Ever since the birth of the Islamic State (IS) back in 2014, when the terrorist group overran northern Iraq and eastern Syria, it was rightly believed that IS would not take it much longer to spread its tentacles into Pakistan. The Islamic State would reap the benefits from fertile soil, as Pakistan has been sowing the seeds of religious and sectarian extremism for decades.
Like other countries, the rise of IS rang alarm bells in the corridors of the power in Pakistan. The security establishment in Pakistan took robust action against other terror groups, particularly the dreaded sectarian outlet Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), that could join IS.
Notably, Pakistan’s stepped-up security campaign resulted in the killing of Malik Ishaq, the cofounder and leader of LeJ. Ishaq was killed on July 29, 2015 in a police shoot-out along with his two sons and 11 other militants. According to reports at the time, Ishaq was joining IS, making him a security issue and thus a prime target of the Pakistani state.
Ishaq’s death was only part of a wave of operations dedicated to eliminating radical LeJ militants in different parts of the country. To retaliate against these killings, the LeJ, under the banner of IS, continued targeting state installations, civilians, and Shia Pakistanis.
Ishaq’s killing could not stop IS from spreading its tentacles in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region, particularly in neighboring Afghanistan, even while U.S. troops were present. Despite the state crackdowns, IS was able to spread in Pakistan because religious extremism already had a wide presence, via both banned groups like LeJ and still-legal groups.
This is one of the reasons Pakistan is confronted with the IS threat today. Unsurprisingly, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, it has been emerging as a threat once again in the country.
A case in point is the recent assault the group carried out through an IS suicide bomber on March 4 in a Shiite mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The assault killed at least 64 people and wounded scores of others. Worrisomely, it was the deadliest assault in the nearly four years in Pakistan.
IS carried out another major attack less than a week later in Balochistan, a volatile province in southwestern Pakistan. A suicide bomber struck along the route of President Arif Alvi’s motorcade in Sibi town, claiming the lives of six security personnel and leaving 22 others, including 19 law enforcement officers, injured.
This has, unfortunately, demonstrated the Islamic State’s growing threat to Pakistan. Security analysts believe that IS militants have moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The potential for IS-led militancy is dangerously high, in part because sectarianism and religious extremism have long become a fact of life in Pakistan.
The majority of IS militants in Pakistan are believed to be former foot soldiers and commanders of LeJ, who have long held an anti-Shia agenda.
Over the last three decades, sectarianism has already changed Pakistan’s landscape for all the wrong reasons. The growing threat of IS has further increased anxiety of Shia Muslims, among other religious minorities, who have long borne the brunt of Sunni militancy. Thousands of Shia Muslims died violent deaths in Pakistan, even before the Islamic State’s arrival.
Along with the state-sponsored extremism that increased under former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s leadership back in 1977-88, religious extremism in Pakistan has also been stoked by the Iran-Saudi regional rivalry. The Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are both intertwined with religious and sectarian sentiments in Pakistan. Iran’s interests in exporting its revolutionary views of Shia Islam further heightened Saudi fears of growing Iranian influence. Part of Saudi Arabia’s response was funding a substantial number of madrassas in the region, as well as supporting mujahideen groups fighting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.
Some argue the emergence of IS in Pakistan is just the most recent iteration of the longstanding Iran-Saudi rivalry, which was always bound to cause dire consequences. Today, the Iran-Saudi rivalry has morphed into sectarian-motivated terrorism.
But because some sectarian groups are proscribed while others are encouraged to go mainstream, religious militancy has become a hydra-like monster in Pakistan. The growth of IS on Pakistan soil is the heavy price the country will have to pay for letting religious extremism grow unchecked for decades. Unfortunately, it seems Pakistan has not learned any lessons from its bitter past experiences.
It has to be noted that some of the country’s crackdowns against banned Sunni outfits have proven effective. In 2015, the security establishment intensified the crackdown under the National Action Plan (NAP), the country’s 20-point counterterrorism strategy. These crackdowns significantly decreased extremist-related attacks and pushed the militant groups into hibernation, including IS. By some accounts, in the subsequent years, IS elements in Pakistan went to Afghanistan in order to reorganize and join forces with their fellow IS militants in Afghanistan.
But now militancy led by IS seems to be rearing its head once again in the country. IS militants are said to have moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan following the crackdown against them by the Afghan Taliban. To an extent, the Afghan Taliban have neutralized the IS threat in Afghanistan; that does not augur well for Pakistan, which may become the preferred base for the terrorist group.
The two countries share a long, porous, and mismanaged border. The risk of cross-border movement by terrorist groups prompted Pakistani authorities to fence the border with Afghanistan. But the Afghan government was against the move. Now the Taliban, who retook control of the entire country as of August 2021, are even more adamant than their predecessors in opposing the border fence being erected by Pakistani authorities. Although the fencing is almost complete, the Afghan Taliban have taken out fences in some parts of the border with Pakistan, to show their opposition. Amid the dispute between governments, banned outlets, including elements of IS, can still move between the two countries to escape crackdowns from both sides.
Sunni sectarian elements, including IS, are still existent in Pakistan, despite the repeated crackdowns against them. There are both domestic and international reasons for this: The reluctance on Islamabad’s part to crack down fully and indiscriminately on groups espousing sectarian hatred and religious militancy, combined with the militants’ ability to flee across the border on the occasions with Pakistan’s security apparatus does pursue them. Hence, these groups, including IS, can re-emerge in Pakistan at any time.
In approaching the IS challenge today, Pakistan’s rulers fail to learn from the past. Until the government offers sustained resistance against religious violence, innocent citizens in Pakistan will continue to die in the name of religion and sect. Instead of countering militancy, it has been patronized in order to pursue a narrow and security-centric approach on the part of the state. That is what has given birth to an emerging threat of IS, which continues to wreak havoc in Pakistan.