Karachi: The rising profile of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group among Islamist militant outfits and factions of Muslim populations has become an international issue. In Pakistan, while the media and security analysts have been hinting at the group’s growing influence, particularly since September last year, government agencies have come up with contradictory assessments.
After almost every terrorist attack, speculation starts about the involvement of the ISIS in terrorist activities in Pakistan. But law enforcement agencies have so far not found any clear proof of the ISIS connection with incidents of terrorism. However, the ISIS’ announcement of its Khorasan chapter early this year — which also includes Pakistan and Afghanistan — and some Pakistani militant groups’ pledges of support to the group indicates the looming threat.
The influence of the ISIS had started to become visible in Pakistan last year in the form of some militant groups’ expression of support to the ISIS as well as the appearance of graffiti and pamphlets. The appreciation for ISIS among Pakistani militants is neither new nor recent. Reports about Pakistanis joining insurgents fighting the Assad regime in Syria appeared in 2013. Ideologically, it was the anti-Shia appeal that attracted Pakistanis.
Although there is minimal likelihood of the ISIS itself coming to Pakistan or Afghanistan, the region does run the danger of the ISIS-inspired groups forging alliances and carrying out attacks or trying to capture areas on the Pak-Afghan border.
Secondly, the ISIS will be more than ready to exploit its influence among militants in the region to get more human resources, which it badly needs to sustain control of the areas it occupies in Iraq and Syria. Apart from Pakistani and Afghan militants, the ISIS would also be interested in developing relationships with militant organisations that are active in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province and have a presence in the Pakistan-Iran border.
Currently, most of the Pakistani Taliban militants who pledged allegiance to the ISIS, have crossed into Afghanistan due to military operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The smaller groups and individuals, which are inspired by the ISIS, are trying to develop linkages directly with the outfit in Iraq and Syria or its Khorasan chapter.
There are three main factors which will determine the future trends of the ISIS influence in Pakistan. The first factor is linked to the Pakistani state’s efforts to achieve security, eliminate militant groups and reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies. In the short to medium term, that is contingent upon how the ongoing security operations — mainly in Fata and Karachi — proceed and conclude, and how the National Action Plan is implemented by the federal and provincial governments. In the long term, too, a lot will depend on the state’s willingness to sustain its counter-militancy efforts.
The second factor will be related to the emerging security situation and the ISIS influence in Afghanistan, and how Pakistan and Afghanistan implement border security cooperation. Thirdly, the ISIS influence in Pakistan will also be linked to the fate of the outfit in West Asia.
The ISIS influence is stronger in Afghanistan than in Pakistan. Despite the group’s growing influence in the eastern and southern provinces, in the beginning the Afghan National Directorate of Security continuously denied the emerging threat and denounced the ISIS as “Haqqani or Taliban militants”. That was partly true, because those raising the ISIS flag were either local fighters from Afghan Taliban factions or foreign militants of Central Asian origin.
However, Pakistan would not be able to counter the threat alone if the conflict in Afghanistan worsens and Pakistani and Afghan militants inspired by the ISIS try to capture territory along the Pak-Afghan border area for establishing a “caliphate”. The Pak-Afghan border is porous. The worsening situation in Afghanistan will eventually affect Pakistan.
At the same time, a lot will depend on how the ISIS sustains its momentum in Iraq and Syria and succeeds in maintaining its control over the territories it has captured. If the ISIS remains relevant for a long period, it can also cause frustration in the cadres of religious parties in Pakistan.
From Afghanistan’s perspective, failure of the Afghan government to respond to the threat, or an escalation of conflict in the country, could allow the ISIS-inspired militants operating in Afghanistan to forge alliances and try to capture some areas and announce a “caliphate”. If Kabul achieves some sort of reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, hardline factions or commanders among the Afghan Taliban who do not believe in political reconciliation could support the ISIS, strengthening pro-ISIS groups operating in the country.
At the same time, the Afghan Taliban may not be able to grab power but by following the ISIS model; in case they do not achieve reconciliation with the government in Kabul, they could carve out a part of Afghan territory and proclaim an Islamic “caliphate”.
The writer is a security analyst
By arrangement with Dawn