By Aamir Saeed
Obaid Khan was planning to join Pakistan’s public school system as a teacher after finishing his undergraduate degree in May this year. Instead, he dropped out of university to join the so-called Islamic State, and he’s now fighting in Afghanistan.
Obaid’s life-plan began to change when a man identifying himself as Qari Abid contacted him via Facebook last August. As their correspondence deepened, Khan became more and more convinced that he needed to join the “jihad against infidels”, according to his elder brother, Hanifullah, whom Abid attempted to recruit as well.
“He used to get promotional Islamic State material and sermons about jihad every second day in his Facebook inbox,” said Hanifullah about his brother.
Then, at the end of October, Obaid suddenly left the family home in Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the frontier with Afghanistan. Last month, he called Hanifullah and told him he had finished training with IS and was now fighting in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, where Afghan government and US forces have been battling the militants.
“He was a religious-minded person, but we never thought he would one day join a militant group like the IS,” said Hanifullah in a telephone interview.
Military assaults have squeezed IS out of some of the territory it took control of in Iraq and Syria, and the group has recently expanded its presence in South Asia.
In January 2015, IS declared its intention to establish “Khorasan”, in reference to a historical region that once covered much of modern day Afghanistan as well as parts of Iran and Central Asia. Nangarhar remains its main base of operations, but its tentacles extend across the border into Pakistan too.
Officially, Pakistan’s government says that IS, or Daesh as it is referred to here, is not active in the country. But a senior security official has told IRIN that the group represents a serious threat to the country as it coordinates with other militant groups, and ramps up recruitment using social media. The official and Pakistani relatives of IS fighters have shared information on how the recruitment process works.
“There is no organised presence, I repeat, no organised presence of Daesh in Pakistan,” Mohammed Nafees Zakaria, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters on 15 December. “The pronouncement of one or two random individuals of having affiliation to Daesh does not form the basis for claiming organised presence for this entity in Pakistan.”
However, a senior counter-terrorism official told IRIN that 14 Pakistanis joined IS in October alone, while hundreds more are also believed to be in touch with the recruiters through social media.
“The IS recruiters contact young, educated Pakistani men and women through Facebook, telegram, and other social media platforms and convince them to join the IS in Syria and Afghanistan,” said the official, who requested his name be withheld due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
He said he believed the presence of IS could pose a more dangerous threat to Pakistan than the Taliban and other militants, because “it has penetrated in urban educated youth through social media and has enough resources too to lure them to Syria and Afghanistan in the name of jihad”.
The resources include cash payments to families of new recruits, according to the official as well as the brother of another young Pakistani man who has joined IS and is now in Afghanistan for training
The man told IRIN that his family is receiving a monthly stipend of 30,000 rupees ($286) and that leading IS figures in the region had also promised to sponsor the education of his brother’s three children.
Khurram Mehran, a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, said his organisation has no clear-cut policy to counter the presence of IS on internet and its recruitment of Pakistanis through social media.
“The government has been continuously denying the presence of IS in Pakistan,” he said. “We start monitoring activities of any militant group on the internet only after we receive instructions from relevant government departments.”
As recently as 21 December, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said during a visit to Bosnia that IS is not active in Pakistan, and that the country has destroyed sanctuaries and safe havens of al-Qaeda and Taliban.
Despite such public statements, the militant group has carried out attacks in Pakistan, according to the counter-terrorism official, and IS itself.
The IS claimed responsibility for a May 2015 attack on a bus in Karachi that killed 47 people. It also claimed responsibility for the attack on a hospital in Quetta last August that killed 72 people, as well as an attack on the Quetta Police College in October, which killed 59 officers.
The counter-terrorism official said IS has linked up with other militant groups that have a more established presence in Pakistan and have better capabilities on the ground.
“The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi carried out these attacks in Pakistan under the banner of the Islamic State,” said the official. “IS has effectively infused its ideology in these groups through its promotional material of jihad.”
He said Pakistan military operations have forced many Islamist fighters across the border into Afghanistan, particularly those with IMU and the Tehreek-e-Taliban militant group, but the porous border allows them to cross back into Pakistan to plan and carry out operations.
“The IMU fighters have also had their presence in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and some tribal areas of the country as they have married local girls and developed relationship with local warlords,” the counter-terrorism official added.
For now, the IS presence in Asia is focused mainly on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there are signs that the groups has plans to expand throughout the region.
The group took responsibility for an attack on a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in July where 20 hostages were killed. Indonesian police said an IS militant believed to be in Syria ordered an attack in the capital, Jakarta, one year ago that killed two people. Militant groups in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao have also publicly pledged allegiance to IS.