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Peshawar attack shows Islamic State has come home — in arms of jihadists Imran Khan embraces

Throughout his years as PM, Imran Khan coddled the religious far-Right. Now it’s dragging Pakistan into abyss of sectarian warfare.

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Four weeks after the Taliban seized Kabul, a portly cleric rose to address a conference of clerics, exhorting them to step up the struggle to make Pakistan an Islamic state. “They had to hide their black clothes in shopping bags,” raged Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the anti-Shia cleric. “They’d wear white on their way to their processions, and change once they got there.”

“These Naqvis and Taqvis,” Ludhianvi went on, alluding to the Shia minority, “had to take down the name-plates on their homes.”

Last week, the power of Ludhianvi’s words was made clear when an Islamic State (IS) suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shia mosque in Peshawar, killing at least 56 people, and injuring almost 200.

The issue, though, isn’t the Islamic State’s jihadists. Throughout his years in office, Pakistan’s embattled prime minister, Imran Khan, has coddled the religious far-Right, remaining mostly silent on violence against blasphemers and religious minorities. Last year, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government even made a deal with the extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), which wants a shari’a-governed state, after it unleashed violence that claimed the life of several law-enforcement officials.

The prime minister’s alliance with the religious Right might make political sense, but it’s dragging Pakistan ever closer to the abyss of sectarian warfare.

Also read: Shia-Sunni rift on rise in Pakistan, but Imran Khan govt’s silence may be strategic

The rise of Pakistan’s Islamic State

In the summer of 2014, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri stood at the pulpit of the historic al-Nuri mosque in Iraq’s Mosul, to declare god’s order to earth: the Islamic State’s caliphate was here. Among those inspired by the news was a one-time seminary student from the village of Mamozai in Pakistan’s Orakzai—remembered by his friends as a gentle and studious pupil, who memorised the entire Quran in just one year, married a cousin, and became father to three children. He was Hafiz Saeed Khan.

Like so much to do with Pakistan, the story of the Islamic State has its genesis in 9/11—not the fall of Mosul. Following the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Khan had marched across to defend the Taliban. After a few months, he was forced to flee home, leaving the bombed-out ruins of the Islamic Emirate behind him.

Then, history turned again.

Facilitated by the Pakistan Army, expert Daud Khattak has recorded, the jihadists who returned from Afghanistan set up little emirates of their own. Like Khan, most of the jihadists came from families of low socio-economic status. Flushed with arms, and cash from smuggling and extortion rackets, they swept aside the established tribal élite.

By 2009, Khan had risen to command the new Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) across Orakzai, and also served as a shari’a judge, adjudicating disputes and conflicts between local businessmen.

Leadership splits in the TTP, though, set the wheel of turning again, pushing Saeed to the margins. Then, in 2014, fed up with rising violence, the Pakistan Army finally went to war against the TTP, using over 30,000 troops backed by airpower. The terrorist group retaliated with savagery—slaughtering over 100 children at a Peshawar school—but was forced into Afghanistan.

Four months after the caliphate was declared, now across the border in Afghanistan, Khan and five other TTP commanders pledged allegiance to the Islamic State—and followed up with a video that recorded the decapitation of a Pakistan Army soldier. The new Islamic State network rapidly grew, drawing on the growing ranks of former TTP fighters.

Also read: We asked why Pakistanis support Lashkar-e-Taiba. Results will surprise you

The war on Shia Muslims

From the outset, as scholar Antonio Giustozzi has recorded an authoritative book on the Islamic State’s operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the organisation has distinguished itself by its brutality. Efforts by the Islamic State to stamp out opium cultivation sparked resistance from peasants, leading to brutal reprisals. A ban on music, watching television, smoking, and visiting shrines was ruthlessly enforced.

The Islamic State’s lure wasn’t just theological, Giuztozzi notes: Its commitment to global jihad “guarantees that this class of professional insurgents will have wars to fight virtually forever.”

Even as it struggled to set up bases in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar—frequently clashing with the Taliban over revenues and territory—the Islamic State began to stage a series of attacks against Shia and other Muslims it saw as apostates.

In 2015, the organisation killed 45 Ismaili Shi’a in Karachi, following that up by a bombing that claimed the lives of more than 50 people at the Shah Nurani shrine in Balochistan. There were dozens of similar attacks, one a savage suicide-attack on Shias in Kandahar late last year.

There was method to the carnage. For decades, organisations like the armed wing of Ludhianvi’s party, the Sipah-e-Sahaban Pakistan (SSP), had cast Shias as enemies. They had never, however, succeeded in coming close to the Islamic State’s capabilities for carnage.

Kashmir-focussed groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed shared the belief-system—its chief, Masood Azhar Alvi, had long supported the SSP—but they, in turn, were restrained from acting inside Pakistan by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

From the moment of its birth, almost, Pakistan had seen bitter sectarian disputes. In 1953, Islamists rioted against the Ahmadi minority, compelling Punjab to impose martial law. Large-scale killings of Shias accelerated in the 1990s, backed by the jihadist groups empowered by military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in his bid to build a theocratic State.

The Islamic State targeting of Shias allowed the group to grow its reach among jihadists in Pakistan’s heartland, Punjab. In December 2015, when the police disrupted an Islamic State cell in Sialkot, preparing to wage war to create a caliphate in Pakistan, they discovered that the members were drawn from the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Also read: Support for TTP growing in mainland Pakistan. Fewer options before army, govt

The ISI and the art of jihad management

From 2017, though, sustained attacks on the Islamic State by the United States and Afghan forces led it to haemorrhage cadre and leadership. Following the death of Khan in a 2016 drone attack, and his successor Hasibullah Logari the next year, the ISI reached out to their successor, Aslam Faruqi. Late in 2018, Giustozzi has recorded, the Haqqani Network brokered a peace deal, which gave the Islamic State safe havens inside Pakistan in return for ending its attacks.

There was, likely, an important sweetener. Early in 2020, the Kerala jihadists who had joined Kashmir’s Aijaz Ahmad Ahanger in Afghanistan began to be used for suicide attacks, targeting a prison in Jalalabad and a gurudwara in Kabul—the only such Fidayeen strikes by Indian nationals working for the Islamic State. Faruqi, the ISI possibly hoped, would provide operations for attacks in India.

In practice, the latest Peshawar attacks show, Islamabad’s misguided policies have ended up providing safe havens for the Islamic State to attack Pakistan’s people.

Late last year, Prime Minister Khan signed off on a peace deal, which offers the TTP significant power in Pakistan’s north-west, in return for ceasing attacks on Pakistan and its military. Even though TTP attacks have continued, claiming the lives of five Pakistani soldiers last month, the government has released some prisoners, in an effort to build confidence.

Prime Minister Khan has also shown willingness to embrace elements of the TTP’s core demand, a shari’a-governed State, Last year, he set up a high-level committee to promote Islam, screen curricula and media for blasphemy, and help create an “Islamic welfare State.”

Events from 9/11 show the art of jihad management works—until it doesn’t. Efforts to rehabilitate jihadists in 2001 engendered the rise of the TTP. That, in turn, led to a war, which left behind a trail of devastation and bitterness across swathes of Pakistan’s north-west. And the Islamic State it gave birth to has returned home, cradled in the arms of the jihadists Prime Minister Khan has embraced.

The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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