In Pakistan, Islamic State finds its theological enemy in Sufis – This is the second large scale attack carried by the IS Khorasan on a Sufi shrine in three months and fourth since the group became active last August in Pakistan
On Thursday evening as hundreds of devotees were engrossed in the ecstatic prayers and the nightly song and dance session `dhammal’ at the renowned Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Pakistan, a suicide bomber threw a grenade at the crowd and detonated his explosive vest killing 75. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the blast as an attack on the `gathering of mushkirin on the main shirki festival’ at the Sufi shrine in Sehwan, Balochistan.
The mystical form of Islam widely practised in the Indian sub-continent has emerged to be the new target for the militant group that considers Sufism along with Shiism as polytheistic and thus its enemy, to further sectarian violence and expand its hold in Pakistan.
This is the second large scale attack carried by the IS Khorasan on a Sufi shrine in three months and fourth since the group became active last August in Pakistan. The blast at Shahbaz Qalandar shrine is also eighth in the series within a fortnight across Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan districts that has prompted the government to launch a campaign against militancy. In a nationwide crackdown on Friday more than 24 militants were killed in separate operations by police and Rangers.
While IS’s Amaq agency has named one 'Uthman al-Iraqi’ as the bomber, investigations have begun to identify him with the police collecting evidence and securing CCTV footage. As the gates of the shrine remained locked on Friday, Shia and Sunni Muslims gathered in the premises in Sehwan on Friday to offer prayers in solidarity and condemn the bloody attack.
For IS, the 13th century shrine built around the grave of poet-philosopher Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is heretic and devotees who throng to worship the saint are `rejecters’ (rafidah), called so for deviating from the puritanical interpretation of the Quran, practising idolatry and venerating graves of saints. The group has devoted 13th edition of its journal Dabiq to explain the historical and theological roots of the rejecters including the Shias and the Safawiyyah– Shafii Tariqah (the Sunni Sufi order in Persia): “the Rafidah are mushrik (apostates) who must be killed wherever they are to be found…’’
In Syria and Iraq, where it has established a Caliphate, militants have destroyed ancient sites of worship, demolished graves of saints, Sufi shrines, Shia mosques, Christian churches and Yazidi temples. It has arrested its adherents, believers and scholars punishing them with death, seized their property causing scores to flee their homes.
IS has continued its fanatic religious war against the `misguided’ Muslims in the Af-Pak region since it announced presence of its affiliate in 2015. Besides targeting security forces, government establishment and foreign embassies, IS Khorasan has attacked Shia and ethnic minority Hazara community and its mosques on religious festivity.
In Pakistan, IS Khorasan collaborated with proscribed sectarian groups Jamat ul Ahrar and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi using their network in Balochistan for its first major strike attacking gathering of lawyers at a hospital, followed by bombing the Police college, both in Quetta.
A recent UN report notes “that former TTP splinter groups that had joined ISIL were in Khost, Kunar, Nangarhar and Paktya provinces (Afghanistan) from, where they could carry out cross-border attacks on targets in Pakistani territory.’’
While the military campaigns on ground and through aerial strikes in Syria and Iraq has shrunk IS held territory, destroyed its resources and loss of manpower, the IS Khorasan franchise continues to wield its command in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The UN report released last month indicates IS Khorasan to have significant strength of around 2000-3500 fighters. Although its financial coffers have dried up and the group is struggling financially, it has “not hampered its ambitions… appears to be well equipped and uses military-grade explosives for improvised explosive device attacks in Kabul.’’
IS attacks on Sufi and Shia shrines in Af-Pak
- Pakistan: February 2016: Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Balochistan, 72 dead
- November 2016: Pakistan: Shah Noorani, Balochistan, 50 dead
- Afghanistan: November 2016: Baqir al-Olum, Kabul, 100 dead
- Afghanistan: October 2016: Karte Sakhi Shia shrine in Kabul, 14 dead