By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
At least 52 persons were killed and more than hundred were injured when a teenage suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest in the midst of devotees at the shrine of Sufi saint Shah Noorani in the Khuzdar District of Balochistan in the evening of November 12, 2016. The explosion took place at the spot where the dhamaal (Sufi ritual of devotional dance) was being performed, within the premises of the shrine. “The bomber appeared to be 14 to 16 years old,” said Muhammad Hashim Ghalzai, the Commissioner of Kalat Division, of which Khuzdar is a District. Nawaz Ali, the shrine’s custodian, added, “Every day, around sunset, there is a dhamaal here, and there are large numbers of people who come for this.” According to Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Jafar Khan, at the time of the blast, around 1,000 devotees were present in the shrine to view the performance. The Daesh (Islamic State, IS, previously Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack via Amaq, its affiliated news agency.
Daesh, along with Al Alami (international) faction of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), also claimed the October 24 attack on the Quetta Police Training College (PTC) at New Sariab, in which 61 Security Force (SF) personnel were killed, and another 164 were injured. Three terrorists entered into the PTC and headed straight for the hostel, where around 700 Police recruits were sleeping. The attack began at around 11:10 pm, with gunfire continuing to ring out at the site for several hours. Major causalities were inflicted when two suicide bombers blew themselves up. One of the terrorists, wearing a suicide vest, was killed by SFs. Though the Pakistani establishment claimed that the terrorists belonged to the LeJ-Al Alami, Daesh claimed responsibility and released photographs of the fighters involved, one of whom bore a strong resemblance to an attacker who was killed by SFs in the assault.
On the same day, Daesh also allegedly orchestrated another killing, when two motorcycle borne terrorists shot dead Intelligence Sub-Inspector Akbar Ali at a bus stop near his home in the Sardaryab area of Charsadda District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), when he was on his way to work in Peshawar, the provincial capital. In a short statement posted on Amaq, its affiliated news agency, Daesh claimed that “Islamic State fighters have killed a Pakistan intelligence agent in the Sardaryab region… of Pakistan”.
The most significant claim from Daesh came on August 8, 2016, for the suicide attacks on Quetta’s Civil Hospital in which at least 74 persons, including 55 lawyers, were killed and over 100 were wounded, when scores of people had gathered to mourn the death of BBA President Bilal Anwar Kasi in a gun attack earlier in the day. Law enforcement officials stated that the two attacks were connected and the blast was carried out by a suicide bomber. The 55 slain lawyers include BBA’s former President Baz Muhammad Kakar; former Supreme Court Bar Association Vice-President Syed Qahir Shah; Advocate Sangat Jamaldani, son of Jahanzeb Jamaldani, Secretary General, Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M); and Advocate Dawood Kasi, son of Former Federal Minister Dr. Abdul Malik Kasi. Reuters quoted Daesh’s Amaq news agency as stating, “A martyr from the Islamic State detonated his explosive belt at a gathering of justice ministry employees and Pakistani policemen in…Quetta.” The Amaq report was released from Cairo, Egypt.
A succession of deadly attacks in Pakistan claimed by Daesh suggests a rising partnership with local terrorist formations, even though the Pakistan establishment continues to deny Daesh presence in Balochistan. Thus, Baluchistan Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti stated, on November 13, 2016, “There is no presence of (Islamic State) in Balochistan. The claim IS made is false.” Bugti claimed that the recent attacks claimed by Daesh were carried out by LeJ-Al Alami, but this group gave information to Daesh relating to the attackers in order to harm Pakistan’s reputation: “Claims through IS are a conspiracy to isolate Pakistan in the international community.” Similarly, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, on November 15, 2015, had ruled out any Daesh ‘footprint’ in the country and declared that no citizen would be allowed to have links with the terrorist organisation, adding, “Pakistan has the capability to thwart threats by any terrorist organisation, including the Islamic State.” Similarly, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah on November 23, 2015, claimed that the Islamic State did not exist in Pakistan and that some proscribed organisations within the country were using its name.
Daesh appears happy to let its local allies in Pakistan operate under their own identities in exchange for allowing Daesh to claim responsibility for high-profile attacks. Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst, noted, on November 13, 2016, “IS may not have a formal structure in Pakistan, but certainly they have support among some of the banned terrorist groups, particularly Sunni sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alami (LeJ-AA)… It’s a kind of nexus that we are seeing between global jihadi groups and local sectarian groups.”
