WASHINGTON - Faced with a series of terror attacks, Pakistan is fighting back against Islamic State-affiliated militants after repeatedly claiming that Islamic State has been unable to establish a foothold in the country, analysts say.
"Pakistan no longer denies IS’s presence as it used to,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at Wilson Center in Washington, told VOA.
He and other analysts warn that the IS group in Pakistan, while still relatively small, is spreading swiftly in many areas where the government struggles to maintain law and order, including the restive Balochistan province.
Earlier this month, officials claimed that a military operation destroyed an IS stronghold in the southwestern province, killing 12 “hardcore terrorists.”
The operation took place days after a Chinese couple was abducted and killed by IS operatives in Quetta, the provincial capital.
In May, a suicide bomber killed at least 25 people in a caravan of a prominent politician in Balochistan. IS claimed responsibility.
While Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province by size, it also is wracked by poverty, creating fertile breeding grounds among the disenfranchised.
“Islamic State is an international phenomenon and the name of an ideology, and anyone can get impressed by that ideology,” Abdul Qayyum, a lawmaker and prominent member of the ruling PML-N party, told VOA.
“But the Frontier Corps Balochistan and Pakistan Army are doing a commendable job to overcome such security obstacles in the province,” he said.
But with so many groups active in the region, it’s a tough task, analysts say.
“Islamic State is trying to establish a territorial presence through its terror allies such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” Sarfaraz Bugti, home minister for Balochistan, told VOA recently. “But these groups should not be mistaken for Islamic State.”
Pakistan said Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a predominantly Punjab-based militant sectarian group that has been tied to the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida, and recently linked to IS, had occupied the base that was used as an IS foothold until it was destroyed in the military operation earlier this month.
Pakistani authorities believe LeJ pledged allegiance to IS to help the group establish a base in Pakistan, and that it also wanted to carry out terror attacks on its behalf.
“Pakistan has an environment that encourages and enhances the prospects of terror groups, because the presence of other terror groups and their facilities presents an enabling environment for extremism overall,” said Kugelman.
Islamic State’s influence is not limited to Balochistan.
In 2016, Aftab Sultan, Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau Chief, warned that IS was an emerging threat in the country and that hundreds of Pakistanis linked to local banned religious groups had left for Syria to join IS ranks there.
Last week, at least two alleged IS leaders in Pakistan, including its Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chief, were killed in a gun battle with security forces in Peshawar. Police said they were planning to carry out an Eid attack.
In May, Pakistani authorities arrested five suspected IS operatives from Karachi who were planning terrorist attacks in the city. Last year, Pakistani authorities found a group of women from Karachi that was raising funds for IS.
Scores of suspected IS militants and operatives have been arrested in recent raids across Pakistan in the recent past. Many of them went to Syria for training before returning to Pakistan.
Noreen Laghari, a young woman from Lahore arrested in April, was planning to target an Easter gathering — and had gone to Syria to get trained by the IS.
The government says it is aware of the gravity of the matter and how IS is luring youth, working to establish a foothold in Pakistan. It has beefed up security measures in Balochistan to combat groups like IS.
Pakistan has come under frequent criticism from U.S. officials over its inability to curb homegrown militancy and extremism in the county.
In its defense, Pakistan says the government is determined to root out extremism from the country, and it has done a lot to address the issue of terrorism and extremism in the country.
Islamic State has made inroads recently in the mountain regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, branding itself as the Islamic State of Khorasan, a title that distinguishes the militant group in that area from its main branch in Iraq and Syria.