Pakistani militant organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi said on Wednesday it had worked with the Islamic State to carry out a huge raid on a police academy, the strongest evidence to date that the Middle Eastern group has built local links.
The emergence of I.S. in Pakistan would be seen as a major blow to the country’s long-running and partly successful efforts to quell a homegrown Islamist insurgency, and comes as the group’s key rival Al Qaeda is losing strength in what was once its “home ground.” The extent of any material support to local groups from I.S. remains unclear, but affiliation with the notoriously brutal outfit brings the promise of a far higher profile.
Authorities said the Monday night raid on the Balochistan Police College, which killed more than 60 people, was carried out by the Al-Alami faction of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group, an anti-Shia outfit that has turned its guns on the government in recent years. The atrocity was also claimed by the Islamic State group, which released photographs of the attackers, one of whom bore a strong resemblance to a fighter who was killed by security forces in the attack.
Asked whether the two had worked together, Ali bin Sufyan, a spokesman for Jhangvi Al-Alami told AFP: “Yes, of course,” adding: “We are ready to work with all the groups in Pakistan whether they belong to ISIS or Al Qaeda.”
Jhangvi is also formally affiliated with Al Qaeda—their main financial backers during the early years of their anti-state insurgency. But Pakistan has carried out major military offensives against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in its border tribal regions that have sapped their strength, with overall levels of militant violence dropping drastically in 2015 and 2016.
“The militant groups including Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban have been completely dismantled and those left out are now regrouping and attempting to become part of I.S.,” a security official based in Quetta told AFP requesting anonymity.
The vacuum has created opportunities for I.S. to step in and develop new relationships with local jihadists in need of financial and logistical support, a militant source added. “Al Qaeda is no longer focused in Pakistan like it used to be, its leaders have either been killed or shifted to Yemen and local jihadists have no better option but to look towards Daesh,” the source from an anti-Shia group said.
Pakistan’s military last month admitted for the first time that the Islamic State group had a presence in the country but said it had detained hundreds of its militants and prevented them from carrying out major attacks. Jhangvi appears to be a natural ally for I.S. in Pakistan as both share the same ideology that denounces Shia Muslims as heretics.
And officials say rank-and-file Jhangvi members were among the first Pakistani militants to travel to Syria after I.S. announced its so-called Caliphate.
In October last year, Pakistan’s former interior minister Rehman Malik told a standing committee of Parliament that the May 2015 attack on a bus of Shia Ismailis that killed 43 in Karachi was planned in Syria by an Jhangvi member. In the past two years, many of Jhangvi’s senior leaders have either been killed or arrested.
With much of its former leadership out of the picture the group is teaming up with other militant organizations to carry out attacks while giving the credit to I.S., officials have told AFP.
According to a security official in Quetta, Jhangvi is now headed by Shafiq Mengal, an ethnic Baloch from a prominent political family, who gained notoriety after forming his own group to fight Baloch separatists. But Mengal and his followers now appear to have set their eyes on bigger targets.
“Shafiq Mengal is trying to fill the leadership vacuum in Jhangvi and he is seen as ambitious and might be eyeing an I.S. franchise,” said the security official.