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Friday, April 12, 2024

COLUMN: Is Pakistan a New Safe Haven for ISIS and Al Qaeda?

Ongoing debates revolve around whether ISIS and Al Qaeda have lost their operational capacity and strength in the Middle East and intensified their attacks in the Sahel region, confirmed by increasing terror attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Still, both groups have grown their attacks in Pakistan as well, which has recorded exponentially rising terror attacks since the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government in August 2021. The Taliban’s takeover has dramatically impacted terrorism trends in the region. ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an ISIS affiliate based in Afghanistan, has received greater attention and filled the vacuums left by the Taliban that deployed terrorist tactics and got a victory in its two-decade-long clashes against the US-backed Afghan governments. Taliban’s weak performance in the government has caused growing grievances that have generated a favorable environment for ISIS-K to flourish in the region and spread its influence in all provinces of Afghanistan.  

Al Qaeda has used localization and safe base strategies to maintain its global popularity. Contrary to ISIS, which has a central command in Syria, Al Qaeda operates through its regional branches. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, Jama’at al Nusra Wal Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel region, and Al Shabaab in Somalia are three major affiliates of Al Qaeda. Additionally, Al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan have intensely grown their attacks in the country. This article, using the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID) from January 2018 to October 2023, examines whether ISIS and Al Qaeda have settled down in Pakistan. 

Terrorism in Pakistan 

Terrorism in Pakistan dates back to the early 1980s. Its early governments actively supported and provided logistics to warriors who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Some of these warriors, who were called mujahedeen in those years, moved back to Pakistan when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Their involvement in jihadist groups have threatened the country since the early 1990s. 

The government’s policies prioritized using Islam to unify the separatist regions but resulted in the spread of a new Islamic model backed by the Gulf States. The provinces in Afghanistan and Pakistan borderlands, more particularly in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous tribal region in north-western Pakistan, hosted hundreds of religious schools that have introduced a radicalizing version of Islam. These religious schools have been predominantly funded by Salafi business people whose goal is to spread the influence of Wahhabism and introduce a strict and literal interpretation of sharia law. Most of these schools have been out of the government’s control and oversight. Radicalization trends bred more recruits to emerging jihadist groups who pledge allegiance to Al Qaeda. It should be noted that San Bernardino attackers in the United States attended a madrassah in Pakistan. Additionally, the separatist groups in Baluchistan and Sindh regions have used terrorist tactics to seek fragmentation from the central government in Pakistan. The corrupt governments have failed to counter these groups in Pakistan effectively.  

Pakistan’s supportive policies of the Taliban also have yielded untended consequences. The Taliban’s takeover has triggered debates on the future of the Pashtun community in Pakistan, whom Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) situationally represents. Taliban released 1,500 TTP militants from jails, who are able to procure the latest military equipment. Since the Taliban’s takeover, the number of terrorist attacks more than doubled in Pakistan, which rose from 320 attacks in 2021 to 695 in 2023, as seen in Figure 1 below. The number of people killed in these attacks grew from 549 in 2021 to 1080 in 2023.  

Figure 1 Terrorist Attacks in Pakistan from 2018 to 2023

Figure 2 below shows the number of attacks by their locations. Almost 50 percent of the attacks from 2018 to 2023 happened in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, followed by 937 attacks in Baluchistan, and 152 in Sindh.  

Figure 2 Attacks by Their Locations from 2018 to 2023 in Pakistan

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa draws favorable attention in terms of increasing terrorist attacks. According to Figure 3 below, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa exponentially recorded a rising number of terrorist attacks from 2020 to 2023. The region hosts several active jihadist militant groups such as Tehriki-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam, Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and ISISK.     

Figure 3 Attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from 2018 to 2023

GRID recorded 2344 terrorist attacks conducted by 25 terror groups from 2018 to 2023 in Pakistan. The largest category is the incidents by unknown perpetrators due to media reporting issues in the region. Most media sources report acts of violence with tactics and targets but miss sharing details on the perpetrator. Therefore, GRID’s incidents in Pakistan recorded 71 percent by unknown perpetrators in the same period. The number of terrorist attacks by jihadist and separatist groups would be highly represented when these incidents are proportionally distributed to likely perpetrators. The GRID perpetrators in Pakistan convene under three groups: (a) separatist groups in Baluchistan (Baloch Liberation Army, Baloch Liberation Front, Baloch Liberation, Tigers, Baloch Nationalist Army, Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar, Baloch Republican Army, Baloch Republican Guards, and Lashkar-e-Balochistan),  (b) separatist groups in Sindh province (Sindhudesh Liberation Army and Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army), and (c) jihadist groups (ISIS-K, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Islam, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Tehrik-e-Jihad, and TTP). 

