The South Asia Channel

Islamabad Must Confront Its Islamic State Problem

To get rid of the Islamic State, the Pakistani government must first acknowledge their existence.

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Activists of Jamaat-ud-Dawa hold a giant national flag to mark the country's Independence Day in Karachi on August 14, 2015. Pakistan on August 14 celebrated its 68th anniversary of the country's independence from British rule. AFP PHOTO / Rizwan TABASSUM (Photo credit should read RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

How great a threat does the Islamic State (IS) pose in Pakistan? On Feb. 9, Aftab Sultan, the head of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau, told a committee of senators that IS is growing in Pakistan, and disclosed that the number of IS recruits leaving Pakistan for Syria is in the hundreds. Yet Pakistan’s foreign office denies the existence of any IS footprint in the country, stating that “not even a shadow of Daesh (IS) will be allowed in Pakistan.” So where does the truth lie?

On Feb. 12, a police spokesman in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore announced the arrest of nine people for their links with IS and other militant groups. On Dec. 29, 2015, the law minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Rana Sanaullah, told journalists that law-enforcement agencies arrested eight members of the Islamic State who were planning to establish a terrorist network and carry out attacks.

Since the emergence of IS in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region in January 2015, Pakistan has widened the scope of its intelligence-based operations, particularly in the cities of Karachi and Lahore, to tighten the circle around potential IS recruits and sympathizers. Still, many Pakistani civilian and military officials continue to deny the group’s presence in the country.

To some extent, the Pakistani argument that IS has no organizational structure holds ground. However, not having an organizational structure does not mean that the group will not pose challenges to the country’s precarious security situation in the days and months ahead. As IS has shown, it encourages groups and individuals — those with close affiliations and those without — to stage attacks without direct approval or prior acknowledgment from the leadership in Mosul and Raqqa.

IS has lost the three powerful founding members of its Khorasan branch — Mullah Rauf Khadim, a former Afghan Taliban leader who later became a dissident; Hafiz Saeed Khan, a dissident of the Pakistani Taliban; and Shahidullah Shahid, another former leader of the Pakistani Taliban — within the first few months of its emergence in Pakistan.

Although the group maintains a somewhat active presence in eastern Afghanistan — specifically the Achin district of Nangarhar province — its organizational structure is not as sophisticated or well-organized as the Afghan Taliban or Haqqani network’s. Hence, IS is incapable, in terms of manpower and techniques, to advance on territory under the control of the Afghan government or carry out large scale sabotage operations anywhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Despite the constraints upon IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan, great cause for concern remains. The IS-related arrests in Lahore and Karachi over the past year illustrate this threat. Security briefs in Pakistan reveal that the IS sympathizers and members liaise with groups such as the banned Sipah-e-Sihaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The two groups are known for their hatred of Shiite Muslims and have a proven record of carrying out bomb attacks and targeted killings of Shiites in different parts of Pakistan. The common hatred of Shiites raises the possibility of such groups and their supporters converging with the Islamic State’s efforts in the region.

The Islamic State’s fighting force is contained to a few districts in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and has shown little ability to project violence into Afghanistan’s cities. However, the group has found cohorts as groups of Pakistani militants flee Pakistan’s areas as a result of the now one and a half yearlong Operation Zarb-e-Azb that the Pakistani government has employed effectively to root out terrorist networks.

Locals on both sides of the AfPak border told me in January and February that fighters from Pakistan’s Khyber Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) — led by warlord Mangal Bagh — have joined hands with the local militants in the Nazian district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

Meanwhile, the fragmentation due to the ongoing leadership crisis with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which lost its charismatic leader Hakeemullah Mehsud in a drone strike in 2013, provides an opening for IS to grow. The TTP’s mainstream leadership is in hiding, which allows several regional commanders inside the organization to announce their own groups on the basis of clan and tribal affiliations, ideological differences, and group and individual interests.

Some of those disgruntled leaders — including Shahidullah Shahid and Hafiz Saeed Khan, who are now dead — have already declared allegiance to IS leader Abubakar al-Baghdadi. Others are still weighing their options. An infusion of money or other support from the IS power centers in Iraq and Syria could further encourage other groups to align with IS.

Outside of remote Afghan districts, IS sympathizers can also be found in Pakistan’s cities where they are well educated and highly informed.

Maulana Abdul Aziz, administrator of Islamabad’s Red Mosque (Lal Masjid), who once led armed al Qaeda men to challenge a bloody siege of the mosque, is vocal in support of the Syria-based group. Aziz supports the IS global agenda because he believes the group is fighting for the global implementation of the sharia system.

Instead of initiating action against Mr. Aziz, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told the Senate in a policy statement on Dec. 30, 2015 that there is no documented evidence against the cleric. Nisar’s statement is a willful oversight of an imminent, and eminent, threat.

For years, Pakistan ignored the TTP building its so-called emirates in the areas bordering Afghanistan. The TTP leaders, who were later dubbed a genuine threat to Pakistan security, propped up under the shadow of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, the so-called “good Taliban.”

Some groups, such as the India-focused Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Afghanistan-focused Taliban and Haqqani Network, still enjoy a soft corner from some Pakistani policymakers. With the TTP’s ability to carry out terror attacks in their historic stronghold in FATA on the decline, IS may now begin occupying the space once claimed by TPP.

Pakistan has almost won a hard battle against the TTP, sacrificing heavy losses to human life, infrastructure, and its own image. It would be unfortunate if another group thrives on a conducive environment provided by the state’s own misconceived policies.

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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