Hydra with Many Heads
Is the world ready for the ISIS? If the necessary steps are not taken in time to combat the menace, it may just be too late.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ( ISIS), also known as “Daesh” in Arabic, is a hydra with many heads. From being a no-name group in early 2014, the terrorist organization, and self-styled caliphate, now controls vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Unlike Al-Qaeda, which focused its message on expelling the US and its allies from Muslim lands, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his minions claim the loftier ambition of world conquest.
In mid-2014, much to the consternation of the regional leadership, ISIS made its way to Southeast Asia. In Afghanistan, from urban slums to Taliban strongholds, its logo and name started appearing in graffiti, posters and pamphlets. Similarly in Pakistan, ISIS posters appeared on electricity poles in Lahore. This was blamed on local sectarian outfits which were looking for new ways to intimidate. However, more concrete evidence was soon to follow.
In January 2015, ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani formally announced the group’s expansion into Afghanistan and Pakistan through social media. Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former Pakistani Taliban commander, was chosen to lead the “Wilayah Khurasan” or the Khorasan ( an old name for Af-Pak). General Mahmood Khan of the Afghan army also confirmed that another ex-Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Rauf (now deceased), had been actively recruiting for the group in the Helmand province and across southern Afghanistan.
The emergence of ISIS as the US military reduces its footprint has many worried.
With President Obama hesitant to commit any more boots on the ground, the Pakistan army’s role in containing ISIS will be crucial.
The US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, called the ISIS presence "nascent," and "more of a rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban,” but said he had taken the threat very seriously. However, the eventual consolidation of the US military presence in Kabul concerns Sen. John McCain. He said: “The ungoverned spaces will allow terrorists to foment the same disaster in Afghanistan as we have seen in Iraq.”
China and India have their own concerns about the ISIS touching-down in the neighborhood. Chinese officials are worried that radicalized Uighers will train and fight abroad, then return to further complicate the domestic insurgency in Xinjiang. Reportedly, about 300 Chinese of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) are fighting alongside ISIS in the Middle East. Similarly, India worries about the spillover into turbulent Kashmir of this newfangled jihadi outfit. It does not want a slowly subsiding separatist movement there to catch fire again.
The ISIS interest in Afghanistan goes beyond the symbolic extension of its caliphate. According to the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), the terrorist group makes up to $1 billion annually on Afghan heroin trafficked through its territory. However, with the heroin market worth up to $50 billion in Europe, what the militants make now is small change. If ISIS can bypass the various intermediaries in Afghanistan, their profits from the drug trade will soar exponentially.
According to Sen. John McCain, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is a worried man. He feels the timing of the US military drawdown could be catastrophic for Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. However, morale within the national army is high and Gen. Murad Ali Murad recently claimed they are more than capable of dealing with the militants. To ensure that the ISIS threat does not become irreversible, President Ghani will need the unwavering support of long-term ally America and neighbor Pakistan - financially, militarily and on the negotiation table.
It is paramount that the Afghan Taliban are on board in the fight against ISIS. They will be the double-edged sword in the conflict. The majority is still loyal to Mullah Muhammed Omar and military sources have reported clashes between them and ISIS recruits in southern Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban don’t want to share their turf and are unhappy with Al-Baghdadi calling their revered leader a “fool and illiterate warlord.” Sprung from the same extremist well, they are ISIS’ natural predators.
On the flip side, the Taliban are also most susceptible to the ISIS message. Al-Baghdadi offers a new template to wage jihad to the battleweary militants. His powerful images, draped in a black robe, declaring the caliphate, appeal to disgruntled commanders who have not seen Mullah Omar in public for well over a decade. Since October 2014, 16 Taliban commanders have gone over to the ISIS side, but mostly from splinter groups and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The US is key in coalescing the Afghan Taliban into a united front against the ISIS. In February 2015, the Obama administration repackaged them as a relatively innocuous “armed insurgency,” which was very different from the terrorists who came before them. There has also been talk of an upcoming US-Taliban summit in Doha, Qatar, but this remains unsubstantiated. A US-brokered ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban will lessen the fear factor of ISIS’ billowing black flags in the country’s hinterland.
The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force recently concluded that ISIS is a special breed of organized terrorism, where funding “is central and critical to its activities.” The US can interrupt its revenue stream from black market sales of oil and narcotics by choking the supply chain and punishing state complicity with international sanctions. Running a caliphate is not cheap and its brigades in Iraq and Syria need to be kept fed and armed. When short on cash, ISIS is likely to scale down its expansion efforts.
The US can also seriously dent an ISIS propaganda machine heavily reliant on the social media. An Israeli cyber intelligence analyst claims that ISIS is using the dark web and bitcoin (a web payment network) for recruitment and fundraising purposes. With its sophisticated cyber warfare apparatus, the US can clamp down on both. It has already regulated broadband internet for Americans under the “net neutrality” pretext and if international support follows, any unregulated loopholes on the internet can be identified and closed.
With President Obama hesitant to commit any more boots on the ground, the Pakistan army’s role in containing ISIS will be crucial. It knows what is at stake in this fight, especially since many homegrown TTP commanders have openly pledged their allegiance to Al-Baghdadi. Fortuitously, there is no conventional army in the world better practiced or more tactically aware of fighting militant extremism. The increased Pak-Afghan armed forces cooperation after the Peshawar school attack bodes well for future synergy against the ISIS.
The Pakistan army can also help deradicalize captured enemy combatants, thus reducing the recruitment pawns in the ISIS arsenal and breaking the vicious cycle of violence. According to Maj. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, thousands of Taliban jihadists have been ‘ cured’ at special boot camps, saying: “We have a 99 percent success rate.” Pakistani military officers are confident they can also reprogram the twisted minds of head-chopping ISIS terrorists and turn them into normal, well-adjusted members of society.
With the grave situation in the Middle-East, leaders of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia recently decided to join forces to combat the ISIS menace. What drove them to this commonality is the same that should prompt Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US to work together unconditionally as all countries in the region are in the ISIS crosshair. Failing this, the cost of inaction could be very steep. The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer.