NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 18

Daesh footprints quite visible in Pakistan now

The deadly terrorist attack on a Shiite mosque in Peshawar, which killed at least 65 worshippers, not only heralds the return of terrorism in the terrorism-devastated capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province but also speaks volumes about huge footprints of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in the country. More than 65 people were killed when a suicide bomber entered a grand Shiite mosque in Kocha Risaldar inside the famous Qissa Khwani Bazaar of Peshawar when worshippers had gathered for Friday prayers. Later, IS-Khurasan (IS-K), known by its regional name Daesh-e-Khurasan, claimed responsibility for the attack.

As the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the largest and strongest terrorist group of Pakistan, had not claimed responsibility for the attack, the claim of the IS of conducting the attack seemed quite substantive. The TTP had also renounced its earlier one-month ceasefire agreement with the government in November 2021 and has been launching terrorist attacks in different parts of Pakistan. In this situation, the surge in IS-K activities in Pakistan is an important development, which is really disturbing. It is important to mention that the deadly Peshawar attack was the biggest terrorism incident conducted by the IS-K so far in Pakistan. Why it conducted the attack at this time is very important to analyze.

The foremost reason for the IS-K to carry out the terrorist attack in Peshawar was to send a strong message across the world of its huge footprint in Pakistan. This has become important when the Afghan Taliban captured their entire country on August 15 and they started taking to task IS-K militants in the length and breadth of their country. The Afghan Taliban and the IS-K have been at daggers drawn and even engaged in deadly fighting in Afghanistan on several occasions since the emergence of the IS-K there in early 2015. The IS first emerged from nowhere in Iraq and Syria and thus came to be known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014 and raised the flag of a so-called global Jihad trying to replace Al-Qaeda, which became quite weak due to constant attacks from the United States and allied forces in Afghanistan. The IS has been questioning the sincerity and ideology of the Afghan Taliban and calling them totally self-motivated and nationalistic in their struggle for power. When the Afghan Taliban returned to power, they took stringent steps against the IS-K. As a result of these measures, many IS-K militants in Afghanistan have been killed, several members have been arrested and many top leaders relocated. Recently, some IS-K leaders have also surrendered to Taliban authorities. In this situation a large number of IS men seems to have shifted to Pakistan. The intelligence agencies in Pakistan have discovered that the suicide attacker, who struck the Shiite worshippers on March 4, was an Afghan and lived in Khyber district of KP province.

After coming under the focus of the Afghan regime in Afghanistan, IS men no longer have a free field, particularly in eastern Afghanistan as it used to be in President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani’s governments in Kabul. Therefore, militantly-oriented IS men have shifted the theatre of their activities from Afghanistan to Pakistan. It is important to note that in the past too, the IS made several attempts to have a strong presence in Pakistan but it could not succeed. One important reason has been that the KP police, particularly its Counterterrorism Department, conducted effective operations against them. At one point in time, the KP police had even claimed to have eliminated IS-K cells in the province. That was very much true. However, with the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Afghanistan the situation on the ground has drastically changed.

Consequently, the second reason for the IS to carry out the huge terrorist attack in Peshawar was important for the survival of the group. Every terrorist group is relevant only when it continues to strike and stages terrorist attacks. As there has been a decrease in terrorist attacks from the IS-K in Afghanistan, so far the biggest theatre of its activities in the region, the group may have decided to stage some big attacks in Pakistan to keep on making its presence felt by people and governments. Without these attacks the IS would become irrelevant. In order to be relevant and remain on the minds of people, the IS-K seems to have decided to increase its presence and attacks in Pakistan. This is a big test case yet again for the Pakistani security forces and law enforcement agencies. The deadly terrorist attack is also a failure of the law enforcement agencies and there is a need to increase vigilance and coordination among the LEAs, particularly the intelligence agencies. The National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA) needs to be strengthened as its performance so far leaves a lot to be desired.

Another important reason for the IS-K to strike the mosque and kill so many innocent people was the unfolding political crisis in Pakistan. As the opposition parties in Pakistan are trying to bring down the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the resultant political crisis has provided an opportunity to the IS-K to add to the crisis. Terrorist groups are always on the look out to take advantage of a political vacuum and political crisis. In politically stable societies and countries, terrorist outfits have little to capitalize upon to conduct and justify their anti-social activities.

Fourthly, as authorities in Pakistan are trying to re-engage with the TTP, with whom a long-term ceasefire could not be reached earlier, despite the group’s open flouting of the sovereignty of the state, the IS-K thinks it is the right time to replace the TTP as the deadliest and genuine terrorist network in Pakistan. In case the TTP reaches some kind of a ceasefire agreement with the government, the IS wants to fill the terrorist vacuum. So the timing of the attack on the mosque in Peshawar in this context is very important.

Keeping in view the reasons for the IS carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan, there are fears of more such deadly attacks in Pakistan. The obvious victim would be KP province and its capital, Peshawar.