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.