The Islamic State formally has opened for business in the crowded militant markets of Afghanistan and Pakistan, announcing in a video over the weekend that it has established an organizational structure dominated by notoriously anti-Shiite-Muslim former commanders of the Pakistani Taliban.
The announcement, in a video bearing the Islamic State’s back-flagged insignia that was posted Saturday, launched a recruitment drive in both countries that’s part of a strategy to establish bases of operations in Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan, retired militants said.
From there, the group would command, and provide financial and logistical support to, militant associates in Pakistan, who have pieced together networks in the country’s two western provinces, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, and are in the process of setting up operations in the southern city of Karachi, they said.
The retired Pakistan-based militants, who contacted former associates in Afghanistan and Pakistan at McClatchy’s behest, spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of terrorist reprisals and arrest by the Pakistani authorities.
An Afghan general said Monday that the Islamic State had launched a recruitment drive last week in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, which borders Pakistan – a move that, if successful, would provide an overland link to the group’s bases in northern Iraq along human trafficking and smuggling routes already used by al-Qaida.
The video posted Saturday included a speech by Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, anointed as the Islamic State chief of Khorasan, a historic term for a region that comprises Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and other South Asian countries.
It showed Afghan and Pakistani militants swearing allegiance to the group. Prominent among them were faction leaders who have targeted Shiite communities in northern Pakistan for years with suicide bombings, guerrilla assaults and assassinations.
Gruesomely, the Islamic State video concluded with the beheading of a man the militants claimed was a captive Pakistani soldier.
The Pakistani military hasn’t commented on the claim, and stories posted on Pakistani media websites were quickly removed because of an official ban on reporting militant propaganda.
The Pakistani government has consistently downplayed the potential threat posed by the Islamic State since Orakzai and five other faction commanders from the northwest tribal areas and adjacent areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province announced in October that they’d joined the group.
Since then, graffiti welcoming the Islamic State has appeared in cities and towns across Pakistan. Security officials have said men arrested on suspicion of painting the graffiti were mostly former al-Qaida activists and their sympathizers in Pakistani religious political parties. The detainees also have included young people seduced by Islamic State propaganda on social media networks, such as an Urdu-language booklet on the Islamic State’s history, motives and policies e-mailed to journalists and other Pakistanis in late December.
A leading politician based in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, said the government was repeating a blunder it had made when it downplayed the threat posed by al-Qaida operatives who had fled to Pakistan to escape American troops in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.
“It would be a mistake to live in denial of Daash,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, chief spokesman for the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist political party that governed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa at the height of the war with the Pakistani Taliban, from 2008 to 2013. Daash is a derogatory Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
“We ignored al-Qaida, and it became powerful here, at our expense. If we’re incompetent again, Daash will divide Pakistan, just as it did Syria and Iraq,” said Hussain.
The Internet posting of the Islamic State video, which also was e-mailed to journalists, coincides with a nationwide crackdown the Pakistani government launched after a Pakistani Taliban death squad attacked an army-run school in Peshawar on Dec. 16, killing 132 children. The crackdown has massively disrupted the nationwide command structure of the Pakistani Taliban.
Disconnected, under-resourced militants are the prime targets for recruitment by the Islamic State’s South Asia leadership, which is composed primarily of faction commanders who have rebelled against the authority of the Pakistani Taliban chief, Mullah Fazlullah, and his al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban patrons.
Former militants said the establishment of the South Asia franchise followed consultations in Syria between the Islamic State leadership and Sheikh Maqbool, a former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban. He’d initiated contact last summer through an Afghanistan-based former associate of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the chief of al-Qaida in Iraq from 2003 until 2006, when he was killed by U.S. forces. Al-Qaida in Iraq eventually became the Islamic State.
Hussain said the offer of funding, provided by the Islamic State’s sizable coffers in Syria and Iraq, would be its primary means of recruitment in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Terrorism has become a business, and Daash is attracting old terrorists with new money,” he said.