New terror in South Asia: deciphering the rise of ISIS and the Pakistani Taliban

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In September 2018, a powerful explosion ravaged a bustling market in Pakistan’s bustling but picturesque Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The vile attack left more than two dozen dead and many injured, according to local media. Among those who died were Amrat Lal, Mannat Lal and Saram Chand, three Hindu traders and breadwinners of the respective poor families. LA WEEK reached out to members of the Hindu community close to the deceased men, but they declined to speak about how religious minorities have been impacted. The main target of the attackers appears to be another minority group, the Shiites, who suffered the most losses when the bomb exploded outside a seminary. The Islamic State or Daesh took responsibility for the attack. This happened in the volatile Orakzai agency, and it was neither the first nor the last terrorist activity recorded there. But, the case of the 2018 explosion gives a better understanding of the genetic material and behavior of Islamic State’s present-day Khorasan Province (ISKP), which is wreaking havoc in neighboring Afghanistan.

What happened in Orakzai was implemented on a much larger scale by the ISKP over the past week through a suicide bombing, which resulted in the deaths of around 100 Shiites during two separate incidents as the Taliban struggle to contain the radical Islamist group which has its roots in the Orakzai agency. . This is where the first group of ISKP members emerged. The first emir, or leader, of the ISKP was Hafiz Sayeed Khan or Mullah Sayeed Orakzai, who pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in late 2014. He was previously associated with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban movements. Before his death in a drone strike in 2016, Khan, along with his fighters from the Orakzai Agency, crossed the porous mountainous border to set up a base in Afghanistan’s Nangarharh province. The ISKP consolidated itself there, terrorizing the local population and even occupying parts of the territory, notably the Tora Bora caves which were once the hiding place of the brain of September 11 and founder of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. Over the following years, the ISKP received moral and financial support from the main ISIS wing in Syria and Iraq, which helped it fight both the Taliban and Afghan government forces.

Around the same time, there was also an influx of foreign fighters into the ISKP, and a group of young people from Kerala also visited Nangarharh. While the men died, the fate of the women accompanying them is unknown after their incarceration in prison by the Afghan government. Hafeez Sayeed Khan or subsequent rulers of Orakzai may not be alive today, but their goals of targeting civilians and minorities continue to be fully implemented by their successors. ISKP killed dozens of Hazara female students in their attacks on a school. They had also targeted Sikhs in Afghanistan in the past. The bombing at Kabul airport, which left more than 100 people dead, is one of the group’s biggest attacks.

All these years, in many cases, the ISKP has failed to present itself as a single unit. For example, in the northern province of Jowzjan, a local commander raised the ISKP banner and fought the Taliban, which resulted in a bloody battle in Darz-e-Dab district between the two groups in 2018, which lasted for several days. There is no evidence that this self-proclaimed group was supported by ISKP supporters in eastern Afghanistan, where it had a significant presence.

The permutations and combinations have also changed depending on the regions. In Jowzjan, the Afghan government was accused of being lenient with the ISKP group fighting the Taliban, granting them amnesty when they were cornered by the Taliban, thus saving their lives. In Sar-e-Pul, the Taliban and the ISKP together fought the Afghan government. In eastern Afghanistan, reports suggest the ISKP fought the alliance of the Taliban and Afghan forces. Then there are also independent cells, especially in the urban areas of the country, which act in the interest of the ISKP.

However, this is a thing of the past. The war between the Taliban and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan appears to have helped the ISKP redesign its strategy and rework its organization.

After the takeover of the country by the Taliban, the battlefield is no longer foggy for the ISKP. With a fighting force of nearly 4,000, the ISKP has branded the Taliban as Western puppets while presenting itself as the real jihadists and strict supporters of the Sharia, who want to form a caliphate in the Khorasan region, au- beyond Afghanistan, covering Pakistan, India, Iran and neighboring countries.

