Following the killing of its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria last month, the Islamic State (ISIS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, is eying Pakistan’s tribal areas and the province of Balochistan to enhance its presence in South Asia.
Multiple interviews with security and government officials from the region reveal that yet to be located ISIS sleeper cells exist in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan. The development comes in the aftermath of security forces recently busting ISIS-affiliated cells in the two most populous provinces of Punjab and Sindh.
In May this year, the Islamic State unveiled its new wilayah (provinces) in India and Pakistan within the then-Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), which had been based along the Af-Pak border.
The announcement came immediately after the group led gun raids in Shopian district of Indian-administered Kashmir. In the month leading up to the announcement, the Islamic State claimed two terror attacks in Balochistan’s cities of Mastung and Quetta.
“The idea behind creating the new wilayah was to separate it from Daesh’s base in the region, which is Afghanistan. Daesh wants a group that is solely focused on South Asia and is eying jihadist allies in the volatile areas like Balochistan, [former] FATA and Indian-occupied Kashmir,” a senior security official from Balochistan explains.
Experts underline that this year’s Easter bombings in Sri Lanka deployed the Islamic State’s modus operandi for South Asia a month before the group announced its new wilayah. While the attacks were carried out by National Thowheeth Jama’ath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, both of these jihadist groups are affiliates of ISIS in Sri Lanka, which simultaneously claimed the attack.
“ISIS deploys local foot-soldiers from their affiliated groups to launch attacks on targeted locations, and then they claim these attacks. That means that the core group doesn’t exist in the areas they are targeting, but the local militants work under the ISIS umbrella. This helps the recruitment for these affiliates,” says Major General (retd) Saad Khattak, a former army officer based in Balochistan who has been appointed as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.
“In the case of Balochistan this includes groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami (LeJA) and splinters of the Pakistan Taliban. The strategy for ISIS has been to find fragmented groups with overlapping interests,” Khattak adds.
Evidence further shows that ISIS has been providing resources and training to its affiliates in the region. At least one bomber from the Sri Lanka attacks, belonging to Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, was trained in Syria by the Islamic State.
In the case of LeJA and splinters of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which are working in tandem with the Islamic State in Balochistan, the militants are participating in camps in Afghanistan, local security officials reveal.
The Islamic State underlined its presence in Pakistan immediately after the ISKP was announced in January 2015. Less than a year after the Islamic State was founded in Iraq and Syria, the group launched its first attack in Pakistan in May 2015, targeting the Ismaili Shia community near Karachi’s Safoora Chowrangi.
Over the four and a half years since then, ISIS has claimed numerous attacks in Pakistan, with a vast majority of them being in Balochistan. These include the Quetta hospital bombing in August 2016, the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church attack in December 2017 and last year’s suicide bombing targeting an election rally in Mastung, the second deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history.
A 2018 security report by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) underlined the Islamic State’s growing presence in Balochistan – and in Sindh, where the group targeted the revered Lal Shahbaz Sufi shrine at Sehwan.
While the frequency of attacks has decreased in 2019, the group has extended its presence in other parts of the country, maintains Muhammad Amir Rana, PIPS director and author of The Militant: Development of a Jihadi Character in Pakistan.
“Daesh sleeper cells are still present in the country, including Punjab, but their potential isn’t known yet. Their recruitment is still ongoing, which needs more effort to counter,” he says.
Rana attributes the decrease in ISIS-led terror attacks in Balochistan to the death of the group’s former leader Hafeez Pindrani Brohi, who was killed in a police raid in the Dadhar area of Balochistan, resulting in what he calls a “leadership crisis” for the group.
More counter-terror raids eliminating militants suspected to be affiliated with the Islamic State have taken place this year, as well, including in Mastung. Last year, the Karachi police busted a kidnapping syndicate associated with the Islamic State, which was sending the ransom money to fund ISK operations.
Officials further reveal that ISIS sleeper cells in Pakistan are predominantly present in the border areas of Balochistan. Despite security operations eliminating a significant number of militants in the province, the jihadist threat still remains.
