Blog Article

Daesh in Pakistan: An evolving militant landscape – Part I

By: Zoha Waseem*


Daesh, otherwise referred to as Islamic State or ISIL, has been expanding its presence around the world beyond its stronghold in Syria and Iraq. In the coming weeks, Strife will be focussing a number of articles more closely on emerging areas of concern in Asia, speaking with practitioners on the ground and academics who interrogate the potential threat posed by Daesh. The first piece is from Strife Senior Editor Zoha Waseem who contributes this two-part analysis on Daesh from Pakistan. You can view part II here.


On 13 January 2016, the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai declared that a ‘majority of militants’ from northern Pakistan were fleeing military operations and joining the Islamic State (hereafter, ‘Daesh’) in Afghanistan.[1] Hours later, a suicide attack on the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad was claimed by Daesh.[2][3] Jalalabad is a city in Nangarhar, an eastern province of Afghanistan that is believed to have a strong presence of Daesh’s Khorasan chapter (or Wilayat Khorasan which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan)[4], under the command of defectors from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP). Last year, Daesh circulated an online video teaser of the ‘Sheikh Jalaluddin training camp’, somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan corridor, possibly near Nangarhar.[5] Since 2014, individuals and cells claiming affiliation with Daesh have emerged across Pakistan, including in the urban areas of Sindh and Punjab, two of the country’s most populated provinces. Investigators and analysts have called Daesh in Pakistan ‘a new brand of militancy’[6], ‘global trend-setters’[7], or simply downplayed it by diagnosing it as an old threat with a new name. Others, including the counterterrorism departments of the Sindh and Punjab police, have been actively cracking down on suspects affiliated with Daesh, but uncertainty prevails over the extent of its threat in Pakistan and how to prevent local militants from defecting or self-radicalised individuals from joining it.

The militant landscape of Pakistan is changing due to ongoing Pakistani military operations to mitigate terrorism emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan[8], a paramilitary-led operation in Karachi[9], and a supposed realisation within the civil-military apparatus that counterterrorism operations must be taken to ‘logical conclusions’[10] in order for foreign investments and projects—like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor—[11] to continue uninterrupted. To complement these operations, Pakistan has also devised a counterterrorism strategy – the National Action Plan (NAP) – following the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.

However, internal rifts within the Pakistani Taliban began to appear following recent military crackdowns and the appointment of the current leader, Maulana Fazlullah, after the death of former chief Baitullah Mehsud.[12] Rifts within the Afghan Taliban have emerged as well, following the death of Mullah Omar,[13] while discontentment within local militant groups due to political reconciliations with the state, the inability of al Qaeda to theatrically display its strength in the region over the last few years; and the inability of Pakistan to provide a counter-narrative to religious extremism, are all factors that have contributed to altering the militant environment in Pakistan. It is within this environment that Daesh has found its supporters and the potential to indoctrinate younger recruits.

This analysis is divided into two parts and relies upon open source information and personal interviews with analysts and investigators studying Daesh in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi. The first part outlines how Daesh’s ideology may be finding space in Pakistan’s militant landscape. Its extent is yet to be accurately deciphered but over the last two years fighters from local groups have reportedly left Pakistan for Syria[14], while others have publicly pledged allegiance to Daesh. However, it is argued that the existing militant landscape is too complex to easily become a fertile ground for Daesh to co-exist with other militant groups.[15]

The next part will focus on the urban presence of Daesh-inspired extremists. It is argued that this is a considerable threat to Pakistan’s internal stability, particularly given the fact that this ‘brand’ of militancy is alluring for individuals and cells emerging from educated, middle- and upper-middle class backgrounds.[16] This is documented in the cases of members of the Karachi cell or the ‘Tahir Saeen group’, who were behind multiple attacks in Karachi in the first half of 2015, including the infamous attack on 13 May 2015 in which a bus carrying Ismaili Shias was targeted in Safoora Goth (a neighbourhood north of Karachi), killing 45 people.[17] While territorial losses to Daesh-inspired cells are not foreseeable, the threat of this ‘new generation of global jihadists’[18] is worth analysing.

