The Islamic State (IS) has launched a drive eastwards to influence the large Muslim populations in the region.
The IS looks for new territories to conquer.
The Iraq and Syria-based militantterrorist group, the Islamic State (IS), has been able to get a toehold in Afghanistan and despite the deep desire of its leadership to expand to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the outfit has so far has not been able to establish an elaborate network in the three South Asia countries. However, there is always a huge potential for the IS to expand in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
The desire to expand towards South Asia and South East Asia is inherent in the agenda of the IS, which wants to establish a global Islamist caliphate in the world. In this scheme of thinking of the IS, all the four countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, are of crucial significance. The reason is the predominantly Sunni Muslim population of these countries save India, which is home of to one of the largest Muslim communities in the world but is dominated by a huge Hindu majority.
The Muslim populations in all these four countries as well as the Muslim communities in India comprise
mostly young men and women who are largely dissatisfied due to bad socioeconomic conditions of their countries. Moreover, Afghanistan and Pakistan have served as the rallying ground for the Al Qaeda in the recent past and the IS knows this quite well.
The IS, which is also known by the names of Islamic State in Syria and Levant (ISIS) and Daesh in Arabic, has the most visible presence in Afghanistan. It has established strong sanctuaries in the eastern Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan’s Khyber Agency as well as Zabul in South Afghanistan and Kunar in the northeast along the Pakistani border. A sizable, if not large, number of men, mostly former Afghan Taliban fighters, have joined the IS in Afghanistan. In the beginning a former Afghan Taliban commander, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, became the de facto head of the IS in Afghanistan. However, the central commander and the so-called ‘Caliph’ of the IS based in Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, refused to establish separate chapters of the group in Afghanistan and in the South Asian countries. Instead, in early 2015, he established a regional chapter, crosscutting several countries of the IS and termed it the Wilayat-e-Khurasan. Khurasan is the ancient name of the region comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and parts of India and Persia. Baghdadi made Saeed Orakzai, a former Tehreek-eTaliban Pakistan (TTP) commander from the Orakzai agency of FATA as the head of Wilayat-e-Khurasan.
A number of TTP commanders also joined the IS in Afghanistan, including former spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid. However, Saeed Orakzai was killed in an operation on the PakistanAfghanistan border by Pakistani security forces while Shahidullah and several other top commanders of the IS based in Afghanistan were killed in drone attacks inside Afghanistan. After these losses and attacks on its rank and file, the IS has been in disarray in Afghanistan. In order to establish a firm base, the IS started a turf war with the Afghan Taliban. The IS command knows that its best bet in Afghanistan could be former and present Afghan Taliban commanders, who are somehow dissatisfied with the strategies of their leaders. That is the reason that the IS commanders like Baghdadi and spokesman Al Adnani started ridiculing the Taliban founder Mullah Omar and his Islamist credentials. Consequently, a turf war started between the Taliban and the IS which has so far claimed the lives of dozens of fighters from both the sides.
The rise of the IS in Afghanistan is prima facie surprising. There have been reports that the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was behind the steady growth of the IS in Afghanistan. The NDS wants to use the IS against its bête noire, Afghan Taliban and to conduct terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. As the Afghan security establishment is dominated by the former communist era (1973-1992) officials, they have a natural affinity towards the IS, which in Iraq is manned by a large number of former communists from Saddam Hussain’s Baathist Party. However, this is a very dangerous strategy which may not attain the desired results but further push the region into turmoil.
IS in Pakistan is in a budding stage. Dozens of young Pakistan men and women may have joined the group but it has not been able to flower into an elaborate outfit. However, more concerning are the reports of Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi (LeJ) and Pakistanbased Iranian-Sunni militant outfit, Jundullah, joining the IS. The common ground for the three groups is their anti-Shiite orientation and agenda. The killing of LeJ head, Malik Ishaq, along with his two sons in July 2015 in a purported police ‘encounter’ while being transported with a police escort in Muzzafargarh (Punjab) seems to be the result of his group reportedly joining the IS.
The Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif has made it equivocally clear that his forces would not let even a shadow of the IS on Pakistan. But with a huge Muslim population, the majority of which comprises young men and women and a large number of whom are part of the extremist religious milieu, there is great potential for the IS to get recruits and funding from Pakistan. The pervasiveness of the radical Islamist narrative in the country due to de-contextualized and selective exegesis of the holy scripture by extremist groups for vested interests, could also drive many to join the IS. It is surprising to note that the largest and deadliest terrorist network in Pakistan, the TTP, has dismissed the agenda of the IS and termed the tactics of the group as ‘un-Islamic.’ The announcement from the TTP some months back that it did not recognize the Islamic State (IS) top commander, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi‘s self-appointment as a ‘caliph’ of the Muslims across the globe as being legitimate. The TTP made the announcement in a recent statement reported by international media. The statement read: “Baghdadi is not an Islamic Khalifa because his selection is not according to Islamic rules,” adding that the IS leader had little control in Muslim countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan. “Baghdadi is not Khalifa (caliph) because in Islam, Khalifa means that he has command over all the Muslim world, while Baghdadi has no such command; he has command over a specific people and territory,” the statement further stated.
