As many as 650 Pakistanis are said to be fighting in the conflict zones of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Central Asian states along with different foreign organisations.
Intelligence agencies have so far identified 132 of them and expressed the fear that their return after being defeated by international forces might add to sectarian strife in Pakistan.
After receiving the information, the National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) of the federal government has alerted law enforcement agencies to take preventive measures besides tightening security on the borders of the country, especially in Balochistan, KP and the coastal areas, as well as airports.
A senior security official told Dawn that the defeat of fighters in Middle East, Afghanistan and Central Asian states had put Pakistan on the verge of sectarian violence, forcing the NCMC to advise the interior ministry to take measures to stop them from making a comeback.
“The NCMC directed the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to also keep surveillance on families of the individuals who had traveled to conflict zones and might create multiple security risks for Pakistan on their return,” he said.
“Intelligence agencies in coordination with law enforcement agencies should keep effective surveillance on families of the individuals who have traveled to the conflict zones and are expected to return,” he added.
Officials say return of these fighters may lead to rise in sectarian violence in Pakistan
A source in the law enforcement agencies told Dawn that the foreign fighters who suffered heavy losses in Afghanistan, Middle East and Central Asian region would 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.”
He added: “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 Fata.”
The source said the return of the radicalised, trained and experienced fighters to the mainland carried the potential of sectarian violence in the country which was already facing such issues.
In line with the intelligence reports, the NCMC has suggested a proactive approach by the government agencies to check the entry of such elements into the country.
The NCMC had issued a similar alert in January this year, asking the police chiefs of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the commandant of the Frontier Constabulary to improve checking at the inter-provincial checkposts as a huge catches of arms were being smuggled to different parts of Punjab.
According to security sources, the NCMC had asked the authorities to improve checking of suspicious vehicles at the inter-provincial checkposts after it was noticed that gunrunners had been delivering weapons in different parts of Punjab on a regular basis.
This came into the knowledge of the authorities concerned after the Punjab police and intelligence agencies arrested two weapon smugglers and recovered a huge cache of arms and ammunition during a crackdown at Defence Road in Lahore.
When asked why the security forces were worried about the return of the fighters, a senior official requesting not to be named said intelligence agencies had come up with a report about the foreign fighters’ plan to return to the country. He said the fighters were gathering in Afghanistan and planning to take refuge on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“And to stop them from entering the country from the Afghan or Iran border, an advisory has been issued to the ministry of interior and the law enforcement agencies to take measures before any untoward incident,” he said.
Amir Rana, the director of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), told Dawn that the vigilance level had been increased since the terrorist attacks in Germany in which a Syrian was allegedly involved. And it forced the other countries to increase the security and vigilance level.
“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,” said Mr Rana.
He said actually more than 700 Pakistani were involved with different foreign fighting organisations across the globe and they were now planning to come back due to the increase vigilance in the conflict zones of the world.