On August 8, a suicide bomber belonging to the Jamaat-ul-Ahraar (JA), a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban who in 2014 declared allegiance with the Islamic State (ISIS), detonated his vest at the entrance of the Civil Hospital in Quetta city, provincial capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, killing more than 70 people. On August 11, in another bombing incident in the same city, ISIS carried out another attack that injured scores of people.
The government in Pakistan has tried to play down the incidents in the country’s volatile Baluchistan province by calling them an attack on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $46 billion infrastructure project that originates from Baluchistan’s Gwadar district. The government also said that it was an attempt by hostile foreign intelligence agencies to undermine the security gains that the country’s security agencies have achieved in the form of relative peace and stability across the country due to a year long hard fought battle against the Pakistani Taliban.
Although Pakistan’s recent counterterrorism efforts against militant groups have brought down the levels of violence significantly, the country’s powerful military’s virtual inaction against number of banned and sectarian militant outfits, with known leanings towards ISIS, pose a serious threat to the state’s security, with heightened regional implications.
In Pakistan, ISIS has faced tough competition when it comes to drawing direct recruits because of an already entrenched militant landscape which provides a parallel radical and sectarian platform as that of the former. While the group, thus far, may have not been able to allure direct recruits in the country, it does not mean the threat which the group’s violent branding poses can be ruled out in the long run. In fact one can argue that when it comes to ISIS the threat in Pakistan is future based rather than immediate.
Pakistan’s current military operations against terrorist groups have by and large been selective: the strategy has been to target militant outfits that are openly challenging the country while spare those which do not directly inflict havoc on the state. However, at the state level, this duel approach of selective targeting of particular militant groups can become the very beginning of the development of ISIS in Pakistan.
Arguably, the threat of ISIS’s development in Pakistan engenders equally from groups that are targeted by the state and the ones left alone. JA, which is believed to be operating from Afghanistan, was also behind the Easter bombing and the Bacha Khan University attack that took place in Pakistan earlier in the year. A few weeks ago, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan said that a large number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan are former affiliates of the Pakistani Taliban which were driven out of the country following Pakistan’s military crackdown against the group in its tribal areas along the Afghan border.
On the other hand, number of sectarian groups which have not been targeted in recent military operations offer a perfect recipe for the implementation of the ISIS’s brutal ideology. Recently, reports emerged saying that sectarian outfits in Pakistan have been forging alliance under the umbrella of ISIS. Sectarian groups, such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP) which are believed to have "soft corner" for ISIS, have reportedly been doing recruitment for the group.
LeJ is also believed to have orchestrated the killing of Punjab’s former Home Minister, Shuja Khanzada, who led a military operation against the outfit which resulted in the death of the group’s chief. After the death of Khanzada last year, the government, particularly the military, has been reluctant from taking any decisive action against the group due to the backlash related fears. The Army’s much talked about military operation in Pakistan’s Punjab province – where most of the sectarian militant groups are based – which began a few months ago, has vanished from the scene, leaving behind majority of the sectarian militant network intact.
Besides, other radical Islamist groups which the Pakistani security agencies are alleged to have been patronizing to advance their regional political and security agendas, particularly vis-à-vis India, are becoming increasingly susceptible to the appeal of ISIS’s extreme violence prone ideologies. Recently, the Pakistani security agencies apprehended number of ISIS militants who had previously been affiliated with the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a group known for openly targeting Indian interests in the region. Arif Jamal, a scholar and expert on the group believes that “ISIS and JuD seem natural allies as far as their sectarian affiliations are concerned.”
The Pakistani leadership’s policy of allowing good militants (those not targeting the state) to operate inside and outside its territory and taking on bad militants (those targeting the state) itself presents a dilemma, only favorable to the expansion of ISIS in the country. Moreover, it remains unclear whether Pakistan can successfully take on these sectarian groups: unlike the Taliban, these groups are housed in and operate from the country’s mainland areas with a large support base among the masses.
Besides, ISIS has successfully been able to appeal to the country’s educated youth with a Jihadist mindset. In Karachi last year, four students from a top Pakistani university killed more than 40 members of a Muslim Shia community; the ISIS later took responsibility for the attack. Reportedly, the group is actively looking for recruits in the country’s educated upper middle class. The pattern being followed by ISIS in the country appears similar to that reported elsewhere: the last month’s ISIS attacks in a café in Bangladesh were carried out by a group of students belonging to elite and liberal backgrounds.
The reported change of loyalties and desertions in the tanks of sectarian and other state friendly militant groups in support of ISIS are only the beginning of Pakistan’s new emerging Jihadi challenge which is only going to add into the country’s militancy problems.
Umair Jamal is research fellow at Centre for Governance and Policy in Lahore, Pakistan.