Tue, Aug 21, 2018 - Page 9 News List

A deadly new front for the Islamic State in Pakistan’s decades-old terror war

Hundreds of Pakistanis who traveled to join the extremists are unaccounted for and there are concerns that they have gone underground waiting to strike

By Kathy Gannon  /  AP, DHABEJI, Pakista

Illustration: Yusha

Hafeez Nawaz was 20 years old when he left his religious school in Karachi, Pakistan, to join the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan. Three years later, he was back in Pakistan to carry out a deadly mission: With explosives strapped to his body, he last month blew himself up in the middle of an election rally, killing 149 people and wounding 300.

The attack in southwestern Balochistan Province near the Afghan border just days before Pakistan’s July 25 parliamentary elections has cast an unwelcome spotlight on Nawaz’s tiny village of Dhabeji, where the presence of an IS cell in their midst has brought the full weight of Pakistan’s security apparatus down on its residents.

“Now we are all under suspicion,” said Nawaz’s neighbor, who gave only his first name, Nadeem, for fear of the local police. “The security agencies now consider Dhabeji a security threat area.”

Nawaz’s trajectory from religiously devout student to extremist and suicide bomber is an all too familiar one in Pakistan.

Since battlefield successes routed the IS from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, hundreds of Pakistanis who traveled to join the extremists’ so-called “caliphate” are unaccounted for and Pakistan’s security personnel worry that they, like Nawaz, have gone underground waiting to strike.

Sitting in his office in a compound surrounded by high walls and heavily armed guards, Karachi’s Counter-Terrorism Department head, Pervez Ahmed Chandio, said that the IS group is the newest and deadliest front in Pakistan’s decades-old war on terror.

“It is one of the most dangerous threats facing Pakistan and we are ready to fight this war,” he said.

It the amorphous nature of IS that has counterterrorism officials such as Chandio most worried. When one cell is disrupted another emerges, sometimes within weeks and often in an unrelated part of the country.

“It’s what they don’t know that is the most worrying for counterterrorism departments around the country,” said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, which tracks militant movements in the region. “Its hideouts, its structure, its strategy are all unknown. They are an invisible enemy who is defeated in one area, only to resurface in another.”

‘A NEW PHASE’

A UN Security Council report earlier this year warned of the changing face of the IS, saying that the extremist group was “entering a new phase, with more focus on less visible networks of individuals and cells acting with a degree of autonomy.”

Hafeez Nawaz was just such a case.

Three years ago, he joined his elder brother, Aziz, to study at Siddiquia Madrasah in Karachi’s Shah Faisal Colony neighborhood, an area where the level of sectarian violence at the time was so brutal that even police could not enter. A crackdown by paramilitary Rangers has since led to the arrest and killing of hundreds of militants and criminals.

Today, the religious school is among 94 madrasah under surveillance in Karachi and elsewhere in southern Sindh Province, Chandio said.

They have been identified as breeding grounds for radicalism, schools that extremists and perpetrators of attacks attended.

Many are financed by oil-rich Saudi Arabia to promote the rigid Wahhabi sect of Islam practiced in the kingdom, Chandio said.

The origin of the money, whether from the Saudi Arabian government or Saudi Arabian philanthropists, is not clear, but the teachings at these schools espouse a rigid interpretation of Islam and the superiority of Sunni Islam.

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