In recent days, the South Asian news media has been inundated with reports suggesting that terrorists aligned with the socalled Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are emerging in some member nations of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India’s home minister Rajnath Singh went on record warning the Indian population that ISIS-led attacks cannot be ruled out in India in the future. Projecting a serious ISIS threat, one Indian analyst wrote: ‘Literature seized from the terrorists in West Bengal indicate that they were plotting to create an ISIS-like caliphate in parts of Bangladesh and then use this base to destabilize the whole of India’s northeast, especially parts of West Bengal and Assam where the demography has moved against the local populations.’1
From Bangladesh, a number of analysts have written about the growing ISIS presence among the known terrorists. An article published ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka last June suggested the existence of a link between Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JuM-B), a banned yet functioning terrorist group that is aided and partially funded from abroad, and ISIS. The article also claimed that there was growing concern about this development within the intelligence agencies in India and stated that the JuM-B and ISIS together would like (emphasis added) to establish a Bangladeshi caliphate.2
In Maldives, where ISIS penetration is arguably the deepest among the SAARC nations, an open pro-ISIS rally in August featured banners calling for the introduction of the sharia, according to a September Press Trust of India (PTI) dispatch. The PTI cited a video released on 31 August that showed three masked men threatening to kill Maldives president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and unleash a terrorist campaign on the islands. Also cited was Gayoom’s ‘lucky escape’ on 28 September, when his wife and two others were injured in an explosion that ripped through their speedboat as they returned home after performing Hajj in Saudi Arabia.3 Subsequently, the findings of international investigators, including a team of Sri Lankans, suggest the incident was, indeed, an attempt on the Maldivian president’s life, but ISIS was not named as the culprit. And on 7 October, Reuters reported the arrest of two military officials in connection with the explosion.
In addition to reports suggesting the emergence of ISIS in Bangladesh, Maldives and India, articles have also appeared on individuals and groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other SAARC member nations, pledging their allegiance to the terrorist organisation. In some cases, ISIS has acknowledged these alliances and has indicated its solidarity with those individuals and groups. However, there is no indication that ISIS has subsequently translated those acknowledgments into something more ominous.
WHAT IS ISIS, AND WHAT ARE ITS CHARACTERISTICS?
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it should be noted, also goes by the names the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State (IS) and Daesh (a likely Arabic acronym for Dawlat al-Islâmiyya fî al- Irâq wa s-Shâm).
Different experts have their own interpretations of how ISIS came into existence. Here is one presented by an Arabic political scientist associated with the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, Harith al-Qarawee:
ISIS is the latest incarnation of a group called Tan“îm Qâ»idat al- Jihâd fî Bilâd al-Râfidayn, or the organization of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which was formed in 2004. The group, although it declared allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, was a highly independent body that had organizational and ideological differences from al-Qaeda. The group adopted a very fundamentalist and exclusionary interpretation of Islam, saw itself as the only ‘victorious sect’ in Islam, and considered Shi’as [Shi’ites, who constitute 55 to 60 percent of Iraqis] deviants and legitimate targets of its attacks. The group and its subsequent incarnations were shaped by the nature of conflict in Iraq that took an increasingly sectarian characteristic. Unlike al-Qaeda that prioritized the conflict with the West, ISIS deemed conflict with Shi’as central to its success because it sought to create a territorial state of its own. If al-Qaeda was an outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, ISIS is an outcome of conflicts and states’ failures in Iraq and the Levant.4
In essence, ISIS morphed out of various al-Qaeda-led terrorist organisations that had long been operating in the Arabian Peninsula and has since consolidated into a potent terrorist group, grabbing a landmass larger than that of Britain, within Iraq and Syria, and calling it the new Islamic Caliphate. There are other al-Qaeda groups that function all over the world and are particularly strong in the Maghreb and North Africa, where governments are weak and the militaries are not homogenous because of tribal rifts. Some groups have spread their influence over large tracts of land and refer to ISIS as their leader, but there is no indication that they receive marching orders from the ISIS leadership. Several of these African countries have al-Qaeda groups that consist of a large number of fighters, orders of magnitude more than all SAARC member nations put together harbour.
As of now, the reality is that ISIS has occupied a large tract of land, calls it the Caliphate, has named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the new caliph and keeper of the Caliphate, has established a ‘functional government’ in Syria’s al-Raqqa province and is under serious attack from the Western nations.
IS ISIS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER TERRORIST GROUPS?
Unlike other terrorist and extremist groups that preach a similar ideology and practice a similar level of violence – such as those that operate within South Asia – ISIS has procured a large piece of real estate and has set up its own administration, replete with military, intelligence and other capabilities. This territory is the caliphate of Sunni Islamists and is considered the germ seed for expanding the caliphate worldwide. Yet in the coming months, ISIS will find preservation of this territory a difficult, if not an altogether impossible, task.
Partly, this is due to what led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. The territory it occupies now consists of parts of Iraq and Syria. Under the late president Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a functional state with a stable government and a formidable military. The 2003 full-scale military invasion of the country by the United States, and the years of violence that followed, led to the complete destruction of Iraq’s political institutions and disbandment of its military and planted the seeds of a resurgence of violent Shi’a-Sunni sectarian bloodshed. In hindsight, one could say that ISIS could not have procured what it now has without the West’s ‘help’.
The reason ISIS has come to ‘own’ Syrian real estate is not very different. Syria, a mosaic of various ethnic and sectarian groups, has been held together by strong Alawite leaders who belong to a minority ethnic group. The country was kept in one piece and did make economic and social progress over the years. However, their long rule created dissension among some ethnic and sectarian groups, who have nonetheless coexisted for many years. And this dissension was seized upon by external powers who considered Assad’s Syria too close to both the West and to Iran and Russia.
After the uprisings within Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring, the United States, the colonial European states, Turkey and some of the Sunni Arab states joined hands to move forward with the intent to bring down President Bashar al-Assad. Unlike in Iraq, however, where a regime change was brought about using a full-scale military invasion, in Syria, these outside powers’ quest for regime change aligned with the protestors, some of whom were genuine while many others were Sunni fighters trying to convert Syria into a Sunni Salafi–dominated state. Those anti- Assad countries poured arms, money and diplomatic support in to weaken Damascus and the Syrian military.
Turkey, one of Syria’s immediate neighbours and a member of NATO, jumped in and made its border with Syria porous, allowing anti- Damascus Sunni Salafi fighters to pour in from abroad.
What began in 2011 continues even today at the expense of hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives. The Syrian intervention by the Western powers, Turkey and the Gulf nations has not succeeded in destroying the Syrian military; but the process has succeeded in shutting down the Syrian military’s ability to counter the extremists throughout the country. As a result, parts of Syria have come under the control of ISIS.
In evaluating the emergence of ISIS in the Mesopotamian region, it is evident that the external powers’ actions were critical. Two developments are of significance. In the first place, having been able to erase parts of the Syria-Iraq border, ISIS began to move fighters from one part of Mesopotamia to another. They brought in central Asian, Chechen, Dagestani, Afghan and other fighters, who subsequently became prominent and joined their fellow Arab ISIS terrorists.
In addition, the obliteration of parts of the Iraq-Syria border gave ISIS access to some of the Iraqi oilfields and even to refineries. This became the group’s major source of income to pay the fighters, buy arms and defend the land it has occupied. It is to be noted that however skilful they are or others claim them to be, the ISIS fighters did not dismantle the Iraqi or Syrian military; they only weakened it. The ‘credit’ for dismantling the Iraqi military goes to the United States.
In addition to battling the partial military might of the United States, the former European colonial powers, the Syrian government and even Russia, ISIS has another objective. It wants to seize the territory known as al-Hejaz, a region that is bounded in the west by present-day Saudi Arabia bordering the Red Sea; on the north by Jordan; on the east by Nejd, located in central Saudi Arabia and comprising a mainly rocky plateau sloping eastward from the mountains of the Hejaz; and on the south by Asir, a region situated in southwestern Saudi Arabia, immediately north of Yemen.
Securing al-Hejaz would enable ISIS to seize control of the most important Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, legitimising the group in most of the Islamic world. However, occupying al-Hejaz is not an easy task for the ISIS fighters, unless external forces, such as the Western powers, once again give the group a boost. Under the present circumstances, it is almost inconceivable that ISIS would be able to garner such help to seize al-Hejaz.
