KARACHI: The emergence of a new militant outfit — Ansar-ul-Sharia Pakistan — has posed a serious challenge to the country’s security establishment, which believed that an unknown number of “battle-hardened Syria-returned” militants could launch major attacks in Pakistan after the announcement of the group’s formation on social media, it emerged on Thursday.

Well-placed sources in the police’s Counter-Terrorism Department said: “It is actually the Pakistan chapter of the Ansar-ul-Sharia that had been fighting in Syria.” As the group had been operating under the umbrella of Jabhat al-Nusra, its loyalty was to the traditional Al Qaeda leadership under Ayman al-Zawahiri rather than militant Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said a senior official on condition of anonymity.

No one can exactly tell how many militants have returned from Syria, but according to some intelligence estimates a significant number of both Shia and Sunni militants have come back.

The group claimed on social media that a large number of individuals, specifically from Karachi and south Punjab, who had travelled to Syria to fight alongside IS, were returning home after they had become ‘disillusioned’ with the message and practices of IS. But based on the current situation in Syria, the CTD official believed that so far the militants had not come back home in large numbers.

Serving and retired security personnel are prime targets of terrorists

Even if a small number of militants had arrived they were ‘battle hardened’ and had greater experience than local militants, the official said, explaining that they could act as a ‘force multiplier’ enabling small splinter groups such as Ansar-ul-Sharia Pakistan to launch major targeted attacks.

Since April the Ansar-ul-Sharia had carried out three attacks targeting police officials and an ex-army officer. Retired Col Tahir Nagi was sprayed with bullets near Baloch Colony bridge in April, followed by the killing of two policemen in New Town in May and four policemen in SITE on June 23. Although the group claimed responsibility for two of the attacks, a forensic examination of spent bullet casings found that the same weapon — a 9mm pistol — was used in the killing of the two policemen in May.

The CTD official said that evidence collected from the three crime scenes indicated that the acts of terrorism were carried out by a small but proficient group. Six shots were fired within 10 seconds in the April attack and 28 shots were fired in last Friday’s attack, indicating that the gunman had ‘professional battlefield experience’.

The sources said this group was likely to assume a similar target pattern as that of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

The group was targeting retired and serving officers of the law enforcement agencies to create a ‘shock value’ as the victims appeared to be a ‘soft target’, the sources added.

According to intelligence estimates, with IS having suffered significant territorial losses in Syria and Iraq in recent months, it would be paramount for the IS to retain as many militants as possible to continue the fight. However, the number of returnees is likely to surge in the event of the collapse of the so-called caliphate of IS as in that case all surviving foreign fighters will attempt to return to their home countries to establish militant networks there.

This scenario would be reminiscent of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan when a large number of foreign fighters left the war-torn country and returned to their homelands between 1989 and 1993 and used violence as a tool to implement their agendas and forcibly impose their school of thought.

The sources said that the CTD had sent its analysis of Ansar-ul-Sharia Pakistan to the Sindh home department and other stakeholders on June 14 and had forewarned about the threats posed by the newly established outfit.

Meanwhile, Additional IG CTD Dr Sanaullah Abbasi told Dawn that the law enforcers had ‘neutralised’ militant outfits which had been carrying out targeted killings of policemen and other terrorist acts in the West and South zones of police in recent past except one group that has been ‘active’ in the East zone of police.

He said the same outfit might have become ‘active’ in the West zone and targeted four policemen in SITE on Friday.

Dr Abbasi believed that the CTD was working on some “positive leads” in the case. He said the footage of the crime scene obtained from a CCTV camera could ‘help’ police investigators to ascertain the identity of the killers.

The CTD chief claimed that “some suspects” had also been detained in the policemen’s killing case for interrogation.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2017