After attack on church in Quetta, Islamabad faces harsh realities
ISLAMABAD—Pakistan has long denied the presence of the Islamic State in its territory, despite the fact the terror group has conducted attacks across the country, killing innocent civilians and security forces.
The debate over ISIS’ ability to harm national security resurfaced on Sunday after an attack on a church—situated in the heart of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province—killed nine worshipers and injured nearly fifty more, including women and children.
Morning prayers had just started at the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church when two terrorists wearing explosive vests and armed with AK-47 rifles stormed the holy site. A guard was able to neutralize one of the perpetrators, however, the other blew himself up near the main sanctuary of the building.
That afternoon, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in an online statement published by its Amaq outlet, the sixth such admission over the past two years.
Provincial Home Minister Sarfraz Bugti commended the response by security personnel, which prevented further loss of life. “The death toll could have been higher had the attacker managed to reach the main hall of the church,” he explained to The Media Line.
The Islamic State’s footprint first emerged in Pakistan in mid-2014 when pro-ISIS graffiti and propaganda—including a booklet called “Fateh”—appeared on the streets of Pakistani cities such as Peshawar and Karachi, as well as in the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas.
In November of that year, authorities in Baluchistan sent a confidential report to the federal government warning of the organization’s growing presence. The report stated that ISIS was recruiting hundreds of followers from the Hangu and Kurram Agency tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and called for the implementation of measures to stem their influence.
By February 2016, the director-general of the Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau told the Senate Standing Committee on Interior that the Islamic State was emerging as a serious threat. He claimed that Pakistan-based terrorist groups like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan were cooperating with ISIS.
However, only three days later Pakistan’s Home Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan claimed that “ISIS does not exist in Pakistan.”
With the government reluctant to admit ISIS was making inroads in Pakistan, the terror group, in conjunction with the Taliban, launched its first attack in the country on August 8, 2016, killing at least 70 people in Quetta, which borders both war-torn Afghanistan and Iran. It might have served as a wake-up call but Islamabad responded tepidly and was slow to devise a counter-strategy.
As a result, ISIS struck again in Quetta just two months later, this time targeting a police training college. Three heavily armed terrorists attacked sleeping cadets, killing 61 and injuring more than 165 others. The Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group shared responsibility for the attack.
Since then, ISIS has become emboldened and on February 16 of this year perpetrated a suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine in Sindh Province, killing more than one hundred people and wounding over 300 others. In May, another suicide bombing hit the convoy of the Deputy Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, killing more than two dozen people. An official document compiled by Pakistan’s Home Ministry, a copy of which was obtained by The Media Line, revealed that ISIS was also responsible for an August attack on a Pakistani military convoy in Quetta, which killed 15 people, including eight soldiers.
Officials in Pakistan’s Home Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity to The Media Line, revealed that ISIS has established a permanent base in Walayat-e-Khurasan and has considerably stepped up efforts to broaden its network there. Meanwhile, Rana Sanaullah, Minister of Law in Pakistan’s Punjab Province confirmed that as many as 100 Pakistanis have joined the terror group in Iraq and Syria.
Investigations into ISIS attacks in Pakistan suggest some were planned and directed from Afghanistan, with a recent United Nations report confirming that ISIS’ leadership regularly communicates with and facilitates the actions of its members in Pakistan. The 20th report from the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, showed that ISIS enlists “partners of convenience” in Afghanistan and also “outsources” terror attacks to local Pakistani organizations such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.
Notably, Pakistan discreetly contributed to the Iraqi government’s battle against ISIS, which has effectively been eradicated from the country. “Pakistan was among a number of countries that supported Iraq in fighting ISIS,” Iraqi Ambassador to Pakistan Ali Yasin Muhammad Karim told reporters in Islamabad following the liberation of Mosul in July.
Pakistan has at times been criticized for allegedly harboring terrorist groups, primarily in the vast tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the military has launched numerous large scale operations targeting such safe havens, which some analysts believe has positioned the country well to combat ISIS.
“Pakistan’s security forces have the capabilities and expertise to deal with terrorist groups like the Islamic State,” Sohail Bhatti, an Islamabad-based security expert told The Media Line.
“I hope they will take the threat posed by ISIS seriously.”