What is certain, however, is that ISIS will be subjected to increasing pressure from its adversaries in the near term. To preserve the caliphate, ISIS will be inviting Sunni Salafi fighters from all over the world, including those who identify themselves with ISIS in South Asia. At the same time, it is likely that ISIS will encourage its followers elsewhere to carry out terrorist acts in those countries that are now supporting, or plan to in the future, military or other actions that could threaten ISIS’s existence in the Mesopotamian region.
SAARC NATIONS’ CHARACTERISTICS
From what is known about ISIS’s modus operandi and the reasons for its success, it is fair to say that although the group’s rise in the Mesopotamian region may not seem logical, it cannot be considered surprising. Long before the 9/11 event in the United States, centuries of Western political and military interference in Arabia and the Maghreb nations of North Africa, in particular, had created the grounds for a hostile backlash from the Muslim population in the region. The West’s recent ‘regime change’ policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria – all Muslim nations – further fuelled deep-seated resentments in Arabia. That resentment acted as a lubricant facilitating the rise of the most dangerous, ruthless and organised terrorist group, now known as ISIS. The so-called Arab Spring was yet another manifestation of those resentments by a section of the Islamic world, and it also played a significant role in the rise of ISIS.
The conditions prevailing within the SAARC nations – all of whom belong to South Asia except the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which borders south-west Asia, South Asia, the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province of China and central Asia – are markedly different. With the exception of the Maldives and Afghanistan, the SAARC nations each have a strong enough military to withstand all levels of terrorist pressure. Except Afghanistan and the Maldives, an island, these countries all have functional governments. Also, they are not surrounded by seething-inanger Islamic nations. (That geographical reality in Mesopotamia was a serious factor in the rise of ISIS.) Further, as for the Iran/Sh’ia factor that played a significant role in the rise of ISIS, Iran’s influence is not an issue in the SAARC region and the Sh’ia-Sunni sectarian divide is not as sharp-edged here as it is in Arabia.
At the same time, the rise of a potent organisation that has established a caliphate will provide a lung full of oxygen to the terrorist groups functioning within the SAARC member nations. These groups survive because of a number of unresolved internal disputes within the SAARC countries, such as the territorial dispute over Kashmir; ongoing wars, both externally initiated wars and internal civil wars, in Afghanistan since 1973; separatist movements in Pakistan’s Balochistan and in India’s north-eastern states close to international borders; the conflict within Bangladesh between the hard-line Islamists and the moderates; a longstanding terrorist movement by a sectarian group to establish a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka; and the Islamic extremists’ steady growth in the Maldives. Even the separatist movements by the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province of China and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have cast their shadows on the security environment of some of the SAARC countries. These situations have spawned many terrorists who have developed financial links with foreign terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
This small nation comprising some 1,200 coral islands, inhabited by fewer than 3,50,000 people, had long been unstable and has become a target of drug traffickers, smugglers and terrorists posing as Islamists. Because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, the island nation has long been on the radar screens of China, India and the Western naval powers. The chain of islands is of particular geostrategic importance to India because it straddles three of the most important sea lanes through which India conducts the vast percentage of its vital oil and commodity trade.
Despite its special importance, India looked away as the Maldives became radicalised and increasingly politically unstable. Since 2012, when ISIS began gaining ground, the security situation in the Maldives has gone downhill in the aftermath of the undemocratic ouster of President Mohammad Nasheed. While New Delhi claimed it was monitoring the Maldives situation closely, the ousted President Nasheed went on record, telling Economic Times magazine: ‘Even before I had tendered my resignation as president, India sent its congratulations to the coup government. I’m at a complete loss to understand how India failed to read the writing on the wall. It is very unfortunate.’5
Notwithstanding New Delhi’s effort to ‘play fair’ with whoever comes to power in the Maldives, the archipelago’s headlong march toward becoming an Islamic extremist–led nation could pose a threat to India in the future. While a handful of powerful families occupied themselves with trying to weaken each other, militants gained ground. The power struggle took a nasty turn in 2011, ahead of the 2013 election, when the duly-elected President Mohammad Nasheed was forced to resign under pressure exerted by street demonstrators and some police officers. Nasheed contested the 2013 presidential elections but was defeated by President Yameen, the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the scion of what is arguably Maldives’s most powerful family. Gayoom had previously ruled the archipelago for 30 years. Nasheed, who has made a serious effort to establish a democratic foundation in the Maldives, was arrested in February 2015, and one month later, the Yameen administration sentenced him to a 13-year prison term, accusing him of terrorism.
The political instability in the Maldives, a necessary ingredient for the growth of extremism everywhere, has spawned a horde of extremists who openly align with ISIS. The Guardian of the UK reported last March of a surge in departures of young men from Maldives for Syria.6 The Guardian claimed that between 50 and 100 of the young potential jihadis had left for Syria to join the ISIS-led caliphate. Some of those travelling to Syria have come from poor fishing communities on outlying islands, but most of the recent departures are from Malé, the capital. There were reports of hundreds of protesters marching through central Malé in September, bearing banners reading ‘Send democracy to hell’ and ‘Islam will dominate the world’. Many carried the black flags of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, an arm of al-Qaeda active in Syria. In an interview with The Independent of the UK in September 2014, former president Mohamad Nasheed stated that up to 200 Maldivians were fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A recent US State Department terrorism report said that links had now been made ‘between Maldivians and violent extremists throughout the world’. Nasheed also said, ‘They [Islamic extremists] have people in strategic positions within both [Iraq and Syria]. Of the 200 people who have gone to jihad, the vast majority are exmilitary.’ 7
These developments make Maldives a potential base for ISIS. The implications are disconcerting for India: First, if, and when, the pro-ISIS terrorists actually seize control of the Maldives is largely dependent on finances in the form of drug trafficking, smuggling and other criminal operations. Second, as a controlling force in the Maldives, the pro-ISIS terrorists would become increasingly dependent on both Pakistan and China, who would very much like to deprive India of a strong presence in these coral atolls. China has already expressed its plans to set up a port in Maldives.
THE CASE OF AFGHANISTAN
Although ISIS is not viewed as a serious threat in Afghanistan yet, there are reasons to believe that conditions exist for the group to emerge as a power there. There are, however, two major obstacles – one is the Afghan National Army (ANA), a well-armed army to reckon with because of its continuing interaction with US and NATO troops based in the country, and the second is the Afghan Taliban fighters who want to secure control of Afghanistan. Although the Taliban are imbued with Islamic religiosity, they are primarily an Afghan fighting group who will resist all efforts by foreign Arabs or central Asians to take over. It is almost a certainty that if ISIS tries to assert itself in Afghanistan, a bloodbath will follow.
Yet ISIS has already shown its fangs in Afghanistan. In April 2015, a suicide attack was carried out on the Kabul Bank, which killed more than 30 people. Condemned by the Taliban, the attack was allegedly claimed by ISIS. Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani told journalists, ‘In the horrific incident in Nangarhar, who took responsibility? The Taliban didn’t claim responsibility. Daesh claimed responsibility for it.’8 In another incident, in February, CBS News reported that gunmen, identified as members of ISIS by Zabul province deputy police chief Ghulam Jilani Farahi, kidnapped 30 members of the Hazara Sh’ia community without seeking ransom.9
In addition, quoting provincial officials, CNN has reported sightings of the black ISIS flags, and even likely ISIS fighters of Afghan origin, in a number of provinces, including Zabul, Nangarhar, Farah, Wardak and Ghazni.10 Russians report that they have noticed the presence of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan and Helmand provinces, trying to take control of a part of the Afghan heroin-trafficking network.
There is no doubt that both the United States and NATO, which still have thousands of troops operating inside Afghanistan, albeit with a limited responsibility, will be watching ISIS developments carefully. However, not all observations by the Pentagon mesh into a pattern. For instance, in January 2015, in an interview with Army Times, the top US commander of Resolute Support Mission, John Campbell, put more emphasis on ISIS efforts to recruit from both Afghanistan and Pakistan and underplayed the group’s presence in Afghanistan. Referring to the likely recruiting efforts of ISIS from Afghanistan, Campbell said, ‘The Taliban have their allegiance to Mullah Omar and a different philosophy and ideology than ISIS, but, potentially, there are people who are disgruntled with the Taliban, they haven’t seen [Taliban commander] Mullah Omar in years, or they want to go a different way.’11
A month later, in February, The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., reported Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps major Bradlee Avots stating in an e-mail, ‘The expansion of ISIL into the region is of great concern.’ The Hill cited army colonel Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the coalition’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, saying, ‘We believe this group is nascent, relatively small, but maintains aspirations for the region.’12
As of now, there are claims and counterclaims by analysts and extremists alike on how strong the ISIS presence in Afghanistan is. At a press briefing in Moscow on 10 December, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova raised the alarm that ISIS has already opened a ‘second front’ in Afghanistan, threatening Russia’s backyard, central Asia. ‘Afghanistan may let the Islamic State continue to position itself as a still effective military structure, which has opened a “second front”’ despite the offensive of the anti-IS forces in the region of the Middle East and North Africa,’ she said on that occasion.13
It is likely that Russia is overstating the reality and using these statements to put the central Asian nations on alert. But there is little doubt that Afghanistan could be a future base for ISIS, if, as pointed out earlier, the Taliban and the ANA fold up under pressure from the followers of al-Baghdadi. That Afghanistan can be considered a viable ISIS location is not because most Afghans want to become part of an international, borderless caliphate but because the country has weak borders on all sides. Moreover, beyond these borders lurk thousands of fighters belonging to the Islamic faith, many of whom are rootless and homeless and as a result are extremely dangerous.
Across Afghanistan’s northern borders lie weak states with weaker security apparatuses and a terrain that could easily protect terrorists from routine military forays. These borders are porous, and hundreds of central Asian fighters move across them regularly. In the earlier part of this century, many of these central Asian and Russian fighters moved into Pakistan’s almost-ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and, from there, crossed into eastern Afghanistan to attack US and NATO troops, in support of the Afghan Taliban, who, however, consider these fighters as merely ‘fellow travellers’ and helping hands – not part of the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s eastern borders are not only porous but also highly volatile. Pakistan remains focused on maintaining proxy control over Kabul to deny India, or any other ‘unfriendly’ nation, a strong presence in Afghanistan. Islamabad has a ‘sort of an ally’ in the Afghan Taliban, but Islamabad does not trust the Taliban. Although it depends to a certain extent on Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Taliban, as well, has little love lost for Islamabad. As a result, Pakistan continues to harbour and ‘utilise’ many varieties of terrorist outfits to unhinge the Taliban. Those terrorist outfits use Pakistan’s practically ungoverned border with Afghanistan and are keen to carve out a niche in Afghanistan, mostly to conduct illegal trading of all sorts as part of an overall package. These Islamabad-aided terrorists/bandits/rogues have kept Afghanistan’s eastern border unstable and vulnerable to all levels of terrorism.
BANGLADESH: UNFINISHED REVOLUTION OR A NEW AGENDA?
A number of incidents in the wake of the Sheikh Hasina–led Awami League regime’s recent court-directed death sentences to the Jamaat-e-Islam and other orthodox Islamist groups who had aided Pakistan more than four decades ago in its violent effort to deny Bangladesh independence indicate that the ‘jihadis’ have been invigorated. These ‘jihadis’ were involved recently in highly visible and brutal murders and have reportedly claimed their allegiance to ISIS.
Prior to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in June 2015, the Indian media reported the existence of an alleged nexus between the terror groups Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JuMB) and the Islamic State (IS). They reported that the formation of such a nexus had alarmed the intelligence agencies in India. The JuM-B, which wants to establish a Bangladeshi caliphate, has been active in India for quite some time.14
Expansion of the JuM-B network within India’s Bangladeshbordering state, West Bengal, was noted following an explosion in a house in the town of Burdwan in October 2014. India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) had reportedly advised the Home Ministry to entrust the investigations to the National Investigations Agency (NIA) in view of ‘prima facie’ evidence that the explosions reveal a larger ‘trans-regional terror network’ involving JuM-B, the Indian Mujahideen (IM) and Al Jihad, a new outfit with bases in Pakistan. Quoting a senior IB official, the article stated, ‘The JuM-B, IM, and Al Jihad are now part of a fraternal terror network that seeks to unsettle South Asia, specially India and Bangladesh.’15
Another news item, from the PTI in November 2015, quoted an article in the ISIS online magazine, Dabiq: ‘The soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal pledged their allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim (Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi), unified their ranks, nominated a regional leader, gathered behind him and dissolved their former factions.’ The article says that the militants have ‘performed the necessary military preparations, and hastened to answer the order from the Islamic State leadership, by targeting the crusaders and their allies wherever they may be found.’16 The regional leader’s name was not disclosed.
These activities indicate that following the rise of ISIS, the socalled jihadis, who remain ensconced within Bangladesh with funding and support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the London-based Bangladeshi al-Qaeda-linked elements, have begun to flex their muscles.
Richard L. Benkin, a human rights activist who has been fighting to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh, points out in an article in American Thinker, a California-based daily Internet publication, that ‘after the initial allied operation in Afghanistan, Bangladesh became a haven for many fleeing al-Qaeda forces, who almost stole the country’s aborted 2007 election.’ He adds, ‘While posturing as “moderate,” Bangladesh has had Islamists in its governing coalition, named roads and bridges after terrorist organizations, and persecuted journalists and authors with impunity.’17 The support these ‘jihadis’ receive from a section of Bangladeshis who remain rooted in their belief that Bangladesh should be an Islamic nation in order to prevent a ‘Hindu’ India from gaining control also eased the task.
The bordering Indian state, West Bengal, was governed by a communist party for more than 25 years. Under the pretext of being a secular outfit, this group of peddlers of a foreign ideology allowed all kinds of illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling and forged currency trafficking, to flourish across the soft Indian border. In return, these Indian communists received large donations for their party coffers, which helped them stay in power for more than two decades. But the process corrupted law and order, bureaucracy, party-dominated local administrators and all other instruments that the Government of India depends on to secure the land and maintain the rule of law. One result is that the Bangladeshi ‘jihadis’ have been able to set up active cells within West Bengal.
Despite these gnawing problems, however, it should be noted that the Bangladesh army, which works closely with its Indian counterpart in dealing with terrorism, is strong, and there is no indication that the ‘jihadis’ have made any serious dent in Bangladesh’s security apparatus.
Moreover, Bangladesh is not surrounded by restive Islamic nations. Its north, west and east are surrounded by India, which prevents the ‘jihadis’ from bringing in fighters from across the borders. South of Bangladesh is the Bay of Bengal, where the Indian Navy has a strong presence.
PAKISTAN: LAND OF A STRONG MILITARY AND HOME-GROWN TERRORISTS
There have been many analyses in the international media in recent months suggesting that Pakistan is a fertile ground for the growth of ISIS. However, none of those analysts tackled the main issues: the role the powerful Pakistani military will play during such growth of ISIS or whether there are any indications that the Pakistani military is becoming increasingly pro-ISIS.
Analysts do not address these vital questions because it is inconceivable at this point to assume that with the organisational power it possesses, the Pakistani military will simply roll over and allow ISIS to take control in Pakistan. As pointed out earlier here, the reason ISIS could capture territories in Mesopotamia and establish its caliphate was because the West dismantled the well-organised Iraqi military and weakened the Syrian regime by backing the anti-Damascus protestors and al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked terrorists alike.
Is there any reason to believe that Pakistan, which is very much in the future scheme of things for China and Russia, two other major powers beside India in the region, will be allowed to disenfranchise its military to make it a part of the ISIS caliphate? The answer to that question is a resounding ‘no’.
On the other hand, unless a sea-change in attitude occurs inside Pakistan’s power structure, home-grown extremists there will continue to pose a terrorist threat to both Kabul and New Delhi. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services may even provide all possible support to the pro-ISIS militants within India in setting up their terrorist cells. At this juncture, that remains a distinct possibility.
Pakistan harbours, and perhaps nurtures, at least two dozen terrorist groups to serve its hostile interests against both India and Afghanistan. It is likely that it will find ISIS cells cropping up inside, particularly in FATA and Baluchistan, adjacent to the Afghanistan borders. These ISIS cells may emerge out of various existing terrorist cells that Islamabad allowed to function because of its stated intent to target Afghanistan and India.
There are reasons why such ISIS cells could emerge close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders. More than a year ago, NBC News reported on a ‘secret’ memo penned by the Government of Balochistan, suggesting that ‘ISIS has Pakistan in its cross-hairs, warning that the group aims to stir up sectarian unrest by dispatching the local militant group Lashkare- Jhangvi (LeJ) on offensives against Pakistan’s minority Shiite Muslim community, further destabilizing a country already battling Taliban and al Qaeda elements.’18
Another article, which appeared in July 2014, by the director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) in Islamabad, Muhammad Amir Rana, states that a map released by ISIS shows countries for expansion marked in black across North Africa, into mainland Spain, across the Middle East and into the Muslim countries of the central and South Asian region. It depicts exactly the states that are or once were under Muslim control. Interestingly, the ISIS map shows both Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the Islamic caliphate state’s Khurasan province.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates believe that the movement for the establishment of the Islamic state of Khurasan will emerge from the region comprising the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan and the Malakand region of Pakistan. Rana also points out that ISIS considers Khurasan the base camp of international jihad, from where it will expand the Islamic State boundaries into other non-Muslim lands. Mullah Fazlullah of Swat (head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) was inspired by the notion and considered himself the founder of the Khurasan movement, Rana states.19
Significantly, a November 2015 poll released by the Pew Research Center – an outfit based in Washington, D.C., which conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research – found that a majority in Pakistan offered no definite opinion on ISIS. In that poll, conducted in 11 countries with significant Muslim populations, people from Nigeria to Jordan to Indonesia overwhelmingly expressed negative views of ISIS but only 28 per cent in Pakistan had an unfavourable view of ISIS and a majority of Pakistanis (62 per cent) had no opinion on the extremist group.20
When everything is taken into consideration, what these reports and the poll suggest is that some within Pakistan will support what ISIS stands for and that could make Pakistan a fertile ground for recruitment of ISIS fighters in the future. But the reports do not constitute tell-tale signs that ISIS will be able to gain a significant level of power within Pakistan.
Notes and References
1. R. Jagannathan. ‘Mini-ISIS in West Bengal: New Jihad Strategy Is to Hold Territory and Recruit Globally.’ First Post, 30 October 2014.
2. Daily Mail. ‘Indian Intelligence Agencies Warn Bangladesh Mujahideen May Have Links to Islamic State.’ 30 May 2015.
3. PTI. ‘Rapid Increase of ISIS Activities in Maldives, Bangladesh.’ 30 September 2015.
4. Colleen Walsh. ‘The Rise of ISIS: A Q&A on the Partitioning of Iraq, and What’s Likely Next.’ Harvard Gazette, 6 August 2014. <https:// www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/news/in-news/rise-isis
5. Sruthijith K. K. ‘GMR Maldives Spat: Maldives’ Decision Against GMR Part of Political Strategy That Pits Orthodoxy Against India.’ ET Bureau, 9 December 2012.
6. Jason Burke. ‘Paradise Jihadis: Maldives Sees Surge in Young Muslims Leaving for Syria.’ Guardian, 26 February 2015.
7. Oliver Wright. ‘Islamic State: The Maldives–A Recruiting Paradise for Jihadists.’ Independent (UK), 13 September 2014.
8. Kate Clark and Borhan Osman. ‘First Wave of IS Attacks? Claim and Denial Over the Jalalabad Bombs.’ Afghan Analysts Network, 22 April 2015.
9. CBS News. ‘ISIS Kidnaps Dozens in Afghanistan, Official Says.’ 24 February 2015.
10. Nick Paton Walsh. ‘Afghanistan’s Changing of the Guard: ISIS Recruits in Taliban Territory.’ CNN, 6 April 2015.
11. Michelle Tan. ‘ISIS Recruiting in Afghanistan, Pakistan.’ Army Times, 15 January 2015.
12. Kristina Wong. ‘Pentagon Acknowledges ISIS Spread to Afghanistan Amid US Troop Drawdown.’ Hill, 12 February 2015.
13. TASS. ‘Moscow Warns IS Terrorists May Open Second Front in Afghanistan.’ 10 December 2015.
14. Abhishek Bhalla. ‘India, Bangladesh Share Information to Combat Terrorism.’ India Today, 29 May 2015.
15. bdnews24.com. ‘Burdwan Blast Exposes JMB “Hit Squad”.’ 9 October 2014.
16. PTI. ‘ISIS Appoints Regional Leader in Bangladesh; Threatens More Attacks.’ 23 November 2015.
17. Richard L. Benkin. ‘Is ISIS in South Asia?’ American Thinker, 11 November 2015.
18. Mujeeb Ahmed. ‘ISIS Has Master Plan for Pakistan, Secret Memo Warns.’ NBC News, 10 November 2014.
19. Muhammad Amir Rana. ‘What ISIS and the “Caliphate” Mean for Pakistan.’ Dawn, 3 July 2014.
20. Jacob Poushter. ‘ISIS in Pakistan: In Nations with Significant Muslim Populations, Much Disdain for ISIS.’ Pew Research Center, 17 November 2015.