Expanding Islamic State Franchise and Rise of Barelvi Extremism in Pakistan: Implications for India

 By Namita Barthwal
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Sectarian strife is a distressing security challenge for Pakistan. However, instead of expeditiously prosecuting those who incite sectarian violence, Pakistan’s military and mainstream political leaders are reluctant to confront sectarian groups serving utilitarian political interests. Though sectarian violence has reduced in comparison to the 1980s and 1990s, the report titled A New Era of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan (2022) by the International Crisis Group suggests that “sectarian animosity is spreading into larger parts of the Sunni Islamist milieu.”[i]

Apart from the already existing sectarian violent Deobandi groups, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an offshoot of SSP; two new distinct forces[ii], the Salafi Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), the local Islamic State branch comprised of many former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants and Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hard-line political party supported by Barelvi Sunni majority, have reconfigured the nature of the sectarian threat to Pakistan’s citizenry, in which, minorities like Shias and Ahmadis are the most vulnerable and beleaguered.

ISK: Pakistan’s New Sectarian Jihadists            

The ISK, formed between mid-2014 and 2015[iii]in Afghanistan, has high-profile links to transnational jihad. With the help of Salafi outfits, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, ISK has gained traction primarily in two Pakistani provinces– Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP; including Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and Balochistan[iv] – where it claims acts of sectarian violence. For instance, ISK was responsible for killing more than 60 people in the 4 March 2022 bombing at the Shia Mosque in Peshawar[v]. Nevertheless, Pakistani security officials believe that ISK lacks command and control in the provinces but are concerned that the Afghan Taliban’s 2021 takeover has re-invigorated its allies and extended ISK beyond the provinces as it has a low-level presence in Northern and Western Punjab districts, including Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Dera Ghazi Khan.[vi]

In mid-to-late 2019, IS started to claim all attacks in Pakistan under the name of a new province, the Islamic State Pakistan Province. However, in July 2021, ISK’s Wali Abu Mahmood issued a statement announcing that Pakistan’s KP was transferred under the ISK administration as per IS’ orders, prompting the group to claim any subsequent attacks in the area under ISK’s name.[vii]

ISK has a soft corner for TTP. The founding governor and former TTP commander, Hafiz Saeed Khan, is optimistic about TTP being subsumed by ISK, given the latter’s anti-Pakistan agenda and ISK leadership’s strong ties with various TTP groups.[viii] [ix] According to US intelligence, the alliance between the ISK and TTP could exacerbate the threat beyond the region.[x] Furthermore, the Pakistani security agencies have noted that because of several internal disputes, TTP has lost recruits to ISK cells in KP. For example, the entire Orakzai chapter and part of the Bajaur chapter of TTP have moved into ISK.

Unlike ISK, TTP is not overtly sectarian but has an explicit anti-Shia preposition that has motivated many TTP militants who worked in Afghanistan to join ISK, who, by contrast, have targeted Shias and civilians from religious minorities in KP, including Sikhs.

New Sectarian Fraction: Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

The rise of the organised Barelvi sectarian violence, whose most pernicious influence lies in using the blasphemy issue and rejecting the Ahmadi sect’s claim to Muslim identity to expand its support base, is a critical development in contemporary Pakistan.

There are two significant sub-sects of Sunni Islam in Pakistan: Deobandis and Barelvis. Deobandis are believed to have a more extreme view of Islam. The extremists of Deobandis are known to target Barelvis because of the latter’s culture and practices which the former sect considers idolatrous. In the past, Deobandi extremists have bombed major Barelvi shrines such as Islamabad’s Bari Imam (May 2005), Lahore’s Data Darbar (October 2010) and Sehwan’s Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (November 2017). Contrary, Barelvis constitute a thin majority of the population and are often associated with devotion to Sufi saints, syncretic practices, oral tradition and rituals at shrines.

The Intra-Sunni conflict between Deobandis and Barelvis, which started in the 1990s, intensified with the formation of violent Barelvi groups with the help of foreign donors. After the 9/11 terror attacks, the western governments pushed Parvez Musharraf and the subsequent government of the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) to support Barelvi groups ignoring their “exclusionary” ideology to counter Deobandi militants’ Wahhabi ideology. The Barelvis were seen as an antidote to hard-line Deobandi groups, out of which the most prominent and well-known is TLP, founded in 2015 by Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

In mid-2017, TLP rose to prominence when they held a protest against the Pakistan Muslim League -Nawaz (PML-N) government for – introducing what it called the “un-Islamic” Electoral Reform Bill 2017; contending that the “government is conceding ground for Ahmadis” by changing Khatm-i-Naboowat, i.e., the finality of prophethood clause. The protests received mass support, forced the law minister to quit over a perceived softening in the blasphemy laws and were used by political opponents, particularly Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), of the PML-N government.

Instead of taking action against TLP’s sectarian agendas, such as inciting violence against religious minorities and Sunni opponents in the name of blasphemy, the electoral commission emboldened. The institution allowed it to contest July 2018 national elections in which TLP parlayed its street power into assembly seats by winning two Sindh provincial assembly seats from Karachi and has become the third largest party in the country.

Now, TLP threatens Supreme Court judges and the Army establishment because of its rising support, which has grown in Pakistan after the controversial blasphemy case of Asia Bibi and French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement after the 2020 killing of French School teacher Samuel Paty. According to Pakistan’s counter-terrorism officials, TLP’s politicisation of blasphemy has made it a sensitive issue that imprisoning TLP members will portray them as heroes and further radicalise the individuals.      

