The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham’s (ISIS) brutal rule and terrorist atrocities have understandably attracted the world’s attention to its actions in the core Middle East states, Libya and the Maghreb, and in Europe. But ISIS is not only moving westward. What has not received adequate attention is its push eastward, particularly into pivotal Pakistan.
The goal of pushing tentacles in multiple directions is to establish ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s vision of a global caliphate, with him as caliph. In 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed that “once the caliph and his fighters arrive in a particular area, the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations” is nullified.1 In contrast to ISIS, other jihadist groups largely focus on local, more parochial conflicts with their immediate rulers.
The focus of this paper is ISIS’s prospects in Pakistan. Some jihadists there endorse al-Badghadi the person, while others support him because of common hatreds. Supporters include urban men and women packing up for Syria to participate in the civil war and live under the caliphate, as well as militants seeking ways to act on their Sunni extremist or anti-Shia agenda in Pakistan. Still other ISIS sympathizers haven’t overtly declared their allegiance to the caliphate, as if waiting to see how the splintered jihad movement in Pakistan evolves.
Meanwhile, after refusing to acknowledge the presence of ISIS in the country for months, Pakistani authorities have finally started to concede the group’s existence.2 Only recently did the authorities uncover ISIS cells in Karachi3 and Punjab.4 Given the presence of numerous violent Islamist groups in different parts of the country, ISIS may discover more opportunities to expand into Pakistan.
On the Trail of ISIS
The connections between Pakistan and the jihadist movement that gave rise to ISIS are longstanding. Pakistan was a base for the group’s founding member, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, during key junctures in his militant career. Zarqawi took up arms in Pakistan during the Afghan War from 1979-1989. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, he established his training camp in Herat.5 ISIS’s ideological father, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, visited Pakistan in the 1980s as well before moving to Jordan in the early 1990s.6
Before 9/11, Zarqawi’s intensely anti-Shia views prevented him from developing much of a rapport with Osama bin Laden.7 As early as 1999, a meeting between Zarqawi and Bin Laden did not go well.8 Zarqawi's “hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive.”9 Indeed, Zarqawi helped fuel deepening sectarianism, even by the standards of the Al-Qaeda (AQ) movement, which to this day has caused rifts in the jihadist movement.
After 9/11, Zarqawi left Afghanistan for Iraq. After America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, he fought against U.S. forces. Zarqawi had already established his own Islamist group, Jamaat ul Tawheed wal Jihad, which attracted young Islamists to fight American forces in the Sunni regions of Iraq. Zarqawi’s group was one of the most active and ruthless in the ensuing insurgency, in which 4,488 U.S. soldiers died. In a letter Zarqawi wrote to bin Laden in 2004, he conditioned his alliance with the AQ on a plan to attack Shias in Iraq.10 That same year Zarqawi rechristened his group as “Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers,” also known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the leadership of AQ had doubts. In 2005, AQ Deputy al-Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi about his “attacks on Shia,” saying that in Zawahiri’s opinion, this “matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it.”11 (To be sure, some deadly attacks on Shia in Iraq were conducted before 2004, and AQ itself had sectarian blood on its hands.) Along with his wife, Zarqawi was finally killed in a daisy-cutter strike in a suburb of Baghdad in 2006.
Militants in FATA: The Band Wagon Effect?
Ever since ISIS proclaimed the caliphate in June 2014, it has been trying to attract Pakistani jihadi groups. One group that analysts anxiously watch is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). TTP is not a centralized militant group, but instead comprises a network of more than 42 smaller groups. Since its genesis in 2007, it has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across the country, including on schools, anti-polio workers, political leaders, military officials, and others. Some of these attacks did not bear the direct fingerprints of the TTP but instead were the handiwork of local militant groups. Nevertheless, the TTP claimed responsibility, and it used this to try to appeal to other anti-Pakistan militants and rally them to join a common struggle. In fact, the TTP was never a monolithic group, yet it acted as one because of its strong appeal to other local militant leaders and groups.
