Reaping the whirlwind

is-flag-615x3002xThe targets may be different but the perpetrators of the two deadly attacks carried out in Balochistan in the space of one month are the same. The responsibility of the carnage at the shrine in Khuzdar as well as the slaughter of police cadets in Quetta have been claimed by the militant Islamic State group and its affiliates.

In August this year, militants wiped out almost an entire generation of senior lawyers in the province in a suicide bomb attack inside a hospital. The restive province seems to have become the main battleground of the militants. Some recent sectarian terrorist attacks in upper Sindh have also been traced to militant groups based in Balochistan.

It is not for the first time that a terrorist attack in Pakistan has carried the IS footprint. Last year’s bus massacre of over 40 members of the Ismaili community in Karachi was among the most gruesome of its kind. There have also been reports of security agencies busting militant cells affiliated with the group in other parts of the country. But it is Balochistan which is in the cross hairs.

What is more troubling is the emerging nexus between local sectarian outfits and the lethal global jihadi group. We, however, are still in a state of denial about the looming threat. IS is not present in Pakistan; the idea is just a part of our enemies’ conspiracy to isolate the country — this is the patent response by government officials after every attack.

It may be true that the Middle Eastern jihadi group does not have a formal organisational structure in Pakistan, but over the past years it has found allies among Sunni extremist groups such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) and some splinter factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. What has brought them together is the strong anti-Shia bent of their jihadist ideology.

Most of these local militant groups were earlier affiliated with Al Qaeda which has lost its appeal after losing ground in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Afghanistan. The spectacular advances of IS and its territorial control in Iraq and Syria have now made it much more attractive to militants in search of a new and more radical identity.

Although IS has now lost much of the territory under its control and is on the retreat in the Middle East, it has maintained links with its allies in Pakistan. These groups operate more like a franchise than a formal centralised structure. Hence it is not surprising that the pictures of the Quetta police academy attackers were posted on the group’s official website hours after the incident.

Some radicalised, educated young Pakistanis, influenced by its powerful online propaganda, have also pledged allegiance to IS. Quite a few were involved in attacks in Karachi and have recently been convicted by military courts. But some of these cells are still actively forming a nexus with sectarian groups, raising fears of continuing terrorist attacks across the country despite crackdowns by law-enforcement agencies. The breakdown of governance and an increasingly ineffective policing system, especially in Karachi, provide space for such groups.

However, it is the rise of sectarian militancy in Balochistan over the last few years that has provided a foothold for IS in the province. A major factor in the ascent of violent sectarian outfits is the mushrooming of foreign-funded radical madressahs in the province. Seen to be primarily financed by Gulf donors, they are largely concentrated in Mastung and Khuzdar districts, the latter being the site of the latest attack on a remote shrine.

While travelling on the RCD highway some 15 years ago, I remember seeing madressahs dotting the area where no other amenities were available. The administration either approved of them or looked the other way, boosting foreign-funded Sunni radicalisation. There is also strong evidence of a nexus between sectarian groups and the militias allegedly sponsored by the intelligence agencies to counter Baloch separatists. Such tacit support has allowed the militants to spread their tentacles.

Over the years Mastung has emerged as the main centre of sectarian militancy. There is still a madressah complex set up by anti-Shia groups operating in the region. It is serving as one of the bastions of religious extremism in the province. Dawood Badani, a relative of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was responsible for the first major sectarian terrorist attack on an imambargah in Quetta in 2004.

The trail of most of the attacks on Hazara Shias in Quetta that have claimed hundreds of innocent lives over the last decade leads to this district. Many top LJ leaders have reportedly been killed in the latest crackdown by security agencies, but the recent surge in violence indicates that sectarian networks are still capable of launching high-profile terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Pakistani sectarian militants have also found sanctuaries in Afghanistan, allowing them to move about freely on both sides of the border and making it much harder for Pakistani law-enforcement agencies to track them down.

Just a few months ago, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman declared that IS plans to expand into the country had been thwarted. But the group’s apparent involvement in the latest attacks shows that it has gained a foothold in the region despite the crackdown.

It is not just for publicity’s sake that the banner of IS is being used by various factions of the LJ; there is strong evidence of organizational links between them. The latest wave of terrorist attacks in Balochistan appears to be part of the strategy to hit soft targets as IS suffers huge setbacks in its strongholds in the Middle East.

Surely, one must not exaggerate the IS threat, but it is also unwise to underestimate the growing influence of the group, especially given the surge in sectarian militancy and the weakened authority of the state. We are reaping the whirlwind of our misplaced policies. (First published in Dawn)

By Zahid Hussain

THE PASHTUN TIMES

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