ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Different officials in Pakistan’s government have taken seemingly contradictory stands on Islamic State’s influence in the country, after a rare warning by an intelligence chief that the Middle East-based militant group posed a domestic threat.
Reports of stepped-up recruitment by Islamic State and a bloody attack linked to the group last year have stoked fears the movement is gaining momentum in Pakistan, despite the government rejecting its formal presence.
The government reasserted its view on Thursday, a day after Intelligence Bureau director general Aftab Sultan told a parliamentary panel that Islamic State was coordinating with militant groups and that hundreds of people had left Pakistan to join its fight in Syria, media reports say.
“Let me reiterate that there is no organised presence of Daesh in Pakistan,” foreign office spokesman Nafees Zakaria told reporters in Islamabad, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
He declined any further comment when contacted by Reuters on Friday.
The entry of Islamic State, while its numbers may remain small, would complicate Pakistan’s fight against indigenous Islamist militants fighting to overthrow the government.
On Friday, Pakistan arrested 97 al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants in the southern city of Karachi and foiled a planned attack to break U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl’s killer out of jail, the army said.
The intelligence chief’s assertion that Pakistan should be worried about Islamic State’s role prompted mixed reactions.
“This is the first time it has been officially admitted,” said Col. Syed Tahir Hussain Mashhadi, an opposition parliamentarian of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party and a member of the senate committee that Sultan briefed.
“The government of Pakistan has gone into a mode of denial,” he added. “We have to recognise Islamic State’s existence and take action.”
In May, militants boarded a bus carrying members of the minority Shi’ite Ismaili community in Karachi and opened fire on the passengers, killing 45.
Police in charge of the investigation said the militants were “inspired by Daesh,” but did not believe the group had any organizational ties to its leadership in the Middle East.
Authorities have also raised concerns that Islamic State was making inroads in Punjab province late last year “after consolidating its position in Afghanistan,” according to a government circular seen by Reuters.
The circular, sent by the Punjab government in December, cited reports that the group was recruiting Afghan nationals living in refugee camps in Pakistan, and distributing propaganda to Pakistani youth “in a large number”.
Reporting by Krista Mahr and Asad Hashim in Islamabad, Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi and Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Writing by Krista Mahr; Editing by Clarence Fernandez