The sudden resurgence of the ISKP is evident. From large-scale suicide bombings to low-intensity targeted attacks on the Taliban, the ISKP has escalated dramatically. On average one attack per day, the ISKP has claimed more than 40 attacks in the past month, immediately after the Taliban formally formed an interim government. These attacks have repeatedly targeted Taliban infantry in Nangarharh, Kunar and other provinces. ISKP hit the funeral procession of the mother of Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, and also killed a Taliban district police chief. There is an overwhelming feeling among analysts and reporters covering Afghanistan that in the coming days hard-line supporters within the Taliban and disgruntled factions may switch to the ISKP.

A stronger and more murderous Islamic State can influence events beyond Afghanistan and further destabilize the region. In Peshawar, a member of the Sikh minority was killed and in Kashmir, a Hindu vendor was shot dead. ISIS operatives have claimed responsibility for the terrorist acts. In the coming days, experts believe that the ISKP will assume the role of leader of the insurgents in Afghanistan, which could again attract a number of foreign fighters. Already, the ISKP framework would include Pakistanis, Indians, Uzbeks, Chechens and Europeans. For India, the concern would be to ensure that there is no repetition of what happened in Kerala, and that the country’s young people do not end up in the neighborhood, or worse, feel motivated to take action at home. In the Pakistani context, a stronger ISKP could help the country push more for legitimacy from the Taliban and make ISKP the main global threat.

However, problems are brewing for Pakistan in its own home. The Tehrik-e-Taliban, like the ISKP, received a boost following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Reports and analyzes suggest that the TTP is supported by sections of the Afghan Taliban. It is a well-known fact that the Pashtun belt in Pakistan and Afghanistan is cut by the Durand Line, which separates the two countries. However, the relations between the Pashtun tribes, who share similar social codes and culture, are very strong. The Taliban have always been known to be a movement led and dominated by the Pashtuns and influenced by their way of life. The TTP was formed in 2007 by Baitullah Mehsud from the districts of Waziristan.

The Pakistani government understands that many TTP members are taking refuge in Afghanistan and sometimes use it as a launching pad for attacks inside Pakistan. In a recent interview with an international news channel, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan hinted that the Afghan Taliban were mediating between the two sides to restore peace. Despite this, the TTP continued to attack the Pakistani army.

The TTP is active in the provinces of KP and Balochistan which have a high number of Pashtuns. Within the KP, the TTP was able to make noise in the northern district of KP Waziristan. The main objective of the TTP is the imposition of Sharia law in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan. However, the engine of the TTP runs almost entirely on the alleged injustice inflicted on the Pashtuns by the Pakistani government. The TTP government against Pakistan clearly takes the form of a Pashtun versus Punjabi fight. Supporters of the TTP have often been seen classifying the Pakistani establishment as those of the Punjabis. TTP propaganda videos show footage of aerial bombardments of homes in tribal areas and also mention indiscriminate killings of tribals. Thanks to high quality videos and careful editing, TTP is extremely strong in its social media game. Whether on Twitter or Facebook, users can view a number of videos of past and present TTP fighters praising their exploits through songs. That aside, a number of videos uploaded on a regular basis by the group show how Pakistani army soldiers or vehicles are attacked, blown up or shot down by the TTP.

In one of the recent videos, a TTP sniper points to a Pakistani soldier at an outpost and says he has been waiting for him for hours and continues to shoot him. Then there are videos that provide insight into how militants are preparing before attacking Pakistani forces. According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, the TTP carried out 55 attacks between July and September involving IEDs, suicide bombers and ambushes. Recently, when the Pakistani government offered TTP fighters amnesty for laying down their weapons, the group flatly rejected the offer and vowed to continue their fight. It is naive to expect the Afghan Taliban to turn on TTP leaders or fighters in their territory, or help Pakistan dismantle the network, as the two are linked by ethnicity. At a time when Pakistan is campaigning for the legitimacy of a Taliban on the world stage, it must neutralize another Taliban at the national level.

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