The shocking spread of the Islamic State group (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) over Sunni dominated areas of Iraq and its declaration of a caliphate last month has sparked speculation that the group will replace al-Qaeda as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. Indeed, there is concern that Pakistani jihadist groups, especially the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, the principal anti-state jihadist group), could pair up with the rising ISIS, rejuvenating itself as an insurgent force. But such concerns, while not completely unfounded, are exaggerated.
To recognize the caliphate of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the TTP would have to defect not only from al-Qaeda’s ranks, but also sever its nominal (but important) ties with the Afghan Taliban. The costs of such a shift for the TTP currently outweigh the benefits. Though Al-Qaeda has been weakened in Pakistan by U.S. drone attacks and Pakistani military and intelligence operations, it remains an anchoring force for local anti-state jihadist groups, providing them with a broader strategic vision as well as technical expertise. Al-Qaeda has an established supply line of Pakistanis from outside the tribal areas, including urban areas, built over the course of more than a decade. It has effectively fused with elements of the anti-Shia Lashkar-e Jhangvi, which is deeply tied to the TTP. The Islamic State has yet to even remotely approach what al-Qaeda can offer Pakistani jihadist groups.
The indications so far are that Pakistani jihadists are wary of getting involved in the dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Earlier this year, a prominent Pakistani jihadist forum shut down a discussion thread on the Islamic State’s clashes with al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. And in early March, a contributor to the forum claimed that he spoke with Adnan Rashid – a senior TTP commander since arrested – who allegedly said that his group supports neither the “fitna”(internecine strife) in Syria nor the Islamic State group.
According to the Telegraph, the Tehreek-e-Khilafat, a previously unknown jihadist group supposedly based in Karachi, said that it swore allegiance to Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi. But the story has little credibility. It was reported by a journalist with a tabloid bent and has gained little traction in Pakistan’s Internet jihadosphere.
Like al-Qaeda members, the TTP and other Pakistani Taliban factions claim fealty (bay’ah) to Mullah Muhammad Omar, whom they refer to as amir al-mumineen or commander of the faithful – a quasi-caliph status. Importantly, the TTP derives its legitimacy from its association with the Afghan Taliban and inspiration from the group’s five-year rule over Afghanistan, which is seen as an idyllic period.
The Pakistani state has tried to damage the TTP’s credibility by claiming that it is backed by foreign intelligence agencies. In turn, the TTP has emphasized that it is loyal to Mullah Omar, whose war the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment has sought to portray as legitimate. Should it reject Mullah Omar, the TTP risks the loss of a key factor contributing to its legitimacy within Pakistani jihadist ranks, making it alien in their ecosystem. The Afghan Taliban, the TTP, and most other Pakistani jihadist groups are fruit from the same tree. They belong to the Deobandi subsect of Sunni Islam, which means they often attend the same seminaries and, in Pakistan, can hop from one Deobandi group to another. And the tendency within both pro-state and anti-state Deobandi jihadists is to hold Mullah Omar’s tenure in Afghanistan as an ideal.
Even if elements within the TTP favor pairing up with the Islamic State, the organization is poorly positioned to make such a move now. The TTP – an umbrella group compromising often-fractious constituent militias – is increasingly divided. The appointment of an Afghanistan-based non-Mehsud tribesman, Mullah Fazlullah, as the TTP chief has alienated the Mehsud core of the group, which has been based in North and South Waziristan. Ahead of this summer’s Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan, elements of the Mehsud Taliban defected from Fazlullah’s camp. Before the TTP core is even able to ally with the Islamic State, it must set its own house in order.
Nonetheless, it is worth considering the potential impact on Pakistan if the core elements of the TTP did give their fealty to al-Baghdadi. The TTP is already a sectarian organization, having targeted Shias in Karachi, Sunni Barelvis in Punjab and elsewhere, and Shias again in a full-fledged sectarian war in the Kurram Agency. The TTP attacked mosques and shrines belong to other sects as it spread deeper into Pakistan prior to the military’s two major counterinsurgency operations in 2009. And the TTP, much more so than the Afghan Taliban, has also targeted civilian populations, something that has ruffled the feathers of senior al-Qaeda commanders. Indeed, there was little al-Qaeda could do as it is dependent on the hospitality of the local Pashtun tribesmen. While the Islamic State and the TTP share an animus toward the Shia and a predilection for using brute force, the TTP is unwieldy and divided. It would be a difficult partner to control, as it has at times defied or been at odds with the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network.
A more probable risk is that small pockets of Pakistani jihadists declare their allegiance to the Islamic State and adopt an even more extreme strategy, with a greater emphasis on targeting expressly residential communities of religious minorities. In recent years, anti-Shia militants have already done this in Quetta and Karachi, with bomb attacks on Shia residential communities. Already, social media accounts associated with the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat Pakistan) avidly promote the Islamic State’s activities inside Iraq and Syria. And small groups of Pakistani jihadists have posted videos of themselves swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Post-9/11, Pakistan witnessed the emergence of small, al-Qaeda-inspired, but self-initiated cells that engaged in terror attacks in Karachi and in other urban areas. It is possible that the Islamic State could inspire copycat jihadists in Pakistan even more nihilistic than the TTP.
While jihadists linked to or inspired by the Islamic State could worsen threats to Pakistani civilians by pursuing a scorched earth strategy, the Pakistani government might have an opportunity to leverage the al-Qaeda-Islamic State rivalry to its own favor. If a critical mass of Pakistani jihadist factions defects to the Islamic State’s ranks, and there is fighting between al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked groups in Pakistan, the net result – if the Pakistani state abstains from aiding one side – is that both groups could go down and local jihadists might be left without an international patron anchoring them. But the great tragedy of Pakistan’s history is that its military-intelligence establishment is quite adept at pitting groups off of one another, only to have the side it supported grow into threats against the state.
The Islamic State is an outlier within Pakistan’s jihadist community. And barring cataclysmic events, such as the death of Mullah Omar or the spread of ISIS into Saudi Arabia, it is likely to remain on the periphery.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at: @arifcrafiq.