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IS-linked Terror Group Re-emerges as Regional Threat in Pakistan

FILE - Pakistani Shi'ite Muslims gather around bodies of the victims of a suicide bombing for which the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility in Quetta, Pakistan, July 1, 2013.

A bombing this month that killed 25 civilians and injured 70 others at a used clothing market in a Pakistani tribal region has again put the spotlight on a Sunni extremist organization that analysts say has global terror ambitions.

Little publicized in the West, the predominantly Punjab-based group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has wreaked havoc in Pakistan for years. It has been tied to the Taliban in Afghanistan and joined forces with al-Qaida. Analysts say it is now linked to the Islamic State group (IS).

Known in Pakistan as LeJ, the group introduced sectarian violence to Pakistan in 1996. It has had an agenda of establishing a Sunni Muslim kingdom in Pakistan and claimed responsibility for killing hundreds of Shi'ite Muslims in terror attacks.

LeJ claimed responsibility for the December 13 market bombing, saying it was carried out to punish Shi’ites for taking sides with Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict.

“The group has been trying to create a sectarian divide on a regional level that could lead to a global war,” Pakistan-based political analyst Khadim Hussain told VOA. “By targeting minority Shi’ite groups in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, the group tries to widen the divide between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and its allies, and Shi’ite Iran, a divide that has already hit the Middle East.”

Numerous terror attacks

Although the Pakistani government banned LeJ in 2001, it has been involved in numerous high-profile terrorist attacks, including bus and church bombings, and killings of hundreds of Shi’ite minority members in Pakistan.

The group influences local politics through affiliate parties in parliament and politicians it supports. The English language newspaper, The Nation, reported last month that more than 500 candidates backed by banned outfits made their way into Punjab’s local governance system.

FILE - A Pakistani paramilitary soldier and a nurse walk through a corridor at the Bolan Medical complex damaged by an attack claimed by the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in Quetta, Pakistan, June 16, 2013.
FILE - A Pakistani paramilitary soldier and a nurse walk through a corridor at the Bolan Medical complex damaged by an attack claimed by the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in Quetta, Pakistan, June 16, 2013.

LeJ also reportedly intimidates members of the country’s judicial system and retaliates against government and police officials. It attempted to assassinate Pakistan’s prime minister in 1999.

Intelligence sources named LeJ as being a party to the abduction and execution of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. It also claimed responsibility for killing four U.S. oil workers in 1997 in the southern port city of Karachi.

LeJ’s large recruitment network, training camps and massive resources have helped it join forces with several other militant groups, including those operating beyond Pakistan.

It claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Kabul which killed at least 55 Shi’ite worshippers during a holiday observance in 2011. The group also fought alongside the Taliban when they briefly captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in late September.

IS link

Analysts believe LeJ developed links with al-Qaida in the early 2000s.

U.S. authorities, who designated LeJ as a foreign terrorist organization in 2003, said that LeJ fighters trained with al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

“It was the anti-Shi’ite ideology, among many other factors, that brought LeJ close to the Taliban and al-Qaida,” political analyst Hussain said.

Now analysts believe the group is linked with IS through an alliance of anti-Shi’ite ideology.

Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper, The Express Tribune, last month reported that the former leader of LeJ was planning to join IS before he was killed in a police shootout earlier this year in Punjab. According to the Pakistani daily, he was hoping to become the chief of the IS group in Pakistan.

“Some material such as flags and pamphlets showing allegiance to IS was confiscated from them [LeJ supporters],” a Pakistani security official told The Express Tribune.

IS has recently shown signs of expanding in Pakistan. And analysts say LeJ’s extremist philosophy matches IS ideology.

“No other group in Pakistan could match IS’s anti-Shi’ite ideology than LeJ,” Hussain said.