“As few as two to four operatives can launch the deadliest of attacks. In fact, it’s their strategy to keep the number of people involved as [low] as possible. The fewer they are, the securer their information and planning,” says Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) cofounder Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, who was the Balochistan government spokesperson from 2015 to 2018.
“In many of the attacks that took place when I was the government spokesperson,” he said, “brothers or first cousins worked in tandem. For example, the Quetta hospital attack targeting the lawyers [in 2016] was masterminded by Syed Badini and Suleman Badini, who were first cousins.”
A major factor in ISIS operations across the world is the jihadist ideology that the group propounds. Not only does this help facilitate the recruitment process with the self-aggrandizement of the ISIS umbrella, this is also reflected in the group’s targets.
Propagating a hardline Salafist brand of Islam, the Islamic State has targeted Sufi shrines and the Shia population in Pakistan, notably the Ismailis in Sindh and the Hazaras in Balochistan.
In April 2018, multiple gun attacks targeted Balochistan’s Hazara community. Many of those attacks were claimed by ISIS. A hunger strike by the Hazara community followed, demanding protection. Asia Times reported that the minority group maintained a collaboration between ISIS militants and rogue elements in the Pakistan military, which Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa didn’t rule out.
“The ideology that the state has propagated has played a major role in militancy in Balochistan,” says Balochistan-based lawyer and human rights activist Jalila Haider, who led last year’s Hazara hunger strike. “The Army Chief told me last year that we are reaping what we’ve sown over the past 40 years. He said he couldn’t guarantee 100% elimination of the attacks, but vowed that there will be a significant improvement.”
Where ideology remains a major lure for ISIS, experts have further noted the flexibility in the radical ideals that the group professes so as to allow alliances with jihadist groups belonging to a differing Islamist ideology.
This has resulted in a diverse array of jihadist groups overlapping with ISIS, including the Kashmir-focused Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), whose cell affiliated with the Islamic State was busted in Sialkot in December 2015.
Conversations with members of JuD, a charity front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and examination of JuD’s literature reveal the group’s belief that Pakistan was founded on the principle of establishing an Islamic state. And while the group might disagree with the methods and operations of ISIS, it says that the upholding of jihad has been a state policy of Pakistan over the past decade.
“Pakistan was created as an Islamic state,” says Ehsan Ullah, a leader of the Milli Muslim League (MML), an Islamist party established by JuD and LeT chief Hafiz Saeed. “And jihad for the liberation of Kashmir has been, and still is, the official policy of the military. This is our ideology and the ideology of Pakistan.”
While the MML was barred by the Election Commission of Pakistan from contesting last year’s elections owing to its terror ties, it resurfaced as the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT), which did participate in the 2018 polls.
Even though ideology remains a potent arsenal for the Islamic State across Pakistan, Balochistan provides the geopolitical environment for the group to enhance its presence.
“The type of terrain and border there is in Balochistan cannot be comprehensively monitored,” says Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former secretary at the Ministry of Defense Production. “Which is why, despite significant Pakistan Army presence on the western front, the chance of infiltration in Balochistan and the [former] FATA are quite high.”
Furthermore, the diverse militancy in the province provides Islamic State sufficient volatility for recruitment and operations. Among the militant groups in Balochistan are the separatist outfits led by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), which launched a gun raid in a five-star hotel in Gwadar in May this year and attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi last year.
While the BLA is looking to exploit the local resentment against the state and the unease over Chinese influence in the province, factions within the Pakistan Army have for long deployed local jihadist groups, including the LeJA, against the Baloch separatists.
“You want to fritter away the strengths of these groups,” says Masood. “Instead of them attacking the state, you want them to attack each other. It’s a short-term tactic, when there aren’t sufficient forces to deploy everywhere.”
However, experts maintain that even though this strategy has weakened the separatist militants, it helps provide refuge to those groups that have recently emerged as the allies of Islamic State in Balochistan.