Daesh in Pakistan: The allure for the urban militant – Part II

By: Zoha Waseem


Daesh, otherwise referred to as Islamic State or ISIL, has been expanding its presence around the world beyond its stronghold in Syria and Iraq. In the coming weeks, Strife will be focussing a number of articles more closely on emerging areas of concern in Asia, speaking with practitioners on the ground and academics who interrogate the potential threat posed by Daesh. The first piece is from Strife Senior Editor Zoha Waseem who contributes this two-part analysis on Daesh from Pakistan. You can access Part I here.


Daesh and the ‘New Generation Militant’ in Pakistan

Through a sophisticated campaign of information dissemination, Daesh has become a brand that is carefully manufactured and delivered to a tech-savvy, younger generation that has an appetite for learning and doing more, and is particularly drawn to the internet.[1] A few traits can be loosely applied to urban jihadists emerging in Pakistan and elsewhere over the last several years.

They are born and raised in cities and not always combat-trained in the northern areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan (or the Middle East). They do not necessarily belong to the stereotypical martial races (Punjabi, Pashtun, or Baloch) but include Urdu-speaking and Bengali minorities as well. They are educated, possibly up to university levels, most likely in co-education institutions and not madrassas. They are raised by middle or upper-middle class families and reside in affluent neighbourhoods. They are self-radicalised or influenced by religious or sectarian (not necessarily extremist) companions, online, within social or familial networks, or through a movement known as Tableeghi Jamaat.[2] Further, they may prefer a certain degree of comfort as a recruitment motivator, such as promises of money, payment of debts, a chance at family life, and employment in other sectors of a terrorist organisation, not just its militant wings. They may also be allured by a sense of adventure, belonging, and alternative social environments.[3] Moreover, they take a keen interest in local, national and international politics and current affairs which become key motivators complementing their religious sentiments.

What differentiates them from previous generations of militants is a desire to be a part of something bigger – a ‘utopia’ of sorts, which Daesh promises through grand narratives of a Sunni caliphate and a functioning society[4], which is not soft on religious minorities, kafirs (non-believers) or apostates, but merciful towards those ‘who repent for their past beliefs and practices’.[5] As such, urban jihadists are generally more aware of their religious and sectarian identities. In many ways, the existing sectarian divisions in Pakistan and the high number of sectarian attacks between 2010 and 2015 (with a declining trend in violence but not in the existence of sectarian outfits)[6] have already exacerbated these differences for exploitation and capitalisation by Daesh’s sectarian narrative.

Urban areas are attractive for terrorists for multiple purposes that are well-established, including: access to financial and other resources, through employment or fund-raising, property and wider recruitment pools; and the potential to liaise with criminal groups for arms, drugs, safe houses and escape routes. There is also the possibility of assimilation and camouflage in ethnically and religiously diverse environments; the publicity generated from high-profile attacks in cities; and opportunities for networking, connectivity, and access to information. They are also particularly attractive for lone-wolf urban jihadists.

In October 2015, a 60-page security manual titled ‘Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen and Small Cells’ was translated into English and circulated online, allegedly by a Daesh supporter.[7][8] It is an adaptation of an older al Qaeda manual and tackles concepts such as security, vigilance, and covert warfare. Important for urban jihadists are instructions on how to manage information, ‘hide in plain sight’, keep up to date with technology, and avoid having links with other cells within a country. At the time of writing, there was no evidence to suggest that the Sialkot, Lahore or Karachi cells were in contact with one another, though their handlers, within or outside Pakistan, may have been aware of their existence. There is also no evidence to suggest that they were in contact with the commanders of Wilayat Khorasan in Afghanistan, suggesting that while the Wilayat may be recruiting from a certain pool of jihadists, the urban cells are generally self-proclaimed ‘jihadi’ volunteers who are not necessarily interested in being trained under the leadership of a previous generation of militants in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Karachi is, by no means, unfamiliar with urban terrorism and has been a strategic hub for sectarian militants as well as TTP, al Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban.[9] In 2011, a Pakistani naval base was attacked jointly by TTP and al Qaeda militants in the port city. In June 2014, Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport was attacked by militants belonging to the TTP and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (a close affiliate of al Qaeda). In September 2014, days after its formation, al Qaeda in South Asia (AQIS) claimed the attack on a naval dockyard in Karachi. These recent attacks, all high profile, are multiple reminders that terrorists have been familiarising themselves with Pakistan’s financial capital and largest city for years. For the Daesh-inspired Karachi cell, this familiarisation preceded individual decisions to turn to religious militancy.

