This year has seen Pakistan racked by political upheaval, a fiscal crisis, and the worst flooding in its history. There is a real risk of state failure and collapse of law and order analogous to the scenes of chaos that gripped Sri Lanka. Amid the current systemic shocks of the moment, a troubling longer-term trend is emerging that must not be ignored: renewed sectarian extremism.
A new report from the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group warns that new extremist undercurrents in the country are paving the way for soaring sectarian violence ahead. A fast-growing local chapter of the Islamic State and a new hardline group from the historically moderate Barelvi sub-sect have the potential to destabilize crisis-hit Pakistan further.
Research has linked mass internal displacement to radicalization, with refugee camps too often becoming hubs for recruiting displaced people into extremist groups. Islamabad will need to counter these trends lest recent turmoil sows the seeds of major insurrections in the years ahead, further destabilizing an already volatile region.
Although extremist violence in Pakistan had subsided from the carnage of the late 2000s and early 2010s, data shows attacks are on the rise again in the post-pandemic era. Total terrorism-related incidents have already reached 449 so far this year, the highest count since 2017.
The country’s internal dynamics are in flux as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) reconfigure the nature of sectarian militancy in the country.
ISKP is a local Salafist chapter of the Islamic State. Like al-Qaida before it, ISKP operates in the rugged mountainous frontier with Afghanistan, eroding state control over the already porous borders. The group does not recognize national borders, “Khorasan,” denoting a symbolic area affiliated with the Messianic figure Mahdi that covers parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and surrounding regions.
The ISKP has stepped up its battle with the Taliban for control of parts of Afghanistan this year and has instigated attacks in the southernmost areas of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In March, ISKP bombed a Shia mosque in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killing at least 60 people.
It has spun up a media outlet, al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production, which has rapidly expanded from Arabic and Pashto to generate content in Urdu, Uzbek, Tajik, Hindi, Malayalam, and launched an English-language magazine, Voice of Khorasan (VoK). The propaganda aims to rally global jihadi recruits as ISIS did so effectively in Iraq and Syria.
While ISKP brings the threat of transnational Salafi jihad back to Pakistan, the domestic influence of the radical TLP is potentially more pernicious.
Pakistan’s extremist Sunni groups have historically been based among the orthodox Deobandi sect. Many, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, gained ground during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, thriving under former President Zia-ul-Haq’s ultra-orthodox religious reforms. This led to a wave of Sunni-Shia violence in the 1990s and beyond. Over 4,800 Shias were killed in sectarian violence between 2001 and 2018, according to data from South Asia Terrorism Portal. The Barelvis, who differ in certain observances and constitute a thin majority in Pakistan, had served as a peaceful buffer group between Shia and Deobandi.
Yet since 2015, the TLP has been carving out political space for a newly-radicalized Barelvi agenda. The group has also taken a strong anti-Shia line but targeted another sect, the Ahmadi, whose controversial claim to Muslim status has been effectively criminalized in Pakistan.
The TLP has leveraged the highly-emotive and often subjective issue of blasphemy to justify organized vigilante violence. Blasphemy remains a capital offense in Pakistan, yet extra-judicial deaths often occur regardless of court proceedings. In December last year, a vigilante mob lynched a Sri Lankan factory manager who had been accused of blasphemy. Video footage showed the attackers chanting slogans propagated by the TLP throughout the violence.
The TLP’s rise to prominence in recent years has coincided with a rapid surge in the number of blasphemy cases in the country, with 2020 seeing at least 200 new cases alone. Former Pakistani counterterrorism officials have blamed TLP’s politicization of blasphemy for further spreading extremism among the public.
Pakistan has been battered by a raft of ethnic, regional, and religious divisions since its founding. Islamabad must now reexamine its policy options as renewed sectarianism risks eroding the country’s social fabric further.
The Pakistani military strikes may temporarily quash terrorist cells, but such operations fail to counter the extremist ideologies that drive sectarian militancy. In some instances, these counterterrorist ops can result in unintended or unlawful killings which inadvertently generate sympathy for extremist groups, especially among marginalized communities.
Islamabad needs more bottom-up initiatives that engage and empower Pakistani civil society to counter the spread of extremism, including those that prioritize education, women’s rights, social mobility, and economic empowerment of underdeveloped regions. This is especially urgent considering the recent tragic floods that have wrought devastation across much of the country.
Last month, Members of the European Parliament visited Pakistan, urging reforms on human rights issues, including the “misuse of blasphemy laws.” This comes as the EU is in the final stages of monitoring Pakistan’s preferential trade access to the EU market under the “GSP+” scheme, which eliminates duties on certain Pakistani products sold in the EU — Pakistan’s largest export market. Pakistan’s current GSP+ status is set to expire at the end of next year after which it will reapply.
What’s more, in June, the international terror financing and money laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) decided to keep Pakistan on its “gray list” of countries that need to improve measures to counter money laundering and terrorism financing, and plans to conduct an onsite inspection in Pakistan in October. Islamabad is keen to remove itself from the list and claims it has mostly complied with measures set by the organization. The re-emergence of radicalized groups in the country would be a further setback for Islamabad and attract more scrutiny and oversight from the international community going forward.
This raises the stakes substantially. The country is already edging dangerously close to default and can ill afford to be cut off from international lenders. Effective policy here will not only head off the threat posed by sectarian extremism but safeguard Pakistan’s access to the global markets it needs to pull itself out of its current economic malaise.