ISIS' shadow grows over Pakistan

Cut in US security aid will make it harder to take on the terrorist group

Late last year, a black-and-white flag was detected fluttering in the breeze near a highway in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. It bore the emblem of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), and at its base were three words: "Khilafat is coming".

"The caliphate is coming" is an apt warning as Pakistan struggles in its campaign against terrorism and religious extremism.

A report published this month by the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (Pips) flagged an "alarming" increase in ISIS' footprint in the country even though the Pakistan Taleban and its affiliates remain the most potent threat, being responsible for nearly 60 per cent of the 370 terrorist attacks last year.

"What has been quite alarming is the increasing footprint of Daesh, especially in Balochistan and Sindh," said the annual security report, using the Arabic term for ISIS.

ISIS was responsible for at least six major attacks last year that left 153 people dead, mostly civilians, it noted. Its victims included two Chinese nationals who were abducted and killed. Other targets included a Sufi shrine in Sindh in which scores were killed, a Methodist church in Quetta and a Pakistani military convoy.

"There is a need to take the matter more seriously because there is a possibility that foreign fighters would come to Pakistan in the near future as things are continuously changing in the Middle East," Pips official Muhammad Ismail Khan told The Dawn.

ISIS has grown, in part, because of its ability to appeal to and forge alliances with other militant groups. For instance, several nationalist groups in Balochistan that have for a long time waged an insurgency against the Pakistani security forces are reportedly seeking an alliance with ISIS to expand their anti-state resistance.

A policeman standing guard on the roof of a Methodist church in Quetta last December, a day after it was attacked by the ISIS group.
A policeman standing guard on the roof of a Methodist church in Quetta last December, a day after it was attacked by the ISIS group. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Northern Sindh, which is mired in choking poverty and underdevelopment, is a fertile recruiting ground for various radical groups.

ISIS has grown, in part, because of its ability to appeal to and forge alliances with other militant groups... For the small-scale hardline and sectarian groups, being associated with a "global brand name" terrorist group like ISIS has its appeal.

For the small-scale hardline and sectarian groups, being associated with a "global brand name" terrorist group like ISIS has its appeal.

And then, there is the complex relationship with the Pakistan Taleban, a heavy hitter otherwise known as Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP).

While the TTP may at one level be in competition with ISIS for recruits, the fact remains that they share a common hostility towards the state apparatus and minority communities. Various TTP factions are believed to have collaborated with ISIS in attacks on security forces.

A concern also is that ISIS will find it easy to leverage on the networks of existing hardline groups such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan to grow and carry out its activities given their common worldview and goals.

Where it does not have a physical presence, ISIS could decide to "outsource" attacks to its associates.

While the ISIS presence is strongest in Balochistan and Sindh, its cells have been busted in various Pakistani cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad.

And the people drawn to ISIS are not necessarily the ultra-conservative men from tribal regions of popular imagination.

In April last year, a security-forces raid on a hideout in Lahore yielded a stash of hand grenades and suicide vests, as well as a 20-year-old medical student who had disappeared from her home town of Hyderabad to join ISIS.

Had she not been arrested, Noreen Leghari was to have blown herself up two days later at an Easter church service.

In a separate case, the ISIS assailants who massacred Shi'ite Muslims packed in a bus were well-educated young men from top universities in Pakistan.

It is hard to ascertain when ISIS planted its roots in Pakistan and the size of its membership.

But four years ago, it came to public attention when a crackdown on the Taleban prompted an appeal for help from women students at an Islamabad madrasah to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The British defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, estimated last year that there were 2,000 to 3,000 ISIS members in Pakistan, according to a Washington Post report.

Several hundred Pakistanis are believed to have made their way to the Middle East. The worry is that as ISIS is being pushed out of Syria and Iraq, more and more of these fighters will return to carry out their caliphate-building mission on home ground.

The rise of ISIS comes at an unfortunate juncture in Pakistan's relations with the United States.

The Trump administration blames Pakistan for failing to help it rein in the Taleban in Afghanistan - which has grown increasingly powerful - and recently announced it would cut US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in security assistance.

Pakistan, in turn, sees US policy as tilting increasingly in favour of its enemy, India, and is loath to cut ties with some militant groups which are seen as useful assets.

For some time now, the Pakistan army has been fencing its largely porous border with Afghanistan, and establishing new forts as well as outposts on mountain peaks. The US aid cut is certainly going to hamper these efforts to curb cross-border infiltration and counter-terrorism operations in Balochistan and northern Sindh.

With both the US and Pakistan at loggerheads, the ones that will benefit are the terrorists.

As the highway banner warned: The caliphate is coming. Expect more trouble ahead. •The writer is a lecturer with the Forman Christian College University in Pakistan and a correspondent for The Diplomat magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'ISIS' shadow grows over Pakistan'. Print Edition | Subscribe