First ISIS Attack in Pakistan – Can We Learn Some Lessons?

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By Abdullah Khan

On October 25, 2016, once again militants struck Quetta city and targeted Police Training facility. Three armed militants stormed the camp at midnight and shot around 220 unarmed policemen, 62 killed while 157 were injured still being treated, some in critical condition.

After the attackers overpowered initial resistance by a lone security guard, there was no response to the attackers till Army / Frontier Corps personnel reached the spot and fought hard to eliminate the attackers. Army also suffered losses of at least five lives including a young captain.

Style of the attack

It was typical ‘Fidayeen’ style’ attack that was introduced by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Occupied Kashmir in late 90s. The style was later adopted by Al-Qaeda and TTP with addition of suicide bombers as LeT do not use suicide bombers in their attacks. In such attacks usually few militants are used and same was seen in Quetta Attack. There was a time when this style of attack was a trademark of one group but now many groups in the region have adopted this style of storming into a facility, holding out and fighting till death. Therefore, one cannot ascertain exactly that which group was behind the attack though it is clear that the sub-nationalist militant groups like Baloch Republican Army, Baloch Liberation Army etc. are not involved in the attack.

Who was behind the attack?

Role of DAESH

Islamic State has claimed responsibility of the attack while Inspector General Frontier Corps Balochistan claimed that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami was involved in the attack. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami is splinter group of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi a sectarian militant group formed in early 90s to fight against Iranian backed Shia militant groups. However, after 9/11, the group formed alliances with Al-Qaeda, TTP and other anti-State groups and started to target State interests besides attacking Shia targets. A spokesman of the splinter group of LeJ Al-Alami confirmed the claim of IGFC as well as corroborated claim of Islamic State (DAESH) by saying that the attack was a joint venture.

Although Islamic State had claimed responsibility of previous Quetta attack on Lawyer community in August 2016 in which more than 70 people were killed but that claim was more of a media stunt than reality.  This time however, Islamic State issued photographs of the three attackers with their names. One of the three attackers was shot dead by Pak Army while the other two had blown themselves.

If verified, this would be the first major attack by Islamic State on Pakistani soil. It raises serious concerns as the group has found a local partner which is well entrenched in the society. PICSS in its security reports one and half year ago had underscored the possibility of Lashka-e-Jhangvi and IS nexus when the Middle Eastern group had started to emerge in this part of the world. Both LeJ and IS operate on sectarian lines and are natural allies. PICSS had highlighted a militancy nexus map in Balochistan in which LeJ is seen as center of the nexus. The group has relations with even secular nationalist groups who are fighting purely on non-religious basis.bluchistan-militancy-nexus-map

From the style of the attack, it is evident that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami played major role in execution of the attack as IS operates differently. The so-called Islamic State’s modus operandi is that it captures territories and establishes its writ by enforcing strict Sharia laws as per its own hardline interpretation of Islam. In early 2015 when it emerged in Kuner and Nangerhar provinces in Afghanistan it captured many districts and enforced strict Sharia Law in territories under its control. However, its defeats in Syria and Iraq have dented its operational capabilities in Afghanistan and the group has resorted to typical guerilla style attacks. It carried out such attacks against Shia Hazara community in Kabul recently.

Worrying sign is that IS has found local operational partner. LeJ has support base in the society and can influence more local recruitment for the Middle-Eastern group. The possibility of LeJ’s merger into DAESH, however, is remote because DAESH claims to be from Salafi school of thought while LeJ is purely a Deobandi organization. LeJ is ideologically closer to TTP and Jamat-ul-Ahrar but it is least likely that the group is eager to shun its independent identity and merge into any other bigger group. It is worth noting that LeJ is almost oldest militant group operating in Pakistan.

LeJ is very active in Balochistan and it has support and nexus with anti-Shia groups operating from Iran as well. Thus, rooting out the group is not an easy task especially when Iran is playing a negative role in promoting Shia sectarian and militant groups. DAESH’s participation in Quetta attack is a matter of concern for Iran as the group can join hands with Jaish ul Islam, Jundullah and other Sunni militant groups operating for Sunni rights in Iran. Recently, Iran has recruited thousands of Shia fighters from Pakistan to fight against DAESH in Syria and Iraq. Pakistani security mechanism failed to keep a check on the recruitment. This imbalance in dealing with sectarian groups adds fuel to fire. Alienated Sunni extremist groups propagate State patronage for Shia groups, which helps them attract youth with extremist tendencies. It increases support base for LeJ, which will eventually help DAESH to expand its tentacles in the country.

Players behind the scene

Pakistan has been blaming India and Afghanistan for recent violence on its soil. Capturing of Indian Intelligence officer Kulboshan Yadev earlier this year had revealed a web of Indian involvement in the country. Balochistan government has publicly accused Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Intelligence for its alleged involvement in militant activities in the province as the Pakistani intelligence had reportedly intercepted a call to the militants from Afghanistan. IGFC, Major General Sher Afgun had also said that the attackers were getting direction from Afghanistan and affiliated to LeJ Al Almi that was later corroborated by LeJ spokesman.

Pakistan strongly believes that the militant groups are being used as a tool by anti-Pakistan forces operating in the region. It is too early to say that Quetta was a response to Uri attack, nevertheless it cannot be ruled out as Indian intelligence is working hand in glove with Afghan Intelligence to keep  Pakistan destabilized for their ulterior designs.

