A Pakistani man walks past a wall graffiti reading "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi". Photo: Getty
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Islamic State faces a complex web of militant groups and violence in Pakistan

The signs of Islamic State moving into Pakistan are there, but what difference does this make in a nation already subject to similar horrors?

On 16 April in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, an American teacher was critically wounded. Debra Lobo, 55, is married to a Pakistani and has lived in the country for around 30 years, working at a private medical college since 1996. She was sitting in her car when she was shot twice in the head by two men on motorbikes.

Terrorist attacks and shootings in Pakistan are commonplace, but attacks on foreigners are unusual. The other thing that marked this incident out was that the gunmen left a note on Lobo’s car implying affiliation with Islamic State. The note promised more ambushes of this type on Americans.

One thing that Pakistan has in no short supply is militant groups. The military is currently engaged in an operation against the Taliban in the north of the country. The main group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has splintered into numerous factions after a leadership dispute. They join long-established sectarian anti-Shia groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah Sihaba Pakistan.

There have been concerns about IS establishing a foothold in the country for some months now. Back in October 2014, after the killing of British aid worker Alan Henning, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid pledged the group’s support in a statement: “Oh our brothers, we are proud of you in your victories. We are with you in your happiness and your sorrow.”

The following month, in November, international news outlets quoted several high-ranking TTP officials saying that they had defected to a new branch of IS. These officials claimed that thousands of fighters had defected with them, but there has been little evidence of this in practice. If the group exists, not much is known about its size and capacity. Other Pakistani militants, previously associated with al-Qaeda, have also said that they are now operating under the banner of IS.

But Pakistani military and intelligence officials say that they have detected only scattered signs that there is a rising threat from IS militants in the country. While I was in Karachi earlier this month, a week before the shooting of Lobo, there were murmurs about the group establishing a base in the city. Residents particularly expressed concern about pro-IS graffiti. Certain areas of Karachi have become hotbeds of militancy. In some of these areas, I saw walls daubed with graffiti in support of “Daesh” (the Arabic acronym for the group). In the northern city of Peshawar, there have been reports of pro-IS leaflets being distributed. These are striking visual signs of support for the group, but do they indicate a serious cause for concern?

The brutality of IS already has a clear precedent in the TTP. When the group seized control of parts of northern Pakistan after its formation in 2007, it imposed strict social codes with harsh violence. When the TTP briefly controlled Swat in 2009, barbershops and girls’ schools were closed down. Men who shaved their beards were killed and women who broke strict rules of modesty publically flogged. Beheadings were used frequently to instil terror in the local populations. The TTP beheaded nearly all the 100 Pakistani soldiers it took hostage in 2007. The similarities are not just tactical; both IS and the TTP have a harsh sectarian agenda, viewing Shia Muslims as apostates, and both have seized territory in their localities.

Pakistan is a country inured to violence, where there is news of a bomb attack or a fatal shooting somewhere in the country every single day. More than 30,000 lives have been lost to terrorist violence since 2001. It takes major events, like the slaughter of 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar last year, to shock this traumatised population. Against this backdrop of violence and the already complex web of different militant groups – whose aims converge at some points and diverge at others – it is difficult to see what major difference the entrance of IS would make. Each year already seems to bring a worsening of atrocities. The key concern, of course, is that the arrival of a new group could exacerbate an already dire situation, and perhaps reinvigorate militant movements as the TTP struggles with internal fractures and the pressures of the military operation in Waziristan.

After the Peshawar attack, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif announced an end to the policy of differentiating between “good” and “bad” terrorists – negotiating with some while fighting others. From here on in, all are “bad”. This is a starting point, but it does not solve the problem that Pakistani extremism is not limited to a single group or a single geographical area. It is hidden in the corners of cities, and governed by scores of different networks that may coordinate at some times but work independently at others.

The military has announced that it will not allow IS to establish a base in Pakistan. But given its poor record on fighting the extremist threat thus far – tacitly encouraging groups which serve its foreign policy goals while proclaiming to deplore militancy – it is difficult to have much faith in this.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear