Much of our focus in fighting the war against militancy has understandably been in the tribal areas and the border regions with Afghanistan where militant groups have their main bases. But a new report by the Pak Institute of Peace Studies shows that outfits like the Islamic State are now gaining ground in Sindh and Balochistan. According to the report, the main threat is still the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and its offshoots – which were collectively responsible for over half the total militant attacks in 2017 – but that the IS is proving to be a destructive threat in Sindh where it was responsible for the attack on the shrine attack in Sehwan Sharif. Pakistan’s operations against the IS, collectively fought under the Khyber-IV banner, targeted the bases of the militant group in places like Rajan Valley. While the operation was undoubtedly helpful in disrupting the IS, this militant group has a modus operandi quite different to that of the TTP. It is more diffused, preferring to have a decentralised structure with individual units and sometimes even lone wolves acting under its name. This, in all likelihood, has allowed it to recruit sympathisers and establish a presence in Sindh and Balochistan.
The mistake of focusing exclusively on the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is one we have made in the past, allowing militant groups to operate relatively unchecked in places like southern Punjab. The same mistake should not be repeated. Till now, rural Sindh has been relatively free of a militant presence. To allow the IS to gain a foothold there would be highly irresponsible. As the PIPS report shows, overall militant violence declined by 16 percent in 2017 as compared to the year before. But it still totaled an average of more than an attack a day. Even accounting for the fact that some of these attacks were the work of local nationalist groups, that still leaves a potent militant threat. There are worries that the National Action Plan has not been implemented fully, particularly when it comes to combatting the spread of militant ideology. The IS, more than any previous militant group, relies on attracting support through social media and other forms of propaganda. More than military operations, what we need to do is counter this message. At the same time, a stronger intelligence effort is needed to disrupt the IS all over the country, rather than just targeting leaders in the tribal areas. As the experiences of countries like Syria and Iraq have demonstrated, the Islamic State is a group that can rapidly multiply if it is allowed to operate unchecked.
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