In recent weeks, there has been a lot of activity taking place in various parts of Pakistan in the name of the abominable, but also ineluctable, Islamic State (IS). Apart from some senior commanders of the Mullah Fazlullah-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction who have announced their allegiance to the IS’ Caliph Ibrahim a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there are reports of other smaller groups of militants who have cast their lot with the pestilential IS. Graffiti and posters of the IS have appeared in Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, Bannu, Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, Wah, Hangu, Kurram, Bhakkar, Dera Ismail Khan and other towns and cities of the country.
While these developments have caused a flutter in the media, official circles are quite nonchalant about the IS’s presence in Pakistan at present, or even its potential for establishing a presence in the future. Despite a classified report of the Balochistan government about the ‘growing footprint’ of IS, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has confidently claimed that the IS doesn’t exist in Pakistan.
Considering that just a few days after Nisar declared that there was no danger of terrorism in Islamabad an attack was launched on Islamabad courts and the city’s vegetable market, he shouldn’t be taken seriously. Although there is no sign of a major presence of the IS in Pakistan, the threat of the IS establishing itself is very real. There are eerie parallels that can be drawn between how the IS is registering its presence in Pakistan with how the Taliban network was established in the country. In the mid-1990s, more so after the Taliban captured Kabul, there were a spate of gangs and groups, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), who declared themselves local representatives or chapters of the Taliban movement.
The sort of graffiti that today proclaims the arrival of the IS had back then done the same for the Taliban. No one had imagined at that time that the Taliban would manage to establish such a robust presence in the country or attract so many fighters, supporters and sympathisers for its cause. More importantly, at that time, hardly anyone outside the liberal fringe in Pakistan believed that the Taliban would be able to occupy the mind space of Pakistanis the way they did. Today, there are people from all walks of life in Pakistan –traders, soldiers, politicians, journalists, doctors, teachers, labourers and techies – who identify with the Taliban. It is therefore not too farfetched to imagine that something similar may happen with the IS, more so given the manner in which this ghoulish outfit has managed to strike resonance among certain sections of Muslims around the world and become a magnet for them, much more than the Taliban or their predecessors in Afghanistan had managed to do ever since violent jihad became fashionable.
One big disadvantage that the IS will suffer in its quest to make Pakistan a province of its Caliphate is that, for now at least, it doesn’t enjoy the support of the Pakistan Army which continues to back Mullah Omar, the other pretender to the title of Amir-ul-Momineen. On the flip side, the IS has advantages that the Taliban or their patrons in the GHQ Rawalpindi don’t. Mullah Omar is nothing more than a medieval mullah who in the words of al-Baghdadi, is "an illiterate, ignorant warlord unworthy of spiritual or political respect." The IS on the other hand is a modern, tech-savvy outfit with ideological and propaganda machinery that strikes a chord among Muslim youth around the world. Second, the IS has resources and revenue stream that neither the Taliban nor their bankrupt patrons in Rawalpindi have. This allows them to buy and attract support as nothing else can. Third, unlike Omar who is an Afghan and as such unfit or unacceptable as a leader of the Islamic world as a Caliph or Amir-ul-Momineen, al-Baghdadi is an Arab who traces his roots to the Prophet’s tribe and clan and as such is better-placed to assume leadership. Fourth, while Omar’s vision doesn’t extend beyond his donkey, al-Baghdadi talks of global domination of his Islamic caliphate. Omar’s outreach to the global Islamists is through al Qaeda – that has already been pushed to the fringes of the jihadist narrative by the IS which now is in the vanguard of the international Islamist movement. The IS has started establishing a global footprint through its use of modern communication tools while the al Qaeda leadership remains stuck in their rabbit holes, unable to communicate or command their franchises.
Despite the fact that a bulk of the jihadists in Pakistan currently swear loyalty to Mullah Omar, the advantages that ‘Caliph’ Ibrahim enjoys does somewhat level the field in trying to win over Pakistan. Perhaps, the biggest advantage he will have is that he doesn’t depend on the crutches of the Pakistan Army. This, coupled with the fact that Pakistan is a highly radicalised society, makes it a fertile ground for the IS to spread its poison. What is more, al-Baghdadi is believed to have heavily relied on Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul Ala Maududi’s writings in his first khutba as Caliph, something that will make it easy for him to connect to Pakistanis who have in one form or another been indoctrinated by the Maududi and his followers.
Clearly, Baghdadi would be smacking his lips at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Islamised Pakistan (part of the legendary Khorasan) becoming a province of his caliphate. For their part, many Pakistanis too would be looking forward to becoming a part of such an abomination because that would fulfil their quest for living in a pure Islamic caliphate. And given the sort of intolerance that exists in Pakistan, it is ideally suited to become a province of IS. All that remains is to get rid of that other pretender and then the path will be clear for ‘Caliph’ Ibrahim.