DESPITE some deadly terrorism attacks reported in 2018, the overall frequency across the globe has been on the decline in recent years. However, these dwindling numbers do not suggest, in any way, that the threat of terrorism has been eliminated. The latest audio message by the so-called Islamic State group (IS) head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which he called on his followers to keep fighting, vindicates the lingering threat of terrorist violence.

Certainly, most terrorist groups have been weakened but they are still present in physical and virtual spaces; in many instances, they have ungoverned territories to operate in. In Pakistan, too, despite justifiable claims of having significantly damaged terrorist infrastructure in the country, terrorist groups are able to trigger sporadic waves of violence — albeit with a reduced frequency as compared to past years. A series of terrorist attacks before and during the election month of July hurt the image of Pakistan as a state effectively dealing with its internal security threats.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent statement dispels the impression that he is dead and his call for more violence in the West will trigger fear. That call can hurt Muslim countries too, where he has called upon his followers to wage a war against Shias. Pakistan and Afghanistan are particularly significant, where multiple sectarian actors are active and the IS has become a major source of inspiration for them.

Diversifying their targets is an old tactic employed by terrorist groups.

The two lethal sectarian attacks in Afghanistan this month, which killed more than 80 people, were claimed by the franchise of the IS, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). These attacks were reported from Gardez city and Hazara-majority Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul. Diversifying their targets is an old tactic employed by terrorist groups to confuse the counterterrorism apparatus and add to the fear and chaos. Targeting security forces and state institutions on the one hand and sectarian and religious minorities on the other has remained a pattern of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, which militants are now employing in Afghanistan as well. In between, they hit civilian targets to break the cycle.

Although hitting one target for a long period would have less operational advantage for terrorists, it can trigger more anger against the state for its inability to provide security that may manifest in political chaos.

If the ISKP has decided to continue hitting sectarian targets, this can be interpreted as more chaotic and turbulent elections in Afghanistan this year. In Pakistan, a downward trend has been recorded in sectarian violence since 2014. This is a positive development. However, fluctuations in sectarian violence are an old phenomenon in Pakistan. Apart from the counterterrorism operations and the pressure of the National Action Plan, the internal differences of sectarian groups have also contributed to the reduction of sectarian violence in the country. On the other hand, the IS’s sectarian agenda, including in Pakistan, is wide in scope as it gives broader political and ideological perspective to local sectarian grievances. The factions of the hardcore Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Jundullah were among the sectarian groups that facilitated the IS in the region.

The data on terrorist attacks claimed by IS in Pakistan suggests the group’s relatively greater presence and activities in Balochistan and northern Sindh, where a new emerging sectarian fault-line lies. The Hazara community in Quetta valley, the Shia population in northern Sindh and Shia influence on Sunnis there, a pluralist culture of shrines, poorly governed provincial borders and most importantly, the Shia pilgrimage routes to Iran and Iraq attract a multitude of sectarian actors in this region. Out of 16 attacks claimed by the IS between 2015 and 2018, as many as 11 were reported from this region, targeting shrines, churches, political gatherings and security forces. This shows that the IS has diversified its targets. It has to be seen how the group will seek inspiration from Baghdadi’s new directives.

An escalation in terrorist violence during the 2018 elections was projected by the law-enforcement agencies but the IS attacks on a political gathering in Mastung and a polling station near Quetta, which in total caused the loss of 182 lives, came as a surprise for many. The initial assessments showed that the local elements in the group might have wanted to sabotage the electoral campaign as the sensitivity level increases during these times. Another interpretation was that the terrorist groups’ unpredictability is their operational strength as they can change their targets and tactics any time, as the IS did in Balochistan. However, the terrorist groups escalated violence during the elections to show their strength and attract attention.

There is no doubt that the terrorist networks have faced huge damage by the counterterrorism operations during the last few years and they are facing a major challenge to keep intact their human resources and support networks. After the death of TTP head Mullah Fazlullah in a drone strike in Afghanistan, a retaliatory terror campaign was projected but the group has failed to create any big impact. Since the death of its head in June the TTP has managed only one large-scale terrorist attack, in Peshawar, in which it targeted the Awami National Party election meeting and killed Haroon Bilour. Apparently, it seems that the terrorist groups are using their resources more effectively and concentrating more on triggering small waves of terrorism with intervals, which keep the law-enforcement agencies busy.

Through hitting political gatherings, the IS wanted to establish its credentials as a lethal terrorist group in the country. Although the attacks claimed by the IS were fewer in number compared to other groups, these attacks caused significant casualties. Indeed, most of these attacks were intensive, and high-scale, including seven suicide bombings. In the past, it had expanded its targets from time to time and hit political leaders, Chinese engineers, government officials, pro-government tribesmen, and the media. However, their prime targets remain shrines, churches and religious gatherings.

The real strength of the group is its unpredictability, as a recent report by the Associated Press quoting Pakistani security officials claimed: the group poses a potent threat to Pakistan but law-enforcement agencies are still struggling to bring it under their radar because of the fluid nature of the group.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2018

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