ISLAMABAD: (Asia Times): The self-styled Islamic State (IS) or Daesh led by Commander Abu Bakar Baghdadi is making inroads in Pakistan which is already plagued with al-Qaeda and Taliban-sponsored terrorism. However, Islamabad keeps denying IS presence in the country.
The gradual rise of IS in Pakistan signifies a dangerous new dimension in the ongoing war against terrorism which seems to be leading nowhere. The spread of IS’s extremist ideology and its networking in Pakistan, coupled with the creeping incursions of the outfit inside neighboring Afghanistan, poses a serious threat to peace and stability in the region. But the bizarre stance adopted by the federal government about the existence of IS network in Pakistan shows it is either deliberately dismissing the rising threat for public consumption, or it is unmindful of the wider ramifications. The November 2015 Paris terror attacks and the March 2016 Brussels suicide strikes point to IS transforming itself into a global terrorist network.
From Iraq and Syria to Khorasan
It was in September 2014 that the international media first reported the rise of IS in Pakistan when some followers of Daesh distributed pamphlets in Peshawar declaring that the Caliphate led by Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi was planning to expand its boundaries from Iraq and Syria, to Khorasan. The flyer titled ‘Fatah’ (‘Victory’) was published in Pashto and Dari languages. The logo of the pamphlet had the Kalma, the historical stamp of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Introducing itself as Daulat-e-Islamia (the Islamic State) in the pamphlet, the IS made an appeal to locals to support its struggle for establishing an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan.
A previously little known jihadi organization, Tehrik-e-Khilafat, which was considered to be a component of the Pakistani Taliban and had claimed responsibility for a string of terrorist attacks in Karachi, was the first jihadi outfit in South Asia to break ranks from al-Qaeda and declare its allegiance to IS. “Sheikh Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi shall consider Tehrik-e-Khilafat as one of the arrows among his arrows which he has kept for his bow. We are praying from the almighty Allah to give us chance to see in our lives the expansion of Islamic State’s boundaries toward the sub-continent and Khorasan region in order to hoist the flag of Islamic State here,” a group spokesman had declared then.
Khorasan is the historic name used by the militants for an area covering Pakistan, Afghanistan and some parts of India. The IS map shows Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of IS’s Khorasan province. Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants believe the movement for the establishment of the Islamic State of Khorasan will emerge from the region comprising Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan and Malakand region of Pakistan. They deem Khorasan as the base camp of international jihad from where they will expand the boundaries of IS into other non-Muslim lands.
The second group which joined hands with IS was Jamaat-ul-Ahraar (JuA). The group pledged its allegiance to Baghdadi on September 4, 2014. However, JuA leader Commander Omar Khalid Khurasani decided to rejoin Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) six months later after the Pakistani military drive in North Waziristan ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azab’ forced him as well as his fighters to flee to Afghanistan. Almost two years after the emergence of IS in Peshawar, the federal government continues to deny the ‘organized presence’ of IS which keeps recruiting Pakistanis. This is being done despite a recent communiqué from a military-run intelligence agency. The communiqué informed the Ministry of Interior about the presence of IS recruiters in Pakistan, who belong to India, Syria and Canada. It says five Syrian nationals, a dual national (Canadian/Syrian) and an Indian national had recently crossed the border using fake documents through Afghanistan or Iran border.
“These Daesh (IS) men have established links and are working on a recruitment agenda. Fares Aruri is a Syrian national who is on recruitment mission in Pakistan. Similarly, Otari al-Najadi and his wife (Saba Fakhri) and Shakoori Mustafa and his wife (Farida Shakoori) also traveled to Pakistan on Syrian passports. Anka Asmahaan, who is a dual national of Syria and Canada, and Saeedul Aslam, who is an Indian national, are currently in Pakistan and working for Daesh”, the letter said while recommending strict scrutiny of those who are traveling on Syrian travel documents (to Pakistan) through international cross-points.
In fact, Pakistani intelligence agencies are searching for the whereabouts of 200 IS suspects who illegally crossed into Pakistan to recruit militants for the extremist outfit. On January 22, 2015, Pakistani security agencies arrested Yousaf al-Salafi, identified as the chief IS recruiter in Pakistan, and two of his accomplices, who were sending fighters to Syria, from Shahdara area of Lahore. Salafi, a Pakistani Syrian, confessed that he represented the IS in Pakistan and had arrived five months ago through Turkey. Although he was caught by security forces in Turkey, he managed to escape. Pakistani media reported that he confessed to receiving funds for recruitment through the U.S. Salafi’s accomplices were identified as Hafiz Tayyab and Mohammad Fawad. Tayyab was a prayer leader in a Lahore mosque and he was charging IS about $600 per recruit sent to Syria.
