A section of the security establishment has come out of its denial mode about the presence of Isis/Daesh in Pakistan and started recognising the challenges posed by it.
A recent report attributed to Sindh’s counterterrorism department claims that Daesh has avenues to establish itself in Pakistan and can exploit sectarian hatred and the existence of extremist religious organisations to recruit members.
Since 2015, Daesh and its affiliated outfits have perpetrated four major horrifying bombings in the country. This includes an attack on a Shia mosque in Shikarpur in January 2015 – in which its affiliate Jundullah was found to be involved. Isis has also been involved in an attack on the Ismaili community in Safoora Goth, Karachi in May 2015. The attack on the Shah Noorani shrine in Khuzdar in November 2016 was also perpetrated by Daesh, and the outfits also claimed responsibility for the attack on the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif last month. Dozens of people were killed in each of these strikes.
Although signs of Daesh’s footprint in the country began to appear in 2014, top officials of the federal and Punjab governments dismissed the organisation’s presence in Pakistan until recently. Daesh had established its bases in eastern Afghanistan’s bordering areas with Pakistan in 2014 and, soon afterwards, had penetrated into South Waziristan. Daesh’s sanctuaries, training camps and financial resources in Afghanistan have infused a new life into Pakistan’s outlawed militant sectarian groups which were struggling for survival before joining the group.
The Balochistan government was the first to detect the organisation’s activities. In November 2014, the provincial government reportedly sent a confidential report to the federal government, saying Daesh had recruited around 12,000 men from Hangu and Kurram Agency. However, the warning was not taken seriously.
The same year, Daesh activists made their presence felt in several cities, including Lahore and Islamabad, through graffiti and wall-chalking. The organisation’s print literature was also distributed. The interior ministry still remained unmoved. In November 2014, the interior minister said that “the militant Islamic State group, which is a Middle Eastern organisation, has no presence in Pakistan”. In his view, other terrorist groups were using Daesh’s name and causing death and destruction in the country.
This stance was at variance with obvious empirical evidence. In January 2015, security agencies reportedly arrested Yousaf al-Salafi, a local leader of Daesh, along with his two companions in Lahore. In 2016, the alleged culprits behind the Safoora attack were arrested and found to be affiliated with Daesh. In December 2015, Punjab’s counterterrorism department claimed to have busted a Daesh group in Daska area of Sialkot.
In February 2016, Aftab Sultan, the director general of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), in a briefing to the Senate Standing Committee on Interior, reportedly said that Daesh was emerging as a threat in the country because “several militant groups had soft corner for it”. The IB chief named outlawed organisation such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan as examples. In sharp contrast, the interior minister recently insisted that sectarian outfits and terrorist organisations cannot be equated.
The confusion at the highest level – and the consequent inaction of the authorities – has allowed Daesh to expand its network in the country and carry out deadly attacks after short intervals, particularly in Sindh. The recent lethal strike at the Sehwan Sharif makes it obvious that the organisation has devout followers with a supply line of arms and ammunition, a logistical support network and funding to carry out their activities. Intelligence reports revealed to the media suggest that associates of Daesh have hideouts in the bordering districts of Sindh and Balochistan.
There is a clear pattern in the areas of operation for the activities of militant and extremist organisations. Daesh and its affiliates have conducted various attacks in Sindh and Balochistan. The TTP has focused on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Jamaatul Ahrar have chosen Punjab. The well-organised, systematic functioning of terrorist groups in Pakistan has outsmarted our security setup.
Daesh’s stronghold in Afghanistan is a source of worry for other neighbouring countries of the region – including Russia, China, Iran and the Central Asian states. Media reports suggest that Russia’s Muslim community has become a major recruitment base for the organisation. It is feared that that these Russian-speaking Daesh members can set up bases in northern Afghanistan along the border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to penetrate the Central Asian states. Likewise, leaked Daesh records provide evidence that more than 100 Uighur extremists from China have joined the organisation.
Given the reach and extent of Daesh’s threat, the concerned countries in the region have started coordinating with each other to counter the threat. On December 27, 2016, representatives from Russia, China and Pakistan met in Moscow to discuss regional security with a special focus on emerging Daesh threat. The recent meeting of Russian ambassador to Pakistan Alexey Yurevich Dedov with COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on February 28 can also be seen in this context.
Pakistan’s fight against Daesh has two components. One is related to its associates and affiliated outfits and sectarian militant outfits within Pakistan – which are the target of the ongoing Operation Raddul Fasaad. The other – which is both significant and tricky – concerns the organisation’s main bases in Afghanistan close to Pak-Afghan border, which can only be eliminated in a full-fledged military operation involving troops on the ground, heavy fire and the use of the air force.
Obviously, Pakistani forces cannot launch a war in the bordering areas of Afghanistan without the consent and collaboration of the Kabul government and, more importantly, the US – which has stationed nearly 9,000 troops on Afghan soil. The policy of US President Donald Trump’s administration will be crucial for a complete victory over Daesh in our region.