In Pakistan, the debate over the Islamic States’ presence, and its potential to jeopardize national security, resurfaced again after a recent briefing given to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on the contemporary situation of Afghanistan. U.S. lawmakers were briefed by Gen John Nicholson Jr., the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. The general informed the committee that “the majority of the fighters in the IS [Islamic State] right now came from the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban.” With such revelations, it’s imperative to trace the roots of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Pakistan and scale Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy to deal with this evolving challenge.
The footprints of ISIS soon emerged in Pakistan after the main group’s terrifying launch in Middle East. In mid-2014, pro-ISIS graffiti and propaganda – namely a booklet called “Fateh” – soon appeared on the streets of Peshawar, Karachi, and the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA). However, the Islamic State’s tangible presence was first reported in November 2014, when a confidential report by the provincial government of Balochistan to the federal government warned of the group’s increased footprints in Pakistan. According to the report, “IS has claimed to have recruited a massive 10 to 12,000 followers from the Hangu and Kurram Agency tribal areas.” In addition to this, the report also called for adopting preventive measures to halt its growth.
But, as usual, the government remained relaxed and unmoved, until a massive terrorist attack. An attack on a Shia mosque in the Shikarpur district of Sind on January 30, 2015 killed 60 people; the attack was claimed by a splinter group of TTP, Jundullah, which had earlier pledged allegiance to ISIS. Jundullah’s next target was the Ismaili community – a sub sect of Shia Muslim – in Karachi on May 13, 2015, where 43 innocent souls were killed, and 13 others were injured. Since then, a series of other terrorist attacks have been claimed by groups that have pledged themselves to ISIS or by ISIS directly: the massive attack outside Quetta’s Civil Hospital on August 8, 2016 which led to the massacre of more than 70 young lawyers; the October 24, 2016 attack, again in Quetta, targeting the police training academy which resulted in loss of 61 cadets; the suicide blast outside the Shahnoorani Shrine in outskirts of Khuzdar district in Balochistan, which killed 52.
At first, the government was in denial mode regarding the presence of ISIS on Pakistani soil. Sartaj Aziz, then the national security adviser and currently the government adviser on foreign affairs, denied the presence of ISIS. He said on February 1, 2015, just two days after the Shikarpur attack, that “Islamic State is not a major threat and not a serious problem for Pakistan.” Likewise, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s incumbent interior minister, reportedly stated that “the militant Islamic State group which is a Middle Eastern organization, has no presence in Pakistan.” He further said, “Daesh [Arabic acronym of ISIS] does not exist in Pakistan. Other terrorist groups, which are involved in activities against the state are using Daesh’s name and are causing death and destruction in the country.” Clearly, key government representatives did not see ISIS as a high-level threat.
However, lately the government authorities have confessed that the group does have a tangible presence in Pakistan and is an imminent threat. Aftab Sultan, the director general of the Intelligence Bureau, in a briefing to the Senate Standing Committee on Interior, recognized the threat of ISIS. He reportedly said that the “Islamic State group was emerging as a threat in the country because several militant groups had [a] soft corner for it.” Such apprehensions were also shared by the then-Foreign Secretary Azaz Ahmed Chaudhry. He admitted in front of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee at Parliament House that ISIS posed a “serious threat” to Pakistan.
All the while, ISIS continued carrying out massive attacks across Pakistan, despite the adoption of the National Action Plan (NAP) – Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy, adopted after the tragic attack on the Army Public School Peshawar on December 16, 2014. However, law enforcement agencies achieved initial success in countering the challenge of ISIS. In early 2015, security forces reportedly arrested the leader of ISIS in Pakistan, Pakistani Syrian Yousaf al-Salafi. Likewise, in another successful operation, the culprits behind the attack on Islamili community in Karachi were arrested; it was then officially announced that these killers have links with ISIS. Similarly in another incident, the Counter Terrorism Department (CD) claimed to have busted an Islamic State group from Sailkot, a Punjab district, in December 2015.
Apart from these small scale arrests, a massive national campaign, Zarb-e-Azb, is already in its full swing in tribal areas to eliminate the roots of terrorism and extremism. But these detentions, military operations, and intelligence-based operations had not been able to halt the aforementioned attacks. Therefore, it’s important to mull over Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategies. Is the country ready to counter the ISIS phenomena?
Critics have largely accused the government of dragging its feet on implementing the NAP in its true letter and spirit. Apart from the apparent initial success of Zarb-e-Azb, the larger NAP has been struggling to achieve its goals. All the sectors of state – courts, media, intelligentsia, civil society, academia, opposition parties, and even the army itself – have criticized the government for the slow pace of the NAP. For instance, commission tasked with investigating the Quetta hospital blast on August 8, 2016, clearly took aim at the NAP: “the National Action Plan was not a plan in any structured or meaningful way, nor has its goals been accordingly monitored or implemented. It should be made into a proper plan, with clear goals, a comprehensive monitoring mechanism, and periodic reviewing.”
Pakistan’s focus only on short-term and tangible gains has caused much suffering. Looking into contemporary strategies one can safely conclude that the state has to be more active and needs to take speedy steps to counter the threat of ISIS.
The need of the hour is to go after long-term goals and change basic understandings and strategies to eliminate the menace of terrorism. Military operations are not a panacea. Thus, the foremost job is to alter Pakistan’s strategic culture and internal counterterrorism policies. Pakistan must overcome biases in its foreign policy to approach regional states to formulate a joint counterterrorism strategy. Moreover, the establishment has to give up the clichéd strategies of the Cold War era to counter against internal and external threats. If government compromises on the aforementioned strategies then we must brace ourselves to face more havoc in future.
Hammal Kashani is a graduate of International Relations from the National Defense University (NDU) Islamabad, Pakistan. He tweets @Hamalkashani.