On Sunday, two Christian community members were killed and five injured as gunmen unleashed fire near a church in Quetta’s Esa Nagri locality. The victims were coming out of the church following Sunday service.
This is the second attack on the community within the span of a fortnight, after a Christian family was shot dead on Easter Monday on Shahzaman Road. Sunday’s firing is the third attack on the community in four months after eight were killed in a suicide attack on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church a week before Christmas.
All three of the attacks, including the one on Monday, have been claimed by ISIS – the group whose presence has been routinely dismissed by our security agencies.
There indeed are question marks over the group’s operational involvement in the attacks that it has claimed in Pakistan – including last year’s Sehwan bombing, which was the deadliest attack since the APS massacre – and it is a fact that the group does not provide evidence for its assertions, but that is precisely what makes it uniquely perilous.
Despite having been pulverised in the Middle East, ISIS remains the biggest jihadist umbrella around the globe, and anyone from lone radical Islamists to splintered militant groups are gravitating towards the Islamic State – at least the brand, if not the operational core.
However, for Pakistan in particular the threat might be closer to home than we would like to believe, for Islamic State’s Khorasan faction has existed for over three years, and unlike ISIS core, is yet to flee any of its hubs.
A Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) security report for 2017 has not only maintained that there is ISIS presence in Pakistan – especially in Balochistan and northern Sindh – it has also warned against the group’s expansion.
This expansion does not require jihadists from the Middle East to penetrate Pakistan, all the group needs is for local aspirants to pay allegiance to it – that is how ISIS has been growing in the country, and continues to do so.
That is how ISIS Khorasan has doubled its attacks in Afghanistan, where no one remotely interested in removing the group would claim that it does not exist.
But it is the group’s continued manoeuvres in Pakistan – specifically Balochistan, and even more specifically Quetta – that need to be countered by our security forces, and help reduce the frequency of terror incidents over there just as they have managed in most other parts of the country.
For instance, while there has been a significant plummet in terror incidents in Punjab over the past year or so, in Quetta alone there have been 13 terror attacks – of varying scales and damage – since the start of 2018. Five of these have been claimed by ISIS or have the group’s suspected involvement.
There is a clear pattern in ISIS-orchestrated killings. They are clearly targeting religious minorities, which includes both non-Muslims, and minority sects within Islam.
In addition to the three attacks targeting the Christians, two have been on the Hazara Shia community. ISIS’ first ever attack in Pakistan killed targeted an Ismaili bus near Karachi’s Safoora Chowrangi in May 2015. The Sehwan attack too was on a Sufi shrine, deemed heretic by ISIS’ radical Salafist brand of Islam.
Similarly, more recent ISIS manoeuvres in Quetta have been roadside firing attacks, including the Hazara killings in March and earlier this month. The same is true for both the attacks on the Christian community this month.
It is evident that ISIS is exploiting the vacuum along the Af-Pak border, and in Balochistan, to launch its trademark attacks, which are usually aimed towards religious minorities. Instead of denying their presence in the country, the state needs to come up with a counter-terror plan – and narrative – to get rid of the group both militarily and ideologically.
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.