Growing appeal of ‘Islamic State’ raises fears in Pakistan and Afghanistan
The Islamic State organisation is starting to attract the attention of radicals in Pakistan and Afghanistan, long a cradle for Islamist militancy, unnerving authorities who fear a potential violent contagion.
Far from the militants' self-proclaimed "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria, the name of IS has cropped up several times in jihadi circles in recent weeks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the historic homeland of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Leaflets calling for support for IS were seen in parts of northwest Pakistan, and at least five Pakistani Taliban commanders and three lesser cadres from the Afghan Taliban have pledged their support.
Pro-IS slogans have appeared on walls in several cities in both countries and in Kabul University, where a number of students were arrested.
Militant, security and official sources questioned in recent weeks say these are local, individual initiatives, and at this stage IS has not established a presence in the region.
But the success of IS in the Middle East is unsettling many of those charged with keeping a lid on Afghanistan and Pakistan's myriad extremist groups.
"ISIS is becoming the major inspiration force for both violent and non-violent religious groups in the region," Pakistani security analyst Amir Rana said.
Earlier this month Pakistan's National Counter Terrorism Agency wrote to a dozen government agencies warning them to be on their guard against the IS group.
"The successes of ISIS play a very dangerous, inspirational role in Pakistan, where more than 200 organizations are operational," the agency said.
The letter came as the Pakistani army fights a major offensive in insurgent bastions of the tribal northwest, which appears to be weakening its major enemies, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and allied Al-Qaeda fighters.
Following the army offensive, the TTP, a coalition of disparate militant groups, has fragmented into rival factions over recent weeks, fuelling rumours the movement could be overtaken by IS.
The TTP say they broadly support both the IS jihadists and Al-Qaeda.
They also say say they have sent 1,000 fighters in recent years to help the jihadi struggle in Syria -- an estimate confirmed by a Pakistani government source -- and plan to send 700 more.
But if IS militants one day envisage extending their influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the world's only Islamic state with nuclear weapons, they will have to either defy or find an accommodation with the two countries' Taliban movements.
Currently both the TTP and the Afghan Taliban officially recognise only one leader, Mullah Omar, and a senior Afghan cadre said that IS was wrong to declare a caliphate.
"The Taliban and their supporters say that 'amir-ul-momineen' (the commander of the faithful) has already been chosen," the commander said, rejecting IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
So far the Taliban and Al-Qaeda's new South Asia wing have steered clear of criticising IS, maintaining a united front against "Western aggression".
US officials say the group is generating tens of millions of dollars a month from black market oil sales, ransoms and extortion.
This financial heft is proving a big draw -- including for the five Pakistani Taliban commanders who announced their support for the IS group.
"The splinter groups are facing financial crisis, so they are contacting Daesh," a senior militant told AFP. Daesh is another name for IS.
To spread in the region, IS must also eat away at the authority of the state -- but, unlike Iraq and Syria, Pakistani state structures look solid and are supported by a powerful army.
Afghanistan, much more fragile, is more worrying -- particularly Kunar and Nuristan, mountainous provinces on the Pakistani border, which have long been refuges for jihadists from the hardline branch of Islam espoused by IS and Al-Qaeda.
"The authorities' fear is that IS will join up with the TTP and other extremist groups and from there spread on both sides of the border," said analyst Rana.
Several sources say that in Kunar there is at least one camp training hundreds of fighters sympathetic to IS.
Away from the camps, there is a danger that the IS jihadists could attract more and more young Afghans and Pakistanis through their propaganda on Facebook and Twitter.
"People here face problems with the lack of justice, the corruption and the inefficiency of the state, and therefore they need a counter-narrative, and ISIS provides one with religious content," said Tahirul Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan's Ulema Council, seen as close to the authorities.
In the short-term the big fear in Pakistan stems from the IS group's sectarian agenda, more extreme and more explicit than that of Al-Qaeda, heightened by its fight against majority Shiite governments in Iraq and Syria.
Violence against minority Shiite Muslims, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan's population, has hit record levels in recent years and there are concerns IS could energise sectarian groups even further.