By James Hess, Ph.D.
Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University
ISIL continues its attacks in western Pakistan. On November 19, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), a branch of ISIL named for the region east of Iran that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the shootings that killed four members of Pakistani security in Quetta.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) also claims that it participated in this joint operation with ISK. LeJ is a Pakistani-based terror group loyal to ISIL.
The Pakistani security attack is the third attack in western Pakistan that ISK has conducted during the past month. On October 24, ISK attacked Balochistan Police College, a police academy. That attack killed 60 people and wounded at least 100. Similarly, ISK bombed a Sufi shrine on November 12, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100.
Quetta and Balochistan Region Offer Advantages to ISIL
Given ISIL’s attacks in western Pakistan, one question to ask is why ISIL’s focus is on Quetta and the Balochistan region of Pakistan. A major reason is that ISIL found a safe haven in the area. The Afghan Taliban has maintained its leadership in Quetta essentially unchallenged for more than a decade.
Furthermore, Balochistan is a sparsely populated area. Much of Pakistan’s efforts remain focused on Kashmir, the disputed region on the border with India. Because of these issues, Pakistan does not spend much of its resources on a security effort in the Balochistan region.
Lastly, ISIL recruits former Afghan Taliban who are willing to join any anti-U.S. effort. The American presence is less than 150 miles to the west in Kandahar, where the Afghan Taliban was founded.
Why Did ISK Attack a Sufi Shrine?
ISK’s attacks against security forces make perfect sense given its desire for discretion, but what about the attack on the Sufi shrine? Sufism, also known as Tasawwuf, is a branch of Islam focused on the mystical aspects of Islam, or spirituality.
The Sufi technically do not belong to either the Sunni or Shi’a branches of Islam, but include members from both sects. Most Sufis trace their beliefs through Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.
The historic Khorasan region has been home to many Sufis for centuries and there are many Sufi shrines in the area. ISIL follows a violent form of Salafism. ISIL has influences from both Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of Wahhabism, and Sayyid Qutb, author of “Milestones,” which denounces any Muslim as takfiri or apostate.
The Balochistan region of Pakistan remains an area of contention for ISIL. With the continued offenses against ISIL-held territory in Syria and Iraq, ISIL fighters will probably take refuge in Balochistan.
The presence of Shi’a, Sufis and fledgling efforts by Pakistan to create a greater security presence provide opportunities for ISIL, which most likely will continue to foment its ideology against people in a state of jahiliyyah. Jahiliyyah is an Arabic term for Muslims who don’t accept the Qutbic version of Salafism represented by ISIL.
About the Author
Dr. James Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism environments. He is currently studying the relationship between Islamic jurisprudence and terrorism as an International Relations Research Fellow with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
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