A recent poll has been distracting attention in Pakistan from the very real threat posed by IS and other militant groups in the region. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports on a situation that is causing mounting concern.
An absorbing by-election for a vacant seat in the National Assembly in Pakistan’s second most populous city, Lahore, has been attracting the nation’s attention for weeks, diverting focus from many other important issues, including the threat from the Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, as it is known in Arabic, to the country as the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led militant group continued its efforts to gain a foothold in the Af-Pak region.
The by-election for the NA-122 constituency was eventually won by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N against cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s PTI. Though the margin of victory of the winning candidate, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, was reduced from 9,000 to 2,400—compared to the May 2013 general election, when he first won the seat against Imran Khan—it was still a famous triumph.
This by-election was necessitated by the Election Tribunal decision to unseat Ayaz Sadiq due to electoral irregularities. It was described by the media as ‘the mother of by-elections’, with Pakistan’s two major parties, PNL-N and PTI, directly confronting each other following the dramatic fall in popularity of the late Benazir Bhutto’s PPP. Also, Ayaz Sadiq had become the Speaker of the National Assembly and was thus one of the top leaders of the ruling PML-N, so his defeat could have unnerved the Prime Minister. Moreover, Imran Khan has been protesting for the past two years that he was deprived of victory in the 2013 general election due to rigging. Victory for his candidate, Aleem Khan, would therefore have strengthened his claim that the previous polls were rigged.
While the nation was focused on the by-election campaign and its outcome, there was renewed concern in the country regarding the ability of the Pakistani Taliban and their allies to carry out terrorist attacks. One such attack on a passenger bus in Quetta and two others on imambargahs (Shiite places of worship) in Balochistan and Sindh provinces killed scores of worshippers during the Muharram congregations, raising alarm. The terrorists struck in unlikely places, as the attacks were conducted in smaller cities instead of the provincial capitals and bigger urban centres. As a result, unprecedented security measures were put in place to prevent sectarian terrorist assaults on the Shiites, who form around 20 per cent of Pakistan’s population.
The presence of IS in Pakistan has been a matter of controversy. It has been repeatedly denied by the Nawaz Sharif government, with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan maintaining that there was no IS presence in the country.
But critics have accused the government of hiding the truth. Army chief General Raheel Sharif, during his recent visit to the UK, highlighted the threat posed by IS in the region and termed the group more dangerous than al-Qaeda. He also declared that IS would not be allowed to even cast a shadow on Pakistan. However, he didn’t say whether the group had already penetrated Pakistan and was posing a threat to the country.
It is widely known that some of the Pakistani Taliban have quit their organisation, TTP, and declared allegiance to IS. This faction is led by Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, who once headed the TTP chapter in Pakistan’s Orakzai tribal region. However, he and his men escaped to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province following the Pakistan military’s operations in Orakzai, Khyber, North Waziristan and other tribal agencies.
These Pakistanis and certain Afghan Taliban who have also joined IS managed to capture some territory in Nangarhar close to the border with Pakistan and are now entrenched in three districts and growing in influence in a few others. However, the IS Khorasan chapter for Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Central Asia soon lost some of its leading men, including its deputy head Abdul Rauf Khadim (once a top Taliban military commander who had been imprisoned by the US at Guantanamo Bay), Pakistani-origin commander Gul Zaman, and the local IS spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.
Although IS has tried to recover from the losses and gone on the offensive against both the Afghan government forces and the Taliban in Nangarhar, its efforts to gain a foothold in other provinces in Afghanistan have yet to bear fruit. IS’ brutal treatment of prisoners and opponents has also alienated most Afghans and made it difficult for the group to attract new recruits.
Meanwhile, there have been conflicting reports about the presence or otherwise of IS in Karachi. First, the police in Karachi were reported to have traced 53 militants ‘inspired’ by IS. However, the police authorities clarified that they weren’t sure if these local IS-inspired militants had established direct links with the group’s central leadership in Iraq and Syria as they were presently operating on their own. These militants belong to different parts of Pakistan but are based in Karachi. Investigators believe they are operating in a manner similar to IS. The police officials said they were trying to track down the listed terrorists.
Also, the top police official from Sindh told a Senate standing committee that 18 militants had been identified and eight arrested for involvement in a terrorist attack early this year on a bus carrying members of the Ismaili Shia community in Karachi’s Safoora locality, and that they appeared to be inspired by major terrorist organisations such as IS. The attackers, who arrived on motorbikes and managed to escape, shot dead 45 unarmed Ismaili Shiites, including women.
One alarming aspect of this incident was that most of those apprehended are highly educated and some belong to affluent families. The presence of young educated men in the fold of militant groups shocked the nation, as it was previously believed that the militants belonged to poor families and were mostly students of madrassas, or Islamic schools.
Though the operational heartlands of IS are Iraq and Syria, it has attracted affiliates to its fold in a number of states elsewhere in the Middle East and in Asia and Africa, including Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Algeria, North Caucasus and Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has also drawn recruits from several Western countries. One study noted that IS, through its affiliate Boko Haram, carried out more attacks in a three-month period in Africa recently than in Iraq and Syria where the group originated, before spreading to other parts of the world.
Though the government seems alert to the likely threat of IS in Pakistan in future, the main concern continues to be the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), headed by the Afghanistan-based Maulana Fazlullah, and the breakaway Jamaatul Ahrar faction whose leadership has also found sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan. These outlawed militant groups have been waging a relentless campaign of terrorist attacks against the state of Pakistan for more than a decade now. This forced the military to undertake a series of operations against the local and foreign militants in northwest Pakistan in the tribal regions of Fata and in Malakand division. Even now, Operation Zarb-e-Azb is continuing against the militants in North Waziristan and it isn’t known when this 16-month-old military offensive will end.
Such is the level of concern regarding these militant groups that Pakistan recently alleged that the Indian intelligence agency RAW was plotting to use Pakistani militants to assassinate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and several other high-profile personalities, including the Jamaatud D’awa head Hafiz Saeed, who has been blamed by India for masterminding the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai through the front organisation, Lashkar-i-Taiba. The government announced before Sharif embarked on his US visit that he will raise with President Barack Obama the issue of RAW’s involvement in activities aimed at destabilising Pakistan. The government has also claimed that India is using Afghan soil to destabilise Pakistan by providing arms and money to the Pakistani Baloch and Taliban militants. Though it was announced that the Prime Minister and his delegation handed over to US Secretary of State John Kerry three dossiers reportedly containing evidence of India’s destabilising activities in Pakistan, the US State Department and the White House made no comment about it, nor did they promise to take any action.