The common thread in the growth of Islamic extremism in Pakistan is its four decade official policy to harness Sunni militancy to suppress ethnic separatism and religious diversity domestically and advance its regional interests, particularly against Hindu India, Shia Iran and the perceived threat posed by Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan.
Coupled to that is the tendency for Islamic extremist groups to splinter in their search for purer and ever more intolerant forms of Sunni Islam or simply fragment through tribal disputes and internal power struggles.
All of those elements are now operating within an environment where Sunni militancy is no longer completely under Pakistani government control.
The onset and growth of ISIS in Pakistan are natural consequences of those factors and whose presumed leader, Shafiq-ur-Rahman Mengal, is a prototypical example of Islamic extremist evolution.
Shafiq Mengal is the son of former Pakistan state minister for petroleum and Balochistan’s caretaker chief minister, Nasir Mengal. He comes from an influential and educated family, dropped out of the elite boarding school, Aitchison College in Lahore. He later attended a fundamentalist Sunni-Deobandi theological school in Karachi, where he met senior members of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and was recruited as a future asset of the Pakistan Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, the ISI.
Around 2008, Shafiq Mengal organized a pro-government tribal militia known as the Baloch Musallah Difa Tanzim, which was considered a pawn of the ISI and an instrument of the Pakistani government to suppress the Balochistan independence movement. Mengals’s group soon degenerated into local vigilantes, accused of acid attacks on women and killing people for political as well as non-political, tribal or personal reasons. That included the alleged torture and murder of up to 169 people, whose mostly unidentified remains were found in a mass grave in Tootak, north of Khuzdar in January 2014.
It is important to note, that Mengal remained closely associated with the Pakistani government even participating as a featured speaker at the National Defence University conference on Balochistan held July 17-18, 2012.
Mengal has provided protection to Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in Balochistan and was known as a subcontractor of the intensely anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Sunni-Deobandi supremacist group and a formal affiliate of al Qaeda. A local Balochistan publication claimed that Mengal spent three months with ISIS in Syria before returning in September of 2016. In the wake of the Pakistani government crackdown on domestic terrorist groups, Mengal took advantage of the power vacuum created in LeJ to become one of the leading lights of the LeJ splinter group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (LeJ-A), who, together with ISIS, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of two Chinese nationals in Quetta, Balochistan in May 2017.
Immediately afterwards, in early June 2017, Pakistani security forces attacked an alleged ISIS headquarters in Mastung, Balochistan, said to be under the control of local ISIS commander Ejaz Bangulzai. His brother, Farooq Bangulzai, has been facilitating the ISIS network in Nangarhar, Afghanistan and, like Mengal, had been leading members of LeJ before joining ISIS.
In an August 7, 2017 Reuters’ article, a Pakistani teenager, who was captured moments before carrying out a suicide attack, told of being trained at an ISIS camp in Wahd, Balochistan supervised by Shafiq Mengal. According to Pakistani police, Mengal now controls a network of 500 to 1,000 Jihadis spanning both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Just in the past two weeks, an ISIS cell was found operating out of a flour mill in Peshawar, Pakistan and an ISIS flag was seen flying in Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad.
Given the trends towards greater Sunni extremism in Pakistan and the transnational nature of ISIS, the Afghan Taliban may only be the tip of the Islamist iceberg in South Asia.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.