A brutal attack on the shrine of a beloved Sufi that killed 88 people has raised fears that the Islamic State group has become emboldened in Pakistan, aided by an army of home grown militants benefiting from hideouts in neighbouring Afghanistan, analysts and officials said on Friday.
Pakistani security forces have carried out sweeping country-wide raids following Thursday's bombing of the shrine in Pakistan's southern Sindh province that also wounded 343 people. The military's public relations wing reported on its official twitter account that more than 100 suspected "terrorists" were killed in the raids, while government officials lashed out at Kabul accusing the Afghan government of ignoring earlier pleas to crackdown on militant hideouts.
Zahid Hussain, an expert on militants in the region, said a toxic mix of violent Sunni militant groups, many belonging to banned groups that are flourishing under new names, have wrapped themselves in the banner of Islamic State.
"The Islamic State (group) might not have a strong organizational structure in Pakistan but we have thousands of members of banned groups sympathetic to the (their) ideology," Hussain said in an interview. "They subscribe to the Islamic State world view."
Thursday's terror attack - Pakistan's deadliest in years - stunned the nation and raised questions about the authorities' ability to rein in militant groups despite several military offensives targeting militant hideouts.
It also threatened to drive a deeper wedge between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Islamabad quickly lashed out at Kabul, saying the bombing was masterminded in militant sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan, whose own security forces have been assaulted by Islamic State fighters. Overnight Thursday, Afghan authorities said 17 Afghan soldiers were killed by IS insurgents.
Pakistan's army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa spoke by phone with US Gen John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, to protest militant sanctuaries on Afghan soil, according to a statement carried on the military's official twitter account. Bajwa said the Afghan government was not taking action against the hideouts and warned that its "inaction" was testing "our current policy of cross border restraint", without elaborating.
Underscoring tensions between the two neighbours, Pakistan fired blistering rounds of artillery shells into Afghan territory on Friday and shut down the Torkham border crossing - a key commercial artery between the two neighbours. Pakistan said the barrage was in response to a militant attack on one of its border posts in its Khyber tribal region.
Pakistan TV, quoting unnamed military sources, said Pakistan targeted camps belonging to Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan blames Jammat-ul-Ahrar for the shrine attack although IS claimed responsibility. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has claimed to have carried out a number of attacks, including the 13 February suicide assault in Lahore that killed 13 people, including three senior police officials.
According to local TV reports the Pakistani shelling destroyed one militant camp in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials said scores of families have been displaced by the Pakistani shelling. Attaullah Khogyani, the spokesman for Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar provincial governor, said he welcomed any operation, including the one carried out by Pakistan, against terrorist camps but told AP Television that "on a provincial level there wasn't any kind of coordination with us".
In a telephone call Friday to Afghanistan's National Security Adviser, Pakistan's senior foreign ministry official, Sartj Aziz, accused Afghan President Ashraf Ghani of ignoring Islamabad's earlier request to put an end to the sanctuaries in its territory. Pakistan also handed over a list of 76 militants it says are hiding in Afghanistan, demanding they be arrested and extradited to Pakistan.
In Thursday's attack, the suicide bomber walked into the main hall at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan in southern Sindh province, and detonated his explosives among a crowd of attendees. At least 20 women and nine children were among the dead.
The Islamic State group, claiming responsibility for the attack in a statement circulated by its Aamaq news agency, said it targeted a "Shiite gathering". The Sunni extremist group views Shiites as apostates and has targeted Pakistan's Shiite minority in the past. It also views Sufi shrines as a form of idolatry.
The Sehwan shrine, which reveres a Muslim Sufi mystic, is frequented by the faithful of many sects of Islam but the majority of the faithful attendees are usually Shiite Muslims.