ISIS and Al Qaeda Attacks in Pakistan 

Pakistan has recorded increasing attacks by ISIS and Al Qaeda since the Taliban’s takeover. ISIS-K, based in Afghanistan, spreads its operational capacity in neighboring countries, as the group conducted attacks in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran in 2022 and 2023. Its attacks in Pakistan rose from 6 in 2022 to 22 in 2023, as seen in Figure 4 below. Its 2023 attacks targeted Sunni imams who were against ISIS’s strict interpretation of the Qur’an, individuals who were accused of sorcery, Sikhs, Christians, tribal leaders, school teachers, and polio vaccination team members. The group targeted and opened fire on a police station in August 2023 and wounded a police officer. Another attack deployed a suicide bomber who detonated himself at a political rally in July 2023, killing 63 civilians and wounding 123 others. The group claimed responsibility for all its 2023 attacks, indicating its active presence and strength in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan regions.          

Figure 4 ISIS K Attacks from 2018 to 2023 in Pakistan

Al Qaeda has a more substantial presence in the region than ISIS. Its regional affiliate, the Haqqani Network, has an official representation in the Taliban government. The group sees Afghanistan as a safe haven despite the Taliban’s early promises that its government would be against Al Qaeda. The killing of Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, in a US military operation in Kabul in 2022 refuted the Taliban’s promises and proved that Al Qaeda still enjoys operating under the Taliban government. 

The most active Al Qaeda group in Pakistan is Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which was officially designated as a terrorist organization by the US Government in 2010. TTP’s attacks steadily grew from 2020 to 2023 in Pakistan, as seen in Figure 5. The group targeted police stations and military checkpoints and deployed suicide bombers in seven attacks in 2023. For example, its suicide attack using an explosive-laden motorcycle targeted a military convoy and killed nine soldiers in August 2023. Most of its attacks planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and opened fire on security forces. TTP claimed most of its attacks to take the credit and prove its strength. 

Figure 5 TTP Attacks in Pakistan from 2018 to 2023

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is another Al Qaeda group in the country. The group conducted seven attacks in 2018 and one attack in 2019. Its 2019 attack carried the footprints of its collaboration with TTP and deployed a suicide bomber who targeted a Shia community gathering. However, its recent attack was in August 2023, in which the group targeted and killed a local Shia officeholder. The group’s claiming responsibility for this attack proved its active presence in Pakistan, despite its rare attacks in the last years. Lashkar-e-Islam is also an Al Qaeda group that was active in 2023. The group collaborated with TTP, opened fire on an army checkpoint, and injured two soldiers in December 2023. 

In 2023, Pakistan recorded a newly-formed jihadist group, Tehrik-e-Jihad, that conducted seven attacks in  Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. The group deployed suicide bombers and selectively targeted military installations. Its attack in March 2023 targeted a vehicle carrying police officers in a suicide bomb attack that killed nine security personnel and injured 11 others. In another attack in April 2023, a suicide bomber targeted a military installation, killing three security personnel. The group continued to target military checkpoints in 2023. For example, Tehrik-e-Jihad stormed a military base and killed nine soldiers in July 2023. Its deadliest terror attack in December 2023 used an explosive-laden truck and targeted a military base, killing 23 soldiers. 

Finally, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LT), an Al Qaeda-affiliated organization, is based in Pakistan and aims to merge the whole of Kashmir with Pakistan. The group continued its attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in 2023, where the organization targeted mostly checkpoints and security forces in India. 

ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates’ operational capacity in Pakistan rings bells not only for Pakistan but for regional and global security. These groups are capable of making suicide bombing attacks and selectively targeting military facilities in Pakistan. Current radicalization trends bring more recruits to these groups and pave the way for the emergence of new jihadist groups. Pakistan sees increasing terror attacks linked to Afghanistan and attempts to cooperate with the Taliban government. Therefore, the Pakistani delegations sought ways in 2023 to communicate with Taliban officials to address the rising terror threat in the region successfully. 

As opposed to its early supporting policies to the Taliban, Pakistan today complains about the Taliban’s reluctance to counter efficiently ISIS and Al Qaeda groups based in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s weak performance worsens the situation and creates opportunities for both groups’ affiliates in the region. Long years of ignorance and disregard for the spread of strict interpretations of Islam make Pakistan pay a considerable cost. The lack of practical cooperation between Pakistani and Afghan governments and the current breeding ground for jihadist groups in the region will strengthen the terror threat in the region. It would not be wrong to forecast that Pakistan will be recording an increasing number of terror attacks in the coming years.         

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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