Pakistan's security forces grapple with ominous rise in ISIS violence

The rugged, mountainous province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has become the epicentre of militant violance in Pakistan

Rescue workers search for victims amid debris at the scene of a suicide bomb blast at a Mosque during Friday prayers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Hangu district, Pakistan. EPA
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Recent bombings attributed to ISIS in Pakistan that have killed dozens and targeted worshippers in mosques have raised the spectre of a new threat to the country’s security.

Until recently, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan had been a primary concern for security forces, after a wave of attacks in the aftermath of failed ceasefire talks between the government and the group, in November last year.

Baloch insurgents, who, alongside the Taliban, stand accused of attacking Chinese workers and diplomats, have also been seen as a growing threat. Amid worsening security in rugged, often mountainous parts of the north and east of the country, ISIS appears to be taking advantage of the chaos.

ISIS has garnered significant attention, eclipsing even other militant groups in Pakistan.

Last Friday, Pakistan was affected by two suicide bombings. One attack left 55 dead and numerous others injured in Balochistan, while another claimed the lives of five people and left 12 wounded in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

A senior security official revealed that the fingerprints of one of the suicide bombers in Hangu did not match any records in Pakistan, suggesting the attacker may have been a foreign national.

The official emphasised that some threats were extremely difficult to contain. Suicide bombers, he noted, pose a formidable challenge due to their mobility and the risk they could detonate their explosives, even if intercepted before reaching their target.

US-Afghan withdrawal chaos

He said one pressing concern for Pakistan’s security establishment is the substantial cache of modern weaponry left behind by departing US forces in Afghanistan.

The US left heavy equipment in Afghanistan as part of its withdrawal, while the Afghan National Army abandoned vast quantities of military gear as it collapsed in the face of the final Taliban offensive in August 2021. These weapons – including night vision equipment – have fallen into the hands of various militant groups, presenting a heightened challenge to security forces.

The official also cited a significant ISIS-related incident in June, highlighting the group’s proficiency with the captured technology.

On June 25, an unidentified motorcyclist shot and injured an intelligence agency officer, leading to a confrontation with the police. During a search of the biker’s belongings, officers discovered mobile phones, a pistol, an Afghan citizenship card, and a Bus Rapid Transit card for use in Peshawar.

Investigation revealed that the militant, who worked under several pseudonyms connected to the BRT's Wi-Fi public network to avoid detection.

Subsequently, the Counter Terrorism Department tracked down his father-in-law, residing in Peshawar, and dismantled the ISIS network.

Inspector General of Police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Akhtar Hayat Khan, said the geographical proximity of his province and Balochistan to Afghanistan is a significant factor contributing to terrorist incidents.

He said the CTD has been strengthened with resources, leading to significant breakthroughs.

Last week, forces apprehended a gang comprising six members communicating on WhatsApp groups and operating from Afghanistan. The gang targeted affluent people, making extortion calls using Afghan mobile numbers.

He said tribal affiliations between militants and the long-term presence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan strongholds have also played a role in the volatility of the region. The movement has been fighting against the Pakistani government since around 2007.

He said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa accounts for 67 per cent of total attacks in Pakistan in 2022, but this figure had decreased to 55 per cent this year. He said incidents of terrorism in the rest of the country remained relatively low, around 2 to 3 per cent of the total.

Sarfraz Khan, an analyst and former director of the Area Study Centre at the University of Peshawar, attributed the recent surge in terrorist attacks in Pakistan to the policies of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his aide Faiz Hamid, a retired army general.

“During Imran Khan’s tenure, negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan took place, resulting in the crossing of thousands of TTP militants into Pakistan as the government displayed leniency. Over 5,000 militants entered Pakistan during these negotiations, and when talks failed and the ceasefire dissolved, the consequences are now being felt,” he added.

He also highlighted the radicalisation of young people, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan over the past two decades, pointing to Imran Khan's government as a contributing factor. He argued that all militant groups, whether labelled as ISIS, TTP, or otherwise, are ultimately detrimental to society, emphasising the need for a unified approach to combating extremism.

Updated: October 01, 2023, 5:50 PM