On Wednesday, Iraq’s Defence Ministry reported that Abu Alaa al-Afari, second in command of Islamic State, had been killed in an air strike in country’s north. The Ministry’s website shows footage of what an air strike on the “Martyrs Mosque” in the village of al-Iyadhiya near Tel Afar. The ministry said Afari was killed in a coalition attack on a mosque, where he was meeting with other militants.
However US Central Command has vehemently denied that a coalition air strike had hit the mosque, and said it could not confirm any claims that the deputy commander had been killed.
The Iraqi government has previously announced the death of Islamic State militants who had not been killed. Recent reports suggested that IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had been incapacitated by an air strike in the same region of Iraq. The Pentagon has also denied those reports.
In Turkey, foreign ministers of NATO nations met to examine how to fight Islamic State. The ministers met in Antalya discuss, among other things, instability in in Syria and Iraq, where IS controls broad swaths of territory. US Secretary of State John Kerry said his NATO counterparts wanted to see a clearer defense agreement with Gulf Arab states to fight terror ahead of a summit that President Barack Obama will host at Camp David on Thursday.
Meanwhile, a branch of Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a bus attack in Karachi, Pakistan on Tuesday. Men on motorbikes followed bus, which was carrying men, women, and children of a minority sect of Ismaili Muslims. The bikers fired on the bus with automatic weapons as it travelled through the city. When the bus stopped, gunmen forced their way on board and killed dozens of commuters at close range. The six gunmen killed 45 people and injured 13. It was the deadliest single sectarian attack in Pakistan since the suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in southern Shikarpur district killed 61 in January.
A survivor from the shootings said the gunmen began a systematic execution once on the bus. “They want to target us because we are not Muslims according to most people in Pakistan,” he said. Ismaili Muslims are part of an international community of Shia Muslims who follow the Aga Khan, a Europe-based spiritual leader and business tycoon. In Pakistan, many citizens hold to a strict interpretation of the Muslim faith, and consider Ismailis, Ahmedis, and other minority sects of Islam to be “un-Islamic”. To members of Islamic State or other Sunni-based terrorist groups, anyone who does not adhere to their strict and radical brand of Islam is considered heretical.
Both Islamic State and a Pakistani Taliban splinter group rushed to claim responsibility. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on Twitter accounts that described the Ismaili victims as “infidels”. Further, printed leaflets left near the scene of the attack also claimed it was the work of ISIS. The message said that the attackers were avenging, among other things, the “torture of Sunni women by the army” and the “killing of our fighters by the Karachi police”.
However, Jundullah, a Pakistani Taliban splinter group, also rushed to claim responsibility. A spokesman for the group said, “These killed people were Ismaili and we consider them [non-Muslim]. We had four attackers. In the coming days we will attack Ismailis, Shias and Christians.” Some Pakistani Taliban militants have pledged allegiance ISIS, however it is believed that the group’s presence in Pakistan is small.
Karachi is two years into an operation to target criminal gangs and terrorists in the city. The government of Sindh, the province of which Karachi is the capital, responded to the attacks by announcing the suspension of senior police officials and promising financial compensation for the families of victims.
On April 10, after five days of debate, Pakistan’s lawmakers decided against offering military support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Although Saudi Arabia had previously asked Pakistan to contribute various military assets, including aircraft, troops and ships, to the campaign, a joint session of the Senate and National assembly has instead adopted a resolution favouring neutrality. “The parliament of Pakistan expresses serious concern on the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Yemen and its implications for peace and stability of the region”, the resolution said. “[It} desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis.” In trying to understand why Pakistan has voted against helping an old ally, three factors must be considered: military, religious and economic.
First, this resolution is broadly consistent with prevailing military opinion in Pakistan, which considers that its resources, already thinly stretched by on-going counter-insurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, would be unable to sustain a protracted campaign in Yemen. It also reflects an undercurrent of battle fatigue. With the Afghan war drawing to a close, Pakistani politicians are unwilling to commit themselves to another drawn out foreign war, which experts believe might spiral out of control into a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh. Second, concerns have been raised in Pakistan over the advisability of becoming involved in a conflict between a coalition of Sunni-majority countries and Shia Houthi rebels. In recent years, there have been numerous attacks by Sunni militants against Pakistan’s Shia minority and it is feared that becoming embroiled in this conflict will further inflame the country’s sectarian tensions. The third factor which has caused Islamabad to vote in favour of neutrality is its need to maintain economic ties with Iran. For some time, energy-starved Pakistan has been trying to grow closer to Iran, even building a pipeline to pump much needed Iranian natural gas into the country. Although Tehran has been accused by the Saudi government of backing the Shiite rebels, Islamabad would be unwilling to take any action which might compromise their relationship with the Islamic Republic.
These factors, amongst others, have prevented Nawaz Sharif from being able to answer the Saudi government’s call for help. At first glance, this might seem like an awkward situation for the Pakistani prime minister to find himself in. After all, his administration has benefited enormously from the kingdom’s largesse, including a US$1.5 billion “gift” from the Saudi government that was used to stabilise the rupee against the US dollar. It may, however, have been a calculated move on Sharif’s part to avoid getting caught up in a power struggle by two powerful and important allies. By hand-balling this decision to the Pakistani parliament, Sharif’s government has been able to hide behind a smokescreen generated by democratic process. Rather than becoming involved in a costly and bloody war, Pakistan is now committed to playing a mediating role in the conflict, while promising to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Saudi Arabia in the unlikely event that its territorial integrity be violated or its holy sites in Mecca and Medina come under threat.
Despite Sharif’s canny political manoeuvring, Pakistan’s commitment to neutrality may be tested in the coming days. Senior ministers and public servants from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have voiced their criticism over Pakistan’s decision. “If Pakistan doesn’t take a position, that means they’re just a bystander,” said Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Ammar, senior adviser in Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs, in an interview on Sunday. If pushed, Sharif may be forced to exercise his constitutional authority over the Pakistani military and override the parliament’s decision. He and his government will doubtless hope that the conflict is resolved long before he is required to make such a potentially disastrous decision.
Saudi Arabia has announced plans to raze 96 deserted border villages in order to prevent their use by infiltrators from neighbouring Yemen, where the kingdom is leading airstrikes on Shiite Houthi rebels, according to a report released on Sunday. Hassan Aqili, border guard chief in the area, stated in the report that the operation would prevent the empty houses from turning into “a safe haven for traffickers and infiltrators.” The Kingdom has already demolished ten villages since the Saudi-led coalition began conducting airstrikes on Houthi rebel targets on 26 March. Three Saudi border guards have been killed by gunfire from within Yemen since Riyadh launched air raids against the Houthis.
Despite the intensity of fighting, the ground situation in Yemen has only changed slightly, with the most change occurring in the contested Aden region. Over the weekend, southern tribal alliances have appeared to become more organised and effective at combatting the Houthi militia. On 5 April, the tribal militias claimed they recaptured the town of Lawdar from the Houthis, and will use the town to as a base to assist anti-Houthi forces in Aden. However, because the Houthis withdrew from the region, there is no effective gauge to measure the effectiveness of the tribal militias.
Amid the fighting, a humanitarian crisis is developing as infrastructure and utilities have been destroyed. Fighting on the ground and coalition-led airstrikes have prevented the delivery of essentials, including water, to civilian populations. Russia, China, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have called for a 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire in order to deliver much needed aid. The Red Cross planning to send two planes carrying medical help and other aid to Yemen over the next 48 hours. The humanitarian organisation is still seeking clearance to bring a team of surgeons from the ICRC and the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres to Aden from Djibouti by boat.
Meanwhile, on 6 April, Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told a joint session of parliament that during his visit to Saudi Arabia last week, the Kingdom formally requested Pakistani military assistance for the Yemen campaign, including combat planes, warships and soldiers. The two nations have a shared a strong relationship for decades, however there have been no public statements by Pakistani leasers to show support or intentions of sending troops. Pakistan is likely wary of straining its ties with Iran. The Pakistan parliament is deliberating the degree of assistance they will provide.
