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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Mubashir Noor

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.

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