KARACHI: Shared sectarian hatred and existence of extremist outfits may provide fertile ground to the militant Islamic State (IS) group to spread its tentacles to Pakistan by recruiting sectarian militants, particularly in Punjab, says a study recently carried out by Sindh police’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD).

The study says the IS brutal rule in parts of Iraq and Syria and its existence in Europe have attracted world attention but its push eastward, particularly to Pakistan, has largely gone unnoticed.

The IS pursues its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s goal of a global caliphate while other militant groups largely focus on local, more parochial conflicts with their immediate rulers.

Some Jihadists endorse Baghdadi’s vision while others support him because of common hatreds. They include urban men and women as well as militants seeking ways to act on their own extremist agenda in Pakistan.

Still other potential sympathisers have not overtly declared their allegiance to the IS but they appear to ‘wait and see’ how the movement in Pakistan evolves.

“Given the presence of numerous violent extremist groups in different parts of the country, IS may discover more opportunities to expand in Pakistan,” fears the study.

On the trail of IS

The links between Pakistan and the Jihadist movement that gave rise to IS were longstanding. “Pakistan had been a base for the group’s founder member, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, during key junctures in his militant career.”

Zarqawi took up arms in Pakistan during the Afghan war from 1979-1989 and established his training camp in Herat when Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. IS’s ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi also visited Pakistan in 1980s before moving to Jordan in early 1990s.

Before 9/11, Zarqawi’s intensely anti-Shia views prevented him from developing a rapport with Osama bin Laden. As early as 1999, a meeting between Zarqawi and bin Laden did not go well as bin Laden saw Zarqawi’s hatred of Shiites potentially divisive. After 9/11, Zarqawi left Afghanistan for Iraq where he fought against US forces after invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Zarqawi’s group was one of the most active in whipping up insurgency in which 4,488 US soldiers died. However, in 2006, along with his wife, Zarqawi was killed in Baghdad.

Militants in FATA: the bandwagon effect?

Ever since IS proclaimed the caliphate, it has been trying to attract Pakistani Jihadi groups. One group that analysts anxiously watch is the TTP, which was not a centralised group but comprised a network of more than 42 smaller groups.

Since its genesis in 2007, it has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across the country on schools, anti-polio workers, political leaders, military officials and others. Initially, TTP’s Fazlullah faction led by Mulla Fazlullah tilted toward IS.

“TTP’s brand name started suffering during 2014 when the group began to splinter after the death of its head, Hakeemullah Mehsud in a US drone strike.”

Earlier, the group was losing its appeal because of indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Pakistan. There was also considerable discord inside the group on whether or not to negotiate with the Pakistan government.

Consequently, militants started leaving the TTP and formed splinter groups. “When IS announced the caliphate, many TTP militants jumped on what they saw as a new bandwagon,” says the study.

It was at that time the TTP’s spokesman, chiefs of Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram tribal agencies and the Peshawar and Hangu districts defected from the main TTP pledged unconditional allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Soon, some TTP commanders followed suit and became part of IS in Pakistan.

“IS now considers Pakistan as part of what it calls the Khurasan Waliyat, a broad region that includes Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia.”

At the same time, some TTP commanders kept a distance from IS and one such set of people belonged to Jamaat al-Ahrar (JA), a splinter group of the TTP.

The urban characteristics

Despite the support for IS among some tribal leaders, it has been in Pakistan’s more settled areas where the impact of the IS has been most strongly felt.

The first group to pledge allegiance to IS was Tehreek-i-Khilafat Pakistan (TKP), which had once been part of the TTP. The study reveals that TKP had a small network in metropolitan Karachi where it had perpetrated one terror act.

Another urban group, Jundullah also pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. The founding members of Jundullah were mostly from a mainstream religious party in the country whose members belonged to ‘educated and middle class background’.

The study fears that IS appears to be recruiting militants in certain areas of Punjab province and Sindh’s Karachi where it operates through internet.

Aiming for Pakistani militant leadership

The study suggests that there is a competition between IS and Al Qaeda over leadership of the global Jihad movement.

Al Zawahiri seemed determined to “reinvigorate AQ and reverse its shrinking prestige in the era of IS” and for this purpose, he formed Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to drag Indian Muslims into its fold.

AQIS has been able to launch some high-profile, albeit unsuccessful attacks in Pakistan including the attempted hijacking of a Pakistan Navy ship. “Even though the allegiance of small groups to IS may not detract much from AQIS in the near term, it does represent a development among Pakistan-based Jihadi groups that could benefit IS over time.”

Shared ideology

The study opines that IS espouses the militant Salafi thought and the growth of this school of thought in Pakistan is partly responsible for the rise of IS. “This is not to say that the rise of IS has been caused directly by the seminaries but they do propagate thought that militant groups like IS can later exploit.”

Apart from mushroom growth of seminaries, another factor, which may help IS find sympathisers are guest workers in Arab Gulf countries who have adopted the Salafi thought, for instance, the family of Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino shooters, says the study.

Another factor, which may help IS find support in Pakistan can be shared hatreds.

The study fears that since sectarian hatreds in Iraq and Syria have provided fertile ground for IS’s resurgence, the leading Sunni extremist outfits in Pakistan may also create a fertile ground for IS’s expansion here. “Some of the hostilities in South Asia have been spillover from the ongoing cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

The study says that sectarianism in Pakistan may provide a conducive environment to IS to spread its tentacles. It also quotes a report of Balochistan government submitted to the federal government in 2014, which states that IS has offered sectarian militant groups to join hands in Pakistan.

IS plans and perils

IS’s plans in Pakistan depend on how one views its goals, if the intent is to create a state as it did in Iraq and Syria, then it will be difficult for the outfit to do in Pakistan, says the study.

For the last 13 years, Islamabad has responded harshly to the elements like IS inside its borders. “In some ways, what IS achieved in Iraq and Syria is similar to what the TTP achieved in parts of FATA, where there had been an administrative vacuum. For quite some time, the TTP had its emirate in North Waziristan but this emirate was not allowed to show its flags in Pakistan’s heartland.”

If IS focused on less populated area, it was bound to face American drone strikes. The US generally targets foreign fighters not the local TTP insurgents. The drones have been able to cause more damage to AQ’s leadership than any other means, and IS will have to face the same, says the study.

Moreover, the US had recently declared IS (Khurasan) a terrorist outfit and several of its Pakistani leaders have been killed in drone strikes such as Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former Guantanamo detainee and the emir of Khurasan Waliyat, Shahidullah Shahid, former spokesperson of TTP-Fazlullah group who lost life along with other lieutenants.

The study says lack of leadership appears to be a major obstacle for IS as it has not been able to find ‘charismatic leadership’ to lure fresh recruits. Without such a leadership, IS may not be able to establish its rule over any territory within Pakistan as it did in the Mideast.

Finally, unlike in Syria-Iraq, IS may find it hard to inspire foreigners to fight in Pakistan. Many foreign militants had already left Pakistan to escape military onslaught or to participate in battles in the Mideast.

“This may prove to be a constraint if IS’s plans for expansion require recruiting in Pakistan from the available pool of foreign insurgents.” Despite that IS may have some openings in the country that it can exploit, says the study.

The focus now is on tribal areas as a likely theater for IS expansion but the real threat may come from IS luring individuals to its ideology in urban areas particularly educated individuals.

In addition, IS’s shared sectarian hatred may provide it opportunities to widen its network by recruiting sectarian militants particularly in Punjab.

“In the end, while IS may find it hard to extend its control to Pakistan, it may be able to cobble together adherents, fighters and polemicists to cause turmoil in Pakistan for years to come,” the study concludes.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2017