The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), if not for its random terrorist attacks throughout the globe, should have been retreating due to its annexed land in Iraq and Syria being retaken. Though ISIS has not been dealt a significant blow just yet, the extremist organization also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh has certainly failed in its attempt to gain more traction in the region.
It has also not been able to drum up support for its followers around the world through its function as a “caliphate.” The drastic gains in Iraq can be linked to the policies of former Prime Minister and Vice President of Iraq Norui al-Maliki as well as the tactical aid of Bashar al-Assad, who, along with Russian forces, fought Syrian rebel groups more often than the more lethal ISIS. Despite this, experts have made premature assumptions regarding ISIS’ foothold in Pakistan.
ISIS failing to gain momentum
One of the main differentiating factors between ISIS and the Taliban is the geography of their respective regions. This factor is what may be the primary force in keeping ISIS out of Pakistan. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is largely porous, which prevents ISIS agents from moving freely. In order for an ISIS supported to move to Turkey or Iraq, they would need a passport, a valid visa, and an airplane ticket. The Taliban, on the other hand, did not have to deal with any border bureaucracy. Ankara, the capital of Turkey, has begun to implement much stricter screening procedures to keep Daesh members in check.
Additionally, Pashtuns have had tribal, cultural, and trade relations for centuries in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This kind of centuries-old relation does not exist in the eastern-Mediterranean Middle East countries. Pakistan supported Afghan insurgents against the Soviets in the past as policy, as well. The idea of a militia undermining the mujahideen was supported by the military establishment as well as Major-General Naseerullah Babar, one of Benazir’s trusted allies. The result was the Taliban controlling up to 90% of Afghanistan as well as the imposition of Shariah law. Because of this, Pakistan was one of the last to withdraw its support for the legitimacy of Omar’s government, unlike Daesh-controlled areas.
Furthermore, supporters of radical Islam have become disillusioned by this prolonged war in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan’s own clean-up operation. Also, ISIS isn’t needy for more zealous soldiers, considering Daesh is, in a sense, a contemporary of al Qaeda. ISIS insurgents are more developed than Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in almost every way.
Despite difficulties, there have been several instances in which Pakistanis have made their way into ISIS-controlled territory. Among one of these cases is the instance in which a mother left Lahore with her children in order to join ISIS. However, according to some estimates, the amount of Pakistanis that have joined ISIS is relatively minuscule compared to its vast population of 180 million.
Many of these individuals are those studying and/or working in the West, which allows them arrange travel, logistics, and make contacts much easier than it would otherwise be at home. These individuals most likely have a higher level of technological skills than those back home.
ISIS has competition in Pakistan
Many analysts have said that while the group’s ultra-violent ideology has seen some successes as a recruitment tool, ISIS is still struggling for a foothold in Pakistan largely due to competition from other, well-established extremist groups already located there.
“My sense is that it has had limited success mainly because it has to compete for recruits with indigenous jihadi organizations,” said Marvin G. Weinbaum, the director of the Pakistan Center at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C..
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the US-based Middle East Forum added that he “[doesn’t] see it as having the potential to make large-scale territorial gains and existentially threatening Pakistan as a nation. I am also somewhat skeptical of the potential to supplant Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Nonetheless, Pakistani officials have rounded up hundreds of suspects have been arrested as authorities attempt to break up a domestic ISIS recruitment network. “Educated, motivated and unemployed youth are an Islamic State recruitment base in Pakistan. We have busted several recruitment cells here,” a senior security official said.
Pakistan will need to toughen up its guard against ISIS and ISIS recruitment networks from expanding throughout the country. The entire Muslim world, including Pakistan, will need to be ready for potential future attacks if ISIS shifts into a guerrilla-style organization with large financial resources, arsenals, and foot soldiers in its ranks.