x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

ISIL’s South Asia branch threatens Pakistan

The involvement of ISIL Khorasan in a new alliance with the Pakistani Taliban and other militants is the group's first sign of activity since announcing its formation in a video posted on extremist websites on January 10.

Soldiers patrol near the official residence of Pervez Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on January 20, 2015, during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar the month before. Umar Qayyum/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Soldiers patrol near the official residence of Pervez Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on January 20, 2015, during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar the month before. Umar Qayyum/Xinhua Press/Corbis

ISLAMABAD // The recently formed South Asian chapter of ISIL has made a military alliance with the Pakistani Taliban and other militants to resist advancing security forces in the Khyber tribal area bordering Afghanistan, militants and security analysts said.

The alliance has been formed to marshal scattered manpower and weapons, and deploy them under a unified military command supervised by a committee of representatives of the four member factions: Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Khyber-based Lashkar-i-Islam, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and ISIL “Khorasan”.

Khorasan is a historic term used by militants to describe a region including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India.

The involvement of ISIL Khorasan in the alliance represents the group’s first political and military activity in the region after announcing its formation in a video posted on militant websites on January 10.

In the video, a collection of former Pakistani and Afghan Taliban faction commanders swore an oath of allegiance to ISIL chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, and named a Pakistani militant, Hafiz Saeed Orakzai, as head of the South Asia chapter. Other commanders were introduced in person and by rank — a risky, defiant move, according to security analysts based in Islamabad.

ISIL Khorasan has a force of fighters numbering in the hundreds, all of them Pakistani tribesmen.

Asked by The National to confirm the formation of the alliance, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, responded cryptically from his Twitter account: “The unification of all holy warriors is a stated aim of our manifesto, and an alliance between Muslims is not an improbable act.”

Security analysts in Islamabad and Peshawar said the four groups had formed a committee to jointly plan and direct operations, initially in Khyber and other tribal areas, and in Peshawar and other cities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

The TTP chief, Mullah Fazlullah, has nominal political leadership of the alliance, while a senior Lashkar-i-Islam commander is head of military operations, because Khyber is the faction’s turf. Similarly, operational control in other adjacent areas in Pakistan rests with the strongest resident faction, the security analysts said.

ISIL Khorasan has provided a significant number of experienced, highly-trained fighters, and an initial injection of cash from its Syria-based leadership, and its new-found allies are excited at the prospect of attaining an official “blessing” from Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, security analysts and militants said.

The relationship between the Pakistani militants and ISIL was nurtured by Shahidullah Shahid, a former TTP spokesman, who travelled to Syria last summer for talks set up by an Afghanistan-based former Al Qaeda militant, Abu Huda Al Sudani.

“There is no doubt that ISIL now poses a serious threat to Pakistan’s security and, from what my sources in the tribal areas are telling me, that threat will grow rapidly,” said Mansur Mahsud, director of research at the Fata Research Centre, an Islamabad think tank focused on the security situation in Pakistan’s federally-administered tribal areas.

The Pakistan military’s operation in Khyber was launched after the government discovered Lashkar-i-Islam had set aside differences with the TTP and, since June, allowed it to use the forested Tirah Valley to funnel reinforcements from eastern Afghanistan to North Waziristan — the focal point of a military offensive involving more than 150,000 troops, helicopter gunships and air force jets.

Lashkar-i-Islam was quickly forced out of the adjacent farmed plains of Bara, a hashish-producing region of Khyber near Peshawar, and its leader, Mangal Bagh, reached out to his erstwhile TTP adversaries for help to maintain control over the Tirah Valley.

The TTP acquiesced and in early December announced it had sent reinforcements into Tirah, which is the last cross-border conduit available to Pakistani militants forced by the military campaign to flee into eastern Afghanistan.

As a quid pro quo for the TTP’s reinforcements, Lashkar-i-Islam facilitated the TTP massacre of 148, mostly children, at an army-run school in Peshawar on December 16, Pakistani security officials have said. The group allowed the TTP attackers to transit its territory in Tirah, and provided them logistical and intelligence support from its network of operatives in Peshawar.

The attack was launched from the Nazyan district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which borders Tirah, making the area a strategic priority for Pakistan.

The prospective loss of Tirah is also of immediate strategic concern to ISIL Khorasan, because its Pakistani-dominated leadership lives in exile in eastern Afghanistan, and would be cut off from their own strongholds in Khyber and adjacent tribal and settled districts in northern Pakistan.

Following the school attack, Pakistan’s army chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, has sought and attained the support of the US and Afghan military against insurgents based in eastern Afghanistan.

US Central Intelligence Agency drones have since repeatedly targeted Pakistani commanders in Nangarhar, and in December narrowly missed the TTP chief, Mullah Fazlullah, hitting a residential compound in Nazyan shortly after he left a meeting there. Afghan security forces and local tribal militia have fought battles with Pakistani militants and their local allies in Kunar and Nurestan, Afghan provinces located further north.

The unprecedented cooperation has come amid a thaw in relations between Islamabad and Kabul since the election in September of Ashraf Ghani as Afghan president. Encouraged by the Pakistani military’s action in North Waziristan against the Haqqani Network, an Afghan militant faction notorious for high profile cross-border suicide attacks, Mr Ghani has actively sought to improve a prickly relationship, engaging Pakistan’s closest allies, Saudi Arabia and China, as facilitators.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae