The Islamic State (IS) makes gradual inroads into Pakistan

Spearhead Analysis – 17.11.2014

By Shayan Malik
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

ISIS Graffiti BannuThe Islamic State seems to have caused no fury as of yet as far as officialdom in the land of the pure is concerned. At the recently held Rangers Parade in Karachi, the Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar held that the transnational jihadist group was not present within the country and appealed to the media to not beat the drum over its infiltration into Pakistan. Unfortunately, if one is to rely on the past behavior of the state as a predictor for the future or the present, then it is pertinent to note that public apathy such as this most likely denotes inaction with negligible concealed movement against such threats.

The ruling party might feel the need to be perceived strong at the moment due to the current political imbroglio. However, this approach towards the Islamic State makes little political sense given the gradual deadening of the protest in Islamabad.

The signs of a developing threat

The Islamic State’s signs and merchandise landed in Pakistan right about in the middle of this summer in July. Graffiti praising the group and its leader, the self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi appeared on the walls of Bannu Cantonment in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Bannu appears as an important town in the wake of Operation Zarb e Azb given that it borders North Waziristan where much of the fighting was taking place until recently apart from the fact that it was holding a large number of refugees who had fled their homes after the military offensive. The graffiti seems to have been written by a less-known group that goes by the name of Awaami Baaghi Group. The graffiti was followed with the distribution of the group’s pamphlets amongst FATA and Afghan refugees in Peshawar. Both incidents lead to the notion that the IS sought to actively exploit emerging fault lines between the state and the recently displaced population from North Waziristan. Indeed, the latest announcement by the Islamic State declaring their intention to launch attacks against the military was followed with the current military operation in North Waziristan as a justification for the said policy.

Most importantly, the Balochistan provincial government forwarded a report to the central government alleging that the IS had recruited 10-12,000 followers in Hangu and Khyber Agencies. IS flags appeared in Balochistan, Lahore and in Taxila near the Pakistan Ordinance Factory, the latter being only approximately 50 miles away from the capital Islamabad. These specific propaganda measures seem to be based on the intention of not only confusing the Pakistani military and law-enforcement agencies of the militant threat in North Waziristan by bringing their attention to the perceived presence of IS close to military installations but they are also bent upon inducing the opinions of common Pakistanis towards the supposed efficiency and dominance of the group in the middle east and their expected arrival in Pakistan and South Asia at large.

The IS and local militants: Prospective partners against the Shiites

Apart from having a Strategic and Planning Wing comprising ten members specifically aimed at policy making and implementation in Pakistan, the Islamic State has also reached out to local sectarian terrorists such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) and Ahle-e-Sunnat Wai Jamat (ASWJ) in order to prey upon the Shiite community that has already disproportionately bore the brunt of terrorism within the state. Moreover, with the current ruling government’s close ties with Saudi Arabia as well as the prevalent inaction on the part of the state against the above-mentioned groups, Pakistani Shiites are beginning to perceive themselves as being under siege with little or no aspiring relief at hand. Moreover, we cannot only deal with such sectarianism being limited to three militant groups. According to a Pew Survey in 2013, only 50% of Pakistanis sampled held that they thought of Shiites as Muslims. Hence, this phenomenon has become a societal problem and it will be more effective to deal with it in that manner.

There is little doubt that the situation is made even more precarious given that sectarian fault lines have become fully entrenched in the Middle East, with various states taking provocatively sectarian lines leading to the possibility of the reshaping of borders that were drawn in the 1920’s. What is worrisome for Pakistan is that it has seldom been able to escape from ideological currents blowing from the Middle East. Initially, the state’s alignment towards the region to its west was consciously-driven; however, it is increasingly finding itself tied to its erstwhile partnerships with little chance for an overhaul.

Infiltration into Pakistan: Similar goals and different priorities

The rise in the number of militant groups paying allegiance to the Islamic State has arisen parallel to the growing number of militant offshoots and their operational breakaway from their parent groups. This can be seen with TTP splinter groups such as Jundullah and Jamaat Ul Ahrar. Such divisions within the groups do not necessarily mean a difference in goals but a different policy for each to concentrate on. The IS has been willing to assemble the militant groups within Pakistan as part of a united front. It itself is trying to franchise its goals to different militant groups contingent upon matching priorities. Hence, the LEJ is being asked to help the group in targeting the Shiites whereas Jundullah is being asked for support in attacking state institutions. Both militant groups have fully shown effectiveness in these measures in the near past.

Similarly, local militant groups have been trying to bridge the gap between Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups with the Islamic State in the Middle East by imploring both parties to work together within the region. This is essential given that militant groups in Pakistan owe allegiance or maintain collaborative links with Al-Qaeda or its affiliated groups. However, such efforts have not come to fruition since the latest reports suggest failing negotiations between the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabha Al-Nusra group in Syria.

The Pakistani State’s Response: Institutional Dynamics and the IS Threat

Officialdom within Pakistan has developed a culture of being peculiarly aloof to developing threat patterns. It will be long before we break this cycle of apathy towards threats and signs. As far as responding to incipient developments such as the attempts by the Islamic State to infiltrate within the ever-present militant network is concerned, it is a given that the security establishment will take the first step in taking the government on board with any prospective policy. This is simply because of the negligible likelihood of our different institutions reaching a balance or compromise within the short or medium term and it is no secret that this branch of the state has a de facto hold over the security policy.

Pakistan’s security managers must be careful not to employ policy vis-à-vis the Islamic State with faulty undercurrents from the past. This entails enabling rifts within militant groups so that they can fight amongst each other. This has known to have created long-term problems for state and society. Moreover, there is also the issue of the military’s capacity being limited to neutralizing the operational capacity of militant groups. The government must itself seek the initiative as far as changing the broader state narrative and cutting any tentative financial inflow from the IS to local militant groups is concerned. It is also quite impractical to reign in IS if the state does not reign in other groups that are prospectively partnering with it. Any disturbance to the militant network that is spread throughout the length and breadth of the country is bound to invite blowback raising the need to extend the military operation to urban cities and the rural hinterland within Punjab. There is an urgent need to probe the developments listed in the report written by the Balochistan government, and for the government of the day to seize the initiative before we add another catastrophe in waiting to our future. While it is important not to over react we should note that in the past we have had great difficulty in acknowledging a threat till it threatened to overwhelm us.