Recent reports from Pakistani cities of ISIS insignia-laden paraphernalia, graffiti, and even recruiters have raised alarm bells and growing concern that the radical pseudo-state may be reaching its tentacles across Asia and into the subcontinent. Media outlets – both Pakistani and international – have highlighted and debated what appears to be a growing threat to a country that has seen more than its fair share of trouble with extremism and violence.
The pledging of loyalty to ISIS by up to six Pakistani Taliban (TTP) factions is of particular concern, and has led to alarming (and sometimes inaccurate) headlines that would lead the reader to believe that the so-called Islamic State has secured the support of Pakistan’s most lethal anti-state militant group. While it is true that the potential spread of ISIS into South Asia should be of concern to security officials, these developments must be examined with clear eyes and in context. At the moment, there is little evidence of any extensive ISIS infrastructure in the region – even the pamphlets recovered in South Waziristan were crude and hand-drawn, diverging sharply from the slick ISIS propaganda western audiences have grown accustomed to. The odds that the type of blitzkrieg expansion by the so-called Islamic State seen in the deserts of Syria and Iraq could happen anytime soon in Pakistan are miniscule, and the rise in ISIS-related imagery speaks more to recent events in Pakistan than those in Raqqa, the “capital” of the so-called Islamic State.
The Pakistani Taliban is as divided as it has ever been in its seven years of existence, largely over questions of leadership following the death of Hakimullah Mehsud by way of an American drone strike in November, 2013. The selection of Maulana Fazlullah, perhaps best known as the man behind the attempted assassination of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, led to a mass defection of Mehsud tribesmen, angered that one of their own was not chosen to lead the umbrella group, and the formation of a separate wing under the leadership of Khalid Mehsud. The TTP has continued to splinter in the wake of Zarb-e-Azb, a major Pakistani military offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan. As Declan Walsh of The New York Times notes, although the pledging of loyalty to ISIS by relatively minor former-TTP elements means little in terms of tactical coordination, “the ISIS brand offers them…an aid to fundraising and recruiting, a possible advantage over rival factions and, most powerfully, a new template for waging jihad.”
This “new template” includes the mastering of social media platforms to attract new recruits and gain greater international publicity. As the TTP faces stiff resistance and factionalism, a turn toward this latest brand of jihad can be seen as a way to register frustration and protest against the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, whom the TTP officially recognizes as the one true “amir-ul-momineen,” or “leader of the faithful.” Omar has had next to no public presence since fleeing from Afghanistan in the wake of the American invasion, and some may feel as though a change of course is needed in order to reinvigorate the movement. On the other hand, however, TTP factions face a significant risk in severing ties with the Afghan Taliban, from whom they gain legitimacy by their association with the fight against the Soviets and the five-year period in which the Afghan Taliban had declared an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996 to 2001).
A Generational Struggle
These political divisions between militant groups in Pakistan is illustrative of a larger schism between the older generation of jihadists – such as the Taliban and their allies, Al-Qaeda – and the PR-savvy generation of ISIS. This divide is about more than the use of social media, however, and likely has less to do with the brutal tactics of the so-called Islamic State than some have indicated. It is, rather, about who has the legitimate claim of leadership over an international jihadist movement. This was recently illustrated by a video of a high-ranking Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official, Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, who addressed these claims of authority directly in response to a November 13th speech by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. In this speech, Baghdadi accepted pledges of loyalty from jihadists from across the Middle East and claimed to nullify the leadership rights of all other jihadist networks (i.e. Al Qaeda). Nadhari bluntly rejected Baghdadi’s assertions, arguing that they only served to divide the Muslim community. In the video, Nadhari claimed to share ISIS’ goal of establishing a Caliphate, but argued that the only legitimate leaders of such a movement were Mullah Omar and Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda.
While it is vital to understand the spread of ISIS into Pakistan in terms of local conditions, it is also important to note its significance to a larger struggle for legitimacy within the jihadist community between established networks, led by Al-Qaeda, and the surging self-proclaimed Islamic State. Should ISIS continue its global momentum, it appears likely that increasing numbers of groups not only in Pakistan, but around the world, will look to establish linkages or, at a minimum, borrow its brand, to fit their own needs – much as was done with Al-Qaeda in the past.
What this Means for Pakistan
In the short term, the ISIS strategy of taking and holding territory, as in Syria and Iraq, is highly unlikely to be replicated in the face of Pakistan’s army – even in the remote autonomous tribal areas. That does not mean, however, that other aspects of the ISIS model do not pose significant risks to Pakistan. These include a potential increase in attacks against Pakistan’s minority Shia and Christian communities, which already occur at a tragically high frequency. There are reports, for instance, that ISIS has established contacts with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, perhaps Pakistan’s most viciously anti-Shia militant outfit. Attacks along sectarian lines play an especially destabilizing role, pitting communities against each other and creating lasting divisions that can take generations to heal. Pakistan, which has long struggled with sectarian violence, has seen a startling uptick in attacks on religious minorities over the past few years, although there has been a modest downturn in 2014.
More broadly, a rejuvenated climate of militancy poses a significant risk to a country that has long struggled to tackle a persistent security crisis. While Pakistan’s civilian government has had some notable political achievements of late, the status quo of economic and institutional stagnation has remained across much of the country, particularly in its restive western provinces. Of particular concern is ongoing instability in Baluchistan and the failed political integration of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. These persistent challenges require lasting political solutions – including concessions by the central government to address the concerns of minorities and institute methods of accountability to reduce abuses of power and corruption. Continued ineffective governance will only breed continued instability, making the region a more attractive destination for militants.
Finally, Afghan stability in the wake of the withdrawal of most international forces by the end of this month is another vital factor in considering the potential of ISIS to extend its reach into South Asia. Power vacuums in Afghanistan may prove to be attractive targets for ISIS militants, as they have been over the last several decades for a myriad of jihadist groups. Alternatively, existing Afghan militant organizations may seek to bolster their standing and attract new recruits by seeking affiliation with the ISIS brand.
In the past, Pakistan’s fears of an Indian-allied Afghan government have led it to support proxy forces, including the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, in an effort to exert influence in Kabul. This policy, dating back to the Soviet Invasion of 1979, has had the disastrous consequence of creating safe havens for Islamic militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. With the departure of President Karzai, there are renewed hopes for a more productive relationship between the two countries, but it will take more than a few meetings to undo a history of mistrust – and even longer to repair the damage done by promoting jihad as a tool of foreign policy.
Is Pakistan the next Syria or Iraq? Almost certainly not. But the rise of ISIS is yet another potent reminder of the risks the country faces at the hands of the militancy it helped