Safoora Goth carnage
The May 13, 2015 killing of 46 bus passengers in Safoora Goth, Karachi, gave clear evidence of the presence of IS in Pakistan. Most of those shot dead were members of the Ismaili Shia minority community. Pamphlets left behind at the crime scene by the eight masked gunmen showed that the attack was carried out by IS. Subsequent arrests revealed that the Safoora Goth carnage was committed by an IS terrorist cell consisting of graduates of major private and public universities from Karachi. Investigations showed that al-Qaeda and Taliban were penetrating academic institutions for fresh recruits, especially those studying computer sciences, applied physics and applied chemistry. IS also gained many sympathizers in other places.
Raja Umar Khattab, the chief of Karachi police’s Counter-Terrorism Department, said at a press conference in Karachi on December 18, 2015 that the wives of two of the arrested terrorists involved in the Safoora bus carnage, along with their accomplices, used sermons and videos to brainwash educated and rich women into joining IS. Four arrested men — Khalid Yusuf Bari, Saleem Ahmed, Suleman Saeed and Adil Masood Butt – gave financial support and inspiration for the accused to commit the dastardly act, Khattab said.
Case of principal-turned-terrorist
On December 31, 2015, Bushra Cheema, principal of a Lahore-based Islamic center, left home along with her four children telling her husband Khalid on phone that she wanted to attend a Quranic teaching session. She never returned. A week later, Bushra again called Khalid to inform him that she was in Quetta, Pakistan, and on her way to Syria through Iran to join IS along with their children. Investigations showed that at least 20 men, women and children connected with Bushra’s network had already left for Syria.
Investigators said IS aspirants were taking the Iran route for Syria used by migrants. Also, religious inclinations suggested that JuD led by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed was losing its affiliates to IS. Bushra is now persuading her husband and women to join her. Khalid, who had been affiliated with JuD, shared with interrogators the messages he received from his wife urging him to join the jihad. Bushra, who had earlier been affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, did her M Phil from Punjab University in Lahore and was honorary principal at the Noor-ul-Hudaa Islamic Center in Lahore. How she got in touch with IS leadership is still unknown. But investigators say she had been in correspondence with Baghdadi. While her exchanges with her husband were through WhatsApp, she used Skype to persuade women to join IS.
Although Pakistani agencies do not have an estimate on how many local jihadis have so far moved to Syria, international media say hundreds of people from Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Egypt and Turkey had gone to Syria to join IS. As Pakistan’s resurgent jihadi factory keeps producing well-trained and highly motivated fighters, several al-Qaeda-linked groups like TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are exporting “holy warriors” to wage war in Syria and Iraq. The Punjabi Taliban and Hafiz Gul Bahadur groups have also sent jihadis to Syria.
According to senior US commander Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner of Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, several Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, and other militants on the run are rebranding themselves as IS after being pushed into Afghanistan by Operation Zarb-e-Azab. Media reports of Pakistani mercenaries joining hands with IS to fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime first appeared in 2013 when Syria emerged as the new center for global jihad. It was an anti-Shia ideology that drove TTP to join the Syrian conflict.
In a January 2013 video, the then TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, discussing the organization’s post 2014 objectives, describes TTP as an international organization. When asked about the uprisings in Arab Spring countries, Mehsud says, “We support them and we will aid them. If they need our blood, our life; if they need our people, we are ready for every type of assistance so that the democratic and secular system [in Arab nations] comes to an end.” Reaffirming that Taliban have a global jihadi agenda, a close aide of Hakeemullah said TTP fighters had been sent to Syria upon the request of al-Qaeda’s operational commander in Syria, Abu Omar Baghdadi who wanted Pakistani Taliban to be part of a global jihad.
Lal Masjid’s link with global jihad
An Iraq-based jihadi organization, the Ansarul Islam, had even released a video in March 2014 showing training activity in a jihadi camp dedicated to the memory of Pakistan’s Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, one of the two cleric brothers who took center-stage during the Lal Masjid standoff in July 2007. Ghazi was killed in a military operation on the mosque and now lives in the jihadi hall of fame. The video shows fighters of Ansarul Islam doing exercises. It showers tributes on Ghazi and Lal Masjid militants and condemns the Pakistan government and the army for conducting the July 2007 Operation Silence.
