Why is the militant ISKP attacking the JUI-F in Bajaur?

Having carried out almost two dozen attacks against the JUI-F, Sunday's bombing by the ISKP was the most brazen and deadliest in the tribal belt this year so far.
Published August 2, 2023

A thick cloud of grief hangs over Bajaur district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Malakand division. Nearly every village in the district has held funeral processions to bury victims who had attended the ill-fated rally of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam — Fazl (JUI-F), a religio-political party, on Sunday that was hit by a suicide bomber. At least 54 people were killed and over 100 others injured in what was one of the deadliest attacks in the province this year.

The militant ‘Islamic State’ group’s regional affiliate, known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP, has since claimed responsibility for the bombing through its Amaq News Agency channel, saying the attack was part of the group’s ongoing war against the democratic system, which it believes contradicts Sharia law.

In the past, the ISKP has targeted several local leaders of the JUI-F in Bajaur, suspecting them of having close ties with the Taliban administration in neighbouring Afghanistan. In recent years, some of the more prominent leaders to have been targeted by the militant outfit include Mufti Sultan Muhammad, Maulana Abdul Salam, Qari Ilyas, Maulana Shafiullah, and Mufti Bashir.

Sunday’s bombing, however, marked the first major suicide attack claimed by the ISKP in Bajaur.

Understanding the JUI-F

The JUI-F is one of the leading Islamist political parties in Pakistan with a strong presence across the Pashtun belt, including regions bordering Afghanistan. Much of the party’s support is derived from its connections to Pakistan’s network of Deobandi madrassas.

According to experts, the JUI-F’s local leadership often echoes the views of the Taliban in Afghanistan, irrespective of the party’s central policy.

“In Balochistan, most of the JUI-F Balochistan leaders as well as those of its splinters — the JUI-Nazriati — are allied with the Kandahari region and their leaders on their own, without necessarily representing the party’s central policy over the Taliban,” explained Muhammad Israr Madani, head of the International Research Council for Religious Affairs (IRCRA), an Islamabad-based research body that studies Islamic movements. “In Bajaur, JUI-F leaders have established strong connections with the Taliban in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan, which has made them susceptible to being targeted by the ISKP based on those associations.”

Following the 2008 general elections, several other Pakistan-based militant groups started carrying out suicide attacks and targeted killings against the JUI-F leadership for various reasons, mainly criticising them for focusing on electoral politics instead of supporting the Jihadi groups.

Since then, dozens of JUI-F leaders, including former parliamentarians, have been killed. The party chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has himself survived several suicide attacks.

Why target the JUI-F in Bajaur?

In contrast to the situation in the rest of the country, leaders and scholars affiliated with the JUI-F have been specifically targeted in Bajaur by the ISKP.

“The ISKP has a long history of enmity towards JUI-F in Bajaur which goes back to 2019 when the group started systematically assassinating JUI-F activists in Khaar, the district’s main town,” said Riccardo Valle, director of research at The Khorasan Diary (TKD), an Islamabad-based news and research platform that monitors militant groups. “Ever since, the ISKP has conducted many attacks in Mamund and Khaar areas, either claimed or unclaimed by the outfit.”

In July, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman in a press briefing in Peshawar disclosed that 18 of his party workers have been killed in Bajaur in recent years. He, however, refrained from identifying the perpetrators responsible for these killings. The TKD, which also monitors and documents attacks carried out by militant groups, has noted that the ISKP has claimed responsibility for at least 23 attacks, exclusively targeting the JUI-F in Bajaur alone.

In April 2022, the ISKP issued a series of fatwas (Islamic rulings) allowing the assassinations of JUI-F religious scholars and activists. Following the Bajaur attack, the militant group also published a 92-page book about the JUI-F, explaining their reasons for targeting religio-political parties.

Ties with the Afghan Taliban

Primarily, the ISKP perceives the JUI-F as the political wing of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, believing them to be closely aligned.

Over the years, Pashtun religious scholars and leaders in Pakistan’s bordering districts, such as Bajaur, have maintained strong connections with the Taliban movement in Afghanistan since the 1970s.