In conclusion, I will briefly discuss the National Action Plan vis-à-vis its non-militaristic aspects that are crucial for reclaiming the ideological space ceded to extremists in urban Pakistan. As Hassan Abbas has rightly pointed out, military operations can enforce the state’s writ in ungoverned spaces of Pakistan but are unlikely to be sufficient in urban areas.[19] Countering Daesh’s expansion entails countering existing radical Islamist ideologies (particularly sectarianism), terrorist propaganda, as well as supporters and facilitators, including women[20] and clerics – like Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid, who are known to deliver sermons in favour of radicalisation in Islamabad.[21] To implement these policies, the state needs independent law enforcement agencies working alongside counterterrorism specialists, rather than relying predominantly on the army.

Spatial Gains in Pakistan’s Militant Landscape

The footprints of Daesh in Pakistan can be traced back to mid-2014, shortly after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established the so-called caliphate and chalked out a five-year plan of global expansion, identifying the Af-Pak region as Wilayat (Province) Khorasan. One of the first acknowledgements of this new caliphate came from a spokesman of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (an offshoot of TTP) after Daesh tried to negotiate the release of a Pakistani prisoner, Aafia Siqqiui, imprisoned in the US on terrorism charges.[22] Shortly after, pro-Daesh wall-chalking and pamphlets appeared across Pakistan.[23] It is assumed that around this time, one of the masterminds of the Safoora Attack, Abdullah Yusuf, returned to Karachi from Syria.[24] In October 2014, six commanders of the Pakistani Taliban publically pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. These included, Hafiz Saeed Khan (from Orakzai Agency), Daulat Khan (Kurram Agency), Fateh Zaman (Khyber Agency), Mufti Hassan (Peshawar), Khalid Mansoor (Hangu) and Shahidullah Shahid (a former spokesman of the TTP).[25] They were joined by Abdul Rauf Khadim, formerly with the Afghan Taliban.[26] A month later, Jundullah, an anti-Iranian, anti-Shia militant organisation operating in Balochistan, became the first group to pledge allegiance to Daesh.[27] In November, students of Jamia Hafsa, a madrassa affiliated with Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), declared their support for Daesh and were backed by chief cleric, Abdul Aziz (see below).[28] In December, a local commander of Daesh from Syria, Yusuf Salafi, was arrested in Lahore, and reports suggest he reached Pakistan through Turkey to recruit Pakistanis.[29] In January 2015, in an address by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani titled ‘Say, “Die in Your Rage!”’, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and Abdul Khadim were officially recognised by Daesh as Wilayat Khorasan’s wali and deputy.[30]

The year 2015 saw a surge in Daesh-related developments across Pakistan with little official clarifications from the state. Aside from events in Karachi (see Part Two), Punjab and FATA continued to depict signs of Daesh’s influence. Around mid-2015, members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the charity front for Lashkar-e-Taiba) began defecting to Daesh; this would later be known as the Daska cell (in Sialkot, Punjab) when nine members were arrested in December 2015. According to the CTD Punjab, they had been in touch with a Pakistani national in Syria, Abu Muavia Salfi.[31] Also in mid-2015, two young men (both residents of Karachi, with no jihadi or military background) were arrested by CTD Sindh in Balochistan. Security sources suggest they were deported from Iran after attempting to travel to Syria via Turkey at the behest of a contact, Abu Uqba, allegedly in Daesh’s network in Syria.[32] They were later reunited with their families.[33] In July 2015, Malik Ishaq, the notorious leader of an anti-Shia militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was killed in an alleged police encounter. According to police sources, Ishaq intended on joining Daesh.[34] Towards the end of the year, the Sialkot cell was busted, a ‘women’s wing’ of the Karachi cell was identified, and reports began emerging that Iran was recruiting Pakistani Shia to fight in Syria.[35] These Shia fighters have come to be known as ‘Zeinabiyon’. Shortly after, twenty-two people were killed in an attack on Shias in Parachinar (FATA), claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to be in response to Zeinabiyoun and the ‘crime of taking sides with Iran and Bashar al-Assad’.[36]

