Pakistan aims to curb ISIS-K influence as terrorists attempt to recruit educated youth
KARACHI -- Pakistan is boosting efforts to counter the influence of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria"'s Khorasan branch (ISIS-K), paying special attention to potential recruiters in academic institutions.
Since ISIS's territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria earlier this year, analysts say the terrorist organisation is shifting its focus towards Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, ISIS-K has subscribed to the group's tactic of instigating sectarian strife by targeting Muslim minorities, such as Shia and Sufis.
Pakistani authorities have noticed a relatively greater presence of ISIS influence in Balochistan and northern Sindh provinces, where sectarian fault lines exist, according to the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank.
However, the February 28 killing of two key ISIS-K leaders -- Maulvi Abdullah Brohi and Abdul Hafeez Pindrani -- in the Sibi region of Balochistan Province was seen as a major achievement for law enforcement agencies.
Brohi and Pindrani were, respectively, the chief and deputy chief of ISIS in Sindh Province, said Shikarpur Police Chief Sajid Amir Saduzai. They were wanted for their involvement in a number of terror attacks in Sindh and Balochistan since 2010.
ISIS-K is perhaps the only militant outfit against which government authorities, civilian and military, have unanimously spoken out, said Muhammad Ismail Khan, an Islamabad-based security analyst associated with PIPS.
"The only divisive issue is about whether ISIS-K has a presence or origin in Pakistan," he said in an interview. "Some say it's not indigenous, and more of a brand name; others say it is a threat. What they do agree on is that ISIS-K has to be dealt with."
ISIS-K eyeing youth
Pakistani authorities have been working on various fronts to counter ISIS-K's efforts to recruit youth studying in academic institutions.
Interviews with law enforcement agencies involved in cracking down on ISIS-K suggest that the terrorist group -- in addition to recruiting from existing local militant groups -- has focused on recruiting university students and professionals for carrying out its subversive attacks, fundraising and propaganda operations.
"ISIS-K recruiters employed several methods to lure Muslim youths to join militancy through social media and small discussion groups in local colleges and universities," said a senior counter-terrorism intelligence officer who requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Until very recently, law enforcement agencies were arresting terrorists associated with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), whose members were mostly uneducated or graduated from madrassas, he said in an interview.
"But now we are facing terrorists who are highly educated," he said, adding, "We have to keep an eye on the affairs of universities from where they got their degrees."
For example, Sindh University, a state-run university in Jamshoro District, on May 20 cancelled the provisional admission of Naureen Leghari, a student who previously joined ISIS, on grounds that she could be a risk for other students.
In April 2017, Leghari, then a second-year student at Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences (LUMS), a state-run medical school in the same district, was captured in a military raid on an ISIS-K cell in Lahore.
She confessed to going to Lahore with the intention of carrying out a suicide bombing against a church during Easter, according to an interview broadcast on local television.
Police later released Leghari, saying that she had undergone rehabilitation and that ISIS had deceived her.
After her release, however, LUMS cancelled her admission. She was then admitted to the English Department at Sindh University last November. But when the university learned of her history, it cancelled her admission.
Targeting the affluent and educated
Several other well-documented cases of affluent and educated Pakistani youth joining ISIS have made the news.
Saad Aziz, another example, was a graduate of the Karachi Institute of Business Administration. He joined a local group of "well-educated" criminals inspired by ISIS.
Aziz, 27, confessed to involvement in a number of terrorist activities in Karachi, including the May 2015 killing of about 45 members of the Ismaili community in the Safoora Goth neighbourhood and the April 2015 murder of Sabeen Mehmud, a social worker and human rights activist.
A court handed him a death sentence in May 2016. He remains in custody.
On April 15, Karachi police arrested four members of ISIS-K in a raid in the Taiser Town neighbourhood.
The arrested persons were involved in seeking recruits, especially youth, via social media and giving them various incentives to join ISIS-K, according to Malir District Police Chief Irfan Bahadur.
"From their possession, grenades, weapons, we seized dozens of bullets and laptops," Bahadur said.