The arrival of IS in Pakistan and the politics of the caliphate

By Zoha Waseem:

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While Pakistan remained fixated on the political stalemate between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N), Imran Khan (PTI) and Tahir ul Qadri (PAT), that is now well into its second month, a foiled attack on a naval dockyard in its financial capital Karachi went unreported for two days by an otherwise animated media. A naval officer and two militants were killed in the incident that was swiftly contained by the Pakistani Navy. Spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Shahidullah Shahid told news agencies that the group claimed responsibility for the attack which was carried out with ‘support from inside the naval force’.[i] The event came three years after an assassinated journalist, Saleem Shahzad, published a controversial article on the infiltration of al Qaeda in the Pakistani military, primarily the navy, which has been at the receiving end of militant attacks on a number of occasions.[ii] On their part, the Navy remains hushed about the events of the night of 6 September 2014.

This foiled attack is important for a number of reasons. First, it occurred at a time when there was a relative decline in the number of terrorist attacks across the country. Second, it was ‘missed’ by the media as all eyes remained on the Capital. Third, it cast a shadow over the security operation in Karachi that started last September. Fourth, it calls into question the status and success of the military-led Operation Zarb-e-Azb against militants in North Waziristan which started earlier this year. Lastly, it corresponds with the alleged rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Pakistan. It is this last (and most recent) development in Pakistan: the arrival, place and presence of IS, which demands further examination and analysis as to what this could mean for the already-present militant groups in the country.

Over the past two months, stories have been trickling into Pakistani newspapers about pamphlets and brochures circulating across Afghanistan and the northern areas of Pakistan in Urdu and Dari, complemented by wall-chalking sighted in various areas, urging the Muslims of South Asia to join the global jihad for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, though not explicit on the idea of the caliphate itself. Al Qaeda has taken this opportunity to remind the region of its existence and outreach, with Ayman ul Zawahiri announcing the formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.

In his recent speech, President Obama vowed to dismantle IS’ ‘network of death’ and stressed that “those who have joined the ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can”. Razeshta Sethna, a prominent journalist and editor, spoke with Strife about these developments. ‘If the US hits the backbone of ISIS on the Syrian border with Iraq, then you may see ISIS gradually dismantled. But they have a lot of money and access to foreign fighters. They can travel easily. Where will they go if ISIS gets dismantled? They will head towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is what we need to be wary about. Pakistani and Afghan governments need to think about whether they will allow ISIS to recuperate in their territories’.[iii]

Sethna further explains that for local militant groups in Pakistan, the funds that IS brings will be a major attraction. ‘The money that ISIS leadership will have to offer al Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban, in order to gain their trust and hospitality, could feed back into logistical support for them, including training camps, recruitment of fighters, weapons, etc. If they come with money, there’s nothing stopping them’. The arrival and acceptance of wealthy Arab fighters in the region during the Afghan jihad has already set precedence for this.

Meanwhile, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a hard-line group, has splintered from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (presently headed by Maulauna Fazlullah). JuA is currently commanded by Omar Khalid Khorasani, from the Mohmand agency, with Ehsanullah Ehsan as his personal spokesman. They claim to be the ‘original’ Pakistani Taliban and have expressed frustration and discontentment at the in-fighting within various factions of the TTP taking place since the former leader, Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike last year. Khorasani is a nom de guerre, referring to one from the region of Khorasan, which is considered by certain jihadi groups as the base of international jihad (Image 1). According to one article, while the JuA faction appears to be inspired by Islamic State, Ehsanullah Ehsan has been careful not to pledge allegiance to it, although they have referred to IS as their ‘muhajideen brothers’. Regardless, social media activity by Khorasani and Ehsan depicts indirect support for IS. (Images 2 and 3).

Zoha IS article image 1

Image 1: This map, which has been widely circulated on the internet over the past few
months, depicts Islamic State’s plan for the expansion of the caliphate.