Thus, in the anti-state militant landscape of Pakistan, as of early 2016, four trends are identifiable vis-à-vis Daesh.[37] First, local militants have praised and offered support (not allegiance) on ideological or sectarian grounds, as in the case of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Second, they have formed cells (such as in Karachi, Lahore[38] and Sialkot), with some amount of contact (through social media or otherwise) with individuals believed to be in Syria or Iraq. The cells create a network through which they spread Daesh’s propaganda, give sermons, raise funds, facilitate and plan attacks, or plan to leave for Syria. This could be the first step to gain acceptance from the Daesh-central, or in the words of a security official, ‘this is how they build their CVs’.[39] Third, they have defected from existing terrorist groups (such as al Qaeda, TTP or Afghan Taliban), joined Wilayat Khorasan and continue to recruit militants to train and fight in Afghanistan. Fourth, they have left for Syria (possibly through Turkey and Iran, via Balochistan or Afghanistan), but their numbers are highly disputed and difficult to verify, ranging from 100[40] to 500.[41] And lastly, those loyal to al Qaeda under Zawahiri, or to the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Mansoor or Mullah Rasool, or the TTP under Maulana Fazlullah, have largely rejected Daesh.[42]

Next week, I discuss the second trend: individuals and cells that have formed in urban areas of Pakistan, particularly Karachi.


Zoha Waseem is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, researching urban security and policing in Pakistan. She is also a senior editor at Strife and the head of the Afghan Studies Research Group at King’s. She tweets at @zohawaseem.

*The author would like to thank Mr Abdul Basit, associate fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, journalist and researcher Mr. Zia ur Rehman, and officers of the Counter Terrorism Department of Sindh Police, Karachi, for their relentless guidance.


[1] K. Yousuf, ‘Majority of Militants Fleeing Pakistan Joined Islamic State in Afghanistan’, The Express Tribune (13 January 2016), available at (all online sources last accessed on 15 January 2016, unless stated otherwise).

[2] R. Shirzad, ‘Islamic State Claims Suicide Attack on Pakistani Consulate in Afghan City’, Reuters (13 January 2016), available at

[3] This is the second suicide attack claimed by Daesh in Nangarhar after the one in April 2015 that killed 30 people.

[4] ‘Islamic State Expands Afghan Footprint With Terror Campaign’, Daily Times (20 December 2015), available at

[5] B. Roggio & C. Weiss, ‘Islamic State Highlights “Sheikh Jalaluddin training camp” in Afghanistan’, The Long War Journal (19 November 2015), available at

[6] Z. Rehman, ‘2015 Brought the Educated Terrorist to Karachi’, The News, p. 13.

[7] K. Shahid, ‘ISIS in Punjab?’, The Friday Times (01 January 2016), available at

[8] ‘Nearly 350 Military Men Killed in Zarb-e-Azb: ISPR’, Dawn (13 June 2015), available at

[9] ‘Karachi Operation to Continue Till Logical Conclusion: COAS’, The News (29 April 2015), available at

[10] ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb to Continue Till Its Logical Conclusion: Army Chief’, The Express Tribune (13 July 2015), available at

[11] S. Safdar, ‘The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: An Assessment of Potential Threats and Constraints’, Conflict and Peace Studies (July-Dec 2014), vol. 6 (2), pp. 11-40.

