Pakistan has arrested eight alleged members of Isis near Sialkot in Punjab province, in the latest move by a south Asian government to counter the widening influence of the extremist Sunni Muslim group based in Iraq and Syria. As the Pakistan government ordered police and security forces to increase their vigilance, one intelligence official said the arrested men had taken an oath to “overthrow democracy and establish a caliphate in Pakistan through an armed struggle”. At least three of the militants were suspected to have received armed training in Iraq. The detentions in Sialkot also coincided with news of the arrests of two suspected Pakistani members of Isis in Turkey.
The arrests in Pakistan were the first official acknowledgment by Islamabad of an Isis presence in the country. Like the Bangladeshi government, the Pakistani administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has recently insisted that it has no Isis problem. But young, radicalised Muslims from several south Asian countries — including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and the Maldives — have been persuaded to support Isis either by heading to Syria to fight or by attacking targets in their own countries.
A week after its terror attacks in Paris in November, the jihadi group boasted that its “soldiers” had been murdering people in Bangladesh, including liberal writers, foreigners and Shia Muslims. Western officials and local analysts in Pakistan said the arrests in Punjab raised questions over the country’s tactics of selectively targeting some extremist groups while letting others operate freely if their targets were primarily in neighbouring Afghanistan or India. In the past, many young Pakistani militants became loyalists of al-Qaeda, a movement led mainly by Arab fighters, and supported Taliban groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. “These arrests in Sialkot are not comforting,” said Ghazi Salahuddin, a commentator for The News, a newspaper. “They raise the question of exactly what should have been done and wasn’t done in the past to stop militants from being inspired by foreign groups.” Western governments are concerned about the possibility of Isis strengthening its so far tenuous grip on south Asian Sunni Muslims. “Islamic State [Isis] is the new kid on the block.
I think people have to acknowledge the need for closer co-operation between these countries to confront the threat,” said one diplomat. Some hope that the tentative rapprochement between India and Pakistan, demonstrated by the recent surprise meeting between Mr Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, could improve regional co-operation against Islamist terror groups, but Mr Sharif has only limited power in a country whose foreign and defence policies are still controlled by the army.
On the streets of Pakistan, ordinary people show little concern for the branding of different militant groups and say extremism is a homegrown phenomenon exacerbated by poverty. “Many poor people become militants because they have no jobs, no food, no electricity or heating and no healthcare,” said Inaam Din, who works as a driver in the capital Islamabad. “Militancy in our country is not being imported from other countries. Our own people are very poor and very desperate.”