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The Islamic State of Balochistan

The Islamic State (IS) has accepted responsibility for Saturday evening’s latest terrorist attack on the shrine of Shah Norani in Khuzdar district of Balochistan. The unprecedented attack killed more than 50 people and injured around a hundred more. This is the third major terrorist strike carried out by IS in Balochistan with the help of its local affiliates in the past few months. The IS had carried out two severe attacks, one on Quetta’s lawyers and the other on young police recruits. In total, these attacks have killed more than one hundred people.

The latest attack occurred in spite of earlier terror alerts issued by the local authorities and information circulated on social media. Everybody in Balochistan was already intuitively anticipating another terrorist attack but nobody knew when and where terrorists would strike next. Similar to their previous attacks, the Islamic State has once again stunned everyone by choosing a least expected target (i.e. a Sufi shrine) in the district of Khuzdar.

The government might be quick in denying the presence of the Islamic State in Balochistan but it is too late to deny something that obvious and omnipresent. The presence of IS and other armed extremist groups, such as the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is unfortunately an evident reality. They have overpowered the government’s capabilities and increased attacks in Balochistan. The Khuzdar incident indicates that Islamic extremists have a presence beyond Quetta and they are capable of carrying out deadly attacks in other parts of the province.

There are very few shrines in Balochistan and the latest attack on the one in Khuzdar must be seen in the context of growing radicalization in the province. The majority of people in Balochistan practice Deobandi version of Sunni Islam and the Deobandis vehemently oppose visiting shrines or worshipping there as they consider such practices as a deviation from their version of “actual Islam”. It is a similar rationale that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has applied to justify attacks on Shia Muslims.

Route to the RCD Highway and home to a military cantonment, Khuzdar is one of Balochistan’s most important cities. It has also given birth to more chief ministers than any other district. The current chief minister Sardar Sanaullah Zehri and three other former chief ministers, namely Balochistan’s first chief minister Sardar Attaullah Mengal, his son Sardar Akhtar Mengal of the Balochistan National Party and the former caretaker chief minister Naseer Mengal all come from Khuzdar. It is also the hometown of Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo and Israrullah Zehri, presidents of the National Party —a key ally of the Balochistan coalition government, and the Balochistan National Party Awami respectively.

With so many top politicians belonging to Khuzdar and the army having a cantonment over there, this district has still witnessed immeasurable violence and human rights abuses. It is considered as one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists where several presidents of the local press club, human rights activists and trade unionists have been killed with absolute impunity. Khuzdar has become such a horrific place in terms of human rights that even mass graves of Baloch political activists were found there.

Violence and hatred did not accumulate in Khuzdar overnight. Dirty politics contributed to making Khuzdar the unsafe place that it has become today. The security establishment in Islamabad, given its deep dislike for Baloch nationalists, went to the extent of creating, financing, promoting and protecting death squads in the district in order to teach the Baloch nationalists a lesson. While doing so, the establishment found in local Sunni extremists natural allies. Now chickens have come home to roost. It is the first time that religious violence is taking place in the Baloch-populated areas on such a large scale. This will unfortunately not stop here. This is just the beginning of an ugly cycle of violence in the name of religion and it will keep Balochistan in its control for years to come.

Increasing activities of the Islamic State call for sincere efforts to prevent more future attacks and the loss of innocent lives in Balochistan. The ongoing conflict between Islamabad and the Baloch nationalists will damage the interests of Balochistan in the long run. Both sides have to realize that the IS and local Sunni extremist groups are a great threat to the province. The longer they view each other as enemies instead of finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing insurgency, the more Islamic insurgents will take advantage of this chaos.

Islamabad has long been accused of supporting Islamic extremists, particularly in Balochistan in order to contain the Baloch nationalists. However, Islamabad’s interests lie in normalizing and improving relations with Baloch nationalists. There is no comparison between the violence, damage and destruction Baloch nationalists can cause and what Islamic extremists are capable of doing.

The Baloch might insist that Islamabad is ruthless and hard to negotiate with but the the Islamic State, once it tightens its control over Balochistan, will be impossible to negotiate with. It will neither spare government soldiers nor Baloch political activists. Therefore, it is important for Islamabad to search for political solutions and allies in Balochistan to fight against religious extremists. Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo or Sardar Akthar Mengal might have different political views and approaches but one thing should still unite them: The future of Balochistan’s children. They must keep their differences aside and work together to prevent the spread of this conflagration in Khuzdar and elsewhere in Balochistan.

This article originally appeared in The Baloch Hal

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