Concern over the extent of the presence and power of ISIS in Pakistan resurfaced on December 17, when a suicide-bombing at a church in Quetta left at least nine worshipers dead and more than 50 seriously wounded.
Had Pakistani security forces not responded swiftly to the attack on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church -- where 400 men, women and children were attending Sunday services – the assailants "would have managed to reach the main hall of the building, and the death toll would have been much higher," Sarfraz Bugti, the provincial home minister of the Baluchistan province, where Quetta is located, told Gatestone Institute.
Responsibility for the attack -- in which two terrorists, clad in explosive vests and armed with AK-47 rifles -- was later claimed by ISIS, which has an impressive record of honesty in taking credit for attacks, in a statement published by the Amaq News Agency.
This was the sixth ISIS attack in Pakistan in the past year and a half. The first took place on August 8, 2016, when a suicide bomber killed at least 70 people and wounded more than 100 in an attack on a crowd of lawyers and journalists gathered in a government hospital in Quetta -- in the province that borders Afghanistan and Iran -- to mourn a lawyer who had been murdered earlier in the day. The attack was claimed by a joint ISIS-Taliban faction.
On October 24, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a police training college in Quetta. The assault, committed by three heavily armed terrorists against sleeping cadets, left more than 60 dead and more than 165 others wounded.
On February 16, 2017, an ISIS-affiliated suicide bomber blew himself up at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan's Sindh province, killing more than 90 worshipers and wounding more than 300.
On April 18, 2017, the Pakistani army foiled a planned Easter suicide bombing against Christians in Lahore. Given the amount of explosives recovered from the perpetrators, had the attack succeeded, there would have been mass casualties.
On May 12, 2017, an ISIS suicide bombing on the convoy of the deputy chairman of the Pakistani Senate, traveling on the National Highway in the Mastung District of Baluchistan, left at least 28 people dead and 40 wounded.
On August 12, 2017, an ISIS suicide bombing on a convoy of the Pakistani military in Quetta left 15 people dead – among them eight soldiers – and 40 others wounded.
All of the above attacks could have been anticipated. In February 2016, the director general of the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau warned the government that ISIS was emerging as a threat, with Pakistani terrorists providing a foothold for the group, whose Pakistani branch is called Walayat-e-Khurasan. Operatives in neighboring Afghanistan have also been playing a major role in the terrorist network.
ISIS enlists "partners of convenience" in Afghanistan and "outsources" terror attacks to Pakistani organizations -- such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar -- a recent UN Security Council counter-terrorism report revealed. In addition -- according to Punjabi Law Minister Rana Sanaullah -- as many as 100 Pakistanis left the country in 2015 to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Both revelations are interesting in light of the fact -- told to reporters in Islamabad by Pakistani Ambassador to Iraq Ali Yasin Muhammad Karim after the liberation of Mosul in July 2017 -- that Pakistan secretly supported Iraq in the fight against the terrorist group.
"Pakistan's security forces have the capability and expertise to deal with terrorist groups," Mohammad Ali, an Islamabad-based security expert, told Gatestone Institute. "I hope they take the threat from ISIS seriously."
The most vulnerable victims of this threat are Christians, who make up a mere 2% of the Sunni Muslim-majority state. ISIS is only the latest terrorist group to have attacked Christians in Pakistan. During the period between 2009 and 2015, the terrorist umbrella organization Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was responsible for targeting them.
On September 22, 2013, for example, the TTP affiliate Jundallah carried out twin suicide bombings at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, killing 127 people, including women and children, and wounding more than 250. It was the deadliest attack against Christians in Pakistani history.
On March 27, 2016, a suicide bombing committed by Jamat-ul-Ahrar against Christian families celebrating Easter Sunday at a park in Lahore left at least 75 people dead and another 340 wounded, some of them Muslims who happened to be at the park that day.
Unless Pakistan increases its efforts to outlaw, eliminate and foil Islamist terrorism on its soil -- and to protect its Christians from the ongoing onslaught -- the attacks in Quetta will go on.
(Image source: Fox News video screenshot)
Kaswar Klasra is a journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.