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Pakistan Confronts Growing Threat From Islamic State-Khorasan

Police officers carry an injured colleague on a stretcher following a bomb blast in Sibi, a city in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, on March 8. 

Since it first emerged in 2015, Islamic State’s local affiliate in Afghanistan has focused its violent campaign within that country, fighting against Afghan and foreign forces as well as the Taliban, a rival militant group.

But experts say Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) is now shifting its war to neighboring Pakistan as it comes under mounting pressure from the Taliban, which has waged a fierce war against IS-K militants in Afghanistan since seizing power in August.

IS-K has claimed responsibility for a string of high-profile attacks in Pakistan, underscoring the growing threat it poses to the predominately Muslim nation of some 220 million people.

In the deadliest attack, an IS-K suicide bomber blew himself up inside a Shi’ite mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar on March 4, killing at least 64 people and wounding scores of others. It was the most lethal attack in Pakistan in nearly four years.

Relatives mourn the death of their loved ones outside a hospital following a bomb blast at a mosque in Peshawar on March 4.
Relatives mourn the death of their loved ones outside a hospital following a bomb blast at a mosque in Peshawar on March 4.

Experts believe IS-K militants have moved from their bases in Afghanistan and established cells in major Pakistani cities.

“IS-K has no political agenda, which pushes it to rely on violence as its only instrument,” Sami Yousafzai, a veteran journalist and commentator, told RFE/RL.

“Their mounting attacks inside Pakistan are a sign that they want to use violence to stay relevant,” he said, adding that small IS-K cells can survive better in Pakistan’s populous cities compared to the sparsely populated mountains in eastern Afghanistan.

‘Bigger Threat’

The IS-K assaults have provoked fear and alarm in Pakistan, which has also witnessed a dramatic surge in attacks by the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a rival extremist group that has close ties with the Afghan Taliban.

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher who tracks IS-K, says the TTP claimed responsibility for 257 attacks in Pakistan last year compared to 19 attacks by IS-K. Both groups have focused their attacks on the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan.

But the target of IS-K’s attacks, he says, are more worrying for Pakistanis.

“The TTP has restricted its attacks to the security forces while [IS-K] is choosing soft targets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where ordinary civilians are the victims,” Sayed said.

IS-K has already carried out five attacks this year. On March 8, IS-K claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb that killed five members of the security forces and wounded 28 people others in southwestern Pakistan.

The growing attacks prompted Moazzam Jah Ansari, the police chief in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to declare IS-K a "bigger threat to peace and security in the province compared to the TTP."

Security personnel inspect a mosque after a bomb blast in Peshawar on March 4.
Security personnel inspect a mosque after a bomb blast in Peshawar on March 4.

Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, a think tank based in Islamabad, says despite its smaller numbers IS-K is a growing danger to Islamabad's security.

“They lack the manpower the TTP possesses, which is why we do not see a continuity in their attacks,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.

Militant Rivalry

Sayed says IS-K’s rising number of attacks in Pakistan is part of its rivalry with the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban.

“The main strategy appears to be that [IS-K] wants to undermine the value of the TTP’s terror in its main target area,” Sayed said.

Many IS-K fighters are former members of the TTP, which was thrown into disarray and driven out of its bases in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt by a massive military offensive in 2014. Disgruntled members of the TTP founded the IS-K in eastern Afghanistan in early 2015, according to Sayed.

But the TTP soon found itself fighting turf wars with the Afghan Taliban. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the rivalry has intensified.

The Afghan militants have waged a nationwide hunt for IS-K members and even targeted the country’s small Salafi minority to curb alleged support for the group from among its members.

“There is information suggesting [IS-K] members have fled Afghanistan for Pakistan because of their fear for the Taliban,” Sayed said.

Underscoring the rivalry, the Afghan Taliban condemned IS-K’s deadly attack in Peshawar. The TTP, meanwhile, said that such attacks do not align with its jihad, or holy war, in Pakistan.

Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist and TV presenter, says the growing threat of IS-K showcases Islamabad’s failure to tackle terrorist groups despite repeatedly claiming to have defeated them.

“We claim that we have broken the backbone of terrorists. Yet the terrorists continue to launch almost daily attacks,” he told Radio Mashaal.

Radio Mashaal correspondent Majeed Babar contributed to this story.