Nov 19th 2016
SECURITY officials in Pakistan used to insist the country was immune to the threat of Islamic State (IS). Doctrinal differences, they said, would stop Pakistanis falling under the sway of the Syria-based militant group, which has demanded the fealty of the world’s Muslims ever since its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself “caliph” in 2014. But IS’s presence in Pakistan can no longer be denied. The group appears to be responsible for two atrocities in recent weeks.
On November 12th IS dispatched a suicide-bomber to the Shah Noorani shrine in a remote area of Balochistan province. The blast took the lives of more than 50 people who had come from far and wide to watch its Sufi mystics dance. Just over two weeks earlier, three IS gunmen had stormed a police training centre on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Quetta, killing 61. IS’s media arm released photographs of the attackers in both incidents, giving credence to its claims of responsibility.
IS considers Afghanistan and Pakistan to be part of its province of Khorasan—an ancient name for the region. It is thought to have some hideouts in eastern Afghanistan, beyond the control of the government in Kabul, and has mounted several bloodthirsty attacks on civilians in that country too. It seems to have managed to gain its presence in Pakistan by teaming up with long-established local militant groups. Branches of both Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed to have been involved in providing men, logistics and safe houses for the attack on the police academy, for instance. The Pakistani army announced on September 1st that it had arrested 309 alleged IS operatives and sympathisers, but that does not seem to have reduced its capacity to wreak havoc.
The TTP, LeJ and IS are united in their pathological loathing of Shias, who make up an estimated 20% of Pakistan’s population. They also regard the relatively gentle, folksy version of Islam practised by many Sunnis in Pakistan, with its Sufi shrines and saints, as blasphemous.
The two local jihadist outfits are, in part, creatures of Pakistan’s disastrous policy of attempting to harness Sunni militancy to advance its own domestic and regional agenda. The TTP sees itself as a sister organisation of the Afghan Taliban, a group long patronised by Pakistan as a tool to influence the internal affairs of its neighbour. LeJ’s parent organisation, Sipah-e-Sahaba, was backed by the state in the 1980s as a counter to Pakistani Shias who sympathised with the Iranian revolution. More recently the state allied itself with Shafiq Mengal, among LeJ’s current crop of leaders, in an effort to suppress the 12-year-old separatist insurgency in Balochistan.
LeJ was banned in 2002 and its upper ranks have been gutted over the past year in “police encounters”—scarcely concealed extra-judicial killings. But with chapters all over the country it remains one of the most dangerous of Pakistan’s many militant groups, particularly in Balochistan. The Ahle Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, successor to Sipah-e-Sahaba, was supposedly banned in 2012 but remains influential and active. Its leader, Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, was photographed meeting the interior minister on October 21st and was allowed to take part in a recent rally in the capital with other hardliners at which anti-Shia rhetoric flowed freely.
It is unclear whether the new ties with IS bring local militants more resources and manpower, or simply more publicity and ambition. But unless Pakistan cracks down on home-grown terror, it will remain fertile ground for IS to launch more attacks.