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Spectre of black flag haunts neighbours

Arman Khan
ISIS have gained territory, members and influence at the expense of weaker domestic Taliban groups either side of the border in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with one member of the militant group claiming there…
28.05.2015  |  Peshawar

A pamphlet circulated by ISIS affiliates in Urdu claimed responsibility for the Karachi bus attack that killed 35 Shia Ismailis earlier this month.

The decimation of Pakistani-based Taliban networks presents ISIS with a pool of disenchanted recruits in Pakistan, say observers, allowing the world's largest terrorist network to cement itself in border regions and cities across the country. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for a spate of deadly attacks since December last year in Pakistan, including an assault on a bus in Karachi, in which gunmen opened fire on Shi'a Ismaili passengers, killing 43 people, including women and children, earlier this month.

"Thanks be to Allah, 43 apostates were killed and around 30 were wounded in an attack carried out by Islamic State soldiers on a bus transporting Shia Ismaili infidels in the city of Karachi," the Islamic State said in a statement that was shared by Isis-affiliated Twitter accounts in Pakistan.

Taliban fighters defect to ISIS

The Iraq and Syria-based organisation's inroads into Pakistan have been concurrent with the restructuring of domestic Taliban groups such as Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). “In Karachi, in the Pak-Afghan border areas as well as in Baluchistan, Lahore and in Peshawar many local Taliban commanders have joined ISIS and are now their active members,” says Aqeel Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based journalist and author of a book on the Taliban. “Recent attacks were carried out by militants who have differences with the Taliban,” says Yousafzai – mainly fighters who opposed the Taliban factions negotiating peace with the Afghan and Pakistani governments in 2013-2014. Yousafzai adds that many TTP commanders have defected to ISIS; TTP spokesman Shahid Ullah Shaid, for example, announced he was joining ISIS, with a cohort of fellow militants, in a video release last year.

Peshawar school attack

According to sources close to the Pakistani intelligence services, the December 16 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 150 students and staff were killed, may be the work of ISIS affiliates. A former high-ranking TTP Frontier Region Commander, Umar Mansoor, allegedly planned the attack together with ISIS regional leaders at a meeting in Peshawar late last year. ISIS had apparently called on local militants to prove their worth “by slaughtering” for ISIS.

ISIS' growth in the region mirrors the decline of other similar groups. Many militant networks sheltering in border areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border were weakened by the Pakistan Army's Zarb-e Azb operation last year in Waziristan, as well as by repeated US drone attacks. In the last two years alone, four Haqqani network leaders have been killed, including the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the organisation's head. The Haqqani network has since pledged its allegiance to ISIS and a journalist living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, who for security reasons preferred to remain anonymous, told Afghanistan Today that “IS has established many centers in Pakistani Tribal areas,” including four in Durrani, Korat, Chinark and Mundan, all former Haqqani network strongholds.

10,000 ISIS members in border areas

A member of an ISIS group in Dara Adam Khel told Afghanistan Today that ISIS has more than 10,000 members just in the border areas. Many have defected from Al-Qaida. “All the Al-Qaida members have joined IS groups and are working in the Pak-Afghan border areas to strengthen their position and are ready for the battle with both Pakistan and Afghanistan to promote our cause of spreading the law of Islam in the regions”, said the ISIS fighter.

Analysts say the increased presence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan of ISIS-affiliated groups is a natural expansion and is part of the group's aggressive cross-border campaign to establish membership in areas with low state capacity. The Islamic State is taking advantage of divisions among local Taliban factions to recruit members. The group has claimed responsibility for a spate of recent attacks in Afghanistan, including a suicide attack that killed 35 in Jalalabad last month, which the Afghan Taliban condemned. An earlier attack on a football field was also condemned by the Taliban, although the now ISIS-affiliated Haqqani network claimed responsibility.

New militants in northeast Afghanistan

Mohammad Omer Safai, the provincial governor of Kunduz, has said ISIS could be behind the conflict currently destabilising his province. Fighters carrying both the Taliban’s white and ISIS’ black flags have been reported during recent clashes in Gulltapa and other areas in Kunduz province. The residents of Kunduz and Badakhshan have spotted foreign fighters from Tajikistan, Chechnya, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in both provinces. In one Kunduz district, residents claim ISIS are now the dominant anti-government force, not the Taliban. “Instead of the white flag of the Taliban, they raised a black one,” an eyewitness at a battle between Afghan forces and insurgents two months ago told Afghanistan Today. “Instead of honouring [Taliban commander] Mullah Omar, they were cursing him,” said the resident.

Addressing Afghan senators on May 5, national security advisor Hanif Atmar listed the terrorist groups keen on destabilizing the north and said Afghanistan is a crossroads for expanding regional militant Islamic groups: "The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) wants to reach China from the North, Jamaat Ansarullah is vying to reach Tajikistan, The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is looking to reach the central Asian states and Lashkar-e-Taiba is working on reaching Kashmir via the provinces of Nuristan and Kunar in Afghanistan.”

Experts say the timing of the the Jalalabad attack in April and the Peshawar Army Public School attack in December last year could also be a coordinated ISIS response to attempted rapprochements between Kabul and Islamabad. Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif was on a visit to Kabul when the Army Public School was attacked in Peshawar while Afghan Army Chief General Sheer Muhammad Karimi was a guest at a military parade in Pakistan when ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in Jalalabad. Taliban expert Aqeel Yousafzai says both attacks could have been attempts to thwart reconciliation and closer security cooperation between the two neighbours.

Transboundary threat

The Afghan and Pakistani governments' recent attempt to heal years of recriminations and cross-border skirmishes by signing a bilateral security agreement to share intelligence and jointly fight terrorism could be a response to the threat ISIS poses in the region. Both countries have become key territories in a transboundary battle for hearts and minds between Al-Qaida and ISIS.

"The more international linkages an organization has, the more it will be considered powerful. Presently, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are contesting each other in this race of having more and more linkages," says Dr. Khadim Hussain, a political analyst based in Peshawar. Hussain says ISIS appeals to smaller splinter groups such ass TTP, Jundullah, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami because of the platform the multinational group can provide to limited local militant organisations. "In Pakistan some of the religious-political parties who sympathize with militants would like the fear to be sustained,” Hussain told Afghanistan Today, adding that graffiti on walls, distribution of leaflets and prolific use of social media shows local groups that ISIS “have the potential to get organised.”

Security officials say ISIS' resources and manpower pose a previously unseen threat in the region. "They (ISIS) have more resources than other militants groups,” says the Inspector General of Police in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (IGP), Nasir Khan Durrani, adding that the influx of foreign fighters complicates the web of local militant networks and is “harmful for the Pak-Afghan bordering areas." Durrani also attributes the speed and success of ISIS' local recruitment drive to “the recent weakness of local militant groups.”

For many, ISIS has already become an existential threat both sides of the border. Sixty-year old Peshawar resident Haji Abdul Jalil lost his nephew in the suicide attack that killed 35 people in Jalalabad on April 18th. He foresees more bloodshed in the future: “How many people will we lose as our soil becomes a safe haven for all the militant groups who operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan?” he asks.

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