The Looming Threat of the Islamic State in Pakistan

Photo Credit: Long War Journal

By: Nicole Magney, Columnist

In the battle against the Islamic State (IS), the United States and its allies have rightly focused on areas where the group controls territory, like Iraq and Syria, as well as IS ‘provinces’ of particular concern, like Libya. However, the group’s presence further east in Pakistan and Afghanistan is increasingly troubling and deserves attention. While the geopolitical landscape in Pakistan has prevented IS from gaining a strong foothold in the country thus far, this situation will change if IS shifts its focus to the region or if the power dynamics between Pakistani militant groups facilitate increased influence. Pakistan and its allies must act now by understanding evolving relationships between militant groups, addressing the flaws in Pakistan’s National Action Plan, and creating additional policies that deal with the IS threat specifically.

Despite IS efforts, the group remains more of a “brand name” in Pakistan as opposed to a unified force that oversees territory or directs attacks.[i] In January 2015, the Islamic State established its branch in Pakistan and Afghanistan, known as the Khorasan Province, under the leadership of Hafiz Saeed Khan. The extent of IS presence and authority in the region, however, is disputed. The Pakistani government has uncovered IS cells in several urban centers, including one in Karachi in April.[ii] Furthermore, the group has garnered support from smaller cells, donors, and individuals, oftentimes ex-members of Pakistani groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Khan himself was an ex-TTP leader. Despite this network of support, the Islamic State does not appear to have established an authority for ordering attacks within Pakistan, and the death of Khan in a US drone strike in Afghanistan this summer casts further doubt on the strength of the province.[iii]

One aspect of Islamic State presence in Pakistan worth watching closely is its relationship with other militant groups in the country; IS could draw strength from inter-group competition as well as cooperation. Two possible relationships deserve particular examination: TTP and LeT.

Over time, various elements of TTP have offered pledges and support for IS efforts,[iv] but as a whole, TTP has refrained from embracing the Islamic State for two key reasons. First, TTP has strong ties to its partner organization, the Afghan Taliban, which has been directly threatened by IS challenges to its territorial control and influence.[v] Second, TTP and IS are competing for support among the same constituents in Pakistan. TTP’s goals are relatively localized, focusing on eradicating government control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in the northwest, and installing its own strict Islamist rule.[vi] It has tended to see the Islamic State global vision as more of a threat than the basis for a potential alliance. However, the August attack in Quetta highlights the complicated nature of the relationship. Both a TTP splinter group and IS claimed responsibility for the attack; it is unclear whether they collaborated or simply attempted to take credit for each other’s handiwork.[vii] Although TTP leadership remains nominally opposed to IS for now, this incident illustrates that the group may choose to sharpen or soften its position toward IS depending on its own evolving geopolitical standing in Pakistan.

LeT leadership has also been resistant to embracing IS elements in Pakistan, despite individual LeT supporters’ intermittent expressions of support for the group. LeT, which carries out attacks in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir and India proper, does not support IS attempts to attack within Pakistan.[viii] Although critics of LeT point out that it, too, has recently conducted attacks against Pakistani targets, LeT rhetoric remains staunchly opposed to such actions. As with TTP, however, the relationship between LeT and IS is not fixed. On numerous occasions, protestors in Kashmir have held Pakistani and Islamic State flags side by side during marches, indicating the group’s potential growing popularity among LeT supporters.[ix]

The evolution of these militant relationships will help determine the Islamic State’s level of success in Pakistan. Another major factor will be the effectiveness of Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy.

In 2015, the Pakistani government launched military operations in FATA and enacted the National Action Plan (NAP) to harden its stance against terrorists. In the short-term, the military operation weakened both TTP and IS elements, but it may have created a dangerous power vacuum in FATA where the locals relied on TTP and local militant governance. This may present an opportunity for the Islamic State to expand its influence. Reform of FATA is one of the NAP’s twenty points, but the policy does not indicate what specifically is being done to improve governance and security in the region.[x] Broadly speaking, the NAP is too vaguely worded to be effective on its own. While the policy ushered in some positive changes, like the stricter monitoring of Islamic madrassas and decreased terrorist activity in other parts of the country, it is not structured to adequately deal with the threat of an international terrorist group like IS.[xi] The Pakistani government must enact a comprehensive policy that deals with the IS threat specifically and targets its support and funding networks. A complete response would require cooperation between the Pakistani and Afghan governments, however, which is unlikely to happen in the near future.

Following the ‘balloon effect’ analogy, if pressure is applied to one area of a balloon, air will seek to occupy an area with less resistance. If the Islamic State continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, it may turn to other areas, like Pakistan, in a desperate attempt to exert power. The Pakistani government must prepare for this possibility now by improving the National Action Plan to address the Islamic State threat specifically and better implementing elements of the existing plan that can counter IS, like instituting reforms in FATA. Finally, the United States and its allies would do well to recognize the potential for IS growth in Pakistan and exert pressure on their Pakistani counterparts to stymie that threat now rather than later.

[i] Kay Johnson and Mehreen Zahra-Malik, “Islamic State faces uphill ‘branding war’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Reuters, August 14, 2016,

[ii] Imtiaz Ali, “25 ‘IS-inspired militants’ operating in Karachi: CTD police,” Dawn, April 7, 2016,

[iii] “Afghan-Pakistan ISIL’s Hafiz Saeed Khan killed,” Al Jazeera, August 13, 2016,

[iv] Farhan Zahid and Muhammad Ismail Khan, “Prospects of the Islamic State in Pakistan,” Hudson Institute, April 29, 2016,

[v] Tariq Parvez, “The Islamic State in Pakistan,” United States Institute of Peace, Peace Brief 213, September 2016,

[vi] “Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP),” National Counterterrorism Center, Counterterrorism Guide,

[vii] Salman Masood, “Suicide Bomber Kills Dozens at Pakistani Hospital in Quetta,” New York Times, August 8, 2016,

[viii] Parvez.

[ix] “Protesters Wave Flags of Isis, Pakistan in Kashmir Valley,” International Business Times, June 12, 2015,

[x] “National Action Plan,” Government of Pakistan, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage,

[xi] Farhan Zahid, “Counter Terrorism Policy Measures: A Critical Analysis of Pakistan’s National Action Plan,” The Mackenzie Institute, July 19, 2016,


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