After this announcement by the TTP, it could now be expected that at least for the time being the largest terrorist and insurgent group in Pakistan would not forge an alliance with the IS. This would have been disastrous for Pakistan and would have unleashed an unprecedented reign of terror in the country. Nevertheless, the footprints of the IS in Pakistan have already been evident as the investigations into the Safoorah Goth incident in Karachi reveals. The IS in Pakistan is far from being a reality but there is a great potential for the group to grow depending upon two key factors - the quality and quantity of countermeasures from the government and the willingness of splinter groups of the TTP to join the group. On one occasion, six key commanders, including Omar Khalid Khurasani, a deputy of the TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud, announced their joining IS but there were also reports that they rejoined the TTP. Anyhow, if more and more factions and individual militants emerging from the TTP join the IS, this
would wreak havoc in Pakistan.
The IS has not established a strong organization in India so far but the group has very clear intentions to expand to that country. In December 2015, the IS vowed to expand its fight to India, citing prophecies that refer to a global war. The threat is made in a new manifesto titled “Black Flags from the Islamic State” released online on militant websites. “The Islamic State would now expand beyond Iraq and Syria,” states the manifesto. “It would now expand into… India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan (and several other countries).” From the wordings of the IS future plans for the region, it is quite clear that the IS has not yet expanded. From expansion the IS leadership may mean establishing a strong and elaborate network. While revealing plans regarding India, the IS has analyzed the situation there after certain hard-hitting policies and measures regarding Muslims by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Modi.
The IS manifesto regarding India says: “A movement of Hindus is growing who kill Muslims who eat beef. The people who fund these organizations want to grow a huge following of Islam-haters who can turn into potential recruits for future wars in their countries”. It further stated: “President (mistakenly referred so) Narendra Modi (sic) is a rightwing Hindu nationalist who worships weapons and is preparing his people for a future war against Muslims. They have a political wing for the propaganda to get more recruits and armed militia who can start a terror campaign against their number 1 enemy — the Muslims.”
This manifesto must ring alarm bells in Delhi where the BJP government of PM Modi has been taking several anti-Muslim measures which would increase unrest among the millions of Muslims in India. The IS has a huge potential to get recruits and finances from among India’s dejected Indian Muslim youth, whose number is in the millions. If a few thousand Indian Muslims would join the IS, it would be catastrophic for the country. In November, some foreign intelligence agencies compiled a report on the IS which they also shared with the Indian government, claiming that thus far 23 Indians had joined the IS in Syria and Iraq of which six got killed in fighting. The dead were identified as Athif Vaseem Mohammad (Adilabad, Telangana), Mohammad Umar Subhan (Bangalore, Karnataka), Maulana Abdul Kadir Sultan Armar (Bhatkal, Karnataka), Saheem Farooque Tanki (Thane, Maharashtra), Faiz Masood ( Bangalore, Karnataka) and Mohammad Sajid alias Bada Sajid (Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh).
Bangladesh seems to be the only South Asian country which has the strongest presence of the IS. The IS itself recognizes and links a number of attacks on foreigners in Bangladesh to its sleeper cells. The group dedicated a full article to their activities in Bangladesh or "Bengal" as it refers to the country, in a recent edition of its online propaganda magazine Dabiq. The article titled The Revival of Jihad in Bengal claimed that while IS was busy preparing for further attacks, the secular Awami League government of Hasina Wajid continued to “twist the facts” on the ground and play a blame game that there was no IS in her country. Surprisingly, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, many of whose leaders have been executed or incarcerated by the Hasina Wajid secular government, has also been criticized by the IS and termed its leaders as murtaddin (apostates).
The article also considered the banned Islamic militant outfit Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) a “proper jihad organisation in Bangladesh based on the Quran and Sunnah.” There is greater likelihood for the JMP to join hands with Bangladesh. At a time when attacks on foreigners and Bangladeshi secular and nonreligious writers and intellectuals are growing under a tidal wave of religious extremism, the agenda of the IS for Bangladesh could have an interactive effect, leading to entrenching of the group in Bangladesh and conduct of more terrorist attacks.
South Asia is a choices region for the IS to expand but this would depend on the respective government, as to whether they have what it takes to quarantine their territories from the eastwards expansion of the IS.