Zoha IS article image 2

Image 2: Social media activity by Ahrar’s spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan
welcomes the development of Al Qaeda in South Asia as well as IS.

Zoha IS article image 3

Image 3: Social media activity by Ahrar’s spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan
welcomes the development of Al Qaeda in South Asia as well as IS.

Consider why the JuA has expressed support to IS. One of the points where both IS and JuA appear to be united pertains to the imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui in the US, whose release was demanded by IS in exchange for James Foley (Image 4). Siddiqui, an MIT graduate and neuroscientist was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 for allegedly attempting to shoot American soldiers. In 2010, she was sentenced by an American court to 86 years imprisonment. Jihadi groups like IS and JuA have referred to her as the ‘daughter of the ummah’. It is uncommon for non-Pakistani militant groups to rally for Siddiqui’s cause, suggesting warming interests between IS and Pakistan.

Zoha IS article image 4

Image 4: JuA has appraised IS’ demands for Siddiqui’s release. Previously, al Qaeda,
the Pakistan Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban have demanded her release as well.

 Other similarities between IS and JuA are seen by comparing leaders Khorasani and al-Baghdadi. Both head breakaway factions from groups they deemed not to be ruthless enough. Both are educated; Khorasani is a former journalist, whereas Baghdadi has a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Baghdad. Both routinely utilise media outlets and social media to convey their messages to the world that often feature the brutal terror tactic of beheadings. While IS sparked global outrage following the release of the recorded beheading of Foley, last year the TTP had released an even gorier video of militants playing football with decapitated heads of Pakistani police officers.

Nevertheless, both groups have thus far been careful not to commit to any marriage of convenience just yet and it is too premature to suggest whether they will merge in Pakistan. In fact, according to an article in Pakistan’s The Friday Times, a spokesman for IS in Pakistan, Asad al Khorasani, has explicitly denied this alliance. ‘A lot of people who had been active with the Taliban are attracted towards us because they do not approve of how the Taliban conduct themselves… The best part about our recruitment in Pakistan is that 60% of the people joining us are educated. We have differences with the TTP and they keep a distance from us and we do the same’. To what extent these figures are correct is a matter of contention.

Another contrasting feature on the agendas of the aforementioned groups and Islamic State is that most TTP factions pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader and commander of the Taliban, not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of IS. Journalist and writer Zahid Hussain on his part has suggested that it is premature to liken IS with the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban given the ambitious global reach of the former and the geographically limited aspirations of the latter. Hussain has argued that the ideological agendas differ too, with IS being distinctly more anti-Shia than the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. With regards to al Qaeda in the subcontinent and IS, Director of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, Muhammad Amir Rana has cautioned that in South Asia, the rise of IS need not symbolize the decline of al Qaeda. ‘[Militant groups] may have differences over strategies, as ISIS and al Qaeda had, but ultimately they overcome their differences. Al Qaeda might feel stunned over the ‘victories of ISIS but now, instead of arguing with ISIS over strategies, will prefer to develop a consensus over a model of caliphate’.

The idea of the caliphate as advocated by IS has been subjected to criticism by Muslim civilians and scholars around the world. As in 1924, when the caliphate was considered a rally cry to gather Muslim followers and subsequently abolished by Ataturk, so too today many consider the idea to be a political propaganda hailed by Mullah Omar, and now al-Baghdadi. There appears to be no unity over which (and whose) model of the caliphate should be established, who should be its Emir (leader), and which territories should be encompassed within it. The idea of the caliphate is less religious and more political. It can also be argued to be outdated.

In an article published by S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Commentary, Assistant Professor Mohamed Osman has argued, ‘Islam as a religion prescribed values of governance such as accountability and justice. In fact, even in the realm of jurisprudence, only five principles must be met. These principles include the protection of religious life, lineage, property and intellect. It is clear that there is nothing Islamic about the Caliphate or the regulations implemented by the ISIS when all these principles have clearly been transgressed’. Osman is similarly critical of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia in their categorisations as ‘Islamic states’ that are ‘examples of how supposed Islamic states are in fact either unjust or underdeveloped and not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination’.

