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.