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ISIS claims Pakistan suicide bombing, underlining twin security threats

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When a suicide bombing rocked a political gathering in northwest Pakistan over the weekend, suspicion immediately fell upon the Pakistani Taliban group, whose growing footprint and mounting attacks have alarmed security officials in the country.

But on Monday, it was the smaller Islamic State group known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, or ISKP, that claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed at least 46 people at a political convention in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The attack underscored the rival security challenges that Pakistan is facing and the fears that the two rival militant groups may be engaged in a cycle of violence as they compete for attention and followers.

There is a growing concern that Pakistan’s “terrorism threat has fallen under the radar and that it has not been prioritized by the government,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

“For Pakistani policymakers, the sobering reality is that they face not only an intensifying terrorist threat” but also one “that is multifaceted,” he said. He added that Pakistan has to figure out not only “how to beat back” the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP — a militant group that endorses the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan but operates separately — but also how to confront the rising threat posed by ISKP.

At least 40 killed in blast at Pakistan political convention

While Pakistani officials say they’re still investigating who was behind Sunday’s blast, analysts said the target of the attack — Pakistan’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, or JUI, which is linked to the Afghan Taliban — makes the Islamic State group the most likely perpetrator.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership has recently publicized raids against alleged Islamic State hideouts, and in April, U.S. officials said the Taliban coordinated the killing of the suspected ISKP mastermind behind a suicide bombing during the United States’ pullout from Afghanistan in 2021. But U.S. intelligence findings leaked on the Discord messaging platform and obtained by The Washington Post earlier this year suggest that Afghanistan has become a significant coordination site for the Islamic State since the U.S. pullout.

After the withdrawal, ISKP may have obtained weapons left behind by Western militaries. The group may also have been indirectly galvanized by the Taliban raids on their Afghan hideouts and the growing competition with the TTP in Pakistan, analysts said.

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The Islamic State group is “being undermined by the Taliban government, but at the same time there is an added competition,” said Asfandyar Mir, a Pakistan-focused researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace, cautioning that “optimism about ISIS losing momentum is false.”

Regional Islamic State outlets now regularly claim that their group is the true face of Islamist militancy, arguing that the Taliban has betrayed its supporters by striking deals with the United States in the lead-up to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Islamic State has so far focused primarily on striking Taliban targets in Afghanistan, including the Taliban-run Foreign Ministry in Kabul. But ISKP is increasingly aiming at Taliban allies and supporters abroad, including the JUI party and the Pakistani Taliban.

Over the past decade, a harsh military crackdown had routed the Pakistani Taliban’s fighters and quashed its influence. But the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan gave a boost to the Pakistani movement, providing political support and — according to officials in Islamabad — crucial safe haven.

After peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban collapsed in November, the militant group made substantial inroads into Pakistani tribal areas this year by following the model of the Afghan Taliban, which named shadow governors and produced high-quality propaganda material before the 2021 takeover.

The Pakistani Taliban has vowed to refrain from attacking civilians, arguing that it is at war with the Pakistani government and not its people, but the smaller Islamic State group has shown no such reluctance. Sunday’s bombing targeting the JUI party, a right-wing political and religious party led by hard-line cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman, came after the Islamic State group had already killed several clerics associated with the JUI, said Ashraf Ali, a Pakistani security analyst.

But the scale and timing of Sunday’s blast shocked the Pakistani establishment. Pakistan’s governing coalition recently agreed to dissolve Parliament in the coming weeks, which would trigger a general election before the end of the year. The JUI is part of the ruling coalition, and JUI volunteers and party officials were in the midst of preparations for the election when the blast struck their convention on Sunday.

Analysts worry that an election campaign could fuel rival efforts by the TTP, the local Islamic State branch and other groups to disrupt the upcoming vote, as each of them attempts to draw attention and increase its footprint.

“If ISIS decides to pursue this logic in this upcoming election season in Pakistan, then things can get very ugly,” Mir said.

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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