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 Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.