The case of the Karachi Cell

It is believed that the Tahir Saeen group became active in Karachi in January 2015, shortly after al-Adnani’s statement recognising Wilayat Khorasan. Known members of this group include Abdullah Yousuf (one of the masterminds, suspected of being in Syria according to interviews with security officials), and Tahir Minhas alias ‘Saeen’, the second mastermind. Saeen, along with Saad Aziz, Hafiz Nasir, Azhar Ishrat, and Asad ur Rehman were arrested shortly after the Safoora attack, but an unknown number of perpetrators and facilitators remain at large.[10] Saeen’s previous affiliation was with al Qaeda, since the 1990s,[11] but ended after a falling out over resources. Saeen met other members of the Karachi cell in Hyderabad and Karachi (Sindh’s two urban centres). He himself was from Punjab.

All of the arrested attackers were educated, barring Saeen – who was a high-school dropout.[12] Nasir and Rehman had degrees from the University of Karachi; Ishrat studied at Sir Syed University (Karachi) and worked for a mobile service provider; and the most infamous of attackers, Saad Aziz had an undergraduate degree from the Institute of Business Administration (Karachi), a prestigious university.[13] Another perpetrator, not yet arrested, was an engineering student. Together, the Karachi cell was allegedly responsible for a host of attacks, including an attack on a paramilitary official, Brigadier Basit, in February 2015, grenade attacks on schools between February and March, an attempted targeted killing of American professor Debora Lobo, the assassination of social activist Sabeen Mahmud in April, and the attack on the Ismaili community in Safoora Goth in May.[14]

From this series of operations, Saad Aziz became the most publicised attacker. A resident of Karachi from an upper-class background and member of the Tableeghi Jamaat, Aziz graduated from IBA in 2011. At university, he joined the Iqra Society, a religious discussion group. It is believed that it was here that Aziz ‘drifted towards radicalisation’.[15] Fluent in English, he familiarised himself with the works of Sayyid Qutb and notable writings on political Islam.[16] He met an al Qaeda operative in 2013, after which he met Tahir Saeen.[17] Together, they pledged allegiance to Daesh. After his arrest, he confessed to murdering Sabeen Mahmud because she was ‘promoting liberal, secular values’.[18]

Even more concerning revelations emerged following the arrests of two couples in Karachi in December 2015, facilitators of the Tahir Saeen group. Adil Masood, a resident of an affluent neighbourhood in Karachi and board member of the College of Accounting and Management Sciences was taken into remand by CTD Sindh.[19] Masood was allegedly also a business partner in Saad Aziz’s Mexican restaurant in central Karachi and had graduated from Indiana University and Fordham University in the United States.[20] A second facilitator taken into custody was Khalid Bari, a former employee of Pakistan International Airlines. Security officials have alleged that the wives of these two facilitators ran a so-called ‘women’s wing’ of Daesh in Karachi, under the garb of an organisation known as Al Zikra Academy through which they collected funds from affluent women in the names of donations and charity for the Karachi cell.[21] Their roles beyond financial support for this cell are difficult to ascertain but nonetheless help understand the reasons outlined above as to why terrorists find urban centres attractive for their operations and why urban militancy remains a complex and complicated threat for Pakistan to tackle.

The Way Forward: A Need for Non-Militaristic Approaches

Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies have been struggling to cope with militancy in urban areas over the last few decades because of the difficulties of profiling terrorists and distinguishing them from ordinary civilians in densely populated neighbourhoods; enduring a politicised and corrupt police force that favours tall budgets for military equipment and training but insufficiently fund investigations; and continued reliance upon paramilitary forces that are inadequately trained in urban counterinsurgency but increasingly equipped with policing powers. Above all, Pakistani counterterrorism practices have generally been ad hoc and highhanded, lacking long-term strategies and foresight.

In retaliation for the ongoing military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, militants affiliated with the TTP attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014. Following the attack, the government of Pakistan launched a twenty-point National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism. Prior to NAP, the government had relied upon the National Internal Security Policy and the Pakistan Protection Act 2014 as part of its counterterrorism strategy, both of which were haphazardly drafted.[22] The NAP complemented the establishment of military courts for speedy trials and the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty. National subcommittees and provincial apex committees (consisting of senior civil and military leadership but no overseeing body, legal framework, or transparency) were set up to oversee NAP’s implementation. The NAP also escalated operations in northern Pakistan and Karachi, reducing terrorist and sectarian violence considerably during 2015.[23]

However, the lack of implementation of non-military aspects of the NAP remains a source of much criticism, with one report describing this as the ‘militarisation of counterterrorism policy’.[24] Of relevance here, are aspects of the plan dealing with (a) countering hate speech and extremist propaganda; (b) banning the glorification of terrorist organisations through print and electronic media; (c) dismantling communication networks of terrorist organisations; (d) taking measures against the use of social media for terrorism; and (e) dealing with sectarianism.[25] Though these points have not been elaborated upon further in the NAP, taken together, they provide a non-militaristic framework that may help contain Daesh’s ideology, prevent cells from carrying out potential activities, and make it difficult for new recruits to be influenced towards radicalisation.

