In November 2014, Mr. Nisar, the Federal Minister of Interior of Pakistan, ruled out the possibility of presence of the militants of the terrorist organisation “Islamic State” (“IS”) in the territory of Pakistan.
According to the Pakistani media, such “soothing” statement was made in reply to the statement of the National Counter Terrorism Authority of Pakistan, made in the beginning of November 2014, as regards the potential threat for the country, presented by IS and the report of the government of Baluchistan province. Both documents were sent to the central administration and the federal law enforcement agencies. The document contained a warning about existing proof of IS’s activities in the territory of Pakistan. It stated that the organisation was recruiting thousands of mercenaries throughout the country. In particular, data were provided on mass recruitment of volunteers from the tribes of Pakistan’s Kurram Tribal Agency, their total number reaching 10,000 – 12,000 people.
However, as early as on December 4, 2014 the Press-secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the Islamabad authorities had arrested several persons involved with IS. It was for the first time when a foreign affairs authority officially recognized the fact of presence of IS members in the country’s territory. The earlier information about arrests came mainly through unofficial sources.
On the next day, it was followed by a statement of the ex-Minister of the Interior of the country Mr. R. Malik (2008 – 2013) regarding the facts that IS militants’ network had been active in the country for some time and that its local section was supervised by Yusuf Safi.
According to the Pakistani media, leaflets calling to support IS were seen in the north-western regions of Pakistan (which border on Afghanistan) as well as in Afghanistan. In particular, slogans in support of IS were painted on the walls of the Kabul University.
The IS organisation suggested to the members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat to join their forces in Pakistan. For this purpose, it formed in the country a leading authority called “Strategic Planning Wing”, aimed at development of joint activities both within Pakistan and beyond its borders.
In the report prepared by Baluchistan authorities it was stressed that the targets for IS armed attacks located in the territory of Pakistan were:
– military objects and government offices in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. And, as they say, this is a blowback in response to Zarb-e-Azb military operation in North Waziristan agency. The federal army has been conducting this operation starting from April 2014, its task being liquidation of militants (both foreign and local) and their refuges in the Pakistani territory;
– Pakistan’s civil population who are Islamic Shiites or belong to religious minorities.
Among the reasons for strengthening IS positions in Pakistan and strengthening of potential cooperation between certain Pakistani militant groups and IS regiments, the following ones can be named.
In 2013 – 2014, the Pakistan Taliban Movement (“the PTM”) was experiencing a number of disputes among separate militants’ regiments. As of late, the Pakistani rebels were pursuing two major goals: armed fight against US-NATO joint forces in the territory of Afghanistan and military actions against the federal army and acts of terrorism among the civil population in Pakistan, in order to solve this or that local goal. In autumn of 2013 the leader of the Pakistani Talibs H. Mehsud was killed by US drone strike. Soon after that, the election of the new leader of the PTM, Maulana Fazlullah, took place, which violated the principles in the hierarchy of the Pakistani militants. All the three previous leaders were natives of South Waziristan or North Waziristan agencies. It is a common belief in Pakistan that South Waziristan is “the cradle” of the PTM. At the same period, in autumn 2013, several local groups announced that they quit the PTM.
The military campaign of the Pakistan federal army in spring – autumn 2014 brought its results. According to official estimates, 2,100 terrorists were liquidated, many fled to the neighbouring Afghanistan and some of them “dissolved” in the inner regions of Pakistan. The militants’ morale was shattered, and further dissociation in their groups was noted.
The other reason is the growing Sunnite and Shiites conflict in Pakistan, which has taken part in the recent years notwithstanding the measures taken by the Pakistani administration (its military, civil and law enforcement agencies), aimed at controlling inter-confessional conflicts.
As the armed conflict in Syria and Iraq was developing, IS’s military victories started attracting the attention of some social groups of population of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in particular in Karachi megalopolis, in Baluchistan province, in the area populated by Pashtun tribes, etc., radical extremists, middle-class and the poorest strata of the Pakistani population. As to the latter, they often faced the absence of fair trials in the local areas, corruption and ineffective state management. “They needed counter-arguments and social support, and IS promised to provide them with religious support”, said the head of the All Pakistan Ulema Council.
The military success of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria to a certain extent set an example for radical extremists in certain PTM groups, playing the role of a catalyst (financial support, continuing armed activities). IS gradually turned into a source of inspiration for both Islamist militant groups and civil religious associations in the region and in Pakistan in particular.
Many Pakistani and Afghan militants saw in IS the “so needed moral support” and obtained financial support from it as well. Some of them declared their loyalty to IS and gave orders to its subordinate Talibs to render assistance to jikhadist groups in Middle East. Their aim is to create the global Islamic caliphate.
The leader of Al-Qaeda Ayman Al-Zawahiri appointed the former Taliban commander Asim Umar “the emir” of its new South-Asian branch, which also gave impulse to mobilization of Pakistani militants and sending them to Syria and Iraq.
It was in this period, in October – November 2014, that from Pakistan loyalty oaths in support of khalif Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who presently heads IS in Syria and Iraq) came from six PTM commanders including ex PTM secretary of state Sh. Shahid. He, together with the militants’ leaders Said Khan (Orakzai), Daulat Khan (Kurram agencies), Khyber Fateh Gul Zaman, mufti Khasan (the city of Peshawar) and Khalid Mansur (Khangu circuit) declared their loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the beginning of November 2014 Sh. Shahid was dismissed from his office.
IS’s calls to unite the forces of the militant groups were also supported by three “field commanders” of the Afghan “Taliban” movement.
According to the materials published in the Pakistani media, IS has been spreading its influence in the region within several years. The PTM, in its turn, provided general support to IS in their fight against “foreign occupants”. Moreover, it has already sent to Syria about 1,000 fighters (as confirmed by our sources in the Pakistani government) and is planning to send more than 700 volunteers in addition.
Notwithstanding the support there exist certain divergences between the Afghan/Pakistani Talibs and IS militants. The Afghan Talibs recognize as their leader Mullah Omar, the Emir of “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (2006 – 2001). They stated that “Amir al-Mu’minin”, that is the “Commander of the Faithful”, had already been elected. Therefore, they reject Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claims for leadership in the Islamic caliphate.
On their own part, IS militants do not make secret of their plans to expand their influence in the Af-Pak region. Such scenario will require both from the leaders of the local PTM militant groups and from IS itself to review their ideology. Many think it might be possible only in case of joining the forces of the main militant groups, including the PTM.
It is believed in Pakistan that the IS plans to equip its own bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan after withdrawal of the main contingent of the US-NATO international coalition’s joint forces, which is to take place in 2015. This causes well-grounded fears on the part of Islamabad’s governing civil administration who have failed an anti-terrorist campaign in their own country. Additional inflow of foreign militants will further aggravate the existing situation, as far as the country’s safety is concerned.
Natalia Zamarayeva, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow in the Pakistan Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.