Initially, TTP’s Fazalullah faction, led by Mullah Fazalullah, tilted toward ISIS. In a 2014 statement addressing ISIS, TTP’s spokesperson said:
Oh our brothers, we are proud of you in your victories. We are with you in your happiness and your sorrow. In these troubled days, we call for your patience and stability, especially now that all your enemies are united against you. Please put all your rivalries behind you… All Muslims in the world have great expectations of you ... We are with you, we will provide you with Mujahideen [fighters] and with every possible support.12
To put things into context, the TTP’s brand name started suffering during 2014. The group began to splinter after the death of its head, Hakeemullah Mehsud, in a U.S. drone strike in December 2014. Earlier, the group was losing its appeal because of indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Pakistan, and it needed to reinvigorate itself. There was also considerable discord inside the group on whether or not to negotiate with the Pakistani government. Consequently, militants had starting leaving the TTP framework and subsequently formed splinter groups.13 Then, when ISIS had announced the formation of the caliphate, many TTP militants jumped on what they saw as a new bandwagon.
It was at that time that the TTP’s spokesman, the chiefs of Orakzai, Khyber, and Kurram tribal agencies, and the Peshawar and Hangu districts pledged unconditional allegiance to the caliph al-Baghdadi.14 As a result, they defected from the main TTP. (Several of these figures, along with other ISIS commanders, would later be killed in a drone strike in Nangarhar, Afghanistan.)1516 The TTP spokesperson who joined ISIS said:
I declare allegiance to the Caliph of Muslims, Amirul Momineen Abu Bakar al Baghdadi al Qarshi al Hussaini. I will listen and follow his every instruction whatever the situation may have been. This allegiance is neither from the TTP or its leader Ma ulvi Fazlullah. This is only from me and five leaders … I appeal to the Ameerul Momineen to accept my allegiance.17
With this, some TTP commanders defected and pledged allegiance to ISIS, officially becoming part of ISIS in Pakistan. ISIS now considers Pakistan as part of what it calls the “Khurassan Waliyat,” a broad region that includes Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. At the same time, some TTP commanders kept a distance from ISIS. One such set of people belongs to Jamaat al-Ahrar (JA), a splinter of the TTP. Led by Omar Khalid Khurasani, a former TTP commander,18 JA issued a reconciliatory statement toward ISIS without formally pledging allegiance to the caliphate, saying, “We respect them. They are our Mujahideen brothers. If they ask us for help, we will look into it and decide.”19 Ultimately, internal militant dynamics and JA’s own split with TTP led JA to endorse Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. That divergence may have been inevitable given the bad blood between JA and TTP, which had endorsed al-Baghdadi.
The Urban Characteristics
Despite the support for ISIS among some tribal leaders, it has been in Pakistan’s more settled areas where the impact of the caliphate has been most strongly felt. The first group to pledge allegiance to ISIS just after the announcement of the caliphate’s creation was Karachi-based Tehreek-e-Khilfat Pakistan (TKP). “From today,” the group’s spokesman said, “Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shall consider Tehreek-e-Khilafat and Jihad mujahideen fighters of Pakistan as one of the arrows among his arrows, which he has kept for his bow.”20 Little is known about TKP, other than it has a small network in metropolitan Karachi, it perpetrated one terror attack in Karachi, and it had once been part of TTP.
In late 2014, another urban group in Pakistan, Jundullah, met with an ISIS delegation and then pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. “They (Islamic State) are our brothers, whatever plan they have, we will support them,” the spokesman said.21 The founding members of Jundullah were mostly from the Pakistani Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, whose members, like many Jundullah members today, hail from educated and middle class backgrounds.22
These social characteristics – urban, degree-holders, middle class – are what increasingly define the individuals who are, on their own, pledging loyalty to ISIS. Lately, ISIS’s growth in Iraq, Syria, and Libya inspired many young men and women in Pakistan to travel to Syria to join ISIS, to pledge allegiance to Caliph al-Baghdadi, or to form small cells to conduct terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Strikingly, ISIS recruitment appears to be high in Pakistan’s well-off Punjab province as well as Karachi. ISIS literature widely available online has been effective in luring educated and affluent people into the fold, as evidenced by the propaganda recovered from the ISIS cells that have been thwarted in Karachi, Islamabad, and Sialkot. This stands in contrast to militant groups mentioned above, such as TTP, who operate in tribal areas where Internet penetration is low.
