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In Pakistan, Islamic State Draws In Taliban Commanders

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Just over the border from Afghanistan, another army is also trying to figure out how to handle the Taliban. Pakistan's military is conducting a big operation to crush militants in the mountains of the tribal belt. Today the army said it killed 33 Taliban and destroyed some hideouts.

NPR's Philip Reeves says there's growing concern in Pakistan about whether conflicts elsewhere in the world are stoking up their own militants.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Professor Ajmal Khan knows a lot more than most about the Pakistani Taliban. He was their hostage for four years. He was freed two months back. Now he's back at work as vice chancellor of the Islamia College University in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar. Khan was still in captivity when Pakistan's army unleashed its latest major offensive against the Taliban. The army set out to crush the militants in North Waziristan then made sanctuary in the mountains bordering Afghanistan. The professor was in the thick of it.

AJMAL KHAN: It was a day to day living because you could never figure out what would hit you. The helicopters, they used to have their raids and the jet fighters used to have their raids.

REEVES: Pakistan's military claims it's wiped out more than a 1,100 militants since the offensive began in June. That's impossible to verify, as the authorities deny journalists access to the war zone. Many militant are thought to have escaped, yet Khan says the offensive is disrupting the Taliban.

KHAN: Their dens have been destroyed. Their hideouts have been destroyed. They cannot assemble immediately like they used to.

REEVES: But, Khan adds...

KHAN: You never know. They could just be united any minute. You can't just say that they've withered away. No, I don't think so.

REEVES: The Pakistani Taliban's problems are made worse by several big splits among its leadership. The other day, six Taliban commanders transferred their allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Zahid Hussain, author of books about militants in Pakistan, thinks such expressions of support of for Islamic State or, IS, as he calls it, are significant.

ZAHID HUSSAIN: It is quite a dangerous development for the militants in Pakistan who have been fighting for long. IS seems to be much more attractive now.

REEVES: Hussain thinks the danger's not that the Islamic State will bring their war to Pakistan and start seizing territory - unlike in Iraq and Syria, Pakistan's government and security services haven't crumbled. What matters is the influence the Islamic State's having on Pakistan's sectarian conflict. That Sunni-Shia conflict's killed thousands of Pakistanis over the last few decades. The Islamic State's an explicitly sectarian entity, a Sunni Muslim force aligned against Shia enemies. Pakistan has Sunni groups that regularly carry out deadly attacks against the country's Shia minority.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken, shouting).

Sectarianism in Pakistan arouses deep emotions. This is a cleric at a rally by a leading Sunni sectarian party, talking about neighboring Iran, which is Shia. The party's leader, Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, says his organization is peaceful and doesn't want the Islamic State in Pakistan, but he says Sunnis in Pakistan are impacted by what's happening to Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

MAULANA MUHAMMAD AHMED LUDHIANVI: (Through translator) If a brother is oppressed in one part of the world, it's natural for his brothers in other places to feel the pain.

REEVES: Islamist State propagandists are working hard online to try to recruit Pakistani militant Sunnis. IS graffiti's started to appear in Pakistani cities. This must be taken seriously, says Zohra Yusuf, chair of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.

ZOHRA YUSUF: Because often we tend to brush aside these signals and then you know, we're confronted with the monster.

REEVES: Professor Ajmal Khan, the former Taliban hostage, thinks the influence of the Islamic State in Pakistan is a threat.

KHAN: This is something to ponder on and we need to think about it.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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