Last month, the Islamic State (IS) formally announced the creation of wilayah (provinces) in Pakistan and India. The announcement was made by the Islamic State’s media front, the Amaq News Agency.
The two provinces have been carved out of the erstwhile Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), which encompassed the Af-Pak border region. ISKP, which was founded in January 2015, months after IS had announced its so called caliphate in the Iraq and Levant, spearheaded all activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was the source of IS-affiliated militant activity in India as well.
The two IS provinces in India and Pakistan were announced in the immediate aftermath of the group claiming responsibility for gun attacks on security forces in Shopian district of Indian-administered Kashmir. During the same week, IS claimed a similar gun attack in Mastung district of Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
A month before the Islamic State’s creation of the Wilayah Pakistan, the group bombed the Hazarjangi market in Balochistan’s capital of Quetta, killing 20 people. April’s Quetta bombing targeted the Shia Hazara ethnic group, which, along with the local Christian community, has been regularly targeted by the Islamic State and its affiliates, in line with the ideological goal of purging religious minorities from areas it intends to occupy. Pakistan’s Hazara community has been the Islamic State’s most frequent targets, thanks to an almost two century-old history of violent persecution in the region owing to their Shia identity, and easily identifiable physical features owing to their Uzbek and Turkic ancestry.
The presence of already marginalized religious communities, coupled with Balochistan’s multipronged volatility – owing to a Baloch separatist movement, jihadist turf wars, and a continuum of military operations – makes the province the ideal ground for IS. After having been driven out of the Middle East, it is in Balochistan that the Islamic State saw a pathway into South Asia.
While ISKP continued to target Afghanistan, after having formed its regional hub along the Af-Pak border, it has intermittently launched deadly attacks in Pakistan as reminders of its ambitions in the region. These attacks included the deadliest massacres in the country since the creation of ISKP. In February 2017, 72 people were killed when the Sehwan sufi shrine in Jamshoro District was bombed. Last year’s Mastung bombing, in the lead up to the general elections, was the second deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history.
The growth of IS in Balochistan and Sindh has been monitored and reiterated by independent security analysts and militancy experts. However, the official position of the Pakistan Army has been complete denial of any IS presence in the country.
“They’ve brought their chapters into the al-Qaeda format, which has affiliates instead of a caliphate. They feel they will be able to generate human resource and form a network,” Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) and author of Dynamics of Taliban Insurgency in FATA, told The Diplomat.
“However, the security forces are working on thwarting the threat posed by IS. NACTA [the National Counter Terrorism Authority] has formed a database for everyone who has returned from Iraq and Syria. Similarly, the entire focus of the CTDs [Counter Terror Departments] is on similar cells affiliated with IS and al-Qaeda,” Rana added.
Sources within the military reiterate that the attacks claimed by IS in Pakistan are carried out by their “foot soldiers” in the country. These local groups work under the umbrella of the Islamic State, which does not have operational capacity in the country. The most prominent among these is the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), whose al-Alami faction has forged an alliance with the Islamic State.
“Most of the so called IS operatives in Balochistan are either affiliated with the LeJ or some faction of the Pakistani Taliban. All of them are local, and none from the Middle East. These groups, which have largely been decimated in Pakistan, are gravitating towards IS to keep themselves relevant,” a senior military official based in Balochistan told The Diplomat.
Last month, militants affiliated with the Islamic State and LeJ were arrested in Dera Ghazi Khan and Sialkot. IS cells affiliated with Kashmir-bound Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) have been busted in Punjab in the past. Similarly, IS affiliates have been arrested from Karachi’s Sakran and Manghopir area, underlining the group’s presence across the country.
Military officials maintain, off the record, that sympathizers for jihadist groups like the IS and LeJ are present within the Army. Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has also conceded that some military officers are facilitating attacks in Balochistan while speaking to Hazara protesters last year.
While officials maintain that jihad sympathizers in the Pakistan Army are a fringe group that is being tackled, there has been global concern over the military shielding jihadist groups to advance their strategic goals in the region.
Beyond reiterations of this by international powers seeking to pressure Pakistan over its duplicitous security policies, this is also confessed by former Army chiefs and spymasters. Given this, it seems likely that the Islamic State announcing provinces in Pakistan and India – two nuclear armed states, which were on the brink of war as recently as February this year – will multiply the group’s potential threat even further.
In India, the Islamic State is eyeing a presence in Jammu and Kashmir, capitalizing on the existing separatist movement, which has morphed into jihad. Just like disintegrated jihadist groups in Balochistan, the state-backed violence in Kashmir offers the Islamic State a recruiting ground.
However, similar to Pakistan, the Indian security agencies are downplaying the IS threat.
“What we have in Kashmir is a few flags by some people who may be camp followers, sympathizers, admirers who romanticize medieval brutality. There is no network; no actual IS terrorist,” former chief of India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Vikram Sood told The Diplomat.
“There are no liberated zones in Kashmir where they could have operated. The intelligence and SF network in Kashmir is very strong and effective as one can see from the numbers eliminated, giving them low shelf life,” he added.
While the Islamic State’s operational capacity might not rival what it had during its heyday in the Middle East, its ideological lure is visible across South Asia as the group orchestrates attacks across the region. This year’s Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, similar to recent attacks in Pakistan, underline that the Islamic State has completed its shift as an entity from the Middle East to South Asia.
“The Sri Lanka church bombings could have ripple effects in southern India and this would be a matter of some concern for the security agencies. There have been cases of persons going across from South India but limited in number. This is probably because of indoctrination in UAE or KSA [Saudi Arabia],” said Sood.
However, while India and Sri Lanka have witnessed gory manifestations of IS presence in the region, albeit with contrasting devastation, it is Pakistan where the group is looking to capitalize on a jihadist vacuum.
Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former secretary at Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production, warned the Pakistani leadership against the perils of underplaying the Islamic State’s presence in the country.
“They might be downplaying the group’s foothold in the country owing to the current economic situation, especially given the fact that there are threats of sanctions still looming over Pakistan,” he said, referring to terror watchdog Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) warnings to Islamabad, indicating a potential blacklisting.
“But they must remember that it [the Islamic State] is unlike any other group that has functioned in Pakistan in the past. It is the only group that has controlled any territory, and its ideological overreach remains unparalleled,” Masood added.