Aiming for Pakistani Militant Leadership
As a result of ISIS’s inroads in Pakistan, the country has quickly become an important front in the battle between ISIS and AQ for leadership of the global jihadi movement. As ISIS strives to establish itself in the Pakistani militant scene, its competition with AQ for “market share” is increasingly becoming a zero-sum competition—as, indeed, the shifting allegiances within Jundullah and TKP show. In fact, since the war in Syria erupted, many AQ fighters (most of whom were Arabs) have left Pakistan for the Middle East and joined ISIS. To them, joining the caliphate was a homecoming, and they might have found the Middle East more conducive to waging jihad than in Pakistan, where AQ has increasingly come under drone attacks.
Like ISIS, AQ has deep roots in Pakistan. Pakistan’s militant networks have long provided a safe haven for AQ. Osama bin Laden was killed there, and the core leadership of the AQ-central, headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, is thought to be there. Yet ISIS uses its former status as a chapter of AQ to claim that is the true heir of the original AQ and the true leader of global jihad.2324 Analysts do not dismiss the possibility that the two groups could join hands in the future to combine against a joint enemy. For now, however, the two groups are what terrorism analyst Michael Ryan has described as “tactical twins and strategic enemies.”25
AQ’s core leadership in South Asia has not endorsed ISIS’s call for a caliphate. Indeed, in 2014 al-Zawahiri renewed his allegiance oath to the Afghan Taliban’s head Mullah Omar as the caliph.26 Moreover, AQ announced its own ambitions on the Asian subcontinent with the formation of Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). In al-Zawahiri’s video message announcing AQIS, he described it in the following words:
This entity was not established today, but it is the fruit of a blessed effort for more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid.27
This group has been able to launch some high-profile, albeit unsuccessful, attacks in Pakistan, including the attempted hijacking of a Pakistan Navy ship.28 Al-Zawahiri seems determined to reinvigorate AQ and reverse its shrinking prestige in the era of ISIS, which since its rise has received the majority of international attention.
AQ has for years cultivated ties with Islamist militant groups throughout Pakistan. It formed a “nexus” with other militant groups such as Pakistani Taliban and local sectarian outfits.29 According to several analysts, while Pakistani Taliban provided the space or support in the tribal areas, AQ contributed the training and finances,30 and sectarian outfits supplied personnel. AQ, for instance, taught suicide bombing to Pakistani militants. AQ would not want those groups to fall into ISIS’s orbit.
Following the ouster of Taliban from Afghanistan, several AQ militants and their Pakistani or foreign allies who waged fights in South Asia set their sights on the Indian subcontinent as the core focus of their jihadist struggle.31 The most evident example of this was the formation of AQIS in September 2014.32
Al-Zawahiri now seems determined to expand from Pakistan into India and to drag Indian Muslims into Al-Qaeda’s fold. The AQIS chief made Asim Umar, a veteran jihadi of Indian origin, the Emir of AQ’s new chapter and tried to stoke the fires. He asked:
“Why is it that the Muslims of India are totally absent from the fields of jihad?” 33
“Rise! Awaken! Participate in this global jihad to give a final push to the collapsing edifice of America.”3435
The intensifying competition for jihadists’ hearts and minds between AQ and ISIS is forcing potential recruits to choose, and it is also one factor that is driving jihadist groups to expand. While both AQ and ISIS have global ambitions, they are practically constrained by where they are located. As of now, AQ’s core is still mainly in Pakistan, while ISIS’s core is in the Middle East. ISIS’s focus on the Middle East, as opposed to South Asia, is not lost on even those Pakistani militants who have joined the movement. The spokesman for the TKP, which joined ISIS, has said he hopes for the “expansion of Islamic State boundaries toward the sub-continent and Khurasan region.”36 Even though the allegiance of small groups such as the TKP to ISIS may not detract much from Al-Qaeda in the near term, it does represent a developing trend among Pakistan-based jihadi groups that could benefit ISIS on the subcontinent over time.
Because ISIS has emerged out of the militant Salafi school of thought, the growth of that school in Pakistan is likely partly responsible for the rise of ISIS there. A way to gauge that growth would be the proliferation of madrassas and other platforms espousing Salafi thought.37 This is not to say that the rise of ISIS has been caused directly by activity in those madrassas. But these institutions do propagate thinking and principles that militant groups such as ISIS can later exploit.
