As Pakistan’s caretaker government takes over from the previous government under Shahbaz Sharif, security challenges paint a gloomy picture for the country.
Last year saw the highest number of terror incidents in Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) and Baloch separatists being the main outfits responsible for the attacks. The return of the Afghan Taliban to power has invigorated many terror groups operating in and out of Afghanistan. The past two years have seen the security situation deteriorate in Pakistan; there is irrefutable evidence to suggest that Pakistan and the Taliban have developed differences over addressing the issue of TTP, with the latter continuing to aid and abet TTP and other groups like ETIM, IMU and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The weapons cache left by the US-led forces withdrawal from Afghanistan is now critical, helping to sustain the insurgency in Pakistan. Irrespective of any government in power, grim security and economic challenges continue to prevail. The insurgent groups are showing no signs of de-escalating. Amidst this quagmire, it is important to highlight the role of ISKP and what we can expect from competition between Deoband and Salafi outfits.
Deteriorating situation in KP
On July 23, 2023, TTP announced that a militant group led by Salahuddin Ayubi joined the TTP from the Kohat district. It is the 40th merger since 2020. Over this period, TTP has continued its upward trajectory of violence and killings across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and some parts of Balochistan with significant Pashtun populations like Zhob. There is a sense that while these mergers do not carry much-projected firepower and jihad brand value, the total represents a worrying sign for the state. The affinity to pick up arms against the state is on the rise. TTP continues to venture into districts like Mardan, DI Khan and Lakki Marwat, which were never its traditional strongholds.
Moreover, the KPK police seem to be at the forefront of this war; Police and FC crops have become the primary targets. KPK Police is ill-equipped and demoralised to fight the better-equipped TTP fighters to a great extent, given the continuous waves of attack. Recently, the capital police of Peshawar asked police officers not to be in uniform while commuting to the office and to offer prayers at home, amongst other SOPs.
Unlike in the past, the religious seminaries and clerics do not enjoy the same clout they had on these terrorist groups. TTP and ISKP have vehemently targeted and opposed clerics and religious scholars. Given the financial situation Pakistan finds itself in, the state response is inadequate and sometimes found wanting according to the severity of the threat posed.
While the army is poised to take on the militancy, it is the FC corps and police that are now facing the brunt of these attacks. There is an overall sense of instability and chaos in the country. Pakistan has tried to utilise the help of the Taliban to ward off the massive participation of Afghan fighters from joining TTP. The recent fatwa decree by the Institute of Islamic Jurisprudence is yet to bear its true effects. The fatwa has no specific mention of TTP. The fatwa calls for Taliban fighters to do jihad outside Afghanistan, but fails to mention foreign groups like TTP and AQ from jihad.
TTP also tried to distance itself from the accusations levelled against it of having Afghan fighters in its ranks: “TTP considers the stability of the Islamic Emirate as its prime Islamic duty. In the same context, the movement, in the past, has twice issued declarations urging the Afghan Mujahideen not to join the jihad in Pakistan,” the statement reads. The decree by the Taliban highlights the willingness of the Afghan Taliban to address Islamabad’s request to clamp down on TTP and TTP’s inclination to oblige and acknowledge the decree to some extent, given its proximity to the Taliban. This fatwa also underlines the linkages and influence that Pakistan continues to enjoy within the Taliban hierarchy.
Bajaur attack and undaunted ISKP
While the majority of security challenges are attributed to TTP, ISKP poses a significant threat. Last month, an ISKP suicide bomber rocked a political gathering of JUI-F in Bajaur district. ISKP- JUI-F have no love lost for each other; their hatred goes back to the inception of ISKP in Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, the first emir of ISKP, saw JUI-F in light of the Islamic State’s takfeeri ideology. ISKP propaganda mentions JUF-I’s support for democracy and its support for Afghan Taliban as primary causes for obligatory reasons for war against JUI-F. What separates ISKP from TTP is the organisation’s Salafist ideology. ISKP follows Salafism and opposes any other form of Sunni Islam like Deoband or Barelvi. Salafist Islam is much more radical in its thought and less accommodating of the other Sunni sects of Islam prevalent in Pakistan (Hanafi Islam- Deobandi and Barelvi).
