The UN highlights the lingering risks from terrorism in the Indian subcontinent as an ISKP suicide bomber kills 54 in Pakistan
Even as a report released this past week by the United Nations (UN) painted a grim picture of the prevailing terror landscape in South Asia, yet another deadly terrorist attack in Pakistan last Sunday brought to the fore where the real problem lay. The Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the 1267 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council (UNSC) said in its 32nd report that Al-Qaeda was “shaping” its regional affiliate in the Indian subcontinent to spread its operations into Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Bangladesh and Myanmar, and that terrorist organisations like the Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) were planning to expand their presence from Afghanistan and Pakistan into peripheral countries such as India.
Coinciding with this report’s release, Sunday’s suicide bombing by the ISKP at an election rally of the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan – Fazl (JUI-F) political party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bajaur district was the most brazen and the deadliest in the country’s tribal belt so far this year. At least 54 people were killed and over 200 were injured. As internal criticism of the repeated massive terrorist attacks plaguing Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces is spiraling, the Pakistani government and military are giving worried and bewildered citizens the impression that they are struggling in desperation in their efforts to bring the security situation under control.
The report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UNSC informed that Al Qaeda was regrouping in Afghanistan under the Taliban leadership. It added that there are still some 200 active members of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the parent terrorist group’s South Asia-focused affiliate, who may be plotting attacks in J&K, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The report highlighted the grooming of an affiliate by AQIS for Kashmir operations. Additionally, it raised the alarm that while expanding their network at home in India, AQIS supporters were also encouraging recruits to join jihadi groups outside India. That India has seen fewer attacks than other countries in the region was only due to its improved counterterrorism capabilities since the 2008 Mumbai attack.
The UNSC’s Monitoring Team pointed out that the threats to the region came not only from the Taliban or the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but also from the ISKP, which has become a dominant terrorist organisation in Afghanistan. The IS’ influence stretches beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, encompassing neighbouring countries like India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. According to the report, ISKP posed the most significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan and the broader region, and in recent times, it had formed strong ties with AQIS and recruited individuals from India and Pakistan to join their terrorist networks. The Monitoring Team’s report further observed that “ISIL-K is becoming more sophisticated in its attacks against both the Taliban and international targets. The group was focused on carrying out a strategy of high-profile attacks to undermine the Taliban’s ability to provide security. Overall, ISIL-K attacks demonstrated strong operational capability involving reconnoiter, coordination, communication, planning and execution. Furthermore, attacks against high-profile Taliban figures in Balkh, Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces raised ISIL-K morale and boosted recruitment”.
Given such broadening of capabilities, it came as no surprise that the suicide attack at the JUI-F election rally in Khar, a town bordering Afghanistan, was claimed by the ISKP. The terrorist group claimed in a statement posted on its Amaq website that the attacker detonated an explosive vest, and that the Bajaur bombing was part of the group’s continuing war against forms of democracy it deems to be against Islam. ISKP has declared itself an enemy of the Afghan Taliban, accusing it of not imposing a strict enough Islamic regime, and has been behind several recent deadly attacks targeting clerics, diplomats and schools in Afghanistan. It has also condemned and targeted JUI-F for associating with the Taliban and the Pakistani government, accusing the party of betraying its Islamic principles.
Zia Ur Rehman, a journalist who writes for The New York Times and Nikkei Asia, explained in a detailed article titled ‘Why is the militant ISKP attacking the JUI-F in Bajaur?’ that appeared in the Pakistani daily Dawn on 2 August that in the past the ISKP had targeted several local leaders of the JUI-F in Bajaur, suspecting them of having close ties with the Taliban administration in neighbouring Afghanistan. In recent years, some of the more prominent leaders to have been targeted by the militant outfit include Mufti Sultan Muhammad, Maulana Abdul Salam, Qari Ilyas, Maulana Shafiullah, and Mufti Bashir. The 30 July suicide bombing, however, marked the first major suicide attack claimed by the ISKP in Bajaur.
The ISKP has strategically used the withdrawal agreement of the United States (US) with the Taliban to portray itself as the last standing jihadi movement in the region, seeking to exploit the situation to its advantage. The ISKP’s primary objective appears to be to thwart the Taliban’s efforts in fulfilling their promises to Islamist supporters and the Afghan people. To achieve this, the group has been targeting not only Taliban fighters but also international entities such as China, Russia, and Pakistan within Afghanistan. These attacks aim to create tensions between the Taliban and neighbouring countries and complicate their relations.