One reason Pakistan may be a fertile growth area for the ISIS caliphate is the rise of a similar school of thought, Ahl-e-Hadith.38 There has been more than a one hundred percent increase in Ahl-e-Hadith madrassas in Pakistan since the 1980s.39 In Pakistan, the top militant group adhering to the Ahl-e-Hadith school of thought is Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the notorious anti-India group that was responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008.40 While Ahl-e-Hadith is not theologically identical to Salafi Islam, the two movements share a lot of common ground.
Moreover, many Pakistanis who were guest workers in Arab Gulf countries adopted the Salafi brand of Islam, which is prevalent there. Take, for example, the family of Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino shooters. According to sources in Pakistan, where she studied, Malik’s family grew closer to hardline Islam during their time in Saudi Arabia, making her easy bait for ISIS.41 Obviously, not all Salafi Muslims adhere to ISIS’s agenda (Saudi Arabia has joined in the fight against ISIS), but Salafist ideology has clearly been a factor in recruitment and radicalization.
While ISIS may thus find sympathizers in Pakistan, shared ideology will not necessarily lead to collaboration between Pakistani militant groups and the caliphate. During the Afghan war in the 1980s, LeT maintained good relations with AQ on the basis of a common outlook and an anti-India and anti-Western agenda. After the death of Osama bin Laden, LeT’s leader led public prayers for him. Despite this, there are clear differences between the two groups over tactics and goals. While al-Qaeda has attacked Pakistan, LeT has not hitherto used violence in Pakistan. Some splinter groups have perpetrated acts of terrorism, but overall LeT high command and its base has so far been focused on inflicting terrorist attacks in India. Moreover, Bin Laden, according to documents captured from his compound, was wary of relations with LeT because of the latter’s close ties with the Pakistani security apparatus.42 The same could be a dividing point in the ISIS-LeT relations. Even now, the Pakistani state’s response toward the two seems different. While the Pakistani security services have been blamed for ignoring or even supporting the LeT, the government in Islamabad has vowed not to allow the “shadow of Daesh” in Pakistan.43 Thus, it is difficult to say if the LeT will join hands with ISIS or not.
Still, just as AQ fighters have slipped into ISIS, LeT members have also become involved with ISIS. The ISIS cell that Pakistani officials uncovered in late December 2015 in Punjab included former workers of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which the U.S. Treasury Department considers a charity front for LeT. In the future, it is possible that LeT’s relations with the Pakistani security apparatus could deteriorate and the group could go its own way. If this trend continues, it may even force LeT members to revisit their stance on whether or not to conduct terrorism inside Pakistan. If the past is any prologue, then the government's public action against ISIS-inspired LeT members may even galvanize additional LeT members to fight against the Pakistani state, including by joining a globally prominent and ideologically like-minded organization such as ISIS. (As one example of this dynamic, a great number of militant Deobandi outfits rallied to form Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in December 2007 after the military crackdown on the Red Mosque in July of that year.)44
ISIS has also found support in Pakistan because it shares a virulent hatred of Shia with several Pakistani militant groups. The proscribed sectarian terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), for example, distributed pamphlets in 2011, saying:
All Shias are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of [this] unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure, and the Shias have no right to be here……We will make Pakistan their graveyard—their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers.45
LeJ’s leader, Malik Ishaq, who confessed in court to having killed dozens of Shia, was himself killed in an encounter after reports emerged that he might have joined ISIS.46 Ishaq had been in police custody for more than 10 years and was charged in 100 cases of murder and terrorism.47 Similar sectarian hatreds in Iraq and Syria have provided fertile ground for ISIS’s resurgence there. In the future, the leading Sunni extremist outfits in Pakistan (including anti-Shia groups such as LeJ and anti-state insurgent groups such as the TTP) may also create fertile ground for ISIS’s expansion in South Asia.
Since the early 1980s, Pakistan has been a playing field for violent sectarian groups, mostly anti-Shia and anti-Barelvi sects of Islam. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data, since 1989 there have been 3,016 incidents of sectarian violence in Pakistan, mostly by militant Deobandi-Sunni outfits against Shias or Sunni-Barelvis, in which 5,227 people lost their lives and 9,903 received injuries.48 Some of the hostilities in South Asia have been spillover from the ongoing “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Sectarianism in Pakistan may provide an environment for ISIS to spread its tentacles. The decision of Jundullah to join ISIS may well have been because of ISIS’s anti-Shia activities. Likewise, the deeply anti-Shia LeJ might also be ripe for joining ISIS. Despite having slight ideological differences with ISIS, LeJ’s adherence to the Deobandi movement within Islam means that ISIS and LeJ may find common ground in their anti-Shia sectarianism.
