With Pakistan experiencing the worst period in its political history as well as fighting the Taliban within its borders, the Islamic State could not have chosen a better time to make inroads into Pakistan — if it wanted to.
The political squabble has refused to die down since it began on Aug. 14, when two political leaders provoked battles in the street with law enforcement agencies, stormed the state-owned Pakistan Television headquartersin the federal capital Islamabad, and demanded the resignation of the country’s democratically elected prime minister.
And near its western border, the Pakistani army is trying to flush out militants from North Waziristan, one of seven tribal districts in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA).
Reports of pro-Islamic State graffiti in Balochistan province and the distribution of a booklet titled “Fatah”(“Victory), published in Pashto and Dari languages, in the suburbs of Peshawar, are climbing to the top of the list of concerns for the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
“I’ve heard these have been distributed in the Afghan refugee camps, which are in the outskirts of the city, appealing to the people to support it in establishing an Islamic caliphate,” Jamshed Baghwan, Peshawar bureau chief of Express News, told MintPress. He, however, had not seen the booklet himself.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of The News in Peshawar, said he had also heard that the pamphlets were being distributed in the Afghan refugee camps.
“This, to me, proves that its objectives are limited as is its target and area. I hear the printing is of inferior quality, which shows the group had limited resources,” Yusufzai, an authority on Afghan affairs and the FATA, explained.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Foreign Office has dismissed the presence of the Islamic State altogether. “Reports about IS in Pakistan’s tribal areas are not correct and Pakistani forces are fighting against terrorists and this fight is in the middle of its success,” said Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam.
The issue of the pro-Islamic State pamphlets came up during a daily U.S. State Department news briefing in Washington on Tuesday. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki commented: “I don’t have any confirmation of this. Obviously, I’m sure you’re watching events like this closely. I think, again, part of our effort underway is not limited to a specific part of the world to take on this threat.”
Islamic State who?
Islamic State, the jihadist group formerly called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), was formed in April 2013, out of al-Qaida in Iraq. The group is currently fighting forces in Iraq and Syria which it believes are Shiite-friendly regimes that threaten their extremist Sunni ideology. Although the Islamic State targets Shiite Muslims, killing them by the thousands, the militant group has fought with Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and parts of the proposed Kurdistan territory, as well as Sunni al-Nusra fighters. This has raised the question whether their ideology is more about making land grabs as they try to establish a so-called Islamic State across the Middle East disguised as religious fundamentalists to destabilize the Middle East.
The Islamic State is led by Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi,a follower of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the late Jordanian who ran a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan and ultimately gained notoriety for a series of bombings, beheadings, and attacks during the Iraq War in 2003.
“The group appears to be militarily advanced because its commanders include former mid-level and senior officers in the Ba’ath-era Iraqi army. As an organization, the Islamic State and its antecedents (al-Qaida) have also been fighting in the region (Iraq and Syria) for over a decade. So it has a wealth of experience,” Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, noted in an email exchange with MintPress.
Along with its wealth of experience, the Islamic State receives funds from a variety of sources. Rafiq said these funds come from “its own predatory activity (extortion and kidnapping for ransom); seizure of Iraqi state financial resources and military hardware; and donations from sympathizers in Gulf Arab states, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”
According to news reports, hard-line groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan have already announced support for the group headed by the Afghan Taliban. “Among them, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost and Maulvi Abdul Qahar, stalwarts of Saudi Arabia-backed Salafi Taliban groups operating in Nuristan and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan, have already announced support for the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,”the Express Tribune reported on Wednesday.
In an interesting turn of events, shortly after the news of the distribution of the “Fatah” booklet spread, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the launch of an al-Qaida campaign in South Asia and the creation of a branch in India, while also pledging allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Yusufzai, editor of The News, suspects the latest 55-minute video is a response to the Islamic State.
“It was also to show to the world that they are still relevant,” said Yusufzai, adding, “The Islamic State does pose a challenge and a real competition to al-Qaida, which has become weaker.”
Further, he said the Islamic State is still actively fighting at the same time that it is running a parallel government — a feat al-Qaida was never able to achieve.
Others have pointed to the timing of the video’s release, linking it to the upcoming anniversary of 9/11.
Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, described the video as “hyperventilation and posturing.” “It’s al-Zawahiri’s obvious way of getting some of the limelight back,” Bergen said.
Bergen also compared the way the two militant groups make their videos: “Al-Zawahiri’s video is boring, talking into the camera,” while “ISIS videos are well-edited and dynamic.”
