Friday, February 13, 2015

The Significance of ISIS in Pakistan

TTP leaders pledge allegiance to ISIS.

The chief spokesperson for Pakistani Taliban (TTP), Shahidullah Shahid, and five other TTP commanders pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October last year, giving rise to fears that there may be an increase in popularity for ISIS in Pakistan. The tribal areas in north-west Pakistan have historically been seen as a hotbed for militant groups and the strength and popularity of the Taliban in the area suggests an enthusiasm for hard-line Islamic ideology. With that in mind, it is perhaps worrying that key members of the Pakistani Taliban have now decided to align themselves with ISIS instead. The question here is: whether the move represents a current of support for ISIS in the region or whether it is merely representative of the fragmentation of the TTP?

Certainly, since the death of TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike last year, the group has appeared to be more divided and lacking in leadership. There has been an increase in desertions and the government offensive, Zarb-e-Azb, has had notable successes against them, including the destruction of their economic base in North Waziristan. The Peshawar school attack in December may be seen in this light as an act of desperation from the Pakistani Taliban. These factors coupled with the success of ISIS mean that the change in allegiance of key members of the TTP is not necessarily a worrying phenomenon and may be explained by the TTP’s demise.

ISIS itself, however, announced on January 11th its organisational structure for ‘Khorasan’ (Afghanistan and Pakistan) with a former TTP leader, Hafez Saaed Khan at its head. The announcement included Shahidullah Shahid as a spokesperson and several other ex-TTP leaders and showed the beheading of what is thought to be a Pakistani soldier. Shahid then called on followers to “prepare for the great tribulations they will face”. The implementation of this organisational structure and reference to preparation for the future shows the potential for future activities in the country. The threat of ISIS in Pakistan may therefore be growing and it is a threat that should not be ignored.

In a country with over 200 religious organisations and a history (at least in the tribal areas) of extremist militant groups, the climate in Pakistan may be conducive. ISIS Leaflets have been distributed across the country in the last year, which could be read as fairly innocuous but it seems to suggest that there is at least some support for the group and indeed, that there has been some effort from ISIS (or its supporters) to promote the group in Pakistan. The financial and territorial success of ISIS far exceeds that of any other extremist group in the Middle East, so it seems probable that it will absorb smaller, less successful groups that don’t have the same, organised leadership structure - as recent defection by key TTP members demonstrates.

The National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said recently that “Islamic State is not a major threat. It is not a serious problem for Pakistan”. His view is founded on the belief that the threat of ISIS will remain in the tribal areas where Pakistan have significant military operations in place to combat it. In saying this, he has effectively likened the threat of ISIS to that of the other militant groups in the tribal areas. This is an oversight: the rapid expansion and organisational structure of ISIS give it the potential to bring different factions together and provide a greater, more united threat than is currently seen in the region. Not only that but the current success of government forces in tribal areas may mean that there are more militants in search of strong leadership and direction; this is something ISIS are perceived to able to provide. Perhaps the greatest fear then is that the Pakistani government have overlooked the potential seriousness of this threat.

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