Pakistan experts expect more defections to the Islamic State

Militants from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate the group's declaration of an Islamic state, in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, June 30, 2014
Militants from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate the group's declaration of an Islamic state, in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, June 30, 2014 AP

Experts in Pakistan’s insurgency say they expect hundreds of radical Islamists to join the Islamic State as a result of the Pakistani military’s campaign in the country’s North Waziristan region.

As the military takes control of what had been insurgent-dominated areas of North Waziristan, the militants who’d thrived in that area are searching for a new group with which to affiliate. Many are expected to choose the Islamic State, driven in part by a reluctance to accept al Qaida’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Hard-line militants, in particular, are angry at the Egyptian cleric’s preoccupation with consolidating his power since he succeeded Osama bin Laden in May 2011, and they blame his political ambitions for a significant drop since then in terrorist attacks mounted by the group in Pakistan and, from there, against targets overseas.

They view the Islamic State, with its deep pockets and its string of military victories, as a chance to have their jihadist bona fides restored after their recent losses to the Pakistani military. It might give them access to money and networks they need to survive.

Still, few think the Pakistanis will relocate to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State there. Instead, they’re hoping the Islamic State will sponsor a sustained campaign of revenge attacks against the Pakistani military.

The experts on Pakistan’s insurgency who spoke to McClatchy included researchers and militants. The researchers spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing a blanket ban imposed by the Pakistani military on independent news coverage of the air and land operations in the North Waziristan tribal area. The militants asked not to be named because disclosure of their identities would make them liable to arrest by the Pakistani authorities and reprisals from other militants. 

Many militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas have long-standing relations with militant commanders in Iraq and Syria who’ve joined the Islamic State, having previously fought with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian who founded al Qaida in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. 

A former Zarqawi associate, Abu al Huda al Sudani, in April became the first Afghanistan-based Arab militant to switch allegiance to the Islamic State from al Qaida, accusing Zawahiri of “deviating” from its mission – a complaint that echoes those expressed privately by Pakistan-based militants who spoke to McClatchy.

There have been two mass defections so far this month. The first was announced Oct. 6 by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a battalion of several hundred militants notorious for their involvement in high-profile attacks on Pakistani military installations. The defection followed reports that 17 Uzbek militants had been killed in late September in Syria during an international-coalition air raid against the Islamic State. It’s likely the militants were part of a small group that had been sent there by the Uzbek group’s chief, Usman Ghazi, to curry favor with his new patrons.

Bases for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other, smaller Central Asian militant factions in North Waziristan were targeted at the outset of the Pakistan military offensive there in June. The bases reportedly were destroyed by airstrikes and artillery, and many of the groups’ key commanders were killed. That left the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s militants with nowhere to go, and the researchers and militants think the other Central Asian factions will follow the group into alliances with the Islamic State.

Former Zarqawi associate Sudani was instrumental in the second mass defection, that of six faction leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, led by their former spokesman, Sheikh Maqbool, according to the audio-recording account of events they circulated last week in Pakistan. They’d approached Sudani and asked him to put them in contact with the Islamic State’s leadership. He arranged an encrypted phone call with a Syria-based representative of the group, during which the militants became the first Pakistanis to swear an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State.

Under Islamic custom, a Muslim may seek to renew his faith by swearing an oath of allegiance to a single religious guide. All Afghan and Pakistani Taliban militants already have pledged their allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in his capacity as “leader of the faithful,” the title he adopted when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001.

Maqbool was vilified for his betrayal in a statement issued Oct. 20 by the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, or TTP. He was officially expelled, but the TTP made no mention of the five other regional faction leaders who’d also announced they’d joined the Islamic State.

Those five other defections, however, have created a buzz of expectancy within the militant community in Pakistan and Afghanistan that small groups displaced from their havens in North Waziristan will also align with the Islamic State.