In light of the attack earlier this week on a Shia mosque in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, which killed at least 20 people and injured more than 65 others, questions are bound to be raised on the state of security in the country.
At least four suicide bombers, wearing security forces uniforms, hit the Imamia mosque during Friday prayers, officials and witnesses said.
Three of the attackers succeeded in exploding their vests, while one was unable to do so, Shafqat Malik, the chief of Peshawar’s police Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU), told Al Jazeera. The unexploded vest was defused by the BDU, he added, while several grenades were also recovered from the site.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack in an emailed statement.
The chief spokesperson for Pakistani Taliban (TTP), Shahidullah Shahid, and five other TTP commanders pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (above) in October, giving rise to fears that there may be an increase in popularity for ISIS in Pakistan. The tribal areas in north-west Pakistan have historically been seen as a hotbed for militant groups and the strength and popularity of the Taliban in the area suggests an enthusiasm for hard-line Islamic ideology. With that in mind, it is worrying to some that key members of the Pakistani Taliban have now decided to align themselves with ISIS instead. The question here is: whether the move represents a current of support for ISIS in the region or whether it is merely representative of the fragmentation of the TTP?
Certainly, since the death of TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike last year, the group has appeared to be more divided and lacking in leadership. There has been an increase in desertions and the government offensive, Zarb-e-Azb, has had notable successes , including the destruction of the TTP’s economic base in North Waziristan. The Peshawar school attack in December may be interpreted as an act of desperation from the Pakistani Taliban. These factors, coupled with the success of ISIS mean that the change in allegiance of key members of the TTP is not necessarily a worrying phenomenon and may even be indicative of the organisation’s demise.
Last month, ISIS announced its organisational structure for ‘Khorasan’ (Afghanistan and Pakistan) with a former TTP leader, Hafez Saaed Khan at its head. The announcement included Shahidullah Shahid as spokesperson and showed the beheading of what is thought to be a Pakistani soldier. Shahid then called on followers to “prepare for the great tribulations they will face”.
The financial and territorial success of ISIS far exceeds that of any other extremist group in the Middle East, so it seems probable that it will absorb smaller, less successful groups that do not have the same, organised leadership structure – as recent defection by key TTP members demonstrates.
In Islamabad, the National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said recently that “Islamic State is not a major threat, not a serious problem for Pakistan”. His view is founded on the belief that the threat of ISIS will remain in the tribal areas where the government considers it has significant military operations in place to combat it. In saying this, Aziz has effectively likened the threat of ISIS to that of the other militant groups in the tribal areas. This is an oversight: the rapid expansion and organisational structure of ISIS give it the potential to bring different factions together and provide a greater, more united threat than is currently seen in the region. Not only that but the current success of government forces in tribal areas may mean there are more militants in search of strong leadership and direction; this is something ISIS are perceived to able to provide. Perhaps the greatest fear is that the Pakistani government has overlooked the potential seriousness behind the threat.
This report was written and published by researchers at The Next Century Foundation, a charity devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. With additional information from Al Jazeera.