[12] S. Mehsud & M. Zahra-Malik, ‘Pakistan Taliban Reject Islamic State Leader’s Claim to be “Caliph”’, Reuters (19 December 2015), available at

[13] B. Sarwary, ‘Life in the Taliban After Mullah Omar: Afghan Islamist Commanders Reveal How the Organisation has Split and Lost its Roots’, The Independent (10 August 2015), available at

[14] Z. Rehman, ‘Pakistani Fighters Joining the War in Syria’, CTC Sentinel (2013), vol. 6 (9), pp. 9-11.

[15] H. Abbas, ‘ISIS Eyes Influence in Pakistan: Focus, Fears and Future Prospects’, Jinnah Institute (23 December 2014), available at

[16] A. Rashid, ‘Pakistan: The Allure of ISIS’, The New York Review of Books (06 October 2014), available at

[17] F. Zahid, ‘Tahir Saeen Group: Higher-Degree Militants’, Conflict and Peace Studies, vol. 7 (2), pp. 151 – 160.

[18] Z. Hussain, ‘ISIS is no Taliban’, Dawn (09 July 2014), available at

[19] H. Abbas, ‘ISIS Eyes Influence’, p. 14.

[20] N. Khan, ‘Terrorist Moms’, The Friday Times (25 December 2015), available at

[21] ‘Mobile Signals Suspended for Third Friday Now’, Dawn (19 December 2015), available at

[22] Z. Waseem, ‘The Arrival of IS in Pakistan and the Politics of the Caliphate’, Strife Blog (26 September 2014), available at

[23] Ibid.

[24] S. Arfeen, ‘Providing the Human Fuel: IS in Pakistan’, The News on Sunday (10 January 2016), available at

[25] Z. S. Sherazi, ‘Six Top TTP Commanders Announce Allegiance to Islamic State’s Baghdadi’, Dawn (14 October 2014), available at

[26] ‘Khadim Named IS Chief for Afghanistan’, The Express Tribune (30 January 2015), available at

[27] ‘IS Visits Militants in Balochistan: Jundullah Spokesman’, Dawn (12 November 2014), available at

[28] A. Khan, ‘Clear Views: Lal Masjid Top Cleric Says He Respects Islamic State’, The Express Tribune (15 December 2014), available at

[29] N. Miraf, ‘Startling Revelations: IS Operative Confesses to Getting Funds via US’, The Express Tribune (28 January 2015), available at

[30] ‘Say, “Die in Your Rage!” An Address by the Spokesman for the Islamic State, The Mujahid Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami’, Al Hayat (January 2015), available at

[31] S. Arfeen, ‘Providing Human Fuel.’

[32] Personal interview with a security official in Karachi (October 2015); also, F. Khan, ‘Two Pakistani Men Caught Trying to go to Syria to Join Islamic State’, The Express Tribune (03 October 2015), available at

[33] I. Ali, ‘Two IS-Inspired Militants Rehabilitated’, Dawn (16 January 2016), p. 17.

[34] Personal interview with a security official in Karachi (December 2015); ‘Malik Ishaq’s Killing a Big Blow to Daesh’, The News (01 August 2015), available at

[35] B. Dehghanpisheh, ‘Iran Recruits Pakistani Shi’ites for Combat in Syria’, Reuters (10 December 2015), available at

[36] S. Masood, ‘Sunni Militants Claim Deadly Attack at Market in Pakistan’, The New York Times (13 December 2015), available at

[37] I am thankful to Abdul Basit for helping identify these trends.

[38] U. Cheema, ‘20 Men, Women, Children from Lahore Join Daesh, go to Syria’, The News (31 December 2015), available at

[39] Personal interview conducted in Karachi (October 2015).

[40] ‘100 Have Gone to Syria, Iraq’, Dawn (05 January 2016), available at

[41] P. R. Neumann, ‘Foreign Fighter Total in Syria/Iraq Exceeds 20,000; Surpasses Afghanistan Conflict in the 1980s’, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (26 January 2015), available at

[42] S. Mehsud & M. Zahra-Malik, ‘Pakistan Taliban reject’.


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