Sethna similarly emphasises the need to rethink the appeal of IS, that has less to do with religion and more with the ‘enjoyment of conflict’ by a neglected and jaded youth. ‘The general perception is that Islam is attracting European jihadi fighters to IS. It is incorrect to use this reasoning. It is not about Islam. The youth bulge and the general disquiet and discontentment surrounding the youth in the West needs to be targeted through education and economic opportunities. Communities (including immigrant communities) need to be targeted.’ Talking primarily about the specific age group of recent IS recruits from the UK, Sethna analyses that younger generations need a sense of deeper understanding. ‘They don’t know any better. At the end of the day, the long-term solution is to give them what a younger generation deserves and needs.’[iv]

At a recent talk at King’s College London, Joshua White, the Deputy Director for South Asia at the Stimson Centre in Washington D.C., delivered an insightful lecture on how groups within Pakistan view with the Islamic caliphate. There are two foundations for their perceptions. The first stems from the caliphate movement (1919-1924), while the second is rooted in the historical army of Khorasan. The latter is both a physical as well as an imagined territory. The imagined territory of Khorasan is much larger (although its reach is disputed) than the physical, and religious significance allegedly lies in a saying by Prophet Muhammad.

White has also noted that there is a lack of unity between groups in Pakistan and their idea of the caliphate. The Deobandi groups do not seem particularly enthusiastic (yet) about the idea of the caliphate and are careful in their usage of the concept. According to Deobandi texts studied by White, it is revealed that Muhammad was the last Caliph and all those who followed are ‘deputies to the deputy’. He further suggested that these texts are ‘half-hearted’ and suggest that ‘Caliphs are nice if you can get one, but regional leaders can be good too’.[v] On the other hand, Wahabi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are more open in their desire for a caliphate. ‘The LeT has a vision that [they] should keep advocating for a caliphate. The objective is in the struggle, not about getting there’. Nevertheless, White maintains that the LeT has been unclear about their idea of the caliphate too, possibly because of their ‘close relations’ with the Pakistani state. He concurs with other analysts that on its part the TTP has pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar as their Emir-ul-mumineen (Commander of the Faithful).

While Zahid Hussain has written of ideological dissimilarities between the Pakistani Taliban and IS, White raises valid concerns about the commonalities between sectarian groups in Pakistan and IS, accompanied by the increasing linkages between the TTP and sectarian organisations. Although anti-Shia groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi may not easily buy into the idea of the caliphate, their sectarian agendas have tied them with IS. The problem now is that should the Pakistani state actively externalise these sectarian militant organisations and withdraw support, they may strengthen strategic ties with IS.

Whatever the intentions of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and Islamic State may be for Pakistan and future alliances with other jihadi groups in the region – acknowledging that these are too murky at the moment to see clearly – they pose multiple causes for concern. It suffices to say, for the moment, that their arrival in Afghanistan and Pakistan was but a matter of time. Given shifting dynamics such as Afghanistan’s uncertain future, a right-wing government in New Delhi with its hard-line approach, and Pakistan’s own internal turmoil, groups such as the IS were bound to find a vacuum in this region. The Pakistani establishment would be well-advised to shift gears from petty ‘container’ politics and competitive protests in Islamabad to operations that are losing momentum; security before democracy needs to be the motto of the day.



Zoha Waseem is a doctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @zohawaseem.