Meanwhile, in India, the Ministry of Home Affairs has sounded the alarm bells, putting all states and security agencies on alert and urging them to take precautionary measures against al-Qaida’s proposed campaign.
Are the TTP’s days numbered?
Yet, experts say that despite its apparent strength, the Islamic State will find it difficult to completely elbow al-Qaida out of the region. “The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is not finished yet, has not disowned al-Qaida, and still has bonds, even family bonds, with the latter,” said Yusufzai.
Formed seven years ago and led by Mullah Fazlullah, the TTP is on the run at the moment, lying low due to the army operation in North Waziristan. Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst, has described it as “faction-riddled” but still bound to Mullah Omar.
According to the Inter Services Public Relations, the communication wing of Pakistan’s armed forces, as of Wednesday, 910 militants had been killed since the military offensive began on June 15 to drive militants — including the TTP and other Taliban factions — out of North Waziristan in the FATA.
Rafiq, the scholar with the Middle East Institute, also said the TTP has proven to be a resilient organization. “They thrive off of a broader phenomenon of Sunni Deobandi militancy in Pakistan, which includes groups like Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and Jaish-e Muhammad. These groups have a nationwide presence. And what we see is that some of the Sunni Deobandi madressahs [religious seminaries] and groups like SSP feed fighters into the more hardcore anti-state TTP militant network.”
In Rafiq’s estimation, the Islamic State is merely a “bit player” that will find it difficult to gain a foothold in South Asia and compete with other jihadist networks.
Further, he noted, “There is little incentive for major jihadist groups in Pakistan to link up with the Islamic State.”
Most militant groups in Pakistan are Sunni Deobandi or have emerged from that Sunni subsect, Rafiq said. The Islamic State, however, has a Salafist ideologically. “A common characteristic of most of the Sunni Deobandi jihadists groups, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is that they pledge nominal fealty to Mullah Omar, whom they give the quasi-caliph status of commander of the faithful. And this precludes them from pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi.”
Rafiq believes that small, Salafi or outlier jihadist groups in Pakistan, like the Ansar al-Tawhid — a small Indian jihadist group based in the FATA that has openly supported the Islamic State, might opportunistically join the latter. These smaller groups may stand to gain financially through such an arrangement, but more importantly, he said, they would be gaining a great deal of attention. “Joining the Islamic State would be of great propaganda or recruitment value for marginal jihadist groups in South Asia.”
Rafiq isn’t alone in this analysis. Sehgal, the defense analyst, also told MintPress that he wouldn’t be surprised if some group imitated the Islamic State for the “glory” of being considered an ” Islamic State affiliate.”
“I wouldn’t be out of my depth if I say this distribution of booklets should be a cause of worry,” he added.
Another group waits to make its presence felt
A blow to the TTP early this year came in the form of the Jamaatul Ahrar (TTP-JA), a TTP splinter group. Experts say this hard-line group is the one that should be watched, not the Islamic State.
The TTP-JA is led by Omar Khalid Khorasani and based in Mohmand tribal agency, near Peshawar. It has strong ties to al-Qaida. Khorasani has said that it was necessary to break away from the TTP because it had become undisciplined and suffered from infighting.
“They oppose the TTP leadership and are keen on attacking Pakistan unabated,” Rafiq said of the TTP-JA.
He said terrorist violence in Pakistan had dropped considerably this year, making it the “least deadly” year since 2010, but the TTP-JA “aims at reversing the trend.”
Pakistan witnessed Islamic State-like barbarism, with the TTP brooking no dissent when it controlled the Pashtun belt from 2007 into 2009. “The TTP blew up Sufi shrines, attacked Shia Muslims, and implemented its own form of vigilante justice,” said Rafiq.
That “vigilante justice” is what ultimately led to a public backlash against the TTP, and the army was called in to drive out the terrorist group from Swat and other areas.
“Fortunately for Pakistan, with a strong, professional army and a political class that is capable of uniting, at this moment, the TTP does not maintain control of large swaths of territory,” said Rafiq. “The insurgency threat has been more or less contained.”
But now, with TTP-JA in the forefront, Rafiq forecast more violence, with the new group “attempting to undo the Pakistan army’s counterinsurgency gains in Bajaur and Swat; and renew attacks on Pakistani state installations, with a particular emphasis on globally isolating Pakistan.”
For example, Rafiq said, it will probably continue to attack airports. “And the group has indicated that it will renew attacks targeting Shia Muslims.”