Assessing the IS threat

August 23, 2015


The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE rising profile of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) terrorist group among Islamist militant and extremist outfits and also factions of Muslim populations has become an international issue. In Pakistan, while the media and security analysts have been hinting at the group’s growing influence, particularly since September last year, different government departments and agencies have come up with contradictory assessments.

After almost every terrorist attack, speculation starts about the presence and involvement of IS in terrorist activities in Pakistan. But the law-enforcement agencies have so far not found any clear proofs of the IS connection in particular incidents of terrorism. However, the IS’s announcement of its Khorasan chapter early this year — which also includes Pakistan and Afghanistan — and some Pakistani militant groups’ and commanders’ pledges of allegiance or support to the group indicates the looming threat. The situation requires a comprehensive assessment of the nature of the threat.

The influence and inspiration of the Islamic State had started to become visible in Pakistan last year in the form of some militant groups’ expression of support and allegiance to IS as well as the appearance of graffiti and pamphlets in support of the extremist outfit. The appreciation for IS among Pakistani militants is neither new nor recent. Reports about Pakistani militants joining insurgents fighting the Assad regime in Syria appeared in 2013. Ideologically, it was the anti-Shia appeal that attracted Pakistani militants mainly having a sectarian orientation such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.

The self-styled Islamic State’s foothold and influence are stronger in Afghanistan than in Pakistan.

Although there is minimal likelihood of IS itself coming to Pakistan or Afghanistan, the region does run the danger of IS-inspired groups forging alliances and carrying out attacks or trying to capture certain areas, mainly in the Pak-Afghan border region.

Secondly, IS will be more than ready to exploit its influence among militants in the region to get more human resources, which it badly needs to sustain control of the areas it occupies in Iraq and Syria. Apart from Pakistani and Afghan militants, IS would also be interested in developing relationships with militant organisations that are active in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province and have a presence in the Pakistan-Iran border region, such as Jundullah and Jaishul Adl.

Currently, most of the Pakistani Taliban militants who pledged allegiance to IS, have crossed into Afghanistan due to the ongoing military operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The smaller groups and individuals, which are inspired by IS, are trying to develop linkages directly with the outfit in Iraq and Syria or its so-called Khorasan chapter.

There are three main factors which will determine the future trends of IS influence in Pakistan. The first factor is linked to the Pakistani state’s efforts to achieve security, eliminate militant groups and reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies. In the short to medium term, that is contingent upon how the ongoing security operations — mainly in Fata and Karachi — proceed and conclude, and how the National Action Plan is implemented by the federal and provincial governments. In the long term, too, a lot will depend on the state’s political and military willingness to sustain its counter-militancy and counter-extremism efforts.

The second factor will be related to the emerging security situation and IS influence in Afghanistan, and how Pakistan and Afghanistan develop and implement border security and counter-militancy cooperation. Thirdly, the IS influence in Pakistan will also be linked to the fate of the outfit and conflicts in the Middle East, mainly in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State’s foothold and influence are stronger in Afghanistan than in Pakistan. Despite the group’s apparent growing inspiration and influence in the eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan, in the beginning the Afghan National Directorate of Security continuously denied the emerging threat and denounced IS as “Haqqani or Taliban militants”. That was partly true, because those raising the IS flag were either local fighters from Afghan Taliban factions or foreign militants of Central Asian origin, but it did not make the threat any less grave.

However, Pakistan would not be able to counter the threat alone if the protracted conflict in Afghanistan worsens and Pakistani and Afghan militants inspired by IS try to capture territory along the Pak-Afghan border area for establishing an Islamic ‘caliphate’. The Pak-Afghan border is porous with limited control over cross-border movements. A worsening situation in Afghanistan will eventually affect Pakistan, particularly if both countries fail to develop an effective joint border security and counter-militancy mechanism, or at least cooperation.

At the same time, a lot will depend on how IS sustains its momentum in Iraq and Syria and succeeds in maintaining its control over the territories it has captured. If IS remains relevant and successful for a longer period of time — which currently appears probable — it can also cause frustration in the cadres of groups and the student wings of religious-political parties in Pakistan that believe in non-violent struggle for the establishment of a caliphate.

From Afghanistan’s perspective, failure of the Afghan government and security forces to effectively respond to the threat, or an escalation of conflict in the country, could allow the IS-inspired militants operating in Afghanistan to forge alliances and try to capture some area and announce a ‘caliphate’. If Kabul achieves some sort of reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban — currently efforts are under way for this purpose — hard-line factions or commanders among the Afghan Taliban who do not believe in political reconciliation could support the IS, strengthening the IS-inspired groups already operating in the country.

At the same time, the Afghan Taliban may not be able to grab hold of the reins of power but by following the IS model; in case they do not achieve reconciliation with the government in Kabul, they could carve out a part of Afghan territory and proclaim an Islamic ‘caliphate’.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2015

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