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Losing ground in the Middle East, ISIS now looks to breach South Asia

May 10, 2019
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Losing ground in the Middle East, ISIS now looks to breach South Asia

Islamabad: After dismantling militant organisations networks across the country, law enforcement agencies in Pakistan face a new challenge – the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS) which has officially announced its presence in Pakistan. ISIS, a terrorist organisation declared by the United Nations, has recently announced setting up its franchise in Pakistan and is taking strides to increase its dominance in this Muslim-majority Asian country after the fall of Baghouz, the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria.

On May 15, 2019, ISIS announced that it has established a province in Pakistan namely ‘Waliyah Pakistan’. Group, however, didn’t define its jurisdiction. This announcement by the IS sent shockwaves across Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies who have been busy in dismantling militant’s network across Pakistan, believably under pressure from Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which has placed Pakistan in the ‘grey’ list. Pakistani authorities blocked the flow of funds to organisations including Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation under the UN resolution.

Pakistan has also prepared a list of suspected people as required under the UN resolutions and registered cases against them under the Anti-Terrorism Act. While the recent measures have helped Pakistan destroy the foundation of terrorists and non-state actors using Pakistan’s soil. However, the emergence of ISIS has alarms bells ringing across Pakistan.

An Islamic State fighter. Representative image (Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

A day after ISIS announced its presence in Pakistan, law enforcement agencies in Pakistan raided suspected places in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan and killed militants of Islamic State militants during a three-hour-long operation. It was the first encounter between Pakistan’s security forces and IS militants, soon after the group claimed base in Pakistan. “Security forces killed nine militants of ISIS,” the spokesperson of Balochistan Police told 101Reporters.

 While the group officially claimed its presence in Pakistan this month, it has been carrying out attacks in Pakistan for a long time. In February 2016, Intelligence Bureau, one of Pakistan’s top intelligence agencies, warned the government that ISIS was emerging as a threat, with Pakistani terrorists providing support for the group. On February 16, 2017, ISIS carried out a suicide bombing in the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan in Sindh, which killed 90 people and injured hundreds. According to officials, ISIS has been outsourcing attacks in Pakistan through Pakistan-based organisations including Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.

Analysts believe the group has been desperately looking for a new base after it was defeated in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan, said the analysts, Taliban has been giving a tough time to ISIS in areas where it had a stronghold. “A deadly enemy has just resurfaced in Pakistan. ISIS and RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) are a serious threat to Pakistan and the entire region,” said Senator Rehman Malik.

“ISIS has been looking for new ventures after it was defeated in Iraq and Syria. Even in Afghanistan, things are not in ISIS’s favour. It is now trying its luck in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka where it has been outsourcing attacks already,” revealed Rashid Hussain, a Rawalpindi-based security expert.

Security and defence experts believe that ISIS is on the run from Afghanistan.

“On one hand US-led forces have dismantled ISIS’s hideouts, while on the other hand, the Taliban have crushed ISIS in Afganistan. They are looking to find refuge in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka,” said Khawja Hammad, security expert associated with Institute of Strategic and International Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.

12 Taliban and six ISIS fighters were killed in bloody clashes between the two rival militant groups in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province last month.

Bloody clashes erupted last month as the two sides geared up for taking control in Eastern Afghanistan. Fighting between the Taliban and ISIS has significantly escalated since last year as both groups struggle to take control of the country’s east where the Afghan government has apparently lost government writ.

Former Taliban fighters. For representative purposes only (Photo by Fraidoon Poya, UNAMA Copyright)

However, the Taliban has the edge over the deadly group which, according to Afghan intelligence reports, have a total strength of 3000 to 4000. However, ISIS lacks public support for attacking the country’s minority population. In sharp contrast, the Taliban has a strength of 60,000 regular fighters. They enjoy colossal support across Afghanistan. “Islamic State’s strength has significantly reduced. Credit goes to Taliban who enjoy massive support of majority Pashtun population of Afghanistan,” said Ibrahim Gul, a former Afghan Intelligence officer from Jalalabad

“ISIS has been trying to make footprints in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a long time. After incurring losses at the hands of US-led security forces and Taliban in a couple of years, I believe it will try to re-emerge in India and Pakistan,” Gul added.

Apart from India and Pakistan, Russia is equally worried following ISIS’s quest to find new ventures. Currently, Pakistan and Russia are working together to counter ISIS activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Islamabad and Moscow are working together to counter ISIS,” said a senior official of Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Department. Two sides, he said, has been working together in this regards since 2016.

Spokesperson of Russia’s Foreign Ministry also endorsed the same during a press briefing held in February 2019. “Russia and Pakistan share common concerns on Islamic State militants gaining momentum in the region. Both countries are cooperating [to counter ISIS],” Maria Zakharova told reporters in February.

According to a report of ‘The Gatestone Institute’, a US-based think tank, ISIS has carried out six major attacks in Pakistan since 2016. On October 24, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a police training college in Quetta. The assault, committed by three heavily armed terrorists against sleeping cadets, left more than 60 dead and more than 165 wounded. On February 16, 2017, an ISIS-affiliated suicide bomber carried out an attack at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan’s Sindh province, killing more than 90 worshipers and wounding more than 300. On April 18, 2017, the Pakistani army foiled a planned Easter suicide bombing against Christians in Lahore. Given the amount of explosives recovered from the perpetrators, had the attack succeeded, there would have been mass casualties. On May 12, 2017, an ISIS suicide bombing on the convoy of the deputy chairman of the Pakistani Senate, travelling on the National Highway in the Mastung district of Baluchistan, left at least 28 people dead and 40 wounded. On August 12, 2017, an ISIS suicide bombing on a convoy of the Pakistani military in Quetta left 15 people dead, out of which eight were soldiers of the Pakistani military. As ISIS tries to secure a strong position in Pakistan, security experts believe, the group has little chance to grow in Pakistan.

“Given their defeat in Iraq, Syria and now Afghanistan, ISIS has little chances to survive in Pakistan where the government has already started crackdown,” said Dr Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi, chairman of the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at the University of Peshawar.