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On the morning of August 8, the Islamic State (ISIS) carried out what was undoubtedly its most devastating and sophisticated attack to date in Pakistan. The operation began when Jamaat-ul-Ahrar—a faction of the Pakistani Taliban—and ISIS targeted the emergency services ward at Quetta’s Civil Hospital, where dozens of people, including many lawyers, were gathered to mourn the assassination of the president of the Balochistan Bar Association, Bilal Anwar Kasi. A suicide bomber detonated a lethal bomb, killing at least 97 people. In the space of a few hours, many practicing senior lawyers in one of Pakistan’s most important provincial capitals had been killed.
At first glance, Pakistan might seem like a natural point of expansion for ISIS. Not only is the country an avowedly Islamic republic, it has often been plagued by the kind of political instability (ranging from religious militancy to military coups) that has allowed ISIS to seize territory in other countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. However, expanding into a country already overcrowded by jihadist organizations has proved to be challenging. Ideologically, ISIS’ Salafi orientation, combined with its anti-Western and anti-Shia sentiment, not to mention its narrative of liberating Muslim lands, echoes the playbooks of longstanding actors on the Pakistani militant scene, including groups that have actively opposed ISIS itself. Moreover, the natural friction between ISIS and its rivals is evident in the recurrent fights between ISIS and the Afghan and Pakistani branches of the Taliban.
Faced with a market oversaturated with competitors, and being without a distinctive ideological message, ISIS has spread in a manner similar to corporate franchise: drawing weaker local players under its “brand” and into a loosely constituted network of radical actors. ISIS first became a part of the security debate in Pakistan in late 2014, when pamphlets exhorting support for the organization first circulated in the frontier city of Peshawar. Not long after that, graffiti and ISIS-supporting literature began popping up in different cities across Pakistan. In January 2015, ISIS launched what spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani referred to as its “Khorasan” chapter, a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and an ambiguous expanse of “nearby” countries, potentially including India, Bangladesh, parts of China and central Asia. From the very beginning, an emphasis on local leadership and manpower was evident: 11 of the 12 members of Khorasan’s provincial council, including its leader, originated from Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former Tehrik-e-Taliban militant, was appointed local leader and governor. Despite a predominantly Pakistani leadership, however, the Khorasan group failed to gain a stronghold in Pakistan. At the time, state military operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) constrained the group’s encroachments, preventing ISIS militants from entering Pakistan in large numbers or strengthening its presence.
As in many countries where political stability and military might forecloses ISIS’ ability to expand territorially, the organization remains first and foremost an ideological threat.With ISIS-Khorasan unable to draw manpower directly from its parent organization, the majority of militants associated with the group have instead been disaffected individuals drawn from local militant outfits. A case in point is the shocking May 2015 attack on a busload of workers in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. Forty-five people died. Previously affiliated with Al Qaeda but frustrated with its inactivity, the attackers branded themselves as ISIS affiliates. Although Hafiz Khan claimed responsibility for this attack in a January 2016 issue of Dabiq, the magazine of ISIS, no link was revealed between the attackers and ISIS. Similarly, another cell of militants arrested in the northeastern Pakistani city of Sialkot had branded themselves ISIS affiliates, but possessed no obvious links with the parent organization. Like many of the group’s “affiliates,” the Sialkot cell was composed of individuals detached from a struggling local outfit—in this case, Lashkar-e-Taiba, a banned militant organization in South Asia advocating for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, and the liberation of Kashmir from Indian control.
This is not to say, however, that ISIS exists only as a vague symbol or idea in Pakistan. Whereas groups in Karachi and Sialkot aspire to the ISIS label, other direct links between ISIS and individuals in Pakistan have been exposed more clearly. In December 2015, members of a Lahore ISIS cell exposed by a police operation allegedly came into direct contact with ISIS militants in Syria. The Pakistani individuals later departed directly for Syria in September 2015. The ISIS cell consisted of 20 people, including men, women, and children. Bushra Cheema, a Pakistani woman, was one of the cell’s principal members, and took four kids along with her to Syria. More recently, when a faction of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), a radical Islamic group interested in re-establishing the Muslim caliphate and restoring Sharia law, pledged allegiance to ISIS, they were instructed by the organization’s Khorasan leadership to develop links between different followers of ISIS in Pakistan. At an individual level, local militants removed from existing organizations by military operations in Karachi and FATA have gone on to directly join ISIS upon fleeing from Pakistan to Afghanistan. For these fighters, the allure of ISIS is self-evident: ISIS functions as a more prestigious and powerful organization with far better funding. Reports have even emerged that Pakistani militants traveling to Afghanistan in order to join the local ISIS chapter have been paid $500 per month.
For the Pakistani state, the outcome has been something of a catch-22 for counterterrorism operations. Although military action has proven successful in shattering local militant organizations and producing disaffected members, the end result has been an increase in the manpower pool receptive to the ISIS brand and to the organization’s efforts to franchise itself in the country. As in many countries where political stability and military might forecloses ISIS’ ability to expand territorially, the organization remains first and foremost an ideological threat—catalyzing lone-wolf attacks vaguely inspired by radical messages marketed through sleek audiovisual productions and social media. More often than not, the target audience of ISIS productions is precisely those disillusioned by the failed promises of liberal democratic society—not merely ex-militants, but also women, teenagers, and economically dispossessed individuals. It is only with a strong alternative vision of the future for liberal democratic societies—one in which tolerance, pluralism, and economic opportunity are realizable values—that Pakistan can hope for an end to the atrocities committed by ISIS within its borders. Until then, Pakistan will continue to see a growing number of its homegrown militants join the global ISIS franchise and challenge the state’s governance and legitimacy.
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