The JUI-F is one of the leading Islamist political parties in Pakistan with a strong presence across the Pashtun belt, including regions bordering Afghanistan. Much of the party’s support is derived from its connections to Pakistan’s network of Deobandi madrassas. According to experts, the JUI-F’s local leadership often echoes the views of the Taliban in Afghanistan, irrespective of the party’s central policy. Following the 2008 general elections in Pakistan, several Pakistan-based militant groups started carrying out suicide attacks and targeted killings against the JUI-F leadership for various reasons, mainly criticising them for focusing on electoral politics instead of supporting the jihadi groups. Since then, dozens of JUI-F leaders, including former parliamentarians, have been killed. The party chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has himself survived several suicide attacks. Riccardo Valle, director of research at The Khorasan Diary, an Islamabad-based news and research platform that monitors militant groups, was quoted by Dawn as saying that “The ISKP has a long history of enmity towards JUI-F in Bajaur which goes back to 2019 when the group started systematically assassinating JUI-F activists in Khaar, the district’s main town. Ever since, the ISKP has conducted many attacks in Mamund and Khaar areas, either claimed or unclaimed by the outfit”.
Muhammad Israr Madani, head of the International Research Council for Religious Affairs (IRCRA), an Islamabad-based research body that studies Islamic movements, pointed out that “In Bajaur, JUI-F leaders have established strong connections with the Taliban in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan, which has made them susceptible to being targeted by the ISKP based on those associations”. In April 2022, the ISKP issued a series of Fatwas (Islamic rulings) allowing the assassinations of JUI-F religious scholars and activists. In July, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman in a press briefing in Peshawar disclosed that 18 of his party workers have been killed in Bajaur in recent years. Following Sunday’s attack, the ISKP also published a 92-page book about the JUI-F, explaining their reasons for targeting religio-political parties.
Over the past few months, the law and order situation in Pakistan has worsened, with terrorist groups executing attacks with near impunity across the country. A report released this month by the think tank Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies said that the first half of the current year witnessed a steady and alarming rise in terror and suicide attacks, claiming the lives of 389 people across the country. The terrorist attacks have been focused on regions abutting Afghanistan, and Islamabad, which has itself been at the forefront of exporting terrorism to its neighbouring States, ironically alleges they were being planned on Afghan soil, a charge Kabul denies. Pakistani political analyst Zahid Hussain believes that the ISKP has been taking advantage of the growing instability in the border region to establish itself more firmly in Pakistan. Hussain said it was an indicator that Pakistan was facing militancy on multiple fronts in the region, which continued to spiral out of control. He added, “The rising instability and militant attacks provide a window to all militant organisations, including ISKP, to ramp up their attacks. These attacks on police, political rallies and security forces have ended the brief illusion of peace in Pakistan”.
Christina Goldbaum, the Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief of The New York Times, contended on 31 July that “The attacks have raised questions about whether Pakistan’s security establishment can stamp out militancy without the American air and other military support it relied on during the 2014 security operation. The violence has also stoked tensions between Pakistani officials and the Taliban administration in Afghanistan”. She quoted Amira Jadoon, co-author of ‘The Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Strategic Alliances and Rivalries’, as saying that “The attack in Bajaur unquestionably presents a significant escalation of ISK’s growing capacity and aggressive stance in northwest Pakistan — a region which is already home to many other militant factions. It also shows ISK’s continued ability to access and operate on both sides of the border, as it has done so in the past”.
Goldbaum further said that “The attack — among the first by a militant group on a political rally in the country this year — stirred concerns about whether the country’s deteriorating security situation will affect the next general election, expected in the fall. The election is seen as critical to restoring political stability to a country that has been rocked by mass protests and unrest since Imran Khan was forced out as prime minister in a vote of no-confidence in April last year. Paving the way for the election this fall, the current government is expected to dissolve Parliament in August and hand over power to a caretaker government that will oversee the election process. The establishment of a caretaker government is constitutionally required to carry out a general election. While it is unlikely that ISIS-K has the capacity to significantly disrupt the elections, many security experts are concerned that the Pakistani Taliban — a militant group also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the T.T.P. — may try to target campaign rallies or voting sites, analysts say”.
Many others also spoke of the impact the incessant terrorist violence could potentially have on the crucial elections that are coming up in Pakistan. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is expected to dissolve the parliament in August to pave the way for elections. Shah Meer Baloch and Hannah Ellis-Petersen wrote on 31 July in The Guardian that “Many fear that more attacks by militant groups could take place in the build up to the election, due to be held in the next three months, which will be held amid significant political turbulence. Speaking hours before the attack on Sunday, Mohsin Dawar, a politician who heads the National Democratic Movement in Pakistan and is from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, warned that the militancy threatened to spill out beyond state borders. ‘This is a raging fire. It must be put out now or it will burn everyone, across Pakistan,’ he said”.
