Some 650 Pakistanis are fighting in conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Central Asian states and their return to the country could add to sectarian strife, according to a media report on Wednesday.
Intelligence agencies have identified 132 of these Pakistanis and expressed fears about their return after being defeated by international forces, the influential Dawn newspaper reported.
The National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) of the federal government has alerted law enforcement agencies to take preventive measures and to tighten security on Pakistan’s borders, especially in Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and coastal regions, and at airports.
An unnamed security official was quoted as saying by Dawn that the “defeat of fighters in Middle East, Afghanistan and Central Asian states had put Pakistan on the verge of sectarian violence”. This prompted the NCMC to advise the interior ministry to take steps to prevent the return of these fighters, the official said.
“The NCMC directed the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to also keep surveillance on families of the individuals who had travelled to conflict zones and might create multiple security risks for Pakistan on their return,” the official said.
Another unnamed senior official said intelligence agencies had reported about Pakistani fighters’ plans to return to the country. He said these fighters were gathering in Afghanistan and planning to take refuge on the border.
A source said foreign fighters who have suffered heavy losses in Afghanistan, Middle East and Central Asian region could also take refuge in Pakistan.
“Fighters of other nationalities, especially those belonging to the Central Asian states, might find Afghanistan as a safe haven. But our own nationals who are fighting in Syria and Iraq would prefer moving back to Pakistan,” the source said.
“The return of foreign terrorists to our region has the potential of creating multiple security risks for Pakistan. Their increased strength in Afghanistan would also lead to a new wave of instability in our immediate neighbourhood with the potential of spillover effects into (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas).”
The NCMC had issued a similar alert in January, asking police chiefs of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces and the commandant of the Frontier Constabulary to improve checking at inter-provincial check posts as huge catches of arms were being smuggled into Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.
Amir Rana, the director of the think tank Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said: “Though sectarian violence in Pakistan has decreased in the last few years, the expected return of the foreign fighters would increase the fear that the scourge may raise its head again. Therefore, the government is taking preventive measures.”