PESHAWAR: If there ever was a strong bond between Pakistani militants and the Jihadists in Iraq, it was Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
Born Ahmad Fadeel al Nazal al Khulayleh, the 40-year-old Jordanian had lived for nearly 10 years in Pakistan.
He lived and moved around in Peshawar and some of the tribal agencies, spoke fluent Pushto and created roots as strong as marrying a woman from one of the local tribes.
When he moved to Iraq to establish Jamaat al Tauhid wal Jihad, which later became Al Qaeda in Iraq, it was but a matter of time before Pakistani militants would re-establish linkages with Jihadists in Iraq and later in Syria.
“The linkages are old,” a security official said. “Many of the veterans of Afghan war are now leading the fight in Iraq and Syria.”
Fighters made a beeline — quietly. “Not in droves but in ones and twos,” the official said.
“Not just ours but others too, who have been here in this region for ages, left to fight in Iraq and Syria,” he said of the Pakistani and foreign fighters.
But Pakistani officials would not have bothered much as long as the militants were “leaving and not coming” had the emergence of Islamic State and its `caliph’, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, not caught the imagination of Pakistani militants.
It was in early July that Pakistan’s security apparatus picked up indications of militants pledging allegiance to IS.
Last month, a printed booklet “Fatah” (Victory), was distributed in a refugee camp near Peshawar that pledged allegiance to IS.
The group distributing the booklet introduced itself as Daulat-i-Islamiyah, or Islamic State, appealed to locals to support the establishment of a caliphate.
Soon afterwards, a former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan spokesman, Abu Omar Maqbool al Khurasani alias Shahidullah Shahid, declared his allegiance to Baghdadi, along with five other `commanders’.
Shahidullah Shahid made it clear they were doing so in their individual capacity and not as representative of the former militant platform.
This was followed by the emergence of graffiti supporting DAISH (Daulat-i-Islamiyah fil Iraq wal Sham) — in short the Islamic State — in Karachi and Multan as well as hoisting of its black flags in Bahawalpur.
Repercussions for Pakistan
Graffiti, booklet distribution and flag-hoisting notwithstanding, Pakistani militants’ response to IS has been somewhat muted.
Even Baghdadi has not had the time to reciprocate Pakistani militants’ overtures to open up an IS branch office in Pakistan.
“Baghdadi has more important things at hand right now to think of expanding the IS beyond Iraq and Syria,” another security official said.
In his mid-October Arabic video, Shahidullah Shahid spoke of his frequent attempts to reach out to the IS leader.
“The first (pledge of allegiance) came before the announcement of caliphate at the hands of Abu Thayar al Urdani,” Shahid reminded Baghdadi.
“The second came on the 5th of this past Ramazan, which I sent through Abu Huda al Sudani,” he said.
“And the third came at the end of Ramazan, which I sent by telephone through Omar Abu al Khattab al Shami,” he added.
Pleading for acceptance of his baiah, or allegiance, the former spokesman of the banned TTP reminded Baghdadi, “this is the fourth (time). I hope for acceptance and answer.”
So far, none of the many Pakistani militant groups has openly come forward to pledge allegiance to IS.
Although three top militant `commanders’ — Maulvi Fazlullah, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and Khan Said alias Sajna — have accepted the existence of the IS, they are still loyal to Mullah Omar as their Ameerul Momineen.
Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Jamaat ul Ahrar, led by Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid Khurasani in a recent communiqué appealed to DAISH and Al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah to bury the hatchet and join hands to take on their common foes.
He and his group had in the past been pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar and so far he has not given any indication of changing his mind. But any decision by Jamaat to switch sides may change militants’ dynamics in Pakistani terms.
Officials fear that if sectarian militant outfits join the effort to form a Pakistani version of the IS, this could have an adverse impact on the country. “This is a possibility that cannot be ruled out,” one government official said. “There can be a leap in sectarian violence.”
Some Afghan commanders in eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces have already pledged their allegiance to IS. Officials worry that a well-funded IS can further its global Islamist agenda as well as recruit fighters for its cause.
But some officials dismiss the DAISH threat to Pakistan as far-fetched. “How does this change the equation here?” asked the government official. “In tactical terms, it does not change anything,” he argued.
“A mere change of name and emblem from TTP or whatever to IS or DAISH will not translate into something we have not seen before. We have seen bombings and we have seen suicide bombings,” the official retorted.
“There were times when Pakistan surpassed Iraq in terms of terrorist attacks. So what is it that will change,” the official wondered.
In 2012, Pakistan topped the list of terror-hit nations with 1,404 attacks, followed by Iraq with 1,271, according to US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses for Terrorism.
Repercussions for Al Qaeda
The IS expansion in the region could spell trouble for Al Qaeda, government and security officials speculate. But this is not something that is going to happen any time soon, they say.
“Al Qaeda has a history in this region. It was founded in this region and it has roots here,” a security official said. “So unless some of its principal backers amongst the varied militant groups decide to switch sides and sell them off to the other side, AQ has no imminent threat to its existence,” the official added. “The only threat to its existence comes not from the ground. It comes from above – the US predators lurking in the skies.”
So far, just a bunch of `commanders’ had pledged their allegiance to IS, another government official noted. “And the pledge has come from guys on the run with no ground to form their roots into. The IS has not reciprocated in kind or cash,” the official said. “What can these guys do to challenge AQ?” he asked.
“They would be lucky to survive.”
But some officials warn that all this could change if IS turns its attention to the region that has had a history of Jihadist activity. “The IS earns millions of dollars from pumping out oil from Syrian oilfields. Money can prove to be a game-changer at a time AQ’s funding is drying up,” the government official said.
AQ leadership has taken quite a few hits, the official noted. While Osama bin Laden was killed in a US raid on his Abbottabad residence, some of his key lieutenants were either captured or killed in drone strikes in the tribal region, the official recalled.
“What is left of Al Qaeda in this region now is Ayman Al Zawahiri and some of his hardcore associates,” the security official said. “The AQ hardcore figure should not be more than fifteen.”
“Many have left the region for Syria and Iraq, others have been and are being hunted down by drones,” the official said.
Weakening of AQ could benefit the more radical IS, officials warned. Expansion of IS could mean squeezing of space for AQ, one official maintained. “So far, the IS has not opened its shop here,” the official said. “The response to IS is mute because it has not formally announced setting up its offices here.”
“What we are seeing is hoisting of flags and graffiti on the walls,” the official said. “What will happen to AQ if IS comes to the region?” the official asked. “This is a hypothetical question,” he continued.
“They may either co-exist and accept each other or indulge in a war of attrition. It has happened in Syria and it may happen here.
“But at the moment, there are no fireworks on the horizon,” the official observed.
Published in Dawn, November 23th , 2014