Behind the slaughter at a revered shrine lies a vicious campaign by Islamic State to gain a foothold in South Asia, reports Owen Bennett-Jones
February’s suicide attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in the southern Sindhi town of Sehwan, which killed over 80 people, was the biggest yet mounted in Pakistan by so-called Islamic State. It coincided with a wave of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an associated splinter group, and Baloch separatists. But it was the IS attack that provoked the strongest army response.
Vowing to avenge each drop of the nation’s blood, the new Pakistan army chief, Qamar Bajwa, reacted by ordering an unprecedented crackdown named Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. The army claimed to have killed more than 100 ‘terrorists’ in mass security operations following the shrine attack, including actions in Punjab, where it has previously been reluctant to confront militant groups.
Pakistan also closed its border with Afghanistan and sent Kabul a list of 76 people suspected of planning or supporting attacks in Pakistan asking for them to be either confronted or handed over. For some years now the Afghan Taliban leadership has been based in Pakistan, while the Pakistani Taliban leadership has been operating from eastern Afghanistan, which is also home to supporters of al-Qaeda and IS.
IS’s presence in Afghanistan goes back to 2014, when it distributed leaflets appealing for recruits. Many of those who joined up when the group was formally initiated in 2015 were disillusioned members of the AfghanTaliban, attracted by the better salaries offered by a higher-profile and more prestigious group. There were also defectors from al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Pakistani Taliban, which was at the time under significant pressure from the Pakistani army.
But IS has not found it easy to get established in South Asia. Compared to what it had experienced in Iraq and Syria, the group faced unfamiliar challenges in Afghanistan, a country with a long history of violent jihadism, dating back to the struggle against Soviet forces in the 1980s. A wide array of heavy-hitting jihadist organisations is already well established in the country, and they did not welcome the new competition represented by IS.
In 2014 the tensions among some of the jihadi outfits came to the surface. The Islamic State group issued statements denouncing the Afghan Taliban as overly concerned with a nationalist Afghan struggle, as opposed to a global Islamic one. IS also accused the Afghan Taliban of being too willing to use tribal rather than Sharia law, and too unwilling to target Shias. By 2015 the two groups were in open military conflict, with IS’s supreme leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, describing the Taliban’s founder, the late Mullah Omar, as ‘a fool and illiterate warlord’.
Hemmed in by its rivals in Afghanistan, Islamic State tried to extend its influence to Pakistan by establishing a cross-border Khorasan Province group. At times, however, it has been unclear whether IS attacks in Pakistan have been organised by the Khorasan leadership, or whether non-aligned, opportunistic Pakistani militants have been attempting to impress the IS leadership in Iraq, so as to win the IS Pakistani franchise. For example, police officials in Karachi believe an attack on a busload of Ismaili travellers in May 2015, in which over 40 people were killed, was carried out by student activists in Karachi who were trying to impress IS centrally.
There are a number of explanations for the ferocity of the Pakistan army chief’s response to the shrine attack. Public opinion clearly demanded a strong reaction to a suicide bombing that not only killed so many people, but also damaged an iconic and much-loved religious institution that dates back to the 14th century,attracting over a million visitors each year. But there were other factors.
The campaign against IS is in some respects similar to Pakistan’s long-running campaign against al-Qaeda. From the point of view of the Pakistan army, both IS and al-Qaeda combine their global agendas with a policy of attacking targets within Pakistan, so in the first place the army is simply defending its own soil. In addition, aware of its growing international diplomatic isolation, and fearful of what the Trump administration might expect and demand, Pakistan is keen to show Washington that it is actively engaged in the fight against violent jihadi militants – especially when the US is targeting the very same groups.
But the Pakistani army’s strong opposition to IS does not mean that it has broken with all militant outfits based in the country. Observers believe that the army has a different attitude towards groups that focus their militant campaigns in Afghanistan and Kashmir, where they can help achieve Pakistan’s foreign policy goals.
There is some confusion as to why IS chose the shrine as a target. In its claim of responsibility, the IS-affiliated Amaq news agency said that there had been a Shia gathering there. But since the shrine was a Sufi institution, there is no reason to believe that most of the attendees were Shia – Sunnis also go to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Before the IS statement, observers had assumed that the shrine had been attacked because it espouses a brand of mystical Islam which Islamic State reviles. At the time of the bomb blast many of the pilgrims had been in a trance-like state as they danced to rhythmic drum-beating.
Last November IS claimed responsibility for an attack on a shrine in Balochistan in which over 50 people were killed. The Pakistani Taliban have also targeted such shrines on the grounds that the religious practices of devotees are so unorthodox as to render them worthy of death. The austere form of Islam promulgated by IS and the Pakistan Taliban reject practices such as dancing to music, and smoking cannabis at shrines to long-dead saints,calling them exotic and corrupt behaviour which takes people away from the proper form of Islam.
The shattering outbreak of violence in Pakistan obscured the fact that the general trend is improving. According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, there were 441 attacks in 2016, killing 908 people, but that was an improvement on the previous year, when 625 attacks killed 1,069 people. In 2006, when the jihadi insurgency was at its height, there were 2,586 attacks, killing 3,021 people. It remains to be seen whether IS and its rivals are capable of bringing back such bloodshed.