ISKP has issued a series of fatwas against Deoband, Barelvi and Sufist ideas of Islam in Pakistan. It earlier warned religious parties like Jamaat e Islami and JUI-F due to their linkages to Deoband Islam. In May, Jamaat e Islami chief Siraj-ul-Haq was attacked in Zhob. Many JUI-F cadres have faced similar attacks, like Mufti Shafiullah and Mufti Bashir, who incited a mob against Bilal Bajauri, an ISKP member, last year.
During the early 1980s, there was much foreign funding for madrassa and masjid in Bajaur. Bajaur was at the forefront of Afghan Jihad, and it had seen a rise of Salafism in nearby areas. Salafists dominated the Kunar province. Shaikh Jameel ur Rehman, a.k.a. Mulawi Hussain, was a prominent Salafi leader. Salafists have always enjoyed a certain degree of support in areas like Nangarhar, Kabul and Kunar, considered ideological strongholds.
However, Bajaur, adjacent to Kunar, has always been pro-Taliban. Bajuar and Orakzai had many Salafists, but due to the organisational structure of the TTP, the issue never became a problem. Afghan Salafists and members of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) continued to have close relations with TTP’s orakzai head, Hafiz Saeed Khan, who later joined ISKP due to anti-Fazl sentiment. TTP tried reprimanding him [Hafiz Saeed Khan] for targeting JUI-F leaders. However, as Hafiz Saeed Khan joined ISKP with other fellow Salafist members within TTP, nothing came of it. The emergence of TTP changed the picture for the Salafist leaders in the region. Another point of contention became supporting the Taliban in Bajaur; despite ISKP’s emergence in 2014, TTP and the Taliban enjoyed popular support in Bajaur and among JUI-F members.
Terrorist and extremist terrain in Pakistan is classified based on groups with Sectarian leanings, India-oriented groups, and pro- and Anti-state groups. TTP and Baloch groups are anti-state insurgents, while LEJ, SSP and AWSJ are predominantly actors in sectarian extremism.
The emergence of ISKP tends to disrupt this jigsaw puzzle by the Pakistan Army. ISKP is a Salafi-Jihadist organisation founded by TTP, AQ and Taliban fighters who defected or were poached by the Islamic State. ISKP is the only actor in this spectrum which has the ability/flexibility to incorporate these various classified groups just as TTP but with TTP’s new operational policy in place, ISKP is better poised; for example, many operatives from TTP, LeT, and sectarian groups like SSP have gravitated towards Islamic State’s Salafist ideology, especially its ideas of takfeeri ideology, thus making it a disruptive actor in the overall spectrum.
ISKP differs in its objectives and ideology from other groups in Pakistan, aiming to overthrow the Islamic Republic and establish a transnational caliphate. It utilises sectarian violence to propagate its agenda in Pakistan. Despite the decrease in attacks by ISKP in Pakistan, it remains a threat. In June, ISKP carried out a series of killings of Barelvi scholars in Peshawar and Bajaur. They aim to carry out attacks against religious parties, pro-government scholars and sectarian violence against Shia and Barelvis. They are yet to carry out attacks against the security forces like TTP. ISKP tends to prioritise suicide attacks on religious sites/leaders. The arrest made by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Punjab in July and August in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan and Gujranwala showcases the capability of the Islamic state to extend its recruitment beyond KPK and also the potential to incorporate female operatives/sympathisers.
ISKP also relies on its propaganda to capture minds using social media activities. ISKP’s Al-Azaim media recently released a video to criticise JUI-F and made some scathing remarks against TTP. ISKP’s extensive propaganda is focused on discrediting the Pakistani government and its civil society. Despite the enduring challenge, the Pakistani government has succeeded in denting the growing network of ISKP in Punjab. However, the proliferation of the Salafist ideology of ISKP in Kashmir-oriented groups like Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar e Tayyiba (LeT) is a looming threat. Both JeM and LeT, which were main contributors to Jihad in Kashmir, are now witnessing an operational decline, and there is a potential for members of these groups to galvanise and join ISKP. The resurgence of TTP and pressure put forth by the Taliban means that they are now facing operational constraints and have accelerated their propaganda machinery. ISKP is recouping and making inroads in Pakistan’s Jihadi landscape; it needs to be monitored before the ISKP runs wild in Pakistan.