By Amamah Ahmad

South Asia: Breeding ground for ISIS?

It seemed that after the death of Osama bin Laden, militant groups had shrunk in size. The arrival of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - also known as ISIL or IS - in this context and its unprecedented rise is hence a cause for concern from many angles.

ISIS differs largely in its modus operandi from what had previously been known of such groups. Members of the group operate in a military manner where they occupy and gain control over territories and govern them like states; they conduct simultaneous operations in different countries; they have become financially self-sufficient (mainly from their captured oil assets, extortions and kidnappings) and well armed; they have adopted a dramatic and highly publicised approach through the use of social media, conducting propaganda campaigns - unusual for such groups - and directing them straight at Western heads of states.

Geographically, the appeal of ISIS, whose actions have prompted military reactions from the West, has spread in many countries of South-east Asia where radicalised Muslims have been inspired by the group's declarations of an Islamic caliphate. The notoriety of ISIS has drawn large numbers of adherents, which has contributed to increasing the terrorist threats in South Asia, which has become an involuntary "transit" region between the East and the West.

The major threats here reside in the fact that South Asian nations already face risks of growing security issues; geographic proximity (increasing risks of spillover and linkage), fragile states, porous borders (leading to illegal activities and the creation of terrorist hubs), poverty and existing ethno-religious conflicts make the region an ideal ground to recruit more supporters and intensify their network.

Additionally, the proliferation of madrasahs funded by the Middle East in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and policies persecuting Muslim minorities (such as the Rohingyas) in the sub-region, provide ISIS with a pool of pre-existing potential members and followers and a breeding ground for extremist groups.

The most alarming factors for the authorities in these countries are the prospects of home-grown or internal militancy and their co-option with ISIS.

In Bangladesh, a video recently surfaced, claiming that a group of Bangladeshis have declared themselves as followers of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Arrests have been made in India amid reports that four youngsters were allegedly planning to meet an ISIS contact in Bangladesh and join the terror outfit.

This was followed by the arrest of Bangladesh JMB leader Abdullah al-Tasnim and six others, claiming the group had established links with ISIS.

Earlier this month, dozens of ISIS militants entered Pakistan through Afghanistan distributing hundreds of pamphlets urging the locals to join the militant group. However isolated these occurrences may be, what is clear is that ISIS has the capacity to create a greater network across South Asia.

If we look at the medium of communication, social media outlets have become one of the main methods of recruitment. The novel element here is the "sophisticated" use of social media, which is propelling the popularity of the group in a largely Muslim-populated region.

In the days to come, the rise of ISIS will inevitably increase military involvement of the United States, its allies and regional forces, which will define the security landscape over the use of soft power approaches in the Middle East.

For the regional context of South Asia, it is however essential that, as a preventive measure, the nations equip themselves with soft power counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism policies.

Governments should focus on incorporating creative citizen engagement and critical thinking training in their counter/de-radicalisation programmes to integrate newly released prisoners, minimise recidivism and disincentivise impressionable youth.

As ISIS has adopted a highly media-centred tactic, the role of the media in countering extremism needs to be examined comprehensively. In that regard, the media can circulate counter-narratives to the ones of the extremist groups, delegitimise and deconstruct false justifications of acts in the name of religion, and avoid sensationalising the group and its goals.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula to counter the penetration of extremist ideologies and thoughts that are becoming more and more popularised in our societies. In-depth sociological analysis is needed on the links of marginalised Muslim minorities and their propensity to adhere to radical groups.

The role of the media and civil society in countering radicalisation needs to be highlighted. And holistic counter-terrorism strategies featuring soft power approaches that integrate idiosyncrasies of the South Asian context, such as their particular social, cultural, economic and religious dynamics, need to be incorporated in government programmes.


The writer is a Research Associate at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.