Rising support for Islamic State will increase pressure on Taliban and al-Qaeda to carry out more attacks on Western interests
A number of militant commanders and other influential Pakistani jihadists have made statements and social media comments supportive of the Islamic State (IS) in recent weeks. These have triggered press reports suggesting that some Taliban splinter groups, or even the movement itself, has pledged bayat (allegiance) to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or is planning to do so. A few individuals seemingly have sworn allegiance but reports have generally been overstated, misinterpreting expressions of admiration or support for IS’s activities - and anger at the US-led air campaign in Syria and Iraq - as bayat.
This speculation led the Pakistani Taliban to reaffirm its own allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, to whom al-Qaeda also defers, on 5 October. Nonetheless, the expressions of sympathy suggests that there is growing support for IS among Pakistani militants, particularly in the North-West. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has repeatedly criticised al-Baghdadi (and expelled IS from al-Qaeda’s global movement in February) so growing support for IS is a blow to the credibility of al-Qaeda’s central leadership. IS remains focused on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and there is little evidence of South Asians joining it so far. Nonetheless, should IS decide to expand its focus to South Asia in the months or years ahead the level of sympathy it now has will greatly ease its ability to do so, which could have a negative impact on al-Qaeda and Taliban recruitment.
Al-Zawahiri retains significant support among the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leadership. The growth in sympathy for IS will increase pressure on al-Qaeda and the Taliban to carry out more attacks targeting Western interests in Pakistan and India so as to be seen as avenging the air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq – as well as US drone strikes in Pakistan, see below. This will increase the already high desire amongst Pakistan’s various militant groups to target the security forces as well as Western (particularly US) diplomatic and commercial interests in the region. Moreover, the 6 September attack on the frigate PNS Zulfiqar by the recently-formed al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS, the creation of which we discussed in our 5 September India Report) highlighted the group’s ability to carry out complex attacks in Pakistan.