Reports and rumours of disaffected Afghan and Pakistani Taliban insurgents pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group have been circulating since late September last year. In southern Zabul and Helmand provinces, Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Taliban commander recently killed in an air strike, was alleged to have been recruiting fighters on behalf of IS. In Kunar and Farah provinces, jihadi training camps have been established while in Ghazni and Paktika provinces, Afghan government officials have announced that hundreds of IS-affiliated foreign fighters posing as refugees have been fighting under the black flag. Although many of these claims have been hard to verify independently, sufficient evidence has emerged in recent months to support the belief that the IS wish to expand their operations into Southern Asia. It is, however, unclear to what extent they have succeeded in doing so.
In response to tactical losses in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has recently been pursuing a strategy designed to preserve its operational capability from destruction. While its primary objective is to defend the territories currently under its control in Iraq and Syria, forays into Lebanon, Libya and elsewhere have proven that its territorial ambitions are not limited to a small corner of the Middle East but are on a vast, global scale. In January 2015, IS spokesperson Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami outlined the Islamic State’s agenda in Southern Asia. In a press release published by the Islamic State’s media wing, Al-Furqan, al Adnani announced the so-called caliphate’s expansion to Khorasan— a geopolitical entity which includes part of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, India and China. Meanwhile, In a separate press release which also appeared in the middle of January, former Pakistani Taliban member Shahidullah Shahid revealed the names of the individuals who would take command of various parts of Afghanistan, including the name of the chapter’s leader, Hafez Saeed Khan, a former commander in the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). More recently, the Islamic State announced the creation of Khorasan Shura – a leadership council for Pakistan and Afghanistan which is almost entirely made up of former TTP leaders. By establishing this council, the IS demonstrated its desire to establish influence amongst Pakistani and Afghani jihadis.
In aligning itself with former AfPak militant commanders and local jihadist groups, the Islamic State’s purpose has been twofold: first, it wants to establish a network of individuals who possess highly developed local knowledge and are capable of launching independent military operations; second, it hopes to polarise public opinion against the U.S led coalition, thereby preparing the ground for further IS expansion. However, these objectives have met with some resistance from local insurgent groups. After al Adnani announced the Khorasan expansion, he also called on: “all the mujahideed in Khorasan to join the caravan of the khalifah [caliph] and abandon disunity and factionalism.” In issuing this call to arms, Al-Adnani and the Islamic State may have inadvertently entered into a turf war with the Afghani Taliban. First, long-standing ideological conventions may prevent some Taliban loyalists from accepting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as khalifah because Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Supreme Leader of the Taliban, holds the position of Amir ul-Momimeen (Commander of the Faithful Believers). Second, the Afghan Taliban is a nationalist insurgent group: its chief goal is to overthrow the current Afghan government. In contrast, the Islamic state is a expansionist organisation determined to establish its caliphate. Third, the IS split from al Qaeda, a Taliban ally, in February 2014, making an IS-Taliban joint venture even less plausible.
While increased cooperation between the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State seems unlikely, conditions may be more suitable for greater IS penetration in Pakistan. In the first place, Pakistan has a reputation for fostering the growth and expansion of Sunni militant groups and, unlike Afghanistan, is riven by deep, sectarian cleavages that the profoundly anti-Shiite IS may be able to exploit. Furthermore, Pakistani militants have shown themselves to be more susceptible to IS overtures than their Afghani counterparts, a factor which may result in the ultimate dissolution of the TTP if more and more Taliban commanders and fighters defect. Should the TTP disintegrate, one possible outcome is that the Pakistani government, which continues to use terrorist groups to advance its foreign policy, might bestow their patronage on the Islamic State. Another possibility is that an intra-jihadist struggle will emerge between groups trying to retain their influence and autonomy within the region.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan both face more immediate problems from local insurgent groups, the threat posed by the Islamic State cannot be ignored. Steps must be taken immediately to ensure that the IS cannot gain a foothold in the AfPak region. Otherwise, the expansion of the IS caliphate may continue unabated throughout Eastern Asia.
