Asking the wrong questions! Islamic State and its potential impact on the Af-Pak region

12 December 2014; Siegfried O. Wolf

Source: SADF Bulletin Think South Asia, No. 16, South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), Brussels, Belgium, pp. 06-13.

The contemporary world is witnessing the emergence and expansion of the most successful and brutal Islamic terror group ever, the Islamic State (IS). IS is an extremely radical Sunni Islamic group, which was formerly known as The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/Syria/Levant (ISIS/ISIL), or ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fil’Araq wa-Sham (Daesh). Being an offshoot of al-Qaida, IS follows the tradition of Salafist-orientation in Islam and is deeply attracted by the ideology of the Jamaat-e-Islami/JI. Especially Abul Ala Maududi’s (founder of JI) vision of the creation of an Islamic state and his respective notion of full citizenship which is only available to Muslims, inspires IS. Subsequently, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on 29 June 2014, IS declared the founding of a new Caliphate and called on all Muslims to swear allegiance. Since starting its state-building efforts, IS fighters are brutally capturing province by province in Iraq and Syria and erasing Shias and religious minorities. In this context, one has to be clear about the ideology and historical allusions of IS, which are clearly directed towards the reestablishment of the medieval Khilafah (caliphate) system. This system experienced its final demise in the wake of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire – which can be considered as the last relict of the Caliphate – in 1916 through the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France. Having this in mind, IS is looking far beyond the borders of the , not only towards the West but also to the East – particularly in the direction of the larger Indian subcontinent.

However, by reading current news of international and regional media and comments of analysts dealing with South Asia in general and Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) in particular, one cannot help but feel that history is repeating itself. Besides the fact that the region has been for many years now suffering from an extremely militant Islamic fundamentalism and state sponsored terrorism, it is quite surprising that neither Western nor regional governments are still not willing to perceive and tackle the full scale of potential upcoming threat scenarios caused by IS. It seems that dealing with militant Islamic fundamentalism on both sides of the Durand line, the contested border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is still trapped in old patterns. In lieu of decisive decision-making regarding appropriate measures how to counter terrorism, militancy and religious fanatics one is still confronted with a kind of ‘cautious and silent apathy’ among politicians, military and intelligence. Despite years of armed confrontation and numerous failed negotiations for political solutions (Pakistan) or certain power arrangements (Afghanistan) security circles in the Af-Pak region still tend to ask -deliberately or unintentionally – the wrong questions.

First of all, IS does not believe in boundaries between Islamic countries, therefore asking the question if IS will restrict itself and its struggle to the Syria and Iraq could lead to an ignorance of the threat for South Asia. It marks a tremendous waste of valuable time in countering IS because the goal and scope of IS is obvious: the creation of a caliphate comprising all current and former Muslim majority countries and countries formerly ruled by Muslims which includes South Asia besides Spain, Northern Africa and large parts of South-East Europe. A map issued by IS shows unequivocally Afghanistan and Pakistan as parts of the new Caliphate. In this context, it is even more stunning that neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan is undertaking sufficient measures to avoid that IS can take root in the Af- Pak region, either directly through recruiting and ‘promotion’ campaigns or indirectly through the forming of alliances with local militant groups.

Second, besides the fact that there is no concrete evidence yet that IS is planning to take root in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a realistic review of concrete aims and strategies of this terror group indicated thatindicated that it will enter the region rather sooner than later. Taking the geographical strategic importance of Af-Pak area for the global Jihad and the proclaimed caliphate into account, one must expect that IS is planning to gain a permanent foothold in South Asia. If not directly, than with the help of some Taliban factions or other Islamic fundamentalist and militant extremist groups inspired by a right wing religious ideology. They might differ with regards to the scale of the goals, military strategies and leadership structures, but due to strong ideological bounds and common enemies they will most likely overcome their differences. Having this in mind, the debate if IS has or does not have a remarkable presence in the Af-Pak region is absolute necessary and justified. But it must be put in perspective. Focusing on assessments of IS leverage in the region only with regards to the physical existence and concrete activities of active IS fighters in Afghanistan or Pakistan is far too narrow. Instead, the mapping of threat scenarios should focus on the forging of alliances of IS and local militant groups functioning as operational proxies. These proxies offer room to manoeuvre for IS to propagate their narrow and truncated interpretation of Islam as well as to build up first state structures in conflict-ridden areas like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. With the support of local partners, IS can gain strategic space to grow and expand its