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.