Daesh attack on political rally in Pakistan: Genesis and implications
Daesh-Khorasan’s suicide attack on a political rally of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUIF) in Bajaur district has brought into sharp focus the complex and multifaceted nature of Pakistan’s militant landscape. The attack has serious implications for Pakistan’s fragile democratic process and internal security. Ostensibly, not just Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) but Daesh-K is also using Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks in Pakistan.
Although Daesh-K’s suicide bombing against JUIF’s rally is not the first instance when a terrorist group has targeted a religio-political party in Pakistan, the scale of violence and its timing is alarming. It is the second most devastating attack in Pakistan in 2023, following the Peshawar Mosque attack in January, and a first on a political rally in a long time.
The attack signifies Daesh-K’s efforts to carve out a space in a TTP-dominated threat landscape by targeting the country’s sectarian and ideological fault-lines. Arguably, Daesh-K is trying to distinguish itself from other groups in Pakistan, like TTP which are primarily focused on hard targets, by hitting religio-political parties, worship places and religious minorities. In the past, Daesh-K has targeted Sufi shrines, assassinated members of the Sikh, Ahmadiyya and Shia communities in Pakistan. In the responsibility claim, Daesh-K has termed the attack on JUIF as part of its so-called “war against democracy” as well as a revenge for one of its fighters lynched by a JUIF mob in Bajaur last year.
Without reading too much into it, there are some dimensions of this attack which warrant elaboration. The first is the sectarian rivalry and the turf war between Daesh-K and JUIF in Bajaur. By extension, Daesh-K-JUIF antagonism is also associated with the former’s rivalry with the Afghan Taliban. In its twisted worldview, Daesh-K considers JUIF the political front of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan. Across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Daesh-K’s main presence, sans its urban cells, is clustered around Nangarhar and Kunar provinces on the Afghan side and Bajaur, Khyber districts and to some extent Mohmand on the Pakistani side. In recent months, as the Taliban has suppressed Daesh-K in Afghanistan, and more particularly in Kunar, the group has relocated to Bajaur and adjoining areas.
The genesis of the July 30 attack is rooted in Daesh-K and JUIF’s turf war in Bajaur which stretches back to 2019 and gained a new impetus in mid-2022. Daesh-K ex-communicates those who do not believe in its ultraconservative, self-styled worldview. Daesh-K’s first so-called emir Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai was an avowed anti-JUIF figure while he was the head of TTP’s Orakzai chapter. TTP’s Central Shura even reprimanded him for engaging in the targeted assassination of JUIF workers. After becoming Daesh-K’s emir, Saeed’s personal hostility towards JUIF and the group’s virulent ideology further sharpened this animosity.
In 2019, when the US covertly coordinated its airstrikes with the Taliban against Daesh-K in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, some Pashtun tribes in Bajaur straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—including local JUIF leaders and workers, were also part of this campaign. Subsequently, both groups issued fatwas against each other as well. Since April 2022, Daesh-K has also targeted JUIF in its propaganda publications.
Pakistan has failed to gain desirable cooperation from the Taliban against TTP; however, both sides can coordinate their efforts to blunt and roll-back Daesh-K’s footprint.
Abdul Basit Khan
Last year, this rivalry took a violent turn when a JUIF mob lynched a Daesh-K militant who was caught while planting a bomb outside a mosque to target a local JUIF leader, Qari Ilyas. The video of the lynching uploaded on extremist social media channels went viral and Daesh-K eliminated every single person involved in the incident. According to the Khorasan Diary, an online digital news portal, Daesh-K has assassinated 23 JUIF leaders and workers to date in Bajaur and about 46 across Pakistan. As mentioned, Daesh-K has exploited the turf war with JUIF in Bajaur as a plank to entrench its footprint. In line with its doctrinal strategy, Daesh-K prioritizes targeting religious scholars and community leaders who undermine the group’s legitimacy in areas where it has a sizeable presence, such as Bajaur.
After the attack, Daesh-K has published a 92-page polemical booklet against JUIF furthering its propaganda against the group. Among other things, Daesh-K has termed the attack as part of its “war against democracy” and that the target was a rally preparing for election. The group has further warned that it will continue to target those religio-political parties willing to participate in election and celebrate democracy. It means the July 30 attack was carefully planned not only as part of Daesh-K’s ongoing animosity with JUIF, but to deliberately hit a political rally ahead of the upcoming general election in Pakistan.
Though Pakistan has held the 2008 and 2013 elections in much more volatile security environments, Daesh-K’s warning can undermine the electoral process. It can also compel Daesh-K’s arch-rival TTP to revisit its strategy of confining its attacks to hard targets. Despite its posture of not attacking political parties and their rallies, TTP has abortively targeted the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) leader Amir Muqam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Shangla district in June. So, TTP and Daesh-K’s competition for attention, recruits and resources can result in outbidding violence on political rallies to disrupt elections.
Finally, the attack also demonstrates Daesh-K’s resilience to adapt to hostile environments and regenerate itself. As the Taliban suppressed Daesh-K in Kunar, it went underground in Afghanistan and violently bounced back in Bajaur, using its rivalry with JUIF and the upcoming election as two planks of its revival strategy.
Ahead of an important but fragile democratic transition, Daesh-K’s ingress exposes Pakistan to a multifaceted terrorist threat. Though TTP has tolerated Daesh-K’s efforts to grow its footprint in Pakistan, a violent response from the former can surge terrorism in the country. Pakistan has failed to gain desirable cooperation from the Taliban against TTP; however, both sides can coordinate their efforts to blunt and roll-back Daesh-K’s footprint. Any move to postpone elections on the pretext of security will embolden Daesh-K and the group will spin it as its victory against democracy. Hence, democracy will be Pakistan’s best revenge against such groups.
– The author is a senior associate fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.