Yet there have been reports of Daesh using radio transmissions in northern areas of Pakistan to spread their propaganda from Afghanistan[26], and pro-Daesh pamphlets are known to be distributed across Pakistan[27], including those discovered at the site of the Safoora attack. According to a report, despite NAP provisions directed against hate speech and the use of media for terrorism, publications and electronic media produced by groups such as Jamaad-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad, are still being circulated.[28] Further, residents of Islamabad remain perplexed at why Lal Masjid’s cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, who defended the 2014 Peshawar massacre, threatened suicide attacks[29], and has publicly endorsed the female students of Jamia Hafsa madrassa supporting Daesh, has been allowed to operate in Islamabad. In late 2015, residents began complaining of the state’s inability to prevent Abdul Aziz from delivering sermons through the mosque. Through these sermons, the cleric reportedly spoke in favour of Daesh and called for the imposition of Sharia in Pakistan.[30] The state, instead of arresting Aziz for repeated violations of the NAP, chose to disrupt mobile phone services on a number of days to prevent the sermon from being heard, which served merely to inconvenience local residents.[31]

Selective implementation of the NAP can be the result of multiple factors. First, deep-rooted religious sentiments exist in Pakistani society (across classes) that can be ignited in retaliation to extreme measures by the state, possibly escalating violence in the country. Second, patronisation by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan of sectarian organisations and madrassas dating back to the late 1970s continues, as Islamabad’s policy towards the recent conflict between Riyadh and Tehran remains unclear. Third, Pakistan’s history of supporting non-state actors in the region (particularly in Afghanistan and Kashmir) has created monsters too big to reign in without backlash. And lastly, each of Pakistan’s four provinces and disputed territories has internal militant or criminal elements of its own.[32] These are Pakistan’s complex ‘tiers of militancy’[33], which makes its war on narratives that much more challenging.

However, some practical considerations are worth mentioning. Given Pakistan’s social and cultural realities, it is unlikely that Daesh will achieve territorial gains in the country. Majority of Pakistanis are not Wahhabi, Salafi, or Deobandi (minority subsects of Sunni Islam from which individuals are most likely to turn to jihad) but rather followers of the Barelvi subsect. Despite pan-Islamist and sectarian narratives, Daesh promotes a predominantly Arab culture, which is distinct from that of South Asia, and can pose another barrier to Daesh’s large-scale penetration into regional societies. Also, most Pakistanis do not speak Arabic, nor are they familiar with Arab pop-culture, fashion or literature (aside from Quranic texts). Pakistan is also incomparable with Afghanistan or Iraq in terms of ungoverned spaces and has been actively seeking to restore the writ of the state in areas such as FATA.[34] That said, should existing sectarian divisions and tensions within Pakistan be exacerbated, Daesh’s strong Sunni narrative might continue luring jihadists from the region (including those from local militant groups).[35]

This is why Pakistan must prioritise countering Daesh’s narrative and propaganda which requires reading beyond militarised frameworks. In addition, Pakistan should understand the nexus between political grievances and ideological greed which is fuelling resentment within a growing young population with easy access to online forums. Grievances towards the state because of lack of employment, corruption, and highhandedness of security forces, coupled with the search for a strong ideological identity (due to a lack of consensus over what is Pakistan’s Islamic identity[36]), give the youth resentment, excitement and a need to belong, which is a combination that groups like Daesh will continue exploiting, unless the state provides alternatives.

Zoha Waseem is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, researching urban security and policing in Pakistan. She is also a senior editor at Strife and the head of the Afghan Studies Research Group at King’s. She tweets at @zohawaseem.

* This is the second part of the two-part analysis on Daesh in Pakistan. I am thankful to Mr Abdul Basit, Mr Zia ur Rehman, and officials of the Counter Terrorism Department, Sindh, for their continued support.

[1] C. Winter, ‘Documenting the Virtual “Caliphate”’, Quilliam Foundation (October 2015), available at http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FINAL-documenting-the-virtual-caliphate.pdf.

