The horrific suicide attack at a Sufi shrine in Sehwan in Pakistan’s Sindh province that killed at least 80 people, underscores fears about the Islamic State gaining strength in the country. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, among the most venerated of Sufi saints.
People of all faiths in the subcontinent have flocked here over the centuries, making it a prominent symbol of syncretism, and thereby a particularly potent target for the IS. The terrorist group, which had announced its Pakistan branch more than two years ago, has claimed a string of attacks in recent months, mostly on minority Muslim sects. Initially, Pakistani authorities had denied that the IS has any organisational presence in the country.
However, attacks such as this, which the IS promptly took responsibility for, suggest otherwise. In Iraq and Syria the IS has methodically targeted Shias, Alawis, Kurds and Yazidis. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, Shias, Hazaras and Sufis are being attacked.
Pakistan, particularly, has a rich Sufi tradition, a mystical and generally moderate form of Islam that is loathed by fundamentalists. In 2010, Lahore’s Data Darbar shrine had been brutally attacked. In June last year, the popular Sufi singer, Amjad Sabri, was shot dead in Karachi. Three months ago, a Sufi shrine in Balochistan was bombed by the IS, killing 45 people. The attack at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar came when it was full of devotees, to cause maximum harm.
The IS is clearly following a strategy that was successful in mobilising fighters and gaining publicity in Iraq and Syria. The highly planned, well-publicised attacks on Shias in these countries helped the IS whip up Sunni sectarian sentiment and win recruits. There is still no evidence that the Pakistani branch of the group is directed by the IS core in Mosul or Raqqah.
But IS fighters in eastern Afghanistan, where the group has established a province of the ‘Caliphate’, and those in Pakistan seem to have aligned themselves with local terror groups for organisational support.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a ferociously anti-Shia group, and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, are two such groups that reportedly have a tactical alliance with the IS. Most of the major recent suicide attacks in Pakistan were carried out by these three groups. This indicates a dangerous trend. After the massacre in an army school in Peshawar in 2014 that left more than 140 dead, the security forces had finally turned against the Pakistani Taliban and dismantled parts of their terror network.
But such operations did little to minimise the threat Pakistan faces from terrorism as such. If the Pakistan Taliban are on the back foot, others are coming forward with a more vicious, sectarian worldview and firepower. Tragedies such as Thursday’s are a reminder that Pakistan needs a more comprehensive action plan against terrorism.