On December 28, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) busted a militant cell affiliated with the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) in Sialkot.
The eight suspects arrested in the operation, believed to be affiliated with Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) as well, had reportedly taken oath to impose a ‘caliphate’ in Pakistan. A source in the CTD said three of them had received military training too. Initial interrogations revealed the suspects had been expanding their presence using social media – a major source of recruitment worldwide for the IS, also known as ISIS and Daesh. The alleged IS cell in Sialkot was formed after 15 months of networking.
According to reports, the eight men swore allegiance to ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June when they joined the ‘Islamic State in Daska’. Daska is a tehsil in Sialkot district.
In September 2014, three months after ISIS announced a global Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Levant, their propaganda literature began to appear in Pakistan. A pro-ISIS booklet titled Fatah was distributed in Peshawar and North Waziristan. Graffiti in favor of the group was spotted in major Pakistani cities in the ensuing months.
In December 2014, students of the girls’ seminary Jamia Hafsa, associated with controversial cleric Abdul Aziz’s Lal Masjid, pledged allegiance to ISIS in a video message. In January 2015, ISIS announced the ‘Islamic State of Khorasan,’ encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In April they claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan, in which 35 people were killed. It was the group’s first formally recognized attack in the region.
In May, eight gunmen killed 46 people in an attack on an Ismaili bus near Karachi’s Safoora Chowrangi. The attack was simultaneously claimed by Jundullah, a group previously affiliated with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and by ISIS’ core media team. Pro-ISIS pamphlets were also found in the bus alongside the dead bodies. It was the first attack in Pakistan that the ISIS core claimed responsibility for.
In November, Abdul Aziz – who has voiced his support for ISIS during various Lal Masjid sermons – led a march to ‘impose Sharia’ in Islamabad. Tashfeen Malik, the female shooter in the San Bernardino attack, was reported to have links with Abdul Aziz’s Lal Masjid as well. Tashfeen had pledged allegiance to ISIS in a social media message before the San Bernandino shooting.
“The government isn’t ready to stir up a hornet’s nest”
“ISIS has infiltrated Pakistan. There is nothing surprising about their presence in Punjab,” says Amir Rana, a security and political analyst and the director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an independent Islamabad-based think tank. “What is actually happening is that the existing militants are taking inspiration from ISIS, who are the global trendsetters.” Like other terrorist groups, the IS too poses a threat to Pakistan, he says.
In a newspaper column in November last year, security analyst Lt Gen (r) Khalid Munir argued that ISIS did not pose a unique threat in Pakistan, because they were the same militants operating under a new name. “I stand by what I wrote last year,” he says. “What is the IS doing in Baghdad and Damascus? Indulging in gory violence? Chopping off heads? We’ve been through all that over the past 10 years.”
The TTP chief in Orakzai Agency, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was named the chief of ISIS in Pakistan, he said. “They are the same people.”
Amir Rana agrees. The ISIS core has not moved towards South Asia, he says. They are relying on militant factions that are already here.
The government has been adamant that ISIS has no presence in the country.
“When they say that ISIS doesn’t exist in Pakistan, what they probably mean is that there is no physical presence of ISIS core in the country, which might not be the best way of looking at the threat posed by the group,” Amir Rana says. “And once the interior ministry acknowledges the presence of ISIS, it would inevitably brace itself for the follow up questions regarding action being taken against them. I don’t think the interior ministry is ready to address that question just yet.”
Amir Rana believes there is significant support for the group among the more mainstream religious organizations too.
The important takeaway for Pakistan’s security machinery is that the IS cell in Sialkot was run by militants affiliated with JuD, Gen Khalid Munir says. “We still tout people associated with JuD as mujahideen, because we believe they don’t do anything in Pakistan and are generally focused on Kashmir. This incident in Sialkot has busted that myth.”
But any significant action against any mainstream religious groups is unlikely, he believes. “The government isn’t ready to stir up a hornet’s nest.”