QUETTA -- Security forces in Mastung district, Balochistan, earlier this week raided a large militant camp in the Qamar Mazarabad area, killing at least 11 suspects of the Khorasan branch of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS-K).
The raid on Monday (August 30) targeted the camp of arrested ISIS-K ringleader Abdul Hayee, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of Balochistan said.
During the operation, the militants opened fire at the CTD unit, prompting it to retaliate, a CTD spokesman said. At least 11 militants were killed.
"It was an intelligence-based operation, and the killed militants also include some key ISIS-K leaders who were leading the group in different parts of Pakistan," Ahsan Javed, a Quetta-based senior security official, told Pakistan Forward.
"The killed militants were involved in several major terrorist incidents," he said.
The operation was based on intelligence from the confessions of Abdul Hayee, "who was leading the group in Mastung and other restive areas of Balochistan", he added.
A large number of weapons, ammunition and explosives jackets have been recovered from the camp, Javed said, adding that the site would have served as a launchpad for ISIS operations in the future.
ISIS-K wants a foothold in border zones
The operational wing of ISIS is working hard to regain a foothold in Balochistan and other bordering areas of the country.
"We have reports that the militant group is strengthening its network via recruiting militants in targeted areas," a senior intelligence official based in Islamabad said on the condition of anonymity.
"The investigations confirmed that some elements involved in sectarian operations are ... providing covert support to ISIS in their areas," he said.
On January 3, ISIS carried out a co-ordinated attack on Hazara workers in the restive coal mining area of Mach district in Balochistan, he said.
At least 11 coal miners, who were identified as members of the Shia Hazara community, were killed when ISIS militants opened fire on them at close range.
Security forces are conducting large-scale targeted operations nationwide against ISIS, the Islamabad official said. "[We] destroyed several camps of ISIS extremists and killed many key operatives of the group."
He said security forces are trying to prevent extremists from gaining a foothold in Pakistan again "to fulfill their ambitions", a reference to the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan on August 15.
"The leadership of ISIS in Afghanistan is working hard to find safe havens in the region, and Pakistan could be an epicentre of its strategy in the future," Maj. (ret.) Muhammad Omar, a senior Islamabad-based security analyst, said.
"ISIS is trying to foment anarchy and sectarian strife in restive parts of Pakistan and especially along those [sectarian] fault lines where ... the group could create an atmosphere of instability" between Sunni and Shia, he said.
Many former TTP members in ISIS-K
"ISIS has a large number of those militants in its Khorasan faction who have previously been part of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). These extremists have been closely associated with local extremists" in these turbulent areas, he said.
If Pakistan wants to eliminate the potential influence of ISIS in the future, it will have to move forward with a tougher strategy against the Pakistani Taliban, Omar said.
"ISIS influence on our [sectarian] fault lines will continue until the Pakistani Taliban are eliminated," he said.
Pakistani forces need to target ISIS's support network, he said, adding that "the elements that are providing financial and logistics support to ISIS must be dealt with effectively".
"In Balochistan, ISIS has strong ties with local militant groups including the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami and Jaish-ul-Islam," said Muhammad Nadeem, a Quetta-based regional security analyst.
"The recent Mastung operation against ISIS is a big blow to the operational setup of this militant group," he said.
"ISIS is a major threat to the overall security of the region; therefore, all neighbouring countries must work together to formulate a strategy for neutralising this threat," Nadeem said.
"If the security situation in the Pak-Afghan and Pak-Iran border areas is not further improved, a never-ending wave of extremism could emerge here in the coming days."
Once the Taliban form their government in Afghanistan, uncertainty could prevail in there, Nadeem said.
"ISIS-K's main agenda is to incite religious hatred through sectarian riots," he said, noting that the emerging influence of ISIS-K in Pakistan could exacerbate the situation as it attracts the ideologically like-minded.
"These elements pose a major challenge to Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts," Nadeem said.
"Internal security issues in Pakistan need to be re-examined, and the implementation of the National Action Plan [NAP] is crucial for lasting peace," he added.
The NAP is a counter-terrorism policy that took effect in January 2015.