Islamabad: Pakistan — The revelation that the Pakistani woman involved in the San Bernardino massacre was an Islamic State supporter has put a spotlight on the radical group’s reach into this country. But surprisingly, there have been only scattered signs that the group’s tactics or ideology are taking hold in Pakistan, a nation with a history of extremist violence.
Tashfeen Malik lived in Pakistan from 2007 to 2013 to attend pharmacy school in the city of Multan. While investigators are still trying to piece together whether she was radicalized here, the news that she sympathized with the Islamic State is sure to rattle Pakistanis who worry about the group’s potential appeal.
A year ago, Islamist militants shot and killed 157 students and teachers at an army-run school in Peshawar. And until now, as much of the world struggled to combat the Islamic State, memories of that horrifying day appeared to be helping to shield Pakistan from its influence.
Even as the Islamic State gains strength in neighboring Afghanistan, there have been only scattered signs that it is gaining followers in this nuclear-armed country of 180 million.
Muhammad Amir Rana, a security analyst based in Islamabad, said the Peshawar school attack, coming as it did amid a general lessening of extremist tendencies in Pakistan, galvanized public support for the army. The military’s successful effort to clear Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt of militant groups that posed a threat to the state has won it additional respect.
“The space for violent narratives has shrunk,” Rana said. “You can argue we still have extremists, but in terms of taking that to violence, public support is decreasing.”
Rifaat Hussain, a longtime international relations professor, recalls how there was open support in the classroom for the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But that was 14 years ago.
When it comes to the Islamic State, he said, “there is a general sense of revulsion.”
“People now realize what terrorism has brought to Pakistan,” Hussain said. Nearly 60,000 Pakistanis have been killed since 2001 in terrorist attacks or battles between militants and security forces. “Now, there is a conscious effort, both by the state and the people, and particularly in the past year or so, to put up a rather civilized face,” he said.
But analysts have been arguing for months that this Sunni-
dominated Muslim country could become fertile ground for the Islamic State.
Last month’s attack in Paris and recent Islamic State-inspired attacks on foreigners in Bangladesh have heightened unease here over whether the Islamic State can be held off indefinitely.
A poll by the Pew Research Center, conducted this past spring and released last month, showed there is still the potential for the Islamic State to make significant inroads in Pakistan.
Pew found that 9 percent of Pakistanis held a favorable view of the Islamic State, while 28 percent had a negative view.
But a surprisingly large number of Pakistanis — 62 percent — had no opinion of the group. That number fuels concerns that in Pakistan — a country with endemic poverty, where prominent religious clerics still advocate sharia law — the Islamic State could pose far more than just a superficial threat.
Though security has improved, Pakistan remains home to more than two dozen Islamist extremist groups, some of which continue to organize and plot attacks against Afghanistan, India and the West. Some of them could eventually form dangerous alliances with the Islamic State, analyst say.
“All the ingredients are still here,” said Saifullah Mehsud, head of the Fata Research Center, which monitors militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The lessons of the past 35 years here will not be so easily erased.”
Late last year, militants known as the Khorasan Group launched operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group, which includes a number of former Pakistani Taliban fighters, has seized territory in eastern Afghanistan but is still viewed as largely disconnected from the parent group’s wealth and organization in Iraq and Syria.
“There is no space or conducive environment for the so-called Islamic State or Daesh in Pakistan,” said Qazi M. Khalilullah, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, who was using the Arabic acronym for the group.
The reality of the threat, however, is far more complicated.
In April, Islamic State literature was left at the scene of a shooting in Karachi that injured an American college professor. A month later, also in Karachi, the Islamic State and another militant group both asserted responsibility for an attack on a bus that killed about 45 Shiites. Police later arrested five men suspected of carrying out the attack, several of whom had attended prestigious colleges.
More recently, two men from Karachi were handed over to Pakistani authorities after being arrested at the Turkey-Iran border on suspicions that they were trying to join the Islamic State in Syria.
Investigators concluded that the men had formed an Islamic State-linked militant group of at least 53 members, according to a Pakistani security official familiar with the case. In Peshawar, counterterrorism officials say they have arrested 25 people in recent months for suspected links to the Islamic State.
But when it comes to the broader international fight against the Islamic State, Pakistan has been absent from the discussion.
Of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 foreign fighters who have traveled to Iraq or Syria, only about 500 have been Pakistanis, according to a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace that was released last month. France and Russia account for more than three times that number, the institute estimates.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said Pakistan “simply doesn’t present many opportunities” for the Islamic State to flourish the way it has in Iraq and Syria.
But in a country where two-thirds of residents are younger than 30, it may take at least another decade before Pakistanis can fully assess whether the Islamic State has been held at bay here, said Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist and former government foreign affairs adviser. “Far too many kids still don’t feel invested” in Pakistan’s economy and political system, which makes them vulnerable to radicalization, he said.
“We have made some strides in the last year and half,” Zaidi said. Now, he added, “But now we have to make sure this isn’t just about cleaning out the [tribal areas].this has to be about confronting demons that are embedded deep in our society and social norms.”
Courtesy Washington Post