US commander General John W Nicholson, who commands the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, while briefing Washington-based journalists at the Pentagon, on August 1, 2016, said that almost 70 per cent of Daesh fighters in Afghanistan are Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists. Nicholson claimed, a “significant proportion, a majority of fighters” with Daesh in Afghanistan come from Pakistan’s Orakzai Agency, over the border from Nangarhar, and are former members of TTP. He further stated that many of the fighters were Pakistani Pashtun from Orakzai Agency and had been forced out of Pakistan by the ongoing military offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb: “In the case of the IS fighters in southern Nangarhar, we see that many of them come from the Orakzai Agency, which is south of Nangarhar – actually, south of the Khyber Agency. And they were former members of the TTP, complete with their leadership, who wholesale joined Islamic State, pledged baya (allegiance) to Islamic State and joined them earlier this year.”
Seeing Daesh as a major threat in the region, the US, on January 14, 2016, declared Daesh’s Afghanistan-Pakistan wing a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). A statement issued in Washington declared, “The US Department of State has announced the designation of ISIL-K (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan) as a FTO under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” The Department of State took this action in consultation with the Departments of Justice and the Treasury, the statement added.
On July 26, 2016, the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan were able to eliminate the then Daesh chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed, who was killed in a drone strike in the Kot District of Nangarhar province. Saeed’s death represents a major setback for Daesh-K (Daesh in the imagined ‘Khorasan’ wilayat), as it tries to establish itself as a serious force in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Hafiz Saeed Khan was a former commander of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA, Assembly of Freedom), the break-away fraction of TTP, who pledged allegiance to Daesh. After Hakimullah Mehsud, then head of TTP, was killed in a US drone strike on November 1, 2013, the al Qaeda-linked group had been plagued by leadership disputes, infighting, and defections. Mullah Fazlullah, Mehsud’s successor, proved incapable of holding the coalition of jihadists together. On August 26, 2014, a group of TTP ‘commanders’, led by Maulana Qasim Omar Khorasani, broke away from the parent organization and formed a new outfit called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA, Assembly of Freedom). JuA included TTP factions from the tribal areas – Bajaur, Khyber, Mohmand, and Orakzai Agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); and Charsadda, Peshawar, and Swat Districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). While announcing the split, Khorasani claimed, “The leadership of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan [TTP] is a victim of narrow, personal objectives. A separate group was announced after the efforts to keep TTP united ended in failure.”
In June 2014, while announcing the formation of the Islamic State, Daesh had released a map purportedly showing areas that it planned to bring under its control within five years. These areas included all of Pakistan within the projected ‘Islamic Caliphate’. Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who was detained at Guantanamo for three years, had defected from the Afghan Taliban on July 1, 2014, and joined Daesh and was pronounced Amir of Islamic State Khorasan province just two days after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi named himself “Caliph Ibrahim I” and declared that his Islamic State was now a “caliphate.” However, in April 2016, several members of the ‘Islamic State Khorasan province’ “central council” as well as other senior and mid-level leaders based in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar broke their oath to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and rejoined the Afghan Taliban. Dost claim that the ‘Khorasan Province’ had become a tool of “regional intelligence agencies and started torturing innocent people.” He described Hafiz Saeed Khan, the succeeding ‘emir’ of the ‘Khorasan province’, as “illiterate” for approving attacks on civilians.
Purportedly the first of its major attacks on Pakistan soil came on May 14, 2015, when Daesh claimed responsibility for the May 13, 2015, bus attack that killed 43 Ismaili Shias in the Safoora Chowrangi area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Town in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh. A blood-stained Daesh pamphlet was recovered from the scene, according to a Police official. A subsequent statement in Arabic declared: “Thanks be to Allah, 43 apostates were killed and around 30 were wounded in an attack carried out by Islamic State soldiers on a bus transporting Shia Ismaili infidels in the city of Karachi.”
It is unlikely that Daesh can extend its direct operational outreach into the AfPak region at a time when it is under increasing pressure in its Syrian and Iraqi heartlands, but the audacity of the attacks executed by its regional affiliates suggests a rising danger and an infusion of a greater lethality into the enduring trends in terrorism and sectarian strife afflicting both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Crucially, fragments of groups that have long flourished under state protection or neglect in Pakistan, are now coalescing into the Daesh identity and finding a unity of purpose with an increasingly globalized movement of jihad, outside the control of the Pakistani state. This can only reinforce the instability of the AfPak region, and project increasing risks beyond.
* Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
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