Tragedy struck at the heart of Balochistan’s Mastung district on September 29 when a suicide bomber targeted a gathering preparing for the 12th Rabiul Awwal procession. The blast echoed through the main market, killing 55 people and leaving over 120 injured.
Muhammad Ashgar, a member of the procession’s organising committee, says despite threats from militant groups, conveyed to them by district administration and police, they didn’t believe such an attack would actually be carried out.
“No one expected them to attack the 12th Rabiul Awwal procession; we perceived it as an attempt to intimidate us,” Asghar told Dawn.com.
“In Balochistan, militant groups have historically targeted the Shia community and their Muharram processions. However, they hadn’t targeted the 12th Rabiul Awwal procession,” he explained. “This attack indicates a shift, with the Barelvi community now being targeted along similar lines.”
Though no specific group has claimed responsibility, security officials and experts believe that the militant Islamic State’s (IS) local affiliates are behind the attack.
This belief stems from the fact that Mastung district has recently witnessed a spate of terror incidents linked to the militant IS’s two local affiliates — the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Islamic State in Pakistan Province (ISPP).
Officials have also noted a change in tactics by the IS-linked groups in Mastung. “Instead of initiating attacks after long intervals, the gap between their attacks is diminishing,” an intelligence official based in Quetta, told Dawn.com.
On September 14, IS claimed responsibility for a bomb attack targeting a convoy of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), an Islamist political party, in the Joto area of Mastung district. The attack injured 11 people, including the party’s former senator, Hafiz Hamdullah.
The group also claimed responsibility for the killing of a Levies official and injuring another in Bus Adda locality on September 7, days after an attack targeting a policeman near Wali Khan police station on August 26. In another incident on August 12, the terror outfit claimed to have killed a policeman in the Kanak area, signalling a concerning escalation in their violent activities.
IS in Pakistan
In early 2015, the IS’s central leadership established a chapter for Afghanistan and Pakistan, known as the Islamic State - Khorasan Province (ISKP). Unlike Afghanistan, however, ISKP’s network in Pakistan primarily comprises two categories of militants.
The first group consists of former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants, some of whom are Salafi or hold anti-Shia sectarian tendencies. These mainly hail from various parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including Bajaur, Orakzai, Kohat, and South Waziristan. The second group comprises militants from the banned militant outfit Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ), an anti-Shia militant group, predominantly from Balochistan’s Mastung, Quetta, Nushki and Khuzdar regions, as well as parts of northern Sindh.
In a strategic move to focus ISKP solely on Afghanistan and draw in Pakistani militant outfits, especially those linked with the TTP, LeJ, and other Pakistani Jihadi groups focusing on India-administered Kashmir, the IS leadership formally introduced the Islamic State Province of Pakistan (ISPP) in May 2019. This marked a distinct administrative separation of Pakistan from ISKP. In 2021, however, almost the entire KP province, previously under the ISPP’s jurisdiction, was integrated into ISKP’s organisational network following directives from IS Central.
LeJ — from Punjab to Balochistan
During the 1990s, as the Punjab police intensified their crackdown on sectarian groups, numerous LeJ militants sought refuge in hideouts provided by local religious leaders and seminaries affiliated with the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in Balochistan’s various regions, primarily in areas such as Mastung, Quetta, and Nushki.
Interviews with religious leaders and journalists in Mastung suggest that LeJ militants from Punjab established the terror group’s organisational structure in Balochistan’s Baloch-populated districts such as Mastung, Quetta, Nushki, and Kalat. Using the terror outfit’s anti-Shia and anti-Iran rhetoric, they motivated local militants to target the Hazara Shia community in Quetta and during their travels to Iran for pilgrimage, particularly on the main highway in Mastung.
Tariq Parvez, who led the crackdown against sectarian outfits in Punjab in the 1990s as the head of the Crime Intelligence Department (CID), acknowledged that numerous LeJ militants fleeing the crackdown found refuge in Balochistan, Karachi, and other parts of the country.
“Quetta and neighbouring districts served as ideal locations for LeJ and other jihadist groups, offering hiding spots in madrassas run by ideological partners and facilitating movement to Afghanistan,” Parvez, who also served as the head of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA), told Dawn.com.
He noted that after the weakening of sectarian terrorism in Punjab, Balochistan began witnessing sectarian violence in 2002, manifested through attacks on the Hazara community in and around Quetta.
“The LeJ’s first major attack on Hazaras in Quetta was in July 2003 when three gunmen entered an Imambargah during Friday prayers, killing 53 people and injuring 57 others,” he recalled.
Until mid-2015, LeJ Balochistan operated as a freelance organisation collaborating with several national and transnational militant groups, including the TTP, al-Qaeda, the then newly-formed IS, and the two Iranian Sunni militant groups — Jundullah, and Jaishul Adl — according to law enforcement officials and experts in Quetta. Usman Saifullah Kurd served as the LeJ’s operational chief in Balochistan since at least 2002.
