KARACHI: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seems to be fast losing its charm for militants from Pakistan. After its emergence in Khorasan two years ago, the group made some quick inroads into the Pakistani militant space. But recent events suggest, and security analysts concur, that the trend has clearly reversed in the last few months. ISIL announced its Khorasan Province in January 2015, appointing former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander from Orakzai Agency Hafiz Saeed Khan as its provincial Wali and former Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Aliza as his deputy. They were soon joined by Shahidullah Shahid, a former TTP spokesman, and four other commanders of Kurram and Khyber tribal regions and Peshawar and Hangu districts. Both Hafiz Saeed Khan and his deputy were killed in US drone strikes in July 2016 and February 2015, respectively. But the outfit continued to engage in terrorism in Pakistan, claiming attacks believed to be carried out with logistical support from Sunni sectarian outfit, the Lashkar-e-Jhganvi. In May 2017, the Islamic State claimed an attack on Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, deputy chairman of the upper house of Pakistan’s Parliament and leader of the religo-political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl). JUI-F has traditionally been seen as close to Sunni militant groups in Pakistan. The attack on the JUI-F leader, thus, created differences between Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Daesh. Most of the 25 killed in the attack claimed by the IS were workers of the JUI-F and students of its associated religious seminaries.Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA) tops the list of those outfits in the Pakistani militant space seen as close to the IS. But on July 17, 2017, Asad Mansoor, JuA spokesman, issued a statement titled “We do not belong to Daesh.” He held that Khalid Khorasani, JuA chief, had long ago made it clear that the group was not associated with Daesh. The statement had come in response to a statement made by the Army spokesperson, declaring the JuA to be an affiliate of the IS. Some security experts have seen this ‘clarification’ by the JuA as evidence of the decline of Islamic State, which had attracted many local militant outfits initially. When Pakistani Taliban militants like Hafiz Saeed Khan joined the Daesh’s Khorasan chapter, many local militants had been lured by the monetary benefit expected to come from association with the organisation founded in the Arab region. “Their expectations turned out to be false as the organisation didn’t have as much funding,” says Sami Yousufzai, a journalist and security expert, who has exclusively reported on the militant organisation operating in the region. Other security experts believe that the hegemony of Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan has also made an association with Daesh difficult. In the aftermath of military operations in Pakistan, the militants of the TTP and other local groups were compelled to take refuge in Afghanistan. “In order to enjoy the support of their Afghan counterparts, the Pakistani Taliban need to keep a distance from the Islamic State, which is a competitor of Al Qaeda, an active ally of the Afghan Taliban besides the claimant of Khalifatul Muslimeen.” [Former Taliban Chief Haji Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, after assuming the office of the Amir, wrote a letter to ISIL Chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asking him to stop operation inside Afghanistan]. The Islamic State’s downfall in Iraq is also seen as one of the reasons for its declining popularity. The Islamic State’s terrorists have suffered huge losses in Iraq and those having escaped death have moved towards Al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda associated outfit, experts opine. “In 2014, IS benefited from the defection of TTP and Al-Qaeda cadres abandoned by their commanders on the run from drone strikes. Since then, IS as a brand has struggled to take off in the tribal belt. Hafiz Saeed paled in stature and influence to most Mehsud Taliban leaders and struggled to consolidate. In recent months the routing of ISIS in Iraq has hurt the brand even more,” says Chicago-based scholar Asfandyar Mir, an expert on counterinsurgency and armed groups in South Asia. Disassociation: A Strategy for Survival Agreeing that Daesh is declining in Khorasan, analysts also think that the JuA statement is a deceptive ploy motivated by operational reasons. “JuA wants to maximise its survival chances in Afghanistan so its disavowal of Daesh makes sense. US forces are much more likely to target Omar Khalid and his men in Afghanistan if they are seen as a part of Daesh,” Mir added. Mir adds that JuA Chief Omar Khalid Khorasani or Abdul Wali is an experienced militant commander who has cushioned blows against his group using similar tactics in the past. In 2010, at the peak of the Frontier Corps-led military operation against the Mohmand faction of the TTP, Omar Khalid deceptively offered to surrender to the Army, which bought him valuable time and allowed him to flee. “Whenever they have found themselves crippled in front of the Pakistan Army, they begin to issue such statements. They also issued a revised manifesto a few months back and promised no attacks on civilian targets. Then, Sehwan Sharif happened,” says Khalid Mohammad, Islamabad-based security expert and the director general of Command Eleven think tank. Muhammad claims that the JuA’s explosives trainers belong to Iraq. Their media training is also from Iraq. And while they claim no affiliation, they happily share the name. He adds that the JuA’s claim that they are not operating in ISKP-controlled areas is also false. “TTP has been hosted by NDS since 2007, when they were splintered, their groups found safe haven in Paktia, Nanghar, Khost and Kunduz provinces along the Pak-Afghan border.” “Since ISKP is a combination of failed and disgruntled fighters from the Taliban, TTP, and Al-Qaeda, their membership base is thinning out due to successful operations by the Pakistan Army on our side of the border and by the Taliban on the Afghanistan side.” However, not everyone agrees that JuA’s disavowal of Daesh is part of its survival strategy. “IS has been limited to two districts of Afghanistan. Both the Kabul regime and Washington do not want decisive action against the outfit for different reasons,” says Yousufzai. Published in Daily Times, July 25th 2017.