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IS Sufi shrine attack aims to divide Pakistan's Muslims

Pakistani police at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine, where the attack took place on February 16
Pakistani police at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine, where the attack took place on February 16 Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

Pakistan launched a nationwide security crackdown on Friday after a bomb exploded in a Sufi shrine, killing at least 70 people including 20 children and wounding hundreds. The Islamic State (IS) group armed group claimed the attack in the town of Sehwan, some 200 kilometres north-east of Karachi, the capital of Sindh province.


As IS loses ground in Syria and Iraq, they may be looking for new recruits in other places, and Pakistan and Afghanistan are obvious choices because of their large Sunni-Muslim populations.

“At the moment the Taliban is the bigger force in Afghanistan,” says Kamal Chenoy, of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "But the armed militants that are moving in now are Al Qaeda.”

He points out that fighters from al Nusra in Iraq and al Qaeda in Syria have gradually merged with the Islamic State.

“Even though these groups have rivalry, they have a common objective," he says. "So the fear of the West is that the Taliban might be further strengthened by al Qaeda and and the Islamic State may [be] coming."

The attack on the shrine in Sehwan seems to show that IS has a clear agenda. It is the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 13th-century Muslim saint, and it is a Sufi shrine, Sufism is a brand of Islam that is much more tolerant than IS's Wahhabism, encouraging music and dance.

Chenoy thinks that, by claiming that the shrine was a Shia place of worship, the Islamic State tries to create discord between Muslims.

“The mosque that was attacked and where 70 people were killed by the ISIL [IS] was a Sufi mosque. Now in Pakistan, many Sunis pray at that mosque and many Shia. It is a unique institution. But the ISIL has tried to create a gap, a gulf between the Sunnis and the Shias by calling it a Shia shrine. It is not completely true."

Pakistani army faces dilemma

Meanwhile, the role of the Pakistani army is becoming more complex as it fights the Taliban on its home territory, sometimes operating over the Afghan border.

This growing presence of IS in Pakistan puts the army in a difficult position.

“The Taliban has attacked Pakistan before and have tried to take over Afghanistan,“ says Chenoy.

India, which has its own conflict with Pakistan regarding Kashmir, is waiting anxiously in the sidelines, he says.

“The Pakistani army has a dual policy," he points out. "Sometimes they try to align [with] the Taliban, other times they attack and their people are killed and the problem is that India is outside, in the sense that it has no border with Afghanistan.

"America's dilemma is it is scared that the Taliban will be followed by al Qaeda, and people from al Qaeda who broke away from the [IS]. The Pakistan army wants to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda and get money from the US but also it doesn't want India to do anything in fighting terrorism outside their borders.".

Fom a global perspective, all eyes are now on what the new administration in the US is going to do.

Historically the US and Pakistan have been staunch allies but this relationship was severely dented in 2011 when US Navy Seals sneaked over the border from Afghanistan to kidnap and kill al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who had been living under the eyes of Pakistani security for years.

“The Trump administration has inherited a very complex situation within the Afghanistan/Pakistan,” says Charulata Hogg, of the Asia Programme of Chatham House.

“Clearly there is a question mark about whether there will be a change in policy away from the Obama administration's position on Afghanistan, especially in terms of withdrawal of troops."

There are currently 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan.

At the same time she points out that the newly elected President Donald Trump has yet to define his administration's relations with Pakistan.

“To make matters worse, Russia and China are currently within Afghanistan, on account of the ongoing peace imitative with the Taliban,” she adds.

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