Motives/Objectives behind the attack

PICSS Militancy Database shows remarkable decline in militant attack during last two years after launching  of Zarb-e-Azb in June 15, 2014. Security situation improved to such an extent that the average number of militant attacks per month in the country has dropped from 161 to 45. Improvement is seen across the board in the country, however, FATA and KPK have seen great improvement in security situation. Both the administrative units of Pakistan were previously worst affected areas of the country. The graph below shows the overall improvement in security situation in the country during last two years compared with 2014.

picss-graph

The situation had also improved in Balochistan but the recent trends in Balochistan are disturbing. There is upward trend in fatalities as well as number of attacks in the province, especially, violence by religious militant groups is increasing while the violence by sub-nationalist  terrorists is on the decline. The militants of BLA, BRA, BLF and other sub-national terrorists are surrendering in huge numbers. However, the activities of TTP, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, Al-Qaeda and now DAESH are on the rise in the province. The graph below shows comparison of militant attacks in first ten months of the year 2016 in different administrative units of Pakistan. One can clearly find that Balochistan is facing higher number of attacks and resultant deaths and injuries.

picss-graph-2016

Apparent surge in violence is seen by Pakistani security forces as an attempt to disrupt China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is a matter of fact that after announcement of CPEC in early 2015, militant attacks have shown slight increase in Balochistan and in 2016, the numbers have gone further up. Pakistan feels that India sees the success of CPEC as a tangent to her regional and global interests.  China being already on Pakistan`s side while Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia’s desire to become part of CPEC further enhances India`s anxieties. There is strong apprehension in Islamabad that India is trying to engage Pakistan on many fronts. On one hand it is heating up the Line of Control in Kashmir, on the other hand it pushes Afghan government to engage Pakistani troops on western border while supporting anti-Pakistan militant groups internally through Afghan NDS.

Lapses

Tactical lapses

The Police Training Center was not well guarded and protected. Quetta being one of the most affected cities from militant attacks, the Police Training Academy should have been well protected and such an attack should have been well anticipated. However, negligence on the part of police caused heavy human losses. It is yet not clear why the cadets were detained despite being passed out two days before the attack. Chief Minister of Balochistan, Sanaullah Zehri has suspended Commandant Captain (r) Tahir Naveed, Deputy Commandant Yameen Khan and District Superintendent of Police (DSP), Muhammad Ajmal over security lapses. A preliminary report held all three officers responsible for not taking necessary security measures. Meanwhile, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) is formed on directives of the Chief Minister to probe the attack. The team is led by Brigadier Bilal Ali and it includes Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Aitzaz Goraya and representatives of Frontier Corps (FC) and other law enforcement agencies. The provincial government has also written to the Chief Justice (CJ) of Balochistan High Court to hold a judicial inquiry. There was threat alert a couple of days ago that some terrorists had entered into the city but no measures were taken to protect the Police Training Centre.

Lapses at Strategic Level

Balochistan is the prime target of multinational forces primarily due to CPEC and it should have best police force from top to bottom. However, the general precedent is that mostly corrupt and incompetent police officers are posted to Balochistan as punishment. By and large poor governance and corruption is trademark of Balochistan irrespective of which party is in power. Terrorists operate with impunity in such environment. Unless issues of governance and corruption are addressed properly, the chances of more such attacks will remain high. The issue of corruption is not limited to civil law enforcement agencies. There have been serious allegations against paramilitary forces as well. Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif however has taken stern actions against corruption in the province and fired some top-ranked officers from Army who were found guilty of corruption during their postings in Balochistan.

The civilian side too will have to address the issue of corruption as well as bad governance if they are serious in fighting terrorism in the province. Since Balochistan being the prime target of anti-CPEC forces, Pakistan has no other choice but to seriously devise a comprehensive security plan for the province.

Conclusion

PICSS Militancy Database shows that the number of high profile attacks have been on the rise during 2016. It shows that the militants are able to regroup and fight back. The gains of Zarb-e-Azb need to be consolidated. The one-dimensional policy of using only hard power never create lasting impact. After clearing entire FATA from militants, Pakistani State is in a stronger position to open up political channel for those militants who want to reconcile and shun violence. Currently, they have only one option and that is to kill or be killed. As per PICSS Militancy Database, Pakistan has killed more than 28000 militants during last fifteen years but they always find new recruits to fill the gap. The biggest negative side of  Zarb-e-Azb is that Pakistan could not eliminate top leadership of militant groups.  Their command and control centers have also been shifted to Afghanistan where they can be easily approached by hostile agencies. Pakistan also could not devise a comprehensive national strategy to fight on ideological front. Thus, the ideology is there, motivation is available, and leadership is intact, the only thing they require is finance, and logistic which is not a big deal. There is no doubt that ideally there should be no room for any organization that operates on sectarian lines. However, it is a reality that Pakistani society has some fault lines that are delicate. Lashkar-e-Jhanvi draws its strength from Deobandi hardliners who blame Iran for promoting hate material against sacred Muslim personalities. Sipa-e-Sahaba (Now Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat or AWSJ) represents the Sunni sentiments. Current State policies have left no room for the group to operate within the constitutional framework. On the other hand, the rival sectarian groups are working openly without much hindrance from the State. A safety valve is required for such groups along with State’s pressure as well as programs to mainstream them. Pushing them to the wall strengthen hands of LeJ and likes. While threat of Islamic State is looming large, Pakistan needs to address the concerns of a considerable portion of its population. The resurge of militant attacks in the country cannot be controlled with use of kinetic force only. Pakistan needs to have a comprehensive strategy employing political, social and economic  components of national power to deal with the threat.

 

The writer works at PICSS as Managing Director and is an expert on militancy. He can be reached at Abdullah.khan33@gmail.com or @AbdullahKhan333 (Twitter), Abdullah.khan22 (Facebook)