Spreading tentacles of ISIS in South Asia: Dawn columnist

Security personnel leave the site after a police operation on militants, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on July 26, 2016.
Security personnel leave the site after a police operation on militants, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on July 26, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Bangladesh, the changing character of the group in Afghanistan, and its potential to inspire many in Pakistan, require a broad strategy beyond blame games and traditional security approaches. Can South Asian countries deliver?

Muhammad Amir Rana

Dawn/ Asia News Network

The potential gravity of the ISIS group's threat has only just begun to dawn.

The recent spate of terrorist attacks across the world - unleashed by ISIS-inspired or affiliated individuals and groups - indicate that most assessments down played the threat it poses as a global terrorist outfit.

ISIS is operating both on the ground and in cyberspaces.

In cyberspaces, it is infecting the minds of Muslim youth with violent Islamist ideology while exploiting their socio-cultural and psychological confusions, thereby inspiring them to perpetrate violent acts.

On the ground, it is not only challenging powerful nations and security establishments but also other militant groups by encroaching on their territories.

ISIS has proved all those states, that considered themselves immune to its influence and terror, wrong.

Bangladesh is among the most recent examples where an ISIS-linked terrorist attack gave the government a reality check regarding the group and its potential threat.

Afghanistan, also, could not identify and analyse the IS threat separately from its existing Taleban insurgency.

At times, Afghan officials were happy with the confrontation between ISIS-affiliated militants and the Afghan Taleban. However, the recent ISIS-claimed attack against Hazaras in Kabul proves that the group can inflict more horror on the country than the Taleban.

ISIS has declared war. It has kept nothing in the dark like its predecessor Al Qaeda and is continuously giving advance notice.

It has long been predicted, through assessments of ISIS communications, that the group was planning a campaign to weaken regional power centres - including in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt.

It was also forecasted that, in 2016, ISIS could announce new global affiliates elsewhere in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.

Bangladesh still seems to be denying the fact that international terrorist groups have primed their society to the extent that their recruits include the youth of power elites.

Their government uses arguments similar to those often used by Pakistani authorities to deny the ISIS presence in the country.

Both governments appear reluctant to admit that local groups and individuals can form chapters of ISIS or Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.

Afghanistan's case is more significant because a state that has been facing militancy for decades now failed to foresee and evaluate the real threat of ISIS in their country.

While Afghanistan has a tendency to externalise the Taleban problem, that it would do the same with ISIS surprised many.

US-based counterterrorism expert, William McCants, divides ISIS governorates into three categories: statelets, insurgencies and terrorist organisations.

He considers ISIS chapters in Libya and Afghanistan as statelets outside those in Syria and Iraq.

Although the ISIS Khorasan chapter in Afghanistan controls a limited area in Nangarhar, the group is trying to infiltrate territories where the Taleban have control or are expanding.

It appears that, in Afghanistan's case, this is why ISIS have adopted the characteristics of a jihadist statelet.

It is not only following the Taleban's footsteps, it is also chasing them across the country.

Recent developments indicate that ISIS-inspired Jundullah, a breakaway faction of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), is gaining ground in Kunduz and Takhar - provinces where the Taleban are trying to increase their influence.

To this end, they are recruiting non-Pakhtun commanders.

Dispatches from Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research group, indicate that while ISIS attempts to expand beyond Nangarhar have been unsuccessful thus far, attempts are ongoing.

One dispatch mentioned that 'ISIS inspiration' is the more important and dangerous factor to consider.

Initially, ISIS showed its presence in Helmand, Farah and Logar provinces respectively, and then in Nangarhar and Zabul. The Nangarhar chapter also comprised Pakistani militants who fled from Khyber, Mohmand, Orakzai and Bajaur agencies in Fata after military operations were launched. This migration started in 2010.

However, the infiltration of Pakistani militants in Nangarhar was ignored by Afghan security agencies, who saw these militants as strategic assets against Pakistan.

According to an Afghanistan Analysts Network report, Lashkar-i-Islam, a Pakistani group based in Khyber Agency and implementing partner of IS in Nangarhar, displayed its black flag in the area long before ISIS hoisted a flag of the same colour with different symbols and slogans.

The report claims that government support for Lashkar-i-Islam was an open secret.

This once again proves that militants are more opportunistic and smarter than those who use them as proxies.

The Afghan security agencies were under the illusion that such activities would remain confined to Pakistan.

This is how they tolerated these Pakistani militants, even after the latter transformed into ISIS fighting machines.

In June 2015, these fighting machines turned their sights towards Afghanistan, forcing the Afghan security forces to take action against them.

Interestingly, the Taleban learned the same lesson in the case of dealing with IMU militants in Zabul province. IMU, once a strategic asset of the Taleban for making interventions in northern parts of Afghanistan, turned against them, and bloody clashes between the two ensued.

Another issue that both Afghanistan and Pakistan ignore is militants' sectarian credentials, which can help assess the human resources and operational strength of militants.

The Nangarhar chapter has the support of Salafi militants from Kunar province, but its real strength is the Pakistani militants. The Salafi factor is important in Nangarhar; most Pakistani militants based there were Salafists or converted to Salafism later.

The Taleban and ISIS confrontation also exposes the Salafi and Hanafi sectarian divide within their ranks. The former ISIS head, Hafiz Saeed, was also a follower of the Salafi school of thought. ISIS-affiliated terrorist cells identified thus far had similar sectarian credentials.

That provides a context for law-enforcement agencies to consider while taking pre-emptive measures.

The emergence of ISIS in Bangladesh, the changing character of the group in Afghanistan, and its potential to inspire many in Pakistan, requires a broad strategy beyond blame games and traditional security approaches.

ISIS in the region has local characteristics but is connected with a group that has global ambitions. Can South Asian nations adopt a model of 'thinking globally, acting locally'?

* The writer is a security analyst.