[2] Tableeghi Jamaat is a Sunni movement that began in India in the 1920s and spread worldwide. According to participants interviewed for this article in Karachi in January 2016, tableegh is the preaching of basic Islamic principles. Volunteers travel within or outside Pakistan, visiting mosques to spread Islamic teachings, at their own expense. They do not advocate jihad or debate politics. However, participants may independently choose or be influenced by certain elements within a jamaat (assembly) to move from tableegh to askariyat (militancy). According to affiliates of the Jamaat, some tableeghs may be used by militant as a safe place to protect themselves from law enforcement agencies for months at a time.

[3] R. Barrett, ‘The Islamic State’, The Soufan Group (November 2014), p. 9, available at http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TSG-The-Islamic-State-Nov14.pdf.

[4] C. Winter, ‘Documenting the Virtual’.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, Pakistan Security Report (2016), p. 27.

[7] ‘Safety and Security Guidelines for the Lone Wolf Mujahideen and Small Cells’, initially by Al-Fajr Media Center, available at https://ansarukhilafah.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/safety-and-security-final.pdf.

[8] M. W. S. Ryan, ‘Hot Issue: How Daesh’s Lone Wolf Guidance Increases the Group’s Threat to the United States’, The Jamestown Foundation (24 November 2015), available at http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=44834&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=381#.Vpjs9_l97IU.

[9] Z. Rehman, ‘Is ISIS Knocking on Karachi’s Doors?’, The News (16 March 2015), available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print/29453-is-isis-knocking-on-karachis-doors.

[10] Personal interviews with security officials, October 2015 and December 2015, Karachi.

[11] F. Zahid, ‘Tahir Saeen Group’, p. 155-156.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid; personal interviews with security officials between October and December 2015, Karachi.

[14] F. Zahid, ‘Tahir Saeen Group’, p. 155.

[15] Ibid, p. 157.

[16] N. Hussain, ‘Pakistan’s New Breed of Militants’, Foreign Policy (09 June 2015), available at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/09/pakistans-new-breed-of-militants/.

[17] N. Ali & F. Zaman, ‘Anatomy of a Murder’, Herald, available at http://herald.dawn.com/news/1153209.

[18] Ibid.

[19] F. Khan, ‘Alleged Financer? College Co-Owner Held Over Safoora Bus Attack’, The Express Tribune (19 December 2015), available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/1012606/alleged-financer-college-co-owner-held-over-safoora-bus-attack/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] F. Khan, ‘Assistants of Terror: How Women Raise Funds for Da’ish in Karachi’, The Express Tribune (21 December 2015), available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/1013558/assistants-of-terror-revealed-how-women-raise-funds-for-daish-in-karachi/.

[22] For a more detailed discussion on NAP, NISP and PPA, see International Crisis Group, ‘Revisiting Counter-Terrorism Strategies in Pakistan’, Asia Report No. 271 (22 July 2015), available at http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-asia/pakistan/271-revisiting-counter-terrorism-strategies-in-pakistan-opportunities-and-pitfalls.pdf.

[23] PIPS, Pakistan Security Report, pp. 7-10.

[24] ICG, ‘Revisiting Counter Terrorism’.

[25] A. Manan, ‘Fight against Terrorism: Defining Moment’, The Express Tribune (25 December 2014), available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/811947/fight-against-terrorism-defining-moment/.

[26] M. Achakzai, ‘Radio Caliphate’, The Friday Times (15 January 2016), available at http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/radio-caliphate/.

[27] A. Basit, ‘How Big is ISIS Threat in Afghanistan-Pakistan’, The Counter Terrorist, vol. 8 (3), pp. 46-48.

[28] International Crisis Group, ‘Revisiting Counter Terrorism’, pp. 14-15.

[29] K. Ali, ‘Suicide Attack Threats Again Ring Out of Lal Masjid’, Dawn (20 December 2014), available at http://www.dawn.com/news/1151981.

[30] K. Shahid, ‘ISIS in Punjab?’.

[31] ‘Mobile Signals Suspended for Third Friday Now’, Dawn (19 December 2015), available at http://www.dawn.com/news/1227313.

[32] T. Noorani, ‘War of Narratives, Dawn (27 June 2014), available at http://www.dawn.com/news/1115282.

[33] K. Hyat, ‘Finding the Real Enemy’, The News (24 December 2015), available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print/83978-Finding-the-real-enemy.

[34] H. Abbas, ‘ISIS Eyes Influence in Pakistan: Focus, Fears and Future Prospects’, Jinnah Institute (23 December 2014).

[35] Abdul Basit also warns that the threat can multiply in Afghanistan-Pakistan if fighters returning from Syria-Iraq join Wilayat Khorasan or if existing militant groups begin siding with ISIS for strategic purposes (A. Basit, ‘How Big is ISIS’, p. 47).

[36] See C. Jaffrelot, The Pakistan Paradox (Random House India, 2015), pp. 439-541.

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan