Written by Muhammad Suleman.
Islamic State’s fighters are near to total defeat in Syria and Iraq as they have lost first Mosul – Islamic State’s former de facto capital in July this year – and now Raqqa. Just three years back in 2014, the ISIS supreme leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi emerged at the pulpit of the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul and delivered a sermon to his followers as the new caliph. Upon this, up to 30,000 Jihadists from all over the world travelled to Syria to join IS. During ISIS’ occupation of Mosul, the city remained a significant pillar of the group’s organizational structure and therefore remained strategically vital.
Since the initiation of war by US and Russian led coalition forces against Daesh militants, the terrorist organization has lost a major part of its territory and is struggling to defend the remaining few areas of its caliphate. Moreover, it has lost more than sixty thousand militants including 25,000 foreign fighters since 2014. With the liberation of Mosul, the dream of IS to build an actual ‘Islamic state’ is being decimated. Having said that, the remnants may flee to remote areas to regroup. The chances of its growing back cannot be ruled out.
For the last few years, the ISIS has been actively expanding its sphere of influence in Pakistan, mainly in vulnerable areas like FATA and the neglected areas of Balochistan and Sindh. ISIS militants abducted two Chinese nationals from Quetta. In response, the law enforcement agencies raided the treacherous mountains of Mastung, a far flung area of Balochistan, and killed 15 ISIS militants, claiming the dismantling of Daesh headquarters in Pakistan.
The surviving militants are likely to move toward unstable areas and the so-called declared wilayas (provinces) so that they could regroup safely. Recently, the ISIS-Khurasan, which predominantly comprises local militants, has not only intensified its activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also expanded its area of influence into the hinterlands of both countries. Although there are no signs of the presence of Arab fighters in the area under the banner of Daesh, this may change. If this happens, there will be new challenges to the already unstable security environment in war-torn countries.
During last three years, the ISIS has trained many foreign fighters. It is likely that the surviving personnel will emerge elsewhere. Many ISIS militants are experts in employing cutting-edge war machinery, sophisticated tactics on social media to propagate their agenda, and creating financial resources to run the group. ISIS may also employ a ‘virtual’ caliphate system. For this purpose, the group has connected its followers with one another through the internet. The multilingual electronic magazine of ISIS named ‘Rumiyah’, is widely circulated on the internet and is considered to have stimulated its sympathizers, along with elaborating the methods of carrying out attacks to create panic and terror.
The Government of Pakistan still denies the presence of the ISIS-Khurasan in the country. Contrary to this, some government officials have admitted that many people from Pakistan have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. In January 2016, Rana Sanaullah, the Law Minister of Punjab, said that about 100 people had left Pakistan for Syria to join ISIS. At domestic level, some individuals have either been killed or apprehended by the law enforcement agencies. One potent faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, has pledged allegiance to ISIS in bolstering the ISIS-Khurasan chapter. Moreover, some other Pakistani militant organizations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s Al-Alami (LeJA), Tehreek-e-Khilafat (a Karachi based organization), and Jundullah have also pledged their allegiance to ISIS. The participation of some Pakistani extremist women is yet another stark reality. In this context, the Al-Zikra Academy Network, Karachi, female students of Jamia-e-Hafsa, Islamabad, and the Bushra Nework, Lahore, are the centers believed to be involved in fund raising, recruitment and the propagation of ideology. The inclination of local extremist groups toward ISIS is the major challenge for peace and security of Pakistan.
For the last few years, the ISIS has been actively expanding its sphere of influence in Pakistan, mainly in vulnerable areas like FATA and the neglected areas of Balochistan and Sindh. With the coordination of local organizations such as LeJA, Jamat-ul-Ahrar etc. the group has conducted deadly terrorist attacks across the country, including the attack on the Sehwan Sharif shrine, the Police Academy Quetta and the convoy of Senate’s Deputy Chairman Abdul Ghafoor Haideri. A few months back, ISIS militants abducted two Chinese nationals from Quetta. In response, the law enforcement agencies raided the treacherous mountains of Mastung, a far flung area of Balochistan, and killed 15 ISIS militants, claiming the dismantling of Daesh headquarters in Pakistan. Moreover, in July 2017, the Pakistan army started ‘Operation Khyber-4’ in Rajgal Valley of Khyber Agency to stop Daesh making inroads into areas bordering Afghanistan
The possibility of the return of Pakistani ISIS fighters to their homeland after their defeat in their strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, presents serious challenges to Pakistan; already marred by radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism. The group has also succeeded in attracting support from the urban population. Recently, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Sindh revealed that support for extremism and terrorism was shifting from madaris to universities. The teaching faculty as well as the students in some universities have also been reported to be involved in preaching Jihadi ideology, imparting training on manufacturing bombs, disseminating propaganda literature, recruiting people and arranging financial resources.
At this juncture, the success of IS in bolstering its organization in Pakistan would exacerbate the security environment in the country that is already contaminated with religious extremism. In this scenario, the country needs to take effective and proactive counter-terrorism steps to deny the group any space in occupying the possible vulnerable spaces in physical as well as ideological domain across the country.
Muhammad Suleman is a Research Associate at the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (Islamabad), Pakistan. He holds master degree in Strategic Studies from National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad and a MPhil degree in Political Science from International Islamic University, Islamabad. He can be reached at email@example.com and he tweets @M_S_Shahid. Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of Defense/Operation Inherent Resolve.