(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Pakistan’s NGO crackdown prompts widening alarm among aid workers

    The closest government-run health clinic is more than an hour’s drive from the village of Bhagwal, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, but for expectant mother Mehreen Bibi, it might as well be a world away.

    Pregnant with her second child, the 24-year-old can’t afford the roundtrip fare or the thousand rupees – about $15 – it would cost to see a gynaecologist. Instead, she relies on a free NGO-run health clinic in her village. But for the past two months, she’s been waiting for a doctor who never arrives.

    After a difficult pregnancy a year ago, Bibi wants to consult a doctor to see if it’s safe to deliver her second child. But funding shortages have forced the village clinic to cut key staff and services: no more ultrasound facilities, no more ambulances, and as of six months ago, no more gynaecologists.

    “This centre was catering to the needs of poor patients, especially pregnant women, but now the doctors don’t visit,” Bibi said, cradling her first child on her lap.

    Local NGOs say the cutbacks are an immediate example of how a growing government crackdown on the aid sector is impacting the country’s most vulnerable.

    "The majority of pregnant women now rely on untrained midwives for deliveries. That is unsafe and dangerous"

    Pakistan’s government has slapped punitive taxes on NGOs, threatened to shut down international organisations that don’t meet opaque new registration requirements, and launched a separate graft investigation across the sector. International NGOs work in key sectors including disaster response and health in places like Bhagwal, where government services don’t always reach. Advocates warn that millions of people across the country could face new risks.

    The volatile environment has forced many local NGOs dependent on donor funding to claw back their services, says Syed Kamal Shah, who heads Rahnuma, the family planning NGO that runs the free health clinic in Bhagwal village. Shah says his organisation can only accept funding from international NGOs whose registration has been approved by the government. But with only half of the 139 international NGOs in Pakistan so far granted approval, funding sources are increasingly limited.

    “This is impacting thousands of [our] beneficiaries in remote areas of the country, but we are helpless,” Shah told IRIN.

    Looming shutdowns

    In December, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior rejected registration applications for more than 20 international NGOs – a group including prominent organisations like ActionAid, Plan International, Marie Stopes, and World Vision, which have programmes covering disaster response and preparedness, displacement, health, and education. The groups were given 60 days to shut down, but the government allowed the NGOs to keep working pending an appeal period set to expire at the end of March.

    “If these INGOs fail to prove their credentials in the appeal process, they will not be allowed to work in Pakistan,” Yasir Shakeel, a spokesman for the ministry, told IRIN. “We are minutely scrutinizing all their financial record and history of work in Pakistan to determine whether they should be allowed to work in Pakistan or not.”

    The government says it is regulating organisations that have overstepped their mandates. But the affected international NGOs say they’ve not been told why registration applications have been rejected.

    Nargis Khan, who works for the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, which represents 63 international NGOs in the country, including 11 that had their registrations rejected in December, urged the government to make the ongoing appeal process “fair and transparent”.

    Khan says the 11 organisations alone represent $124 million in donor funding committed to Pakistan this year. She said the money fuels vital health, education and other programmes that reach 8.7 million people around the country – services that could be lost if the aid groups are kicked out.

    “All this may come to a halt if the government does not change its attitude toward the foreign aid organisations,” she said.

    Critics see the government’s moves against NGOs as part of a larger crackdown targeting civil society.

    In 2015, Pakistan shifted oversight of NGOs from the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of Interior, which oversees immigration and security. That same year, it forced Save the Children, which has responded to disasters across the country, to temporarily suspend its operations. Last year, Médecins Sans Frontières said the government offered no explanation when it forced the group to withdraw from the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where it had been providing emergency healthcare to tens of thousands of people each year for 14 years.

    Mohammad Tahseen, convener of the Pakistan Civil Society Forum, says local NGO staff face frequent harassment when going about their work.

    “The space for working in a free environment is fast shrinking as the government has started seeing the operations of all NGOs and INGOs through a security lens only,” Tahseen told IRIN.

    Muhammad Amir Rana, security analyst and director of the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies, said the government’s moves are meant to punish organisations perceived as criticising human rights in Pakistan. He believes the government’s aim is to pressure some NGOs to leave the country.

    “It will only bring embarrassment and shame to Pakistan if the INGOs are forced to wind up their operations," he said.

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    Health worker at NGO clinic in Pakistan
    Aamir Saeed/IRIN
    Samia Naz worries about the impacts of NGO service cuts on rural women in her area.

    Uncertain future

    For now, local NGOs are continuing to work amid the funding uncertainty. Back at the clinic in Bhagwal village, health worker Samia Naz has taken on daunting new responsibilities.

    On a recent visit, Naz checked a patient’s blood pressure while several other women sat waiting on a wooden bench.

    Naz fears the recent funding cuts will soon have a devastating effect on women from the dozen nearby villages who depend on the small two-room clinic.

    “The majority of pregnant women now rely on untrained midwives for deliveries,” she told IRIN. “That is unsafe and dangerous.”

    The clinic, she said, usually performs six to eight deliveries each month. Without a doctor, however, the responsibility now falls to her — even though she hasn’t been trained to carry out safe deliveries.

    “Mothers come to me for help and I cannot turn them away,” she said.

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    Pakistan’s NGO crackdown prompts widening alarm among aid workers
    Critics say the threat of looming aid sector shutdowns is already hitting the country’s most vulnerable
  • “Ghost schools” risk breeding militancy in Pakistan tribal areas

    The school in Maminzo village has four classrooms. There are rows of desks and chairs, even a two-metre high boundary wall to protect it from the militancy that once dominated this part of remote northern Pakistan. But there are no children, no teachers.

    Nearby, Afsheen Gul plays with a skipping rope. Neither she nor her four siblings have ever been to school.

    “I want to go to school. I want to study. But there is no school in our village,” the 12-year-old told IRIN, oblivious to the fact that the padlocked building near her home was built to give an education to children just like her.

