Is the attack in Pakistan the work of ISIS?

The self-proclaimed Islamic State is claiming responsibility for an attack in Pakistan. It's unclear how much of a hand it could have had.

Anjum Naveed/AP
A Christian adjusts a candle next to wording 'Peace' drawn with rose petals during a candlelight vigil for the victims of an overnight attack on the Quetta Police Training Academy, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

At least 60 people are reported dead and 120 injured in Pakistan after militants assaulted a police training academy outside of the southwestern city of Quetta on Monday night.

The three militants targeted unarmed cadets, according to provincial authorities. Two of the three died after detonating explosive vests, while the third was killed in a protracted standoff with police.

Pakistani officials initially attributed the attack to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Taliban-affiliated jihadist group that is one of several operating in remote areas along the border with Afghanistan. But after the self-proclaimed Islamic State claimed responsibility through its news organ Amaq, which posted pictures of three men who it said were the attackers, one senior Pakistani official told the New York Times that ISIS had “outsourced” the attack to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Two Pakistani officials told The Washington Post that the three men were either based on the Afghan side of the border or had been in contact with militants there.

Just how deeply involved ISIS was in planning the assault remains unclear, particularly in light of territorial losses elsewhere that the group has suffered in recent months at the hands of US-allied forces. And as those forces converge on Mosul, Iraq, one of the most important cities held by ISIS, questions of attribution seem likely to continue.

As the group loses territory, which has been central to its claims of legitimacy and supremacy over other jihadist groups, its leadership has begun preparing followers for a new approach, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in May:

Unlike other terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, IS has been unique in that it did have an "address" – a known headquarters, which Western military forces could target. But should IS choose to go underground, forgoing its geographical base and melding into the local population, experts say the US and its coalition will need to make a dramatic shift in strategy in their two-year war.

Analysts say IS will rely on a “hybrid model,” using insurgency tactics such as suicide bombings with a standing militia ready to seize territory should the opportunity arise.

"The group has adapted throughout its history, and has never truly gone away – always waiting to benefit from the social, political, and economic failures in Iraq and Syria," says Hassan Hassan, a Syrian fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and coauthor of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror." In his assessment, the group could come back stronger if the region doesn't stabilize. 

Monday's attacks mark the second time in recent months that ISID has claimed responsibility for attacks in Pakistan, with a suicide bomber striking a hospital in Quetta in August. The extent of the Islamic State's involvement was murky in that instance, as well: Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, the Islamist militant group to which the bomber allegedly belonged, had switched allegiances back to the Taliban after a period of affiliating with ISIS, a Taliban rival.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group with longstanding ties to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, has dedicated most of its energies to targeting Shiites, whom it considers heretics. In 2012 and 2013, it was suspected of carrying out a series of assaults on civilian targets that included bombing a mosque and a bus full of students. Those attacks fed suspicions that it may have operated with the implicit consent of the Pakistani state.

In a statement condemning the attack on the police academy, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the US would “continue to work with our partners in Pakistan and across the region to combat the threat of terrorism.”

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