Pakistani journalist Zahir Shah Sherazi told Sky News the suicide attack would give “a very negative message” to any parties holding campaign events in the coming weeks and months. “They are feeling threatened”, he said of Pakistan's leaders, who will contest the election within 60 days of the country's national assembly being dissolved in August.
Shehbaz Sharif’s assurance after the suicide attack that “Those responsible will be identified and punished”, does not seem to have convinced many Pakistanis. Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan retorted that Pakistan “cannot afford another wave of terrorism. Those in power must shift their focus from political engineering to direct state's efforts and resources towards countering terrorism”.
An editorial titled ‘Intelligence failure’ in Dawn on 2 August said that “On Monday, MNAs (Members of National Assembly) denounced the attack as the result of ‘complete failure’ on the part of Pakistan’s multiple intelligence agencies. It is difficult to disagree, considering these agencies have now had decades of experience in dealing with terror groups and security forces have carried out a number of ‘intelligence-based operations’ against them… With an election around the corner, political parties must have security protocols in place in coordination with law-enforcement agencies. The intelligence apparatus should be streamlined and work in concert under an empowered Nacta (National Counter Terrorism Authority). We cannot afford blurred lines between politics and national security — or a bloodbath could be in store”.
Zia Ur Rehman, meanwhile, pointed out in Dawn that “The sustained attacks as well as the latest suicide bombing in Bajaur indicates that the Taliban-ISKP conflict has entered Pakistan, taking on a more dangerous and intensified form… As general elections draw closer and political parties start canvassing for support, it remains to be seen how security forces and the local administration will mitigate the challenge posed by the ISKP in the region”.
The suicide bombing came hours before Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng arrived in Islamabad, where he signed new agreements to boost trade and economic ties to mark a decade of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Associated Press quoted Sharif, standing next to He, as saying, “We will not tolerate any obstacles in the way of friendship with China”. In his message to celebrate a decade of the CPEC, Chinese President Xi Jinping had equally grand words to offer – “No matter how the international landscape may change, China will always stand firmly with Pakistan”. If during the Cold War, it was the US that was viewed by Islamabad as the last report option, it is China that has taken on the mantle today. While China has helped a struggling Pakistan in avoiding its debt default, a Pakistan perpetually on the brink is not a healthy sign for the China-Pakistan partnership. It has been clear for quite some time that the internal security challenge facing Pakistan is also impacting the pace of the CPEC. In fact, there has been hardly any movement on various projects over the last few years. To add to this, the northwestern region of Pakistan has been opposing the CPEC, with Chinese nationals also targeted in recent years.
As Harsh V. Pant, Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London, put it, “The visit by Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng saw Pakistan and China sign six more pacts to enhance cooperation and to give a new momentum to CPEC projects. In the absence of state capacity in Pakistan to tackle internal security challenges more effectively, how the signing of new pacts helps the CPEC is anybody's guess. However, Beijing has also been asking Islamabad directly to protect its nationals and assets, which have been repeatedly targeted by the insurgents. The absence of political consensus in the country at a critical moment remains Pakistan's biggest vulnerability. Political polarisation has made it almost impossible for Pakistan's security establishment to forge a national approach on countering terrorism. The lack of effective domestic governance by the ruling coalition has engendered widespread disenchantment, especially among the youth, making them gravitate towards extremist ideologies and tactics”.
Pant further wrote, “For the Pakistani military intelligence complex, the assets that they thought could be used effectively against external actors are now effectively targeting their own. The Frankenstein's monster can no longer be managed, let alone controlled. Pakistan is lurching from one crisis to another with no sense of direction and the political elite seems clueless about getting the nation back on track... Globally, the interest in Pakistan is at its minimum, further aggravating the challenge for the crisis-infected nation to get its act together. With the impending general elections in Pakistan, the security situation is only likely to deteriorate. India and the world should be prepared for the worst”.
Pakistan, which has weathered many storms in its 75-year history, today gives the impression of a nation on the verge of imploding under the weight of its own flawed historical choices, be it its careless handling of its economy, its short-sighted sponsorship of international terrorism, its near-total acquiescence to China, or indeed the unquestioned preeminence it has always accorded to its avaricious and self-serving military establishment over its largely spineless political leadership.