Since the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on June 15, 2014, Pakistan’s efforts to combat militant groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have somewhat revived Washington’s flagging confidence in Islamabad and have led to greater levels of cooperation between the two countries. However, a statement made on January 13, 2015 by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in Islamabad suggests that America still believes Pakistan is playing a “double game”; that it is continuing to use terrorist groups to advance its own foreign policy interests. After being questioned by a reporter about Pakistan’s willingness to target groups like the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e Tayyiba Secretary Kerry said: “we’ve been very clear with the highest levels of the Government of Pakistan that Pakistan has to target all militant groups, the Haqqani Network and others…And Pakistan has made it very clear that they intend to do so.” While it is as yet too early to say whether or not Pakistan will remain committed to the war on terror, one thing is clear: Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and India will be difficult to promote if they are forced to sever ties with all the militant groups currently residing within their borders.
Ample evidence of Pakistan’s dealings with terrorist groups has emerged over the past decade. In 2006, a leaked British Defence Ministry Report claimed that “Indirectly Pakistan (through the [Inter-Services Agency]) has been supporting terrorism and extremism.” In a 2009 interview, U.S Defence Secretary Robert Gates accused Pakistan of “playing both sides”, claiming that they use groups like the Taliban to ensure that they will have leverage in Afghanistan once the U.S leaves. This explains why Pakistan has not received certification from the State Department for having met the requirements of the Kerry-Lugar Bill (in which authorisation for appropriation of funds requires, amongst other things, evidence of a “sustained commitment…towards combatting terrorist groups”) since 2011. Progress has been made, State Department officials claim, but not enough.
As far as Islamabad is concerned, to the extent that terrorist groups have helped advance Pakistan’s goals, they have served a useful purpose. But the cost of entering into a Faustian pact with them has been immense. It has resulted in the emergence of factions and splinter groups who attack Pakistanis and push Islamabad into conflicts which have the potential to undermine their security at home and their strategic interests abroad.
Two incidents in particular are responsible for the vigour with which the Pakistani army is currently waging war against militant groups. The first occurred on June 8, 2014, when ten members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a TTP affiliate, launched an attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, killing twenty six people and wounding eighteen. In the days following this attack, the Pakistani military launched a series of attacks which culminated in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a comprehensive military offensive which is being waged against militant groups in North Waziristan. So far, the campaign has brought about the deaths of more than 1,100 militants and dramatically reduced the operational capabilities of groups fighting in the area. It has also demonstrated an increased willingness on Islamabad’s part to hunt down groups which it is alleged to have supported. When Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharif visited Washington in November 2014, he was praised by the Pentagon for having targeted the Haqqani Network, which both the U.S and Afghan governments have accused Pakistan of protecting in the past.
The second incident took place on December 16, 2014, when nine members of the TTP entered a school in Peshawar and killed 145 people, 132 of whom were children. It was, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, a “decisive moment”, and one in which should cause Pakistanis to unite against a common enemy. In the days following the attack Pakistan’s military, intelligence and police forces launched successive punitive strikes against militants, resulting in numerous deaths including TTP commander Abid Muchar. It is significant that after the attack, Pakistan’s Prime Minister said that there would no longer be any distinction drawn between “good Taliban and bad Taliban”; a tacit acknowledgement of the patronage which Pakistan had formerly bestowed upon terrorist groups.
After the massacre in Peshawar, there was an outpouring of grief across the country. The Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement announced a three day period of mourning, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam declared that scheduled protests would be postponed, out of respect for the deceased and their families. In Islamabad, protestors gathered outside the Red Mosque when a hard-line Islamic cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz refused to condemn the attack. For now, it seems as though Pakistan has been united against terror. Whether or not this state continues will, as Secretary Kerry said, be determined by the actions by the government “over the coming weeks.” But in order to ensure that Pakistan remains committed to the fight against terror two things must happen: first, its security services must stop using terrorist groups as proxies and second, its leadership must rethink its ambitions in Afghanistan and India. Until then, the situation in Pakistan and its relationship with the United States seems unlikely to change.