[i] Later reports by Karachi police revealed that the officer killed in the exchange of gunfire with the Navy was a former navy official. The TTP states that this attack was in response to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, but an investigation by a leading English daily suggested that the militants involved intended to hijack a frigate purchased from China.
[ii] Most notable, the attack on the PNS Mehran naval headquarters in Karachi on 22 May 2011 that lasted over 15 hours and killed 20 people, including 11 navy personnel. It was carried out by the TTP and is considered one of the biggest attacks on the Pakistani navy in recent history. Saleem Shahzad was found dead a week later.
[iii] Sethna, R. (2014) Interviewed by author, 24 September.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] White, Joshua. ‘State and Caliphate: The Future of Islamist Advocacy in Pakistan.’ Lecture. War Studies Meeting Room. King’s College London. 11 September 2014. Lecture.

2 thoughts on “The arrival of IS in Pakistan and the politics of the caliphate”

  1. Interesting article… good analysis.

    My colleague Saleem Shahzad unfortunately did not get to publish part 2 on Mehran attack which was to include an article on Pakistan’s armed services allegedly ACTIVELY recruiting those with militant tendencies as opposed to navy being secretly infiltrated by insurgents. This has been going on for years and I don’t doubt it is still happening..

    Re IS there appears to be a testing of the water at the moment and established groups reasserting themselves after a period of relative quiet with Zarb- e -Asb though TTP central (Fazlullah group) say this week that they has had little effect on command and operations Here is some background leading to formation of JuA a statement given to me as part of a recent interview I did with the group…

    “The background and story of how Jamaat-ul-Ahrar came into being”

    “In 2007 after Lal Masjid operation some sincere brothers wanted to unite the Pakistani Mujahideen to face with unity and force the security forces of Pakistan. This proposal first came from the respected Ameer Umar Khalid Khorasani and then he sent invitations to the Mujahideen of Bajaur and Swat. They came and in a meeting they agreed they we will go to Waziristan and invite the Mujahideen in Waziristan to organize a movement and they should lead it.

    Then Qare Shakeel Ahmad and some other friends went there and talked to Ameer Baitullah Mehsud about that .They accepted their request and TTP came in to being. But after the martyrdom of Baitullah Mehsud the situation started becoming bad day by day We (TTP Mohmand chapter) worked hard to reform the movement, Qare Shakeel Ahmad was appointed the chief of TTP high counsel. He used his full force for TTP but some people were unhappy just because it was against their personal benefits. Then he resigned and left Waziristan and came back to Mohmand agency.

    In the last four years there was too many shortcomings in TTP but none were ready to reform the movement. The decisions of counsel were not implemented. There was no set up for any thing. Every chapter of TTP was working for its own goals, 90 % of their efforts were to damage other chapters.

    So in these condition none were happy in TTP, our leadership once again tried to reform the movement. For this cause our Ameer UKK took risk and went to Waziristan himself. He suggested to the central leadership some principle and some beneficial suggestions, all members of high counsel liked it even the deputy chief of TTP Sheikh Khalid Haqqani said that these suggestion must be accepted…. if you don’t accept it then I will not be in TTP anymore. But just one man was against it and then they rejected these suggestions.

    There were some other factions they had left TTP before that. We contacted them and organized a new moment Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.

    I still say that there is no one in TTP who is satisfied in TTP. Everyone has so many objections upon it.

    To protect the blood of our brothers to be shed by the hands of other Mujahideen we become isolated from Mullah Fazlullah sab group. In last few months more than 60 member of TTP were killed by each other so how can we remain in TTP!”

    Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (August 28th 2014)

    Regarding the infamous “playing football with heads” video. TTP (as was before split) issued a denial which came at the time via Ehsanullah Ehsan but did not appear in Pakistan mainstream media, denials are often not reported

    Sharif government would do well to keep an eye on the ball (pardon the expression) as you say, focus is on recent protests. They also need to seriously address “state terrorism” enforced disappearances, torture in custody and extra-judicial killings which all escalate security issues and bring retaliation attacks. Failure to address these concerns have led to some strong reactions such as the killing of 23 Frontier Corps men to avenge 16 alleged extra judicial killings of insurgents.

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