DERA ISMAIL KHAN Pakistan (Reuters) - (This November 17, 2014 story was refiled to correct to the Saudi-Iraq border in paragraph 8)
A splinter group of Pakistan’s Taliban has pledged support to Islamic State (IS), a spokesman said on Monday, in another indication of the appeal of the Iraq- and Syria-based jihadist group in a region traditionally dominated by al Qaeda and local insurgencies.
Jundullah announced its backing after meeting a three-man delegation representing IS led by al Zubair al Kuwaiti, the group’s spokesman Fahad Marwat told Reuters.
Jundullah is one of several Pakistani groups exploring relations with IS, whose fighters have captured swathes of Iraq and Syria in a drive to set up a self-declared caliphate. They share an aim to kill or drive out religious minorities and establish a hardline Sunni theocracy.
Analysts say that so far IS has mainly attracted sectarian groups rather than anti-state militants like the Taliban. Pakistan has a ready supply of hardened fighters and a population often receptive to sectarian hatred.
Pakistan’s Sunni sectarian groups killed a record number of minority Shi’ite Muslims last year. Jundullah carried out a church bombing that killed around 80 Christians.
“They (Islamic State) are our brothers, whatever plan they have we will support them,” said Jundullah spokesman Marwat.
His comments follow the release of a video last month by five Pakistani Taliban commanders pledging support to IS. Islamic State also has contacts with the banned Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), militants and security officials said.
“The top leadership of LeJ visited Saudi Arabia and met Islamic State leaders at an undisclosed location at Saudi-Iraq border,” one militant told Reuters.
He said the meeting took place more than a year ago.
Many Pakistani militants said they felt torn by loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who has strong historical ties to al Qaeda. IS itself broke away from al Qaeda.
“All anti-Shi’ite groups in Pakistan will welcome and support IS in Pakistan, though most of them will not announce it openly due to their allegiance to Mullah Omar,” one said.
Last week, a leaked government memo warned the group had recruited 10,000-12,000 fighters inside Pakistan, but a government minister insisted it had no presence there. Militants and security officials also dismissed the memo as not credible.
Several militants said that hundreds of Pakistanis had gone to fight in Syria, but had done so through the Taliban or on their own. Five who returned took part in an August suicide attack on two Pakistani air bases, a policeman said.
Tribal rivalries split the Taliban, Pakistan’s biggest militant group, this summer, leading to two main factions and several splinter groups.
Some analysts say Pakistanis declaring allegiance to IS is a ploy to grab headlines rather than a sign of operational links.
“They are the new poster boys of Islamic jihad and they have lots of money,” said Saifullah Mahsud of Islamabad-based think tank the FATA Research Centre. “There is no doubt they (IS) are trying but these are more probing missions than anything else.”
Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Gul Yousufzai in Quetta and Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by John Chalmers and Sonya Hepinstall