NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 39

IS-K’s growing threat and implications in Pakistan

A recent lethal attack that occurred in the Bajaur tribal district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, resulting in the tragic loss of at least 60 lives, has been attributed to the global terrorist group, Islamic State (IS), specifically its regional chapter known as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K). This event not only raises concerns but also signifies the escalating menace posed by another emerging terrorist entity. The assault in Bajaur targeted a convention organized by the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) as part of their preparations for the upcoming national elections. Tragically, among the victims were not only ordinary civilians but also members of the JUI-F.

It’s worth noting that the IS-K rationalized this attack on the JUI-F by asserting that the party’s participation in mainstream politics contradicts Islamic principles. According to the IS-K’s perspective, the party is deceiving Muslims in Pakistan for its own power-seeking motives. This stance underscores the IS-K’s aversion to democratic and representative governance, a perspective that can be understood to some extent. However, the primary motivation behind targeting the JUI-F in Bajaur appears to be rooted in personal vendettas held by IS-K members against local JUI-F leadership. Notably, the Afghan Taliban have been engaged in prolonged conflicts with the IS-K, often referred to as Daesh-e-Khurasan, at the local level. The JUI-F’s close ties with the Afghan Taliban led the party to provide fighters to the latter in Afghanistan, particularly in the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, to counter the IS-K. Consequently, the IS-K has been seeking vengeance for the loss of its leaders and fighters. This revelation underscores that the JUI-F is not simply a political organization; it maintains a militant wing. Therefore, if the JUI-F were to deploy its militants against another militant faction, retaliation could be expected, as was witnessed in Bajaur. Despite this, it’s important to condemn acts of terrorism and violence regardless of their targets.

Furthermore, this attack poses challenges for the JUI-F’s election campaigning. Nevertheless, it underscores the growing potency of the IS-K in Pakistan. Presently, the IS-K does not possess an extensive network within Pakistan in the Afghan-Pakistan region. However, the group has been making persistent efforts over the past few years to establish a more extensive presence in the country, recognizing its strategic importance. While its network in Pakistan is not as widespread as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the largest militant-terrorist network in the country, estimates suggest that the TTP’s various factions have a combined strength of around 30,000 to 40,000, including family members. In contrast, the exact number of IS-K fighters in Pakistan remains uncertain, but it is estimated to be around 1500. Importantly, the IS-K considers itself a regional entity, defining the Khorasan region to encompass Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India, and parts of Central Asia. As a result, its most substantial presence in the region is within Afghanistan, where its network has expanded despite the Afghan Taliban’s return to power in August 2021.

The IS-K and the Afghan Taliban have profound ideological and operational differences, which have resulted in numerous deadly clashes since the IS-K’s emergence in Afghanistan and the broader region in 2014. The IS-K views the Afghan Taliban as primarily an Afghan nationalist movement that employs Islam as a means to gain control over Afghanistan. This perception has fueled the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency against United States and NATO forces in the region. The IS-K vehemently criticized the peace agreement between the Taliban and the US in February 2019, which aimed to facilitate the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan with Pakistan’s involvement. The IS-K also labels the Afghan Taliban as puppets of Pakistan.

Interestingly, the Afghan Taliban’s growing animosity towards Pakistan since its ascension to power has been an effort to distance itself from any perception of being subservient to Pakistan’s interests. In contrast, the IS-K has not only propagated anti-Pakistan narratives but has also carried out attacks targeting Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. A notable incident occurred on December 2, in which gunmen attacked the Pakistani Chargé d’Affaires, Ubaid-ur-Rehman Nizamani, in Kabul. The IS-K claimed responsibility for the attack, sending a clear message that it would directly assault Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. The IS-K’s strategy seems to be based on destabilizing the Afghan Taliban’s regime by targeting Pakistani personnel and installations in Afghanistan, potentially straining the relationship between the two entities. Such discord could weaken the Afghan Taliban’s administration, depriving it of Pakistan’s support and creating an opportunity for the IS-K to exploit.

The IS-K’s increasing focus on Pakistan and the consequent heightened threat to the country is evident from its recent media releases. In a video released by the IS-K’s media wing, Al-Azaim Foundation, in December 2022—merely days after the attack on the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul—the group strongly condemned Pakistan and issued dire warnings of retaliation. This video, titled “To the Muslims in the Land of Muhammad bin Qasim,” is particularly significant as it represents a rare instance of the IS-K releasing an extensive media production with a specific focus on Pakistan. The video, delivered in English by an IS-K commander, praised the contributions of the IS-K’s Pakistani members and supporters. It emphasized the alleged persecution, killings, imprisonment, and displacement of Muslim individuals by the Pakistani “regime” and its security forces. This likely alludes to Pakistan’s military operations against the TTP, particularly in the border regions. Additionally, this signals the IS-K’s attempt to establish rapport with the TTP.

The most alarming element of the IS-K’s Pakistan-centered video is its conclusion, which calls upon Muslims within Pakistan to join its struggle against the government. The video implies that the only way to prevent Pakistan from becoming an inhospitable place for Muslims is by toppling the state and instituting Sharia law. This call to action highlights its intention to mobilize support and potentially carry out further acts of violence within Pakistan’s borders.

In conclusion, the recent attack in Bajaur district is a stark reminder of the growing threat posed by the IS-K in Pakistan. While its network within the country may not be as extensive as that of the TTP, the IS-K’s expanding focus on Pakistan and its increasingly sophisticated media releases underscore its determination to establish a more substantial presence. This poses significant challenges to Pakistan’s security and stability, particularly in the face of the IS-K’s efforts to exploit existing fault lines and create discord between various entities, including the Afghan Taliban. As Pakistan continues to grapple with these security concerns, cooperation and collaboration with international partners become essential to counter the evolving threat posed by the IS-K and similar terrorist groups.