Is­lamic State group flour­ishes and re­cruits in Pak­istan

Mil­i­tants ini­tially blamed

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The Is­lamic State group is in­creas­ing its pres­ence in Pak­istan, re­cruit­ing Uzbek mil­i­tants, at­tract­ing dis­grun­tled Taleban fight­ers and part­ner­ing with one of Pak­istan’s most vi­o­lent sec­tar­ian groups, ac­cord­ing to po­lice of­fi­cers, Taleban of­fi­cials and an­a­lysts.

Its lat­est atroc­ity was an at­tack Satur­day on a Sufi shrine in south­west­ern Pak­istan that killed at least 50 peo­ple and wounded 100 oth­ers. The group said in a state­ment that a sui­cide bomber at­tacked the shrine with the in­tent of killing Shi­ite Mus­lims and is­sued a pic­ture of the at­tacker.

When IS cir­cu­lated a pho­to­graph of one of the at­tack­ers in last month’s deadly as­sault on a po­lice academy in south­west­ern Baluchis­tan prov­ince, two Taleban of­fi­cials told The As­so­ci­ated Press that the at­tacker was an Uzbek, most likely a mem­ber of the Is­lamic Move­ment of Uzbek­istan. More than 60 peo­ple, most of them po­lice re­cruits, were killed in that Oct. 26 at­tack when three as­sailants bat­tled se­cu­rity forces for hours be­fore be­ing killed or det­o­nat­ing their sui­cide vests.

The Taleban of­fi­cials, both of whom are fa­mil­iar with the IMU, spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause their lead­er­ship has banned them from talk­ing to the me­dia.

Au­thor­i­ties ini­tially said the po­lice academy at­tack was or­ches­trated by mil­i­tants hid­ing out in Afghanistan and blamed Pak­istan’s vir­u­lently anti-Shi­ite group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. But IS later claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi spokesman Ali Bin Su­fyan said they part­nered with IS to carry out the as­sault.

In Afghanistan and Pak­istan, the ex­trem­ist group has adopted the name the Is­lamic State in Kho­rasan - a ref­er­ence to an an­cient ge­o­graph­i­cal re­gion that en­com­passed a vast swath of ter­ri­tory stretch­ing from Turk­menistan through Iran and Afghanistan.

IS in Kho­rasan has set up its base in Afghanistan’s eastern Nan­garhar prov­ince, and while it has pledged al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State group in Syria and Iraq, it re­mains un­clear whether there are di­rect op­er­a­tional or fi­nan­cial links be­tween the two.

Ac­cord­ing to po­lice, Afghan of­fi­cials and IS me­dia out­lets, the ma­jor­ity of Is­lamic State fight­ers in Afghanistan are Pak­istani na­tion­als, mostly from the tribal re­gions. Dis­grun­tled Taleban fight­ers from Pak­istan and Afghanistan have joined along with for­eign fight­ers, mainly from cen­tral Asia. The group’s leader un­til his death in July in a drone strike was Hafiz Saeed Khan, a for­mer Pak­istani Taleban com­man­der. IS has never ac­knowl­edged Khan’s death, which was con­firmed by both the Afghan and US mil­i­taries.

Coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials in Pak­istan say that IS has be­gun reach­ing out to lo­cal mil­i­tants through its rich so­cial me­dia pres­ence. “They are in­spir­ing the like-minded youth in Pak­istan through their strong so­cial me­dia pro­pa­ganda,” said Ju­naid Sheikh, a se­nior coun­tert­er­ror­ism com­man­der in the south­ern city of Karachi.

“There is ev­i­dence that mil­i­tants of other or­ga­ni­za­tions like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Al-Qaeda in the Sub­con­ti­nent and other Sunni ex­trem­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions switched their ide­ol­ogy to­ward Daesh and acted like their ac­tivists,” he said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for IS. The re­cruit­ment of Uzbek mil­i­tants is par­tic­u­larly wor­ri­some and a “sig­nif­i­cant threat to our na­tional se­cu­rity,” he added.

He said Uzbek fight­ers have car­ried out nu­mer­ous ma­jor at­tacks in Pak­istan, in­clud­ing a 2011 at­tack on a naval base and a 2014 at­tack on the Karachi Air­port. Lo­cal mil­i­tant groups pro­vided the in­tel­li­gence to carry out the at­tacks, he said. A res­i­dent of Afghanistan’s Nan­garhar prov­ince who did not want to be iden­ti­fied for fear of ret­ri­bu­tion said he spoke with two Ira­nian Is­lamic State mem­bers late last year. Un­like the Pak­istani and Afghan in­sur­gents, the res­i­dent, who fled to Pak­istan af­ter his home was over­run by IS fight­ers, said the for­eign fight­ers were friendly and en­gaged with lo­cal res­i­dents. One Ira­nian fighter said he was re­cruited for his com­puter skills, the res­i­dent said.

Pre­vi­ously, Uzbek in­sur­gents nor­mally al­lied with the Pak­istani and Afghan branches of the Taleban, hav­ing sworn al­le­giance to Taleban founder Mul­lah Mo­hammed Omar. How­ever, many Uzbek fight­ers split from the Taleban and de­clared al­le­giance to IS last year af­ter it was re­vealed that Taleban of­fi­cials had hid­den the fact that Mul­lah Omar had died two years ear­lier.

A se­nior po­lice of­fi­cial in Pak­istan’s eastern Pun­jab prov­ince, where sev­eral mil­i­tant groups are head­quar­tered, said the IS group is firmly en­trenched in Pak­istan and its roots are grow­ing stronger as it aligns with Pak­istan’s Sunni Mus­lim ex­trem­ist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The po­lice of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak to the me­dia. The of­fi­cial also said that Lashkar-eJhangvi had largely re­lo­cated from Pun­jab to Baluchis­tan prov­ince in the face of a ma­jor mil­i­tary cam­paign.

“Pak­istani Taleban factions that have sparred with the par­ent Pak­istani Taleban have tended to ex­press pub­lic sup­port for ISIS,” said Michael Kugel­man, se­nior as­so­ciate for South Asia at the US-based Wil­son Cen­ter. “I could cer­tainly en­vi­sion col­lu­sions ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing be­tween dis­af­fected Pak­istani Taleban fight­ers now aligned with ISIS, and Uzbek mil­i­tants with pre­ex­ist­ing ties to the Pak­istani Taleban. Ei­ther way, at the end of the day, all of these ter­ror­ists are cut from the same cloth ide­o­log­i­cally and so we should never rule out op­er­a­tional part­ner­ships.”—AP

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