The top anti-Pakistan militant group, TTP, is also a deeply sectarian outfit, with several of its top members responsible for killing Shia. Some of TTP’s sub-groups based in different tribal agencies are headed by individuals who were once affiliated with the LeJ. For example, the now deceased founder of TTP’s chapter responsible for the attack on school children in December 2014 in Peshawar and for another attack on a university in January 2016 was once an adherent of LeJ.49
In 2014, the government of western Balochistan province (which borders Iran) wrote to the federal government in Islamabad that ISIS has offered “some elements of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wai Jamat (another extremist outfit) to join hands in Pakistan.” They reportedly formed “a ten-member Strategic Planning Wing” that aimed to carry out attacks against law-enforcement agencies.50 The LeJ was already responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against Shia Hazaras in Balochistan; in 2013, more than 100 people died in one such attack.51
There is a distinct likelihood that the nascent ISIS recruitment in Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to increase, especially by recruiting Sunnis in Shia-populated areas. The caliphate ISIS has established may eventually lure more experienced jihadis into its fold as well. Al-Qaeda and its ally TTP are currently holding little or no territory in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, ISIS claims to be the torch-bearer of global jihad and controls territory in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere (even though its actual holdings may, in fact, be shrinking.) This gives the ISIS brand considerable prestige in South Asia.
ISIS’s prospects in Pakistan depend on how one views the goals of ISIS. If the intent is to create a state, as it did in Iraq and Syria, then this is likely to be difficult for ISIS to do in Pakistan. For the last 13 years, Islamabad has responded harshly to those elements of the Islamist insurgency inside its borders that have directly threatened the Pakistani state. In some ways, what ISIS achieved in Iraq and Syria is similar to what the TTP achieved in parts of FATA, where there has been an administrative vacuum. For quite some time, the TTP had its emirate in North Waziristan. But this emirate was not allowed to show its flag in Pakistan’s heartland. Pakistan’s government launched an operation in Swat, a quasi-tribal administration, after militants from there tried to expand their insurgency into settled areas. The government is unlikely to accept a similar effort by ISIS.
If ISIS focuses on less populated areas, it is bound to be met with American drones strikes. The U.S. generally targets foreign fighters, not the local TTP insurgents.52 The drones have been able to cause more damage to AQ’s leadership than any other available means, and ISIS would face the same risks. Moreover, the U.S. recently declared ISIS-K (Khurasan) a terrorist outfit, and several of ISIS-K’s Pakistani leaders have been killed in drone attacks. Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, a former Guantanamo detainee and the Emir of Khurasan Waliyat, was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan. Shahidullah Shahid, the former spokesperson of TTP (Fazaullah group), lost his life alongside other recent joiners from the TTP in Afghanistan.
A third obstacle is the lack of leadership. ISIS has not been able to find charismatic leadership in South Asia to lure in fresh recruits. Without an able and experienced leadership, ISIS in Pakistan may not be able to take off and establish its rule over territory, as it did in the Middle East.
Finally, unlike in Syria-Iraq, ISIS may find it hard to inspire foreigners to fight in Pakistan. Many foreign militants have left Pakistan to escape belated military onslaught or to participate in battles in the Middle East.53 This may prove to be a constraint if ISIS’s plans for expansion require recruiting in Pakistan from the available pool of foreign Islamist insurgents.
While these obstacles are considerable, ISIS also has some openings in Pakistan that it can exploit. The focus now is on tribal areas as a likely theater for ISIS expansion, but the real threat may come from ISIS luring individuals to its ideology in urban areas. The group’s penetration among educated individuals in urban areas around the globe cannot be denied. In addition, ISIS’s anti-Shia ideology and tactics could be a powerful lure for jihadis in Pakistan. Recruiting among the anti-Shia LeJ and Ahl-e-Hadith LeT may be the best opportunities for ISIS to widen its Pakistani network, particularly in Punjab. In the end, while ISIS may find it hard to extend its control to Pakistan, it may be able to cobble together enough adherents—fighters and polemicists—to cause turmoil in Pakistan for years to come.