October 27, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Strikes in Pakistan
On October 25, the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for a complex attack on a police training college in the Pakistani city of Quetta, killing at least 59 police cadets. While the Islamic State faces increasing pressure in its traditional strongholds in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, its message and affiliates continue to drive attacks around the globe.
As has often been the case with the Islamic State, the full extent of the group’s involvement in planning and executing the Quetta attack remains unclear. Despite the Islamic State’s claim to be behind the attack, the local militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)—which has operated in Balochistan for almost twenty years—publicly stated that the attack was the product of collaboration between itself and the Islamic State.
Significantly, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has not pledged its allegiance, or bayat, to the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While the Islamic State has demonstrated an occasional willingness to collaborate with other terror groups—or even its enemies at times—it tends to prefer a position of dominance in its relations with other like-minded organizations. If the Islamic State’s alleged cooperation with LeJ is verified, it would suggest a newfound degree of pragmatism for a group that is seeking to expand in Pakistan, even as its fortunes wane elsewhere.
The uncertainty over the chain of command behind the attack underlines the often complex and murky landscape of terror groups in Pakistan. The attack took place outside the capital of Pakistan’s western province of Balochistan. A multitude of militant groups with varying goals—from Baluchi separatists, to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, to drug smugglers—have been active in the area for decades. Balochistan offers a unique environment that allows groups like the Islamic State to thrive: a shared border with Afghanistan, weak central government control, a history of violent sectarianism, and a mix of well-established militant groups whose power and loyalties are in constant flux. That the city of Quetta has played host to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban since they were expelled from Afghanistan in 2001 is a testament to the influence wielded by terror groups in the province.
The attack on the police training college came just as the Pakistani government’s efforts against a plethora of terrorist groups appeared to be paying off. Military operations against Pakistani terror groups—along with political and legal reforms—have led to a decrease in terror attacks in Pakistan since 2014; an expanded Islamic State presence in the country could reverse those counterterrorism gains. The growing pressure on the Taliban from the Pakistani government—combined with the death of several of the group’s key leaders—has produced opposing factions within the group. While some Taliban militants favor negotiating with the Afghan and Pakistani governments for an end to the conflict, many eschew the prospect of negotiations, preferring to carry on the fight indefinitely. In Afghanistan, the Islamic State has had some success in drawing more hardline recruits from the Taliban, and the group may hope that its uncompromising brand of extremism will gain traction in Pakistan.
After years of counterterrorism efforts, the increased presence of the Islamic State in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region draws attention to the underlying issues which make fertile ground for terrorist groups. The Islamic State and LeJ are symptoms of larger issues that will continue to bolster the Islamic State’s ‘brand’. Even as the Islamic State loses its hold on territory in its self-proclaimed caliphate, until the underlying issues that have allowed the group to thrive are addressed, the Islamic State will continue to unite fractured groups behind its call to terror.
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