ISIL attack on Pakistan police academy has strategic implications

By James Hess, Ph.D.
Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University

In the early morning hours of October 25th, three ISIL gunmen raided a police academy in Quetta, Pakistan. Initial reports claim at least 60 cadets were killed and 120 people were wounded. The question we should be asking is: Why is this significant?

ISIL Focuses on Quetta for Recruitment, Public Awareness, Symbolism and Territory

Quetta is a town that has served as the headquarters for Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders in exile. Mullah Omar, the deceased leader of the Afghan Taliban, provided directions through messages released from Quetta. Coalition forces in Afghanistan frequently focused their efforts along the routes from Quetta into the southern provinces of Afghanistan, knowing the Taliban’s presence in the town.

Over the years, experts assumed that fighters were sent directly from Quetta to influence the fighting in Afghanistan. This premise was especially true for the Kandahar province, where most of the Taliban came from in the early 1990s prior to taking over the Afghan government.

Given this history between Quetta and the Afghan Taliban, there could be a few different reasons why ISIL focused on Quetta. First, the Afghan Taliban never supported the ideology of ISIL. ISIL has tried to recruit members from the Afghan Taliban over the past year, in order to benefit from the expertise of the Taliban’s trained fighters.

ISIL in Afghanistan Theater Attracts Public Attention, Raises Awareness of Symbolism

Historically, the Afghan Taliban has always been at odds with foreign fighters, as the Afghan Taliban’s focus has been exclusively on Afghanistan. ISIL enjoys the ability to stage high-profile attacks, and Afghanistan remains a relevant theater to capture international attention.

Furthermore, ISIL frequently ties its efforts to historical or symbolic regions, cities, etc. Its efforts in Afghanistan serve to incorporate within its caliphate the historic region of Khorasan.

Attacking Quetta Enables ISIL to Gain Territory with Fewer Government Restrictions

Second, another reason why ISIL focused on Quetta is to gain a foothold in an area with limited government presence. Attacking a police academy reinforces the idea of maintaining a lawless environment with limited government presence.

Lastly, moving into Quetta provides ISIL with a base of operations close to Afghanistan. At the same time, ISIL remains out of reach of U.S. and coalition forces operating within Afghanistan.

Pakistan has limited security and control within Quetta, part of the reason why the Afghan Taliban found a home there. Since ISIL is losing territory in Iraq and Syria, moving to more remote areas gives ISIL the ability to regroup.

Quetta Attack Shows ISIL’s Relevance to Potential Recruits

The ISIL attack demonstrates that Quetta is vitally important to Afghanistan’s security. History proves that terrorist groups need to remain relevant if they are to survive.

Attacks such as this one in Quetta will maintain ISIL’s relevance to would-be recruits and followers. As ISIL attempts to reinforce its ideology, we should expect to see more symbolic areas being targeted, given ISIL’s recent loss of Dabiq and the ongoing battle in Mosul.

About the Author

Dr. James Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He is currently studying the relationship between Islamic jurisprudence and terrorism as an International Relations Research Fellow with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.