From LeJ to IS
Mufti Hidayatullah, a religious leader associated with the SSP, was a founding member of the LeJ in Mastung. His madrassa in Mastung’s Kali Kandawa area served as a hideout for LeJ militants after attacking the Hazara Shia community in Mastung and Quetta.
After Quetta, Mastung saw a rise in attacks on members of the Hazara community. In September 2011, gunmen stopped a bus at Lakpas near Mastung, ordered passengers to disembark, and proceeded to shoot them, killing 26 and wounding six after confirming their identity as Shias. In the following years, buses of the Hazara Shia community en route to Iran to visit holy sites were targeted through suicide attacks, claiming hundreds of lives.
In 2016, intelligence agencies demolished Hidayatullah’s madrassa due to its involvement in providing hideouts to LeJ attackers and also killed two militants in a raid on his house. Hidayatullah had been at large since then.
However, after the killing of Kurd in a shootout with law enforcement agencies on Quetta’s Sariab Road in February 2015, LeJ began weakening and suffered a split. In this precarious situation, Hidayatullah and his like-minded group joined ISKP a few months after Kurd’s death.
Encouraged by the recruitment of trained LeJ militants, IS carried out high-profile attacks in Balochistan. The group targeted the Police Training College in Quetta, killing 61 police cadets. In another brazen attack, a suicide bomber targeted the shrine of Sufi saint Shah Noorani in Khuzdar district, leaving 52 dead and 102 wounded. IS also claimed responsibility for the 2018 suicide attack on an election rally, which killed 140 people, including pro-government politician Nawabzada Siraj Raisani, and injured dozens more.
The IS in Balochistan also permitted several anti-Shia outfits in neighbouring regions, such as Hafeez Brohi to align themselves with it.
When law enforcement agencies killed Hidayatullah, with a bounty of Rs5 million on his head, in a shootout in Kalat district in 2018, it was learnt that he was serving as IS Balochistan chief. The IS Central in its weekly al-Naba publications, published a biography of Hidayatullah.
“In Balochistan, these are the same LeJ members now using IS platforms,” said Shahzada Zulfiqar, a Quetta-based journalist analysing the security situation. He said that the IS was also responsible for abducting and killing two Chinese nationals in Quetta in 2017.
Despite claims by security forces and law enforcement agencies of eliminating several key leaders and members of the group, Mastung and neighbouring districts continue to witness uncontrollable attacks, according to Zulfiqar.
In 2021, a faction of LeJ Balochistan, which named itself the Saifullah Kurd faction, under its new leader Khushi Muhammad, merged with the TTP.
Targets of IS’s local affiliates
While the IS’s local affiliates target Shia communities, they also attack those belonging to the Barelvi school of thought, besides leaders and supporters of the JUI-F, Jamaat-i-Islami, government and law enforcement officials, and practitioners of mystical traditions such as the Zikri community.
“Targeting the 12th Rabiul Awwal procession indicates that IS’s local affiliates in the region adhere to the IS central’s tendency to instigate sectarian strife by actively targeting minority Muslim sects, such as Shias, Barelvis, and Zikris,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, an Islamabad-based security analyst.
Rana highlighted ISKP’s leadership, particularly its chief Shahab al-Muhajir, criticising the Barelvi community in its publications, describing them as ‘infidels’ allied with the Pakistani state.
In 2021, the ISKP in a detailed statement, linked the Taliban with Barelvis (Sufis) and Saifis, the followers of Pir Saifur Rehman, a Pakistani spiritual leader. The group, in its publication, also criticised Taliban supremo Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada for being a Saifi — a Sufi order that has a sizeable following in Afghanistan as well as parts of KP and Punjab in Pakistan.
“Along with Shias, Barelvis are also key targets for IS in Pakistan. The group has attacked Sufi shrines in Balochistan and Sindh, killed Barelvi leaders in Peshawar, and practitioners of mystical traditions in Mastung in the recent past,” said Muhammad Israr Madani, an Islamabad-based researcher specialing in Islamic movements.
He also noted that the LeJ was behind the 2006 Karachi Nishtar Park suicide bombing, which killed over 50 people, including top Barelvi leadership from Sunni Tehreek and Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat.
“Through such attacks on Barelvis and other minority Muslim sects, IS aims to maximise sectarian friction and recruit new members from the country’s existing sectarian groups,” he added. “By attacking non-Muslim minorities, such as Christians and Sikhs, IS seeks international attention.”
Impact of Afghan Taliban’s crackdown on IS
The surge in IS attacks in Pakistan, notably in Balochistan, is directly connected to the Afghan Taliban’s crackdown on IS in neighbouring Afghanistan, experts said.
The Taliban’s sustained operations over the past two years have granted them substantial control in the region. “IS has entered a period of hibernation in Afghanistan and focused on the recruitment of new members,” said Rana. “But it has redirected its attention towards Pakistan, capitalising on the country’s current political and security instability,” remarked Rana.
“This shift indicates a potential rise in attacks in Pakistan in the foreseeable future,” he warned.
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