“Many students from Kunar and other Afghan provinces have studied in Bajaur’s madrassas and now hold significant positions in the Taliban administration at various levels,” Muhammad, a teacher at a madrassa in Bajaur, who requested to use only his first name due to threats from the ISKP, told Dawn.com.

Moreover, a considerable number of individuals from Bajaur have actively participated in the conflict in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion, further influencing the dynamics in the region, he said.

“When the Taliban established its government in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, several religious scholars and individuals from Bajaur were appointed to important positions,” said the IRCRA’s Madani. “Some of these individuals were also associated with the JUI-F.”

As the threat of ISKP grew in Afghanistan, the Taliban administration initiated a crackdown on the group in Kunar and other adjacent provinces. Consequently, leaders from Bajaur who held positions in the new administration also became involved in the operation against ISKP, Madani told Dawn.com.

The Usman Turabi factor

Among the individuals appointed to key positions was Haji Usman Turabi, hailing from Gabbary village in Bajaur’s Mamond area. Soon after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, he was appointed as the Governor of Kunar province in August 2021.

Turabi, who himself served as a Jihadi commander in Afghanistan, and his family command immense respect among the leadership of the Afghan Taliban movement due to his grandfather, Akbar Khan, who was known for his bravery in the war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, villagers told Dawn.com.

He was, however, replaced in September of the same year due to a controversy arising from a photo he shared with Pakistan’s hardline cleric Mufti Nadeem at his office. Mufti Nadeem is known for his strong opposition to the Salafi community, and the photo of Turabi with him at the governor’s house angered Kunar’s local residents and the Salafi community.

“Under Turabi’s governance, the Taliban administration initiated various operations to eliminate ISKP militants from Kunar province,” the madrassa teacher said. “In retaliation, the ISKP began targeting Taliban sympathisers in Bajaur, resulting in the killings of numerous religious scholars associated with the JUI-F as well as Turabi’s relatives in the region.”

Last month, Haji Najibullah, a relative of Turabi, along with two colleagues, was killed in an attack on their car in Bajaur. In April, the ISKP claimed to have killed Turabi’s guard.

Villagers said that Turabi has also restricted his movement and has been mostly staying at his residence due to the ISKP’s threat.

The Taliban-ISKP rivalry

In early 2015, the Islamic State’s central leadership established a chapter in Afghanistan and Pakistan, known as ISKP, sparking a rivalry with the Taliban, its new jihadi competitor. Over time, this competition intensified, leading to conflict between the two groups.

By 2019, the ISKP faced mounting pressure from various quarters, including the Ashraf Ghani-led administration, US forces, and the Taliban’s crackdowns, which resulted in the group relinquishing its territorial control in northern and eastern Afghanistan.

Despite these setbacks, the ISKP has managed to maintain its strength even after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. The group has endured significant losses, with many of its members having been arrested or killed by the Taliban after the fall of Kabul. However, the ISKP has strategically used the US withdrawal agreement with the Taliban to portray itself as the last standing jihadi movement in the region, seeking to exploit the situation to its advantage.

Currently, the ISKP’s primary objective is to thwart the Taliban’s efforts in fulfilling their promises to Islamist supporters and the Afghan people. To achieve this, the group has been targeting not only Taliban fighters but also international entities such as China, Russia, and Pakistan within Afghanistan. These attacks aim to create tensions between the Taliban and neighbouring countries and complicate their relations.

The sustained attacks as well as the latest suicide bombing in Bajaur indicates that the Taliban-ISKP conflict has entered Pakistan, taking on a more dangerous and intensified form.

Presence of ISKP in Bajaur

The exact strength of the militant ISKP in Bajaur remains unclear, but it is believed that a faction of local militants affiliated with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, led by Abu Bakkar Bajauri, switched allegiance to the ISKP a few years ago.

According to law enforcement officials, the ISKP operates in Bajaur through cells and has an extensive network of informants.

Having carried out almost two dozen attacks against the JUI-F over the last few years, Sunday’s bombing was the most brazen and deadliest in the tribal belt this year so far. As general elections draw closer and political parties start canvassing for support, it remains to be seen how security forces and the local administration will mitigate the challenge posed by the ISKP in the region.

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