The Lal Masjid’s link with global jihad is established in the video when Osama bin Laden is quoted praising Ghazi as a hero. Ghazi keeps inspiring the followers of his cause not only in Pakistan but also in Iraq where the “holy warriors” of the Ansarul Islam have named a jihadi training camp and also a sub-division after Ghazi. The network sending Pakistani Sunni fighters to Syria then was jointly run by the TTP and LeJ both affiliated to al-Qaeda because of their common anti-Shia and anti-US agenda. The leaders of this network were Usman Ghani, a former commander of the LeJ from Punjab and Alimullah, a TTP commander from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
On July 31, 2013, an Urdu-language jihadi forum posted an authentic video which confirmed the presence of TTP fighters in Syria for the first time. The video, produced by IS, shows a short clip of 10-20 TTP fighters on the ground in Syria. A media report in September 2013 claimed that bodies of 30 Pakistani jihadis killed in Syria had been sent back to Pakistan, the majority of them associated with LeJ or TTP’s Punjab faction. Since the TTP and al-Qaeda have a symbiotic relationship, the Taliban believed that sending fighters to countries like Syria and Iraq would be seen as an act of loyalty toward al-Qaeda.
Compared with the Afghan Taliban, who are least concerned about jihad in other countries, the Pakistani Taliban’s overall agenda has leaned more toward the concept of global jihad. In its September 1, 2010 designation of the TTP as a terrorist group, the US State Department said: “The TTP draws ideological guidance from al-Qaeda, while al-Qaeda relies on the TTP for safe haven in the Pushtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This mutual cooperation gives the TTP access to both al-Qaeda’s global terrorist network and operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their ties, the TTP is a force multiplier for al-Qaeda.” The involvement of Pakistani Taliban in Iraq and Syria can be seen in this perspective.
Shocking video of soldier’s beheading
On January 11, 2015, the Pakistan chapter of IS released a gruesome video showing the beheading of a Pakistan Army soldier. The Arabic-language video showed Shahidullah Shahid, the former spokesman of TTP, pledging allegiance to the IS and the beheading of a man described as a Pakistani soldier. The video released on Twitter and several jihadi forums shows Shahid along with a large group of turbaned militants, many on horseback and holding rifles and black flags and identifying themselves as from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the video, Shahid says: “We want to inform you that we have brought together the ameers (leaders) of ten groups who want to pledge their allegiance to the Caliph Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi.” At the end of the 16-minute video, a man wearing helmet, T-shirt and combat trousers identified as a Pakistani soldier is ruthlessly beheaded with an axe. Shahid, who was killed by a US drone on the Pak-Afghan tribal belt in 2015, had left TTP on October 15, 2014 along with five other Taliban leaders after pledging allegiance to Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph.
Khorasan chapter of IS gets leader
On January 13, a couple of days after IS had released the soldier’s beheading video, a former commander of TTP, Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, replaced an Afghan national, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, as the leader of the Khorasan chapter of IS. Dost, a former Guantanamo prisoner, had spent several years in a Pakistani prison after being freed by the Americans. He had been appointed for an interim period to organize the Khorasan chapter of the IS which includes Pakistani, India, Afghanistan, Iran and some Central Asian territories.
Saeed Khan came from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and belonged to the Mamozai area of Orakzai Agency. The announcement of Saeed Khan’s elevation was made by Shahid in another video along with the names of IS commanders for different areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. After Saeed’s appointment, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency reported that the IS has created a 10-member ‘strategic planning wing’ with a master plan on how to wage war against the Pakistani military and its Operation Zarb-e-Azab.
The agency suggested that the IS has Pakistan in its cross-hairs, besides warning that the group aims to stir up sectarian unrest by dispatching the local militant group LeJ on the offensive against Shias. But despite all these hard facts, the state of Pakistan, especially the Ministry of Interior, keeps denying the presence of IS in Pakistan. Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference in Islamabad on February 16, 2016 that certain banned groups in the country were using IS’s name although no such network existed in Pakistan. This view was echoed by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs the next day.
Interestingly, the Pakistan government had formally accepted the existence of IS in the country when it banned the terrorist outfit in 2015 along with 60 other organizations. Federal Minister of State for Interior Baleeghur Rahman informed the Senate on December 17, 2015 that IS had been placed on the list of banned organizations on July 15.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist known for his research work on Islamic militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. He has authored several books including “Talibanization of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11,” “The Bhutto Murder Trail: From Waziristan to GHQ,” “The True Face of Jehadis” and “The Fluttering Flag of Jehad.”
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