, could encourage al Qaeda and the TTP to “launch attacks to prove that they are still strong and relevant.”
According to Rana, the global jihadi franchise offers an opportunity to undermine al Qaeda’s influence in the region. “It has shown them the importance of controlling territory in order to project and establish power on the ground,” he writes in his book, The Militant: Development of a Jihadi character in Pakistan.
The Balochistan chapter of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is known to have sent fighters to Syria to join the rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who were absorbed within the Islamic State after its creation. Jundullah, a breakaway faction of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) that has pledged support to the Islamic State, confirmed that a three-member Islamic State delegation, headed by Zubair al-Kuwaiti, visited the province to gain JI’s support but was turned down.
Communication and Social Media
On Nov. 26, 2014, female students of a madrassa affiliated with the Red Mosque — a militant mosque in the heart of Pakistan’s capital — released a video message empathizing with Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. The group reassures Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a soft-spoken message delivered in Arabic: “We pray for you every night, here in the land of Pakistan.”
According to Omar Shahid Hamid, a police veteran and author from Karachi, jihadi media had gained traction in South Asia in the last six months with the Islamic State and al Qaeda taking over the “social media airwaves.” Previously, when he was still in the police, little if any attention was paid to social media platforms, he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in March.
How should Pakistan respond?
The National Action Plan (NAP) was Pakistan’s New Year’s resolution following a deadly attack on a school in Peshawar in December. “Your days are numbered,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was said to have warned the terrorists weeks after the attack. The plan, which empowered the military to take on terrorism cases through a special tribunal, was laid out as a 20-point agenda in a bid to crack down on terrorism though it was criticized for its broad strokes.
“The literature of all banned organizations is easily available everywhere, including the Islamic State, which could easily exploit this situation,” said Azam Khan, a national security reporter who has been working on a research paper analyzing the NAP and its failures, in an interview with this author.
For starters, Khan said that the TTP’s website hasn’t been blocked and a recent post on the Cyber and Jihad Lab, a cyberterrorism watchdog, reveals that the group has in fact launched a mobile app geared toward its younger supporters. One of the points in the agenda is to crack down on hate literature and to dismantle the communication network of terrorists, a goal that the government is far from reaching, according to Khan.
It is difficult to say how many social media accounts have assembled around the Islamic State manifesto in Pakistan, since monitoring has neither been streamlined, nor is seen as a priority on its counterterrorism agenda.
“It’s a travesty that the government’s first reaction to small threats is to laugh them off,” said Javed Aziz, a Peshawar-based journalist and expert on militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in an interview with this author. “They only recognize terrorist groups at the point that they are organized enough to carry out and claim terrorist attacks,” he concluded.
As the spread of the Islamic State dominates headlines, most Pakistani militant groups seem reluctant to pledge open allegiance to Islamic State founder Baghdadi, in open defiance of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, whose own ambitions for an Islamic Emirate do not portend beyond Afghanistan’s own borders. Even so, the shadows of the Islamic State’s presence in South Asia — largely homegrown and more fantasy than reality — serve as a tool for the renaissance of weaker groups.
Photo credit: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images