Herald Magazine Logo
An empty police checkpoint in Karachi with graffiti reading "ISIS" | AFP
An empty police checkpoint in Karachi with graffiti reading "ISIS" | AFP

The  recent boast by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) that, with billions of dollars in the bank, it can “call on [its] wilayah in Pakistan to purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region” came as a startling revelation. More realistically, the jihadi organisation claimed in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, “if not a nuke, what about a few thousand tons of ammonium nitrate explosive? That’s easy enough to make.”

Whether these threats will become real is anyone’s guess but the existence of an Isis wilayah, or chapter, in Pakistan is already a fact. This wilayah was established by a group of militants who split from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The next question is whether Isis can become a dominant jihadi group in Pakistan. Many analysts say its Salafi roots may hinder Pakistani militants from joining because most of these militants are Deobandis. An analysis of the Deobandi movement in Pakistan, however, belies such a claim.

The movement emerged in the 1860s as a reaction to the Indian defeat in the War of Independence which strengthened British colonial rule in India. The founders of the movement were Hanafis like the rest of India’s Sunni Muslim population. Their most distinguishing feature was political: Deobandi ulema wanted to keep India united and therefore supported the Indian National Congress when it was formed in 1885. 

Although Isis and Boko Haram have joined hands, JuD has distanced itself from them as it does not want to jeopardise its ties with the Pakistani military establishment.

In 1947, a small group of Deobandis under the leadership of Shabbir Ahmad Usmani split from the Deobandi movement to support the struggle for Pakistan. Since then, there have been two separate branches of the movement in Pakistan: those who opposed the country’s creation and those who supported it. The leaders of the former group later set up Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam while the latter group focused its attention on setting up madrasas and developing Deobandi theology. 

In the early 1980s, when Pakistan became involved in Afghan jihad, this became another important development in the history of the Deobandi movement. The followers of Usmani joined the war, while the other group kept its distance from it. The gulf between the two factions has been widening ever since Afghan militants started drifting closer to the Saudi establishment and Salafism. Although the jihadist Deobandis have been divided into several branches, their principal branch is now led by Mullah Fazlullah who is closer to Salafis than to fellow Deobandis. This explains why some TTP splinter groups have readily joined the ISIS. Many others may follow.

Jamaatud Dawa chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed addresses a rally | AP
Jamaatud Dawa chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed addresses a rally | AP

Then there is another factor. There are three principal jihadist groups in the world which identify themselves as Salafi: Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), Isis and Boko Haram. Although Isis and Boko Haram have joined hands, JuD has distanced itself from them as it does not want to jeopardise its ties with the Pakistani military establishment. Isis and JuD seem to be natural allies as far as their sectarian affiliations are concerned, but they seem unlikely to join forces in the near future. 

According to some accounts, a few JuD members have indeed split and joined Isis. If the trend continues, it may provide Isis with part of the human resources it needs to lay its hands on Pakistani nukes. JuD is the only jihadist group in Pakistan which has sophisticated technical expertise and nuclear know-how. Its chief Hafiz Saeed once patronised a sizeable group of engineering students and encouraged them to join government departments working on nuclear technology. It is not clear if anybody from the engineering branch of JuD has joined Isis in Pakistan. Even if this has not happened so far, it may happen if and when JuD splits from the military establishment — which is not improbable, given that other militant groups have done just that in the past. Such a split may lead to a strengthening of Isis ranks or the emergence of another Salafi jihadi group not aligned with the military. Either way, the Pakistani state will find it hard to resist the Salafi jihadi onslaught in case it materialises. 

This was originally published in Herald's June 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.