    "We want our children to become part of the modern world"

    Locals say the village school has been shut for years, even though teachers supposedly employed there continue to draw salaries each month. It’s one of Pakistan’s so-called “ghost schools”: institutions that exist on paper but are never open. Of the 5,994 government-run schools in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal regions, more than 2,300 are effectively shuttered, according to statistics from the secretariat of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.

    During a decade of conflict, sectarian violence uprooted more than five million people in FATA. Pakistan’s government claims it has brought peace to its restive frontier areas. But long-displaced families have returned to find damaged homes, a barely functioning health system, and a shortage of open schools.

    The primary school dropout rate in FATA stands at 68 percent. Last year, half of all girls in the region didn’t attend school at all, according to a recently released household survey

    Advocates and parents fear that ignoring the education problems in the deeply conservative tribal areas will breed a new generation of extremism and militancy, plunging the fragile region back into instability.

    Widespread problem

    Ishtiaq Gul, Afsheen’s father, says the Taliban bombed the original village school in 2005. The government rebuilt it in 2011, but it never re-opened.

    Now, the schoolhouse is locked shut; a thick layer of dust covers the desks and chairs.

    “We know our children have no future without education, but there is no school for them,” Gul told IRIN, sitting on the lawn of his two-room mud house.

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    School in Maminzo village, Pakistan
    Aamir Saeed/IRIN
    Spread over 1.2 hectares of land, locals say the four-room schoolhouse in Maminzo village was first destroyed in 2005.

    Even in other areas where schools are open, some parents say the education quality is poor, or complain about missing essentials like desks, toilets, and drinking water.

    “How can we send our daughters to a school where there is no toilet for them,” said Pasheman Nawaz, 56, who lives in Pashat village, further north near the Afghan border.

    The government has managed to restore a relative peace in the region, which borders eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. But there are constant reminders of volatility; a journey through hilly Bajaur Agency crosses through multiple checkpoints, where long queues build as army personnel conduct security clearances.

    Hanif Ullah, a local education activist, says security is essential, but ignoring education and failing to help returning families rebuild their livelihoods will endanger the region’s precarious peace.

    “Military operations can achieve only temporary success against the militants,” he said. “Education is the permanent solution to shed darkness and make our future generations stronger to resist the evil forces like the Taliban.”

    Ayaz Jamloti, a tribal elder, says militant groups thrive on illiteracy and poverty.

    “Unfortunately, our government does not seem willing to address both of them on an urgent basis,” he said.

    Breeding militancy?

    Hashim Khan Afridi, director of education for FATA, says authorities face an uphill task when it comes to rebuilding the tattered education system. He told IRIN that years of militancy had destroyed or damaged more than 1,300 schools, while only around 900 have been reconstructed.

    The authorities are trying to take action against teachers employed in the “ghost schools”. Afridi says 65 “ghost teachers” have been dismissed from their jobs, although statistics from the FATA Secretariat estimate 10,000 non-working teachers are still on the payroll. 

    Related stories:

    Can $10 billion and political reforms bring peace to Pakistan’s restive frontier?

    Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan

    Pakistanis displaced by war return to a ruined economy

    Afridi says poor infrastructure – a shortage of electricity coverage, mobile phone service, and internet access – makes it nearly impossible to use new technology to target the problem. 

    “It is a difficult task to streamline all the systems in the ungoverned tribal agencies,” he said. “This will take time.”

    Muhammad Amir Rana, a security analyst and director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, says militancy, widespread displacement, and local corruption have perpetuated the culture of “ghost schools”.  

    The government needs to treat the quality of education in FATA as an “emergency”, he said. “If children in the tribal areas are not provided with a quality education, they will always be most vulnerable to land in the hands of militants and criminals.”

    That’s exactly what parents like Ishtiaq Gul, the father of 12-year-old Afsheen in Maminzo village, fear the most.

    He sees other parents in his area sending their children to Islamic madrassas, where he believes they are taught “jihad and hatred”. 

    Instead, he wants to send each of his five children to a government-run school.

    “We want our children to become part of the modern world,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Hanif Ullah, a local education activist, inspects dust-covered desks and chairs at a shuttered school in Maminzo village. Aamir Saeed/IRIN)

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    “Ghost schools” risk breeding militancy in Pakistan tribal areas
  • Pakistan’s new NGO tax will hurt those most at risk, say humanitarians

    Pakistan’s new tax on non-profit groups will force humanitarian agencies to cut back on services to some of the most vulnerable people in the country, NGO workers say.
     
    Pakistan imposed a tax in June on non-profits that spend 15 percent or more of their budget on administrative costs. Those costs would be taxed at a rate of 10 percent, as would any money left over at the end of the fiscal year if it totals more than 25 percent of the organisation’s budget.
     
    Critics see the new tax as part of an ongoing crackdown on civil society, which has seen NGOs stripped of their charity status and shut down, accused of promoting blasphemy and pornography, and forced into a labyrinthine registration process. The government denies that there is a crackdown and says the new law is simply intended to cut down on waste in order to make sure the money provided to charities makes it to those in need.
     
    "We have imposed taxes on the NGOs to stop misuse of the funds," said Ishaq Dar, a senator who was finance minister until cabinet was dissolved after a 28 July Supreme Court ruling that Nawaz Sharif should step down as prime minister amid corruption allegations.
     
    "If the NGOs keep working in the prescribed limits, they won't have to pay the taxes,” he said in an interview. “Instead, they will actually have more money to spend on humanitarian programmes."
     
    [The new amendments to the tax law can be found here on pages 152 and 153.] 
     

    Complications

     
    It’s not that simple, according to Aisha Khan, CEO of the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organisation, which works to mitigate the risks to people in rugged northern areas that are vulnerable to natural disasters like floods from melting glaciers. For example, some administrative costs go into paying staff salaries during the sweltering months from December to March when labour-intensive projects like building flood walls need to be put on hold.
     