Implications for India and Countermeasures

The violent internal fissures of the monolithic society with widespread lawlessness make Pakistan a dysfunctional state; however, these flaws will barely impact its existing external boundaries. The belief that ‘India is a threat’ binds the country amidst sectarian clashes. Rather India should cautiously watch the looming threat of ISK and Barelvi extremism in Pakistan as it has an unavoidable repercussion on South Asia, which has the largest population of Muslims. In South Asia, these sectarian groups might create ideological blocs as they can easily flourish in Pakistan, given their importance in polity and security nexus.

The presence of ISK in the immediate and unfriendly neighbourhood is a critical concern for the security agencies because there are chances that Pakistan’s security establishment might use them for their benefit. Also, ISK has started taking an interest in India’s internal social matters. In June 2022, ISK began its new bulletin service Al-Azaim where the first news bulletin was focused on India and the issue of blasphemy.[xi] The video published by Al-Azaim featured Nupur Sharma, the National Spokesperson of the Bhartiya Janta Party; demolished houses of Indian Muslims; statements of ISK suicide bombers who were Indians and threats to conduct attacks in India. In September 2022, Al-Azaim published – an article that asked Indian Muslims to join the IS along with the life story of Ismail al-Hindi, a former member of Lashkar-e-Tayyibah in Kashmir who was killed in Afghanistan by a US drone strike in 2019. Moreover, ISK criticised the Afghan Taliban for initiating talks with Indian charge d’affaires in Afghanistan. [xii] At present, one could not trace the substantial presence of ISK in India, but growing social disharmony on religious lines might create a fertile ground for ISK to seed its ideology.

Barelvis constitute a large majority amongst Indian Muslims. Given the proximity in terms of geography and overlapping culture with Pakistan, along with the increasing usage of the internet amongst civilians, there are chances that the ideology of Barelvi extremism might sprout in India. The possibility is less because most Indian Muslims, particularly clergy, are not directly or indirectly in contact with Islamic clergy in Pakistan. Nevertheless, there are unavoidable recorded incidents in India where Barelvi extremists – linked with Pakistan’s terror outfits- have resorted to acts of terror to protect Islam. Examples include the killings of Kanhaiya Lal (2022) and Umesh Kolhe (2022) and the Bangalore riots (2020). In the present scenario, to counter the radicalisation of Barelvis via Pakistan or any other Islamic nation, security agencies must take Barelvi clergies into confidence to keep the sect’s true values, i.e., Sufi practices influenced by Bhakti Movement, intact.

Conclusion

The sectarian divides in Pakistan bitterly question the idea of its creation and survival. Hypothetically, Pakistan disintegrates on sectarian lines; the chaos it will create will not leave India, home of more than 20 crores of Muslims, untouched[xiii]. It is, therefore, crucial for India to cap the influence of Pakistan’s sectarian extremist groups. This can be done by promoting – “unity in diversity”, cosmopolitanism and uniformity in Civil Code. There is a need to avoid the politicisation of identities. Instead, the State must facilitate an inclusive and open discourse amongst citizens of varied identities.

Endnotes

[i] “A New Era of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan,” Crisis Group, September 6, 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/327/asia/south-asia/pakistan/new-era-sectarian-violence-pakistan.

[ii] “A New Era of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan,” Crisis Group, September 6, 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/327/asia/south-asia/pakistan/new-era-sectarian-violence-pakistan.

[iii] Lucas Webber and Riccardo Valle, “Islamic State Khorasan’s Expanded Vision in South and Central Asia,” – The Diplomat (for The Diplomat, September 1, 2022), https://thediplomat.com/2022/08/islamic-state-khorasans-expanded-vision-in-south-and-central-asia/.

[iv] “A New Era of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan,” Crisis Group, September 6, 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/327/asia/south-asia/pakistan/new-era-sectarian-violence-pakistan.

[v]  Sirajuddin | AFP, “Death Toll from Attack on Shia Mosque in Peshawar Rises to 62,” DAWN.COM, March 6, 2022, https://www.dawn.com/news/1678412.

[vi] “A New Era of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan,” Crisis Group, September 6, 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/327/asia/south-asia/pakistan/new-era-sectarian-violence-pakistan

[vii] Lucas Webber and Riccardo Valle, Islamic State Khorasan’s Expanded Vision in South and Central Asia, The Diplomat. Published on 26 August 2022. Accessed on 13 September 2022.  https://thediplomat.com/2022/08/islamic-state-khorasans-expanded-vision-in-south-and-central-asia/

 [viii] Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) | Center for Strategic and International Studies, accessed September 23, 2022, https://www.csis.org/programs/transnational-threats-project/past-projects/terrorism-backgrounders/islamic-state-khorasan

[ix] Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) | Center for Strategic and International Studies, accessed September 23, 2022, https://www.csis.org/programs/transnational-threats-project/past-projects/terrorism-backgrounders/islamic-state-khorasan.

[x] Abdul Sayed. “The Evolution and Future of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan” , Carnegie Endowment For International  Peace. Published on 21 December 2021.https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/12/21/evolution-and-future-of-tehrik-e-taliban-pakistan-pub-86051

[xii] The Khurasan Diary| Twitter account.

[xiii] Sharat Sabharwal, India’s Pakistan Conundrum (2022)