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IS Group Seeks to Widen Muslim World's Sectarian Rift

A Pakistani security official displays cartridges from the scene of an attack on a bus that was bound for a Shiite community center in southern Pakistan when gunmen attacked it, Karachi, May 13, 2015.
A Pakistani security official displays cartridges from the scene of an attack on a bus that was bound for a Shiite community center in southern Pakistan when gunmen attacked it, Karachi, May 13, 2015.

For more than a decade, pink and brown buses meandered through Karachi’s chaotic traffic, shuttling passengers between downtown and a neighborhood dominated by Shi'ite Ismailis for a largely uneventful commute. Then on May 13, gunmen boarded one of those buses and killed 43 people — an attack that bodes ill not just for Pakistan, but the broader Muslim world.

Given the rise of the Sunni Muslim militant group Islamic State in the Middle East, Daniel Serwer of the Washington-based Middle East Institute said the attack was not meant for Pakistan alone. He said IS seeks to stoke sectarian violence in the Islamic world.

A shadowy Sunni Muslim militant group suspected of links with Pakistan’s Taliban militants and Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Karachi attack.

IS influence rising in South Asia

Government and military officials deny the presence of IS in Pakistan.

But a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, led by Shahidullah Shahid, who once acted as spokesman for the main group, recently announced allegiance to IS.

Graffiti and leaflets promoting IS have appeared in several Pakistani cities. A band of veiled women, students of a radical Islamic school in the capital, Islamabad, have issued a video in support of IS.

On May 20, the police chief of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Nasir Khan Durrani, confirmed to reporters that two men had been arrested for allegedly distributing IS pamphlets in a residential neighborhood of Peshawar, the province’s capital.

And in neighboring Afghanistan, an alleged IS recruiter was killed in a drone strike in southern Helmand province. In February, black-clad, mask-wearing assailants kidnapped dozens of Shi'ite ethnic Hazaras in Zabul province.

Last week, more than a dozen abductees were freed in what some reports said was a prisoner swap, but there was no confirmation by Afghan officials.

Islamic militant groups, arching from Nigeria to central and southeast Asia, have forged links with IS, according to Abdul Basit, a researcher at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University.

Echoes from the Middle East

In an audio message purportedly from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader called on Muslims to join the “caliphate” he proclaimed in areas of Iraq and Syria.

“There is no excuse for any Muslim” not to join, al-Baghdadi said in the message released May 14.

In its pursuit of setting up an Islamic caliphate, IS was driven by its purely Sunni ideology, said Serwer.

“There is no sign that the current IS intends to imitate the cosmopolitan, tolerant attitudes of some of the prior caliphs and caliphates,” he said.

Serwer said the group's radical Sunni ideology makes the group “disdainful” of democracy and Shi'ites.

“The Islamic State is a highly sectarian organization, a Sunni-based organization, and it is intentionally trying to provoke sectarian conflict in many countries, including in Pakistan,” Serwer said.

Saudi Arabia and Iran

“Beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, Pakistan became the theater for a proxy Saudi-Iran war,” Hassan Abbas, a Pakistani security analyst, said in an article for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said Saudi Arabia and Iran have both jostled for influence in Yemen.

“Iran is clearly interfering in Yemen, there is no question about that in our mind and that is why we see the reaction form the Saudis and Yemen and others,” he said in a recent interview with VOA Deewa.

Serwer said IS’s actions against Shi'ites can provoke a military reaction by the sect, like in Syria and Iraq.

Recently, sectarian violence in Pakistan, and attacks on Shi'ites in particular, has become deadlier and more brutal. Shi'ite pilgrims were attacked in Baluchistan and the passengers on the bus in Karachi were shot dead execution-style.

A bomb attack on a Shi'ite bus in Baluchistan in January, 2014 killed at least 22 people.

Knox Thames of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom told VOA Deewa that law enforcement can help contain religious violence in Pakistan.

He said the implementation of laws and prosecution of perpetrators of religious violence are needed to help the country overcome sectarian unrest.