    “It is a mountainous area and we have to keep administrative cost of the projects over 40 percent to ensure their timely completion,” she said.
     
    Khan said the government’s imposition of a tax on agencies that spend less than 75 percent of their yearly budgets on programmes would also be damaging. Her organisation puts aside some money for planned projects as well as to keep in reserve for natural disaster reponse.
     
    “The government’s taxes will definitely force us to abandon numerous projects in the area,” she said, adding that some donors have already suggested they may cease their funding as they do not want it to be used to pay the new tax.
     
    That’s also a concern for the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid, which provides legal assistance to refugees and says it has has trained more than 10,000 law enforcement officers, public prosecutors, and judges since 2002.
     
    Mudassar Javed, director of the group’s legal assistance programme, said the NGO will now need to cut by half the number of lawyers who staff legal aid centres in eight districts.
     
    “We know the refugees in jails are suffering, but we can’t exceed our administrative expenses over 15 percent,” he said. “If we pay taxes to the government on donors’ funds, we will be violating our mutual agreement and risking future funding for our projects.”
     

    Lawsuits looming?

     
    Muhammad Habibullah Khan, a lawyer and tax expert at the Supreme Court, told IRIN that non-profit groups will likely challenge the new tax law in court before the end of the fiscal year on 30 September. While Pakistan’s tax code defines salaries as administrative costs, he said, the new tax contravenes contracts that NGOs have with donors, which will probably form the basis of any lawsuits.
     
    "There is no dispute about administrative and management expenditures as they are clearly defined," he said, explaining that they are spelt out in Pakistan's income tax code to include staff salaries, fuel, rent, and utility bills. "The only dispute that is highly likely to arise is the limitation of administrative costs defined by donors and the government.”
     
    Dar, the former finance minister, said that if national and international organisations prioritise their spending better, they won’t need to cut back on staff or violate contracts with donors in order to pay the tax.
     
    “We want to make the NGOs and INGOs spend maximum of their funds on welfare projects instead of using them to pay extravagant salaries to their staff, air travel, board and lodging in the five-star hotels,” he said. 
     
    Dar also denied the government has been cracking down on civil society in order to silence critics.
     
    Civil society leaders beg to differ. Among the major incidents they point to in addition to the latest tax move: an investigation launched earlier this year into allegations that NGOs were promoting blasphemy and pornography, orders to NGOs to cease their work, and the forced closure of Save the Children in 2015.
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: Actors perform a skit to raise awareness of the impact of climate change in Badin District, in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, last October. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN)
    Pakistan’s new NGO tax will hurt those most at risk, say humanitarians
  • EXCLUSIVE: Pakistan recruiting Taliban fighters into pro-government militias

    Pakistan waged a bloody offensive for years to drive Islamist militants out of Afghan border regions, but now some Taliban factions are regrouping, only this time with the government’s blessing, according to opposition politicians, residents, and a former Taliban leader.
     
    In 2014, Pakistan’s military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb [Sharp and Cutting Strike], which aimed to drive Islamist militants out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a semi-autonomous region on the border with Afghanistan. The operation has mostly wound down now, and hundreds of thousands of families have returned. Many insurgents were killed during the operation, while others fled over the porous border into Afghanistan.
     
    Now, some of those militants – members of Taliban factions – have been invited back to form militia groups in FATA and three districts in neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Local politicians and a former Taliban leader told IRIN that the men, who previously fought the government and killed civilians, will now help defend the region against other militants. Some residents reject the strategy, which they believe will only lead to more fighting. 
     
    “The militants are doing all this with support of the local administration,” said a member of the Awami National Party, requesting anonymity for security reasons. “The administration, in return, expects these militants to spy for them on the locals and fight against foreign militants.” 
     
    Mohammad Shoaib, an assistant political officer in FATA’s South Waziristan Agency, denied that his government is supporting Taliban groups. “The presence of the militants in the area is a matter of concern for us and we keep chasing them constantly,” he said.
     

    ‘Green light’

     
    Such official denials ring hollow to Naimat Gul, a former member of the Taliban shura, or governing council, in South Waziristan. He said members of the faction formerly led by Mullah Nazir, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2013, have come back to South Waziristan from Afghanistan and regrouped.
     
    “Obviously, they have returned to their homeland after getting a green signal from the government,” he said.
     
    “They all are pro-Pakistan people and will help us keep Pakistan secure from infiltration of foreign militants,” said Gul in an interview in Dera Ismail Khan, a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district where he and others said Taliban elements have been meeting in a dilapidated house with the full knowledge of the government.
     

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    A building in Dera Ismail Khan District where locals say Taliban members have been meeting
    Aamir Saeed/IRIN
    A building in Dera Ismail Khan District where locals say Taliban members have been meeting
     
    Syed Fida Hassan Shah, the regional police officer overseeing Dera Ismail Khan and Tank districts, denied that the Taliban were organising in his jurisdiction. “These all are rumours,” he said. "We will take action if they tried to open their offices."
     
    Muhammad Saleh Shah, an independent senator in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, negotiated the deal with Pakistani Taliban founder Baitullah Mehsud that saw him agree in 2008 to cease attacks against government forces (before he was killed by a US drone strike the following year).
     
    He said it was clear the Taliban fighters were being encouraged to regroup: “The government is giving incentives to those who killed hundreds and maimed thousands in suicide attacks and bomb blasts.”
     

    Fear and distrust

     
    Residents expressed concern militants could turn on the government and civilians would once again become casualties.
     
    “They are self-professed killers and the government must try them under the law instead of keeping them in safe houses,” said Waris Khan, a cycle-rickshaw driver in Dera Ismail Khan. “What is the guarantee that these militants will not revert to killings of innocents?”
     
    An elder told IRIN by phone from South Waziristan that the FATA administration is allowing members of two Pakistani Taliban groups to organise in his area. The factions are those formerly led by Mullah Nazir and a group led by Shaharyar Mehsud that claimed responsibility for a January bombing that killed 24 people in FATA’s Kurram Agency.
     
    He said the FATA government had struck a deal with members of those groups to fight against the so-called Islamic state and other militants based over the border in Afghanistan.
     
    "So far the militants regrouping in the area are peaceful for the locals, but we don't know how long this will continue," said the elder, who requested his name be withheld.
     
    Shoaib, the assistant political officer in South Waziristan, admitted that Taliban groups have been reasserting their authority in some communities but denied that the government was condoning it. 
     
    "It's a local tradition to settle the disputes through jirgas," he said. "Yes, they hold their jirgas to dispense justice to the locals, but we discourage people to obey them."   
     
    Shoaib said the government is instead trying to encourage militants to lay down their arms and has created job training programmes aimed at reintegrating former militants into civilian life. 
     
     
    Such reassurances are not enough to convince some residents who fled fighting during Operation Zarb-e-Azb to return to South Waziristan. 
     
    Ali Wazir shelved his plans to bring his family back to the South Waziristan town of Wana after friends and relatives told him that groups of Taliban were operating there openly. He said he lost 11 family members to Taliban bombings, including one that killed his father and two brothers in 2005 in Wana, and he was initially optimistic that the army had finally driven the militants away.
     
    “Taliban are getting offices again not only in Waziristan, but also in the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province,” he said. “The militants are getting benefits and we are left at their mercy again.”
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: Soldiers in Pakistan's FATA region, in March 2017 CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN)
    EXCLUSIVE: Pakistan recruiting Taliban fighters into pro-government militias
  • Pakistan investigating NGOs accused of promoting blasphemy and pornography

    Pakistan is investigating over a dozen NGOs for allegedly promoting blasphemy and pornography on social media – a potentially deadly move dismissed by rights activists as the latest in an ongoing crackdown on civil society.
     
    The country’s Federal Investigation Agency’s cybercrime wing started the investigations last week, deputy director Nauman Ashraf told IRIN. 
     
    “These NGOs and some of their employees want to create chaos and anarchy in the country by hurting the sentiments of the people,” he said.
     
    The news comes in the wake of the killing of a student by a mob in the city of Mardan after he was accused of blasphemy. NGO workers say the government’s investigation is not only unfounded – it could also put staff in danger.
     
    “This was the last thing we were expecting from the government and its investigating agencies,” said an employee of an international NGO on condition of anonymity. “We are seriously thinking of winding up all our operations in the country.”
     
    Mehdi Hasan, chairman of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, said the investigations are part of a wider campaign by the government to silence civil society and stifle dissent.
     
    “Religious fanatics and some elements in the government are behind the campaign against the NGOs,” he told IRIN. “They label all of them as agents of the west and see them as promoters of a western agenda in Pakistan, which is ridiculous.”
     
    The government has for years used the legal and regulatory systems to pressure NGOs. 
     
    In 2015, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Pakistan, and the police forced a temporary shutdown of Save the Children.
     
    At the time, government sources told IRIN that Save the Children had attempted to conceal its links with Shakil Afridi, the doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination campaign to gather information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals in 2011. 
     
    Save the Children told IRIN that the allegations were ridiculous.
     
     
    In January, the Interior Ministry sent letters to about a dozen NGOs in Punjab Province ordering them to cease operations and accusing them of “pursuing an anti-state agenda”.
     
    Ashraf refused to say which NGOs were under investigation, but he said they included both national and international organisations. He said the NGOs are accused of disseminating pornographic and blasphemous content through social media, but offered no details.
     
    People convicted of blasphemy can face the death penalty in Pakistan. But even the suggestion that someone has committed blasphemy can lead to deadly vigilante and mob attacks, as occurred in Mardan this week. Police have reportedly arrested about 100 people suspected of beating one student to death and injuring two others.
     
    The charge of blasphemy is often used to target religious minorities, according to Human Rights Watch. The group said in its 2016 annual report on Pakistan that at least 19 people are on death row after being convicted of the charge, and hundreds more are awaiting trial. 
     
    In an attempt to “muzzle dissenting voices”, HRW said Pakistan last year “passed vague and overbroad cybercrimes legislation installing new curbs of freedom of expression and criminalising peaceful internet use.”
     
    Ashraf said NGO staff “should not get scared of the ongoing investigations if they are innocent.” He added: “We are investigating them as per the law of the land.” 
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: Civil society activists demonstrate in Islamabad in January for equal education for boys and girls. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN)
    Pakistan investigating NGOs accused of promoting blasphemy and pornography
  • Can $10 billion and political reforms bring peace to Pakistan’s restive frontier?

    Haibat Khan was teaching under an open sky. Over the heads of a dozen young students sitting on a plastic mat on the ground, he could see mountains stretching into the distance from the Pakistani town of Mamund towards Afghanistan.
     
    Like much of Bajaur and the other six Federally Administered Tribal Areas – a semi-autonomous region on the Afghan border – schools here are in short supply. FATA has been underdeveloped for decades and recent battles between Pakistan’s military and Islamist insurgents have destroyed many more schools and other buildings.
     
    But Khan does not welcome the government’s new plan to bring political reforms to FATA, even though it is vowing to spend $1 billion each year over a decade to build infrastructure.
     
    “The latest reforms are just eyewash and bribery for the tribal people to keep them fighting against the militants and laying down their lives,” said Khan, who wore a short beard and the traditional shalwar kameez – comfortably baggy trousers and a long, loose shirt.
     
    Others echoed his scepticism, citing decades of broken promises from the government in Islamabad to improve conditions in the frontier region, which had a population of three million during the last census in 1998 and is thought to be about double that now. 
     
    Tariq Hayat, joint secretary of the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, which is responsible for implementing the reforms, insisted the government is serious about the plan – the most ambitious proposal so far.
     
    “The process has started and this cannot be rolled back now,” he said in an interview in his office in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
     

    Pivotal moment

     
    If the government fails to follow through, it risks alienating people in FATA at a critical time.
     
    Islamist militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have largely been driven out of FATA after almost a decade of fighting, particularly Operation Zarb-e-Azb (Sharp and Cutting Strike), which began in June 2014 and is ongoing. Many insurgents were killed, but others have fled over the porous border into Afghanistan.
     
    If the government wants to keep them out, it will need to earn the loyalty of FATA residents.
     
    To that end, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet recently approved recommendations on how to better integrate the region, which is frequently accompanied by the adjective “lawless”. In early March, the government announced its approximately $10 billion plan to develop FATA and implement political, administrative, and legal reforms that would provide citizens with the same constitutional rights as those in the rest of Pakistan.
     
    Among other measures, this would mean scrapping the Frontier Crimes Regulations, a much-resented legacy of British colonialists that allows tribes to be punished collectively for crimes committed by individual members. But some say there’s no need to go through the initial five-year transition period for that to happen.
     
    Malik Anwar Zeb, a tribal elder, paced the courtyard of his spacious home – guarded by more than a dozen armed men in the village of Pashat – as he contemplated the plan. "The government should have revoked the FCR immediately through a constitutional amendment if it was serious in protecting human rights of the tribal people,” he said.
     

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    Malik Anwar Zeb, a tribal elder in Pashat village in Bajaur Agency, holds a meeting to discuss the Pakistan government's proposed reforms for the FATA region
    aamir Saeed/IRIN
    Malik Anwar Zeb, a tribal elder in Pashat village in Bajaur Agency, holds a meeting to discuss the government's proposed reforms for the FATA region
     

    Corruption and controversy

     
    A more controversial aspect of the reform package is the plan to merge FATA into neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. 
     
    Some Pashtuns, FATA’s largest ethnic group, instead favour a united “Pashtunistan” that would also include parts of Afghanistan. In fact, many Pashtuns in both countries reject the border, which is known as the “Durand line” after Mortimor Durand, a British foreign secretary who in 1893 drew a 2,600-kilometre border through the middle of the Pashtun homeland.  
     
    Two political parties that are aligned with the government oppose the merger. Both Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami and Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam-Fazal draw their core support from Pashtuns in the frontier region, and both say that FATA should instead become its own province. 
     
    "The reforms in current form are tantamount to Pashtun enmity by the establishment," said Muhammad Usman Khan Kakar, a senator with PMAP.
     
    However, a poll by the Islamabad-based think tank FATA Research Centre found widespread support for merging FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Of those surveyed, 54 percent endorsed the idea fully and 20 percent partially, while 26 percent said FATA should be a separate province. 
     
    "We want to get rid of the colonial system and laws," Muhammad Asif told IRIN, as he made a sale at his furniture shop in the busy market town of Khar. 
     
    "The reforms will give us legal and constitutional rights that we have been deprived of for generations," he said. “At the moment, there is a sense of deprivation and alienation in the tribal people.”
     
    Another fear is that the plan will facilitate corruption, which is a major problem in Pakistan. With $10 billion at stake, some in FATA worry that much of it might disappear into dishonest contracts.
     
    “FATA is already notorious for corruption and we fear the proposed development package will open new avenues of corruption for contractors and mafias,” said Zeb, the tribal elder from Salarzai, in Bajaur Agency. 
     
    Hayat, of the frontier regions ministry, dismissed such concerns and said local businesses stand to gain from the influx of development money, although larger projects would likely go to the Frontier Works Organisation, which is part of the military’s engineering wing.
     
    While the government says it’s not worried about corruption, neighbouring Afghanistan provides a stark lesson in the dangers of pouring reconstruction money into a conflict zone. The Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that much of the $113 billion the United States has pumped into Afghanistan since 2001 has been lost to corruption and waste, even as the war has gotten worse.
     
    While Pakistan’s military gains in FATA cannot be underestimated, the region is far from conflict free. On 31 March, a car bomb killed at least 24 people in Kurram Agency; there are army checkpoints all over FATA. Security officials have warned that the so-called Islamic State is expanding recruitment in Pakistan and coordinating with other militant groups to carry out attacks.
     
     

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    Children studying in an open air school in the town of Mamund
    Aamir Saeed/IRIN
    Children studying in an open air school in the town of Mamund
     

    Next steps

     
    Some of the political and legal reforms will require parliament to approve constitutional amendments. The government should have enough support to get them passed, although officials have yet to say when they will be tabled for a debate before the vote.
     
    The government has the power to unilaterally allocate the development funding, and some argue that it should have already put more towards reconstruction in the wake of an offensive that has left ruins of homes, hospitals, and other public buildings across the region.  
     
    “The government has not given us [even] a meager compensation for our homes destroyed during the military operation, but is [now] promising us trillions of rupees for development,” said Malik Waris Khan Afridi, a tribal elder in Khyber Agency who is part of a group petitioning the Supreme Court in a legal challenge the government’s reform plan.
     
    Hayat said he was optimistic the first tranche of funding would be allocated in the 2017-2018 budget, to be announced in June, and that it would be directed mainly towards developing light industry and irrigation, as well as building hospitals and schools.
     
    That would go a long way in filling a huge void in public services, and it is hoped that better access to education will deter young men from joining militant groups. A recent report by Pakistan’s education ministry found that 58 percent of children in FATA do not attend school. Those that do, like Khan’s students, often have no desks to sit in or roof over their heads.
     
    "We don't have a schoolhouse. Therefore, we have to observe a holiday in the case of rain or a storm," he said, standing in his classroom on a barren hilltop.
     
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    Can $10 billion and political reforms bring peace to Pakistan’s restive frontier?
  • Why is the so-called Islamic State attacking Sufis?

    Zahid Hussain has been preaching tolerance at the Bari Imam Sufi Muslim shrine in Pakistan’s capital for 30 years, but it is that very message that now requires the shrine to be barricaded by police and security guards.
     
    Sufis are known for their mystical pursuit of divine wisdom and their embrace of diversity that extends even beyond Islam. Such open-mindedness is unacceptable to militant Islamist extremists like the so-called Islamic State, which on 16 February bombed a different Sufi shrine in Sindh Province and killed 88 people.
     
    Even as the militant group is squeezed out of strongholds in the Middle East, it is expanding its presence in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. That’s bad news for Sufis and other Muslims whom IS deems to be apostates. A senior counter-terrorism official has told IRIN that hundreds of Pakistanis have recently returned from Syria after gaining training and battle experience with IS. 
     
    “The nexus of sectarian and militant outfits like Islamic State is resulting in attacks on Sufi shrines, as they want to push the people back to Stone Age,” said Hussain, sitting in a white marble burial chamber for the shrine’s namesake who died in 1705.
     
    Last month’s bombing of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh prompted administrators to put security measures in place in this shrine, which is nestled into the Margalla Hills that rise over the north of Islamabad. Men and women now pray in separate enclosures, and about a dozen armed men guard the entrance.
     

    sufi_shrine_2.jpg

    Zahid Hussain preaches at the Bari Imam Sufi shrine in Islamabad
    Aamir Saeed/IRIN
    Zahid Hussain preaches at the Bari Imam Sufi shrine in Islamabad
     

    Enemies of diversity

     
    The Bari Imam shrine has also been attacked, back in 2005, when 20 people died in a suicide bombing claimed by the Pakistani Taliban. After that, administrators stopped the dhamal, an ancient ritual in which people of various beliefs and genders whirl in unison to the beat of drums.
     
    But devotees say the spirit of inclusiveness continues.
     
    “The Sufi shrines belong to everyone including Muslims, Christians, Hindus and transgender, and that’s why the militants linked with the IS label people coming here as heretics and liable to be killed,” said Jamil Ahmed, who was visiting the shrine with his family.
     
    It is precisely that kind of diversity that makes the Sufi community a target.
     
    After the 16 February attack, IS released a statement saying it had targeted Sufis because they were “polytheists”, according to SITE, an organisation that monitors militant groups.
     

    sufi_shrine_3.jpg

    Devotees pray at the burial chamber in the Bari Imam Sufi shrine in Islamabad
    aamir Saeed/IRIN
    Devotees pray at the burial chamber in the Bari Imam Sufi shrine in Islamabad
     

    Extremist expansion

     
    Militants have attacked 16 Sufi shrines since 2005, according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.
     
    The threat is rising as IS makes inroads into the country with the help of about 400 fighters who have returned from Syria, a senior counter-terrorism official told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
     
    “The Islamic State advocates radical Salafi thought and unfortunately Pakistan provides a perfect environment for it to grow due to existing infiltration of Wahhabism in the society, thanks to our Middle East friends for funding the sectarian outfits here,” he said.
     
    The Salafi movement promotes strict adherence to what believers say were the practices of early Muslims. Wahhabism is a related, ultra-conservative school of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia, which has promoted it over decades by funding religious schools in countries including Pakistan. 
     
    The 18 February bombing was one in a string of attacks throughout the country that killed about 100 people within a week, prompting authorities to launch an operation targeting militant groups called Raddul Fasaad. While similar operations have concentrated on taking control over rugged areas like the Swat Valley and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the frontier with Afghanistan, Raddul Fasaad is the first one to focus on cities.
     
    “The main objective of the operation in urban centres is to bust sleeper cells of the militants and arrest their financiers and facilitators,” said Malik Ahmed Khan, a Punjab provincial government spokesman.
     
    He told IRIN that security forces have killed 100 militants so far and arrested 600 more suspects. Among those arrested were at least five IS members who recently returned from Syria, he said.
     
     
    In January 2015, IS declared its intention to establish “Khorasan”, in reference to a historical region that once covered much of modern-day Afghanistan as well as parts of Iran and Central Asia. But it has so far only been able to establish control over a small area in Nangarhar, an Afghan province bordering Pakistan.
     
    Amir Rana, an expert on militancy and the director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, told IRIN that while IS had expanded its presence in Pakistan in recent months, it still lacks a “charismatic leadership” here to lure fresh recruits, consolidate its position, and to forge strong alliances with established militant groups.
     
    “The IS cannot set up its rule over any territory in Pakistan without a vibrant local leadership, but seems to be capable of targeting some vulnerable places like the Sufi shrines,” he said.
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: Police guard the Bari Imam Sufi shrine in Islamabad. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed)
    Why is the so-called Islamic State attacking Sufis?
  • UN under fire even as Pakistan lifts Afghan deportation order

    Pakistan has backed off threats to deport more than two million Afghans starting next month, but the refugees are still under intense pressure to leave and the UN is accused of complicity in alleged plans to coerce them back across the border into a war zone.
     
    Last week, Pakistan announced it would allow Afghans to stay in the country until the end of the year. Insiders say the decision by the administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came after lobbying from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, as well as two allied political parties and the Afghan government. Sharif’s cabinet was also warned that such a move could push Afghanistan closer to Pakistan’s archrival, India.
     
    But the decision will not alleviate the fear and uncertainty that Afghans live with in Pakistan. In fact, the situation is now similar to last year when about 600,000 Afghans crossed the border under intense pressure from the government, including an initial end-of-year deportation deadline (which was later delayed until the end of March 2017).
     
    “Giving refugees short-term status and threatening deportation is a very effective way to get people to leave,” said Gerry Simpson, author of a report released today by Human Rights Watch.
     
    The report accuses Pakistan of violating international law by committing refoulement: forcibly returning refugees to a country where they face persecution, torture or a risk to their lives. The report says UNHCR is complicit because it has failed to condemn government measures intended to coerce Afghans to leave and has assisted the government by providing cash grants to returnees.
     
    “It’s clearly high time for UNHCR to speak in plain, simple English and call it what it is, which is forced return,” Simpson told IRIN.
     
     

    Freedom to choose?

     
    The refugee agency rejected HRW’s accusations.
     
    “The return of Afghan refugees in 2016 from Pakistan was categorically not refoulement,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Pakistan.
     
    She told IRIN that the agency does not promote returning to Afghanistan, but offered the cash grant to those who decided on their own accord to leave Pakistan.
     
    “We acknowledge that conditions for return are less than ideal,” said Khan. “UNHCR facilitates voluntary repatriation upon the request and fully informed decision of refugees.”
     
    Simpson argued that conditions were not only “less than ideal”, but became so difficult for Afghans in Pakistan last year that repatriation became less of a decision than a necessity.
     
    Halfway through 2016, the government launched a public information campaign warning Afghans that they needed to leave the country or face deportation. After that, refugees began reporting increasing animosity from members of Pakistan’s host communities and they often suddenly found their rents were increased, their children were not allowed to attend school, and employment dried up. The government has denied ordering security forces to harass refugees, but HRW collected evidence that such harassment dramatically increased after the government announced the plan.
     
     
    Harassment by security forces appeared to have dropped off late last year when the government extended the deportation deadline to March. It’s not yet clear whether refugees will be facing the same pressures in 2017, but Simpson warned of that possibility.
     
    Those who decide to return to Afghanistan will be going home to a war that shows no signs of abating and has only become more dangerous for civilians. The UN Mission in Afghanistan recorded 11,418 civilians killed or injured last year, the highest number since UNAMA began documenting civilian casualties in 2009.
     
    The Afghan government is struggling with a record number of displaced people, including those who fled their homes due to conflict last year, as well as record numbers of Afghans who have returned mainly from Pakistan and Iran. The government and aid agencies are asking for $550 million from the international community to support the most “vulnerable and marginalised” people in the country in 2017.
     
    Human Rights Watch
     
    Human Rights Watch
     

    Backroom talks

     
    Afghanistan’s government formally requested Pakistan to extend the stay of the refugees until the security situation improves, according to a senior Pakistani official who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to media on the subject.
     
    The official said that the cabinet also received briefings, which warned that forced repatriation would put further pressure on the strained relationship between the two countries and that India might use that tension to its advantage.
     
    “India can exploit sentiments of the deported refugees in its favour,” he said. “Therefore, we need to be extra careful in pushing the refugees across the border.”
     
    Imran Zeb, Pakistan’s chief commissioner for Afghan refugees, told IRIN that the government also based its decision on appeals by UNHCR and two political parties, Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami and Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam (Fazal).
     
    Both parties receive most of their support from regions along Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan, especially among ethnic Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border.
     
    “We don’t want to throw them into mouths of wolves in Afghanistan,” said Muhammad Jamaluddin, a Jamiat member of the National Assembly. “The refugees will go back voluntarily when the situation improves in their hometowns.”
     
    Simpson, of HRW, said another likely factor was that Pakistan simply does not have the capability to quickly deport the approximately 2.4 million Afghans in the country. However, if Pakistan ramps up pressure on them as it did last year, and if about the same number leave as a result, it could force out most remaining refugees within three years.
     
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: A truck carrying Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan travels through Afghanistan's Nangarhar province in August 2016. CREDIT: Jim Huylebroek/NRC)   
    UN under fire even as Pakistan lifts Afghan deportation order
  • Pakistan NGOs go to court to fight government crackdown

    A legal showdown is looming in Pakistan as NGOs petition the courts to squelch interior ministry orders to cease operations for allegedly “pursing an anti-state agenda”.
     
    About a dozen NGOs in Punjab Province received letters last week from local and provincial authorities ordering them to stop work. It was the latest move in a crackdown on domestic and international NGOs over the past couple years, which has included shutting down their offices and imposing tight restrictions on their activities.
     
    Three NGOs have already filed petitions with the Lahore High Court, and another is preparing to challenge the ban. The court has ordered officials from the Ministry of Interior and the Punjab Home Department to attend a hearing this Friday.  
     
    The NGO South Asia Partnership-Pakistan shared with IRIN letters from three different government bodies in Punjab. A letter from the Layyah District coordination office said local officials had “been informed by the Ministry of Interior” that SAP-PK was “pursing an anti-state agenda”, which included accusing the armed forces of “harassment”. Directors of two other NGOs, the Cholistan Development Council Bahawalpur and Women in Struggle for Empowerment, told IRIN they received letters that used similar language.
     
    “Towards this purpose the NGO prepared a shadow report [for] sharing with [the] UN Rights Commission presenting a very bleak picture of [the] human rights situation in Pakistan,” said the letter.
     
    Mohammad Tehseen, SAP-PK’s director, said the ministry’s information was wrong and that he told the court his group had not prepared a report for any UN human rights body.
     
    The Lahore High Court has agreed to hear cases presented by SAP-PK and the two other groups, requesting that it overrule the ban. On Monday, the court gave temporary permission to SAP-PK and the Cholistan Development Council Bahawalpur to continue working, and it told Women in Struggle for Empowerment on Tuesday that it could continue working for the time-being.
     
    "The interior ministry is looking into the whole issue regarding closure orders to several NGOs in Punjab and will release a detailed response on it in [the] next couple of days," ministry spokesman Sarfraz Hussain told IRIN.
     
    Another NGO, Anjuman Falah-e-Niswan, which provides skills training to marginalised women, is also preparing to legally challenge the closure order, said its director, Nasreen Awan. She said the government forced her group to stop operating in 2015 but then allowed it to continue after officials scrutinised funding records.
     
    “The government shouldn’t ban any organisation; rather monitor the working and source of funding,” she said. “If the government finds any anomaly in utilisation of the funds, it should initiate legal action against the organisation instead of ordering it to close operations.”
     
    Another 121 local NGOs had their registration cancelled last week by the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration, bringing the total number to 350 over the past couple of years, according to Mohammad Ali, the administration’s director of labour. 
     
    He told IRIN that the registrations were cancelled because NGOs were “getting funds from foreign donors but not letting the administration know about [the] exact source and use of these funds”.
     
    International NGOs have not been immune to the government’s crackdown. In 2015, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Pakistan, and police came to the offices of Save the Children and forced the group to temporarily shut down.
     
    At the time, government sources told IRIN that Save the Children had attempted to conceal its links with Shakil Afridi, the doctor who allegedly ran a fake vaccination campaign to gather information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals during a covert operation in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011. 
     
    Save the Children told IRIN that the allegations were ridiculous, and said the only link between it and Afridi was that he was one of about 5,000 health workers who had taken part in training sessions in government facilities.
     
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: Civil society activists demonstrate in Islamabad last week for equal education for boys and girls. CREDIT: Aamir Saeed/IRIN)
    Pakistan NGOs go to court to fight government crackdown
  • Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan

    Obaid Khan was planning to join Pakistan’s public school system as a teacher after finishing his undergraduate degree in May this year. Instead, he dropped out of university to join the so-called Islamic State, and he’s now fighting in Afghanistan.
     
    Obaid’s life-plan began to change when a man identifying himself as Qari Abid contacted him via Facebook last August. As their correspondence deepened, Khan became more and more convinced that he needed to join the “jihad against infidels”, according to his elder brother, Hanifullah, whom Abid attempted to recruit as well.
     
    “He used to get promotional Islamic State material and sermons about jihad every second day in his Facebook inbox,” said Hanifullah about his brother. 
     
    Then, at the end of October, Obaid suddenly left the family home in Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the frontier with Afghanistan. Last month, he called Hanifullah and told him he had finished training with IS and was now fighting in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, where Afghan government and US forces have been battling the militants.
     
    “He was a religious-minded person, but we never thought he would one day join a militant group like the IS,” said Hanifullah in a telephone interview.
     
    Military assaults have squeezed IS out of some of the territory it took control of in Iraq and Syria, and the group has recently expanded its presence in South Asia. 
     
    In January 2015, IS declared its intention to establish “Khorasan”, in reference to a historical region that once covered much of modern day Afghanistan as well as parts of Iran and Central Asia. Nangarhar remains its main base of operations, but its tentacles extend across the border into Pakistan too.
     
     
    Officially, Pakistan’s government says that IS, or Daesh as it is referred to here, is not active in the country. But a senior security official has told IRIN that the group represents a serious threat to the country as it coordinates with other militant groups, and ramps up recruitment using social media. The official and Pakistani relatives of IS fighters have shared information on how the recruitment process works.
     

    Government denials

     
    “There is no organised presence, I repeat, no organised presence of Daesh in Pakistan,” Mohammed Nafees Zakaria, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters on 15 December. “The pronouncement of one or two random individuals of having affiliation to Daesh does not form the basis for claiming organised presence for this entity in Pakistan.”
     
    However, a senior counter-terrorism official told IRIN that 14 Pakistanis joined IS in October alone, while hundreds more are also believed to be in touch with the recruiters through social media.
     
    “The IS recruiters contact young, educated Pakistani men and women through Facebook, telegram, and other social media platforms and convince them to join the IS in Syria and Afghanistan,” said the official, who requested his name be withheld due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
     
    He said he believed the presence of IS could pose a more dangerous threat to Pakistan than the Taliban and other militants, because “it has penetrated in urban educated youth through social media and has enough resources too to lure them to Syria and Afghanistan in the name of jihad”.
     
    The resources include cash payments to families of new recruits, according to the official as well as the brother of another young Pakistani man who has joined IS and is now in Afghanistan for training.
     
    The man told IRIN that his family is receiving a monthly stipend of 30,000 rupees ($286) and that leading IS figures in the region had also promised to sponsor the education of his brother’s three children.
     
    “My brother was inducted into the IS force through multiple interviews on Facebook,” said the man on condition of anonymity. “We don’t know exact identity of the recruiters.”
     
    Khurram Mehran, a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, said his organisation has no clear-cut policy to counter the presence of IS on internet and its recruitment of Pakistanis through social media.
     
    “The government has been continuously denying the presence of IS in Pakistan,” he said. “We start monitoring activities of any militant group on the internet only after we receive instructions from relevant government departments."
     

    Asia expansion?

     
    As recently as 21 December, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said during a visit to Bosnia that IS is not active in Pakistan, and that the country has destroyed sanctuaries and safe havens of al-Qaeda and Taliban.
     
    Despite such public statements, the militant group has carried out attacks in Pakistan, according to the counter-terrorism official, and IS itself. 
     
    The IS claimed responsibility for a May 2015 attack on a bus in Karachi that killed 47 people. It also claimed responsibility for the attack on a hospital in Quetta last August that killed 72 people, as well as an attack on the Quetta Police College in October, which killed 59 officers.
     
    The counter-terrorism official said IS has linked up with other militant groups that have a more established presence in Pakistan and have better capabilities on the ground.
     
    “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi carried out these attacks in Pakistan under the banner of the Islamic State,” said the official. “IS has effectively infused its ideology in these groups through its promotional material of jihad.”
     
    He said Pakistan military operations have forced many Islamist fighters across the border into Afghanistan, particularly those with IMU and the Tehreek-e-Taliban militant group, but the porous border allows them to cross back into Pakistan to plan and carry out operations.
     
    “The IMU fighters have also had their presence in Pakistan's Balochistan province and some tribal areas of the country as they have married local girls and developed relationship with local warlords,” the counter-terrorism official added.
     
    For now, the IS presence in Asia is focused mainly on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there are signs that the groups has plans to expand throughout the region. 
     
     
    The group took responsibility for an attack on a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in July where 20 hostages were killed. Indonesian police said an IS militant believed to be in Syria ordered an attack in the capital, Jakarta, one year ago that killed two people. Militant groups in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao have also publicly pledged allegiance to IS.
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: Philippines soldiers with bomb-making material and IS propaganda captured from a militant group in Mindanao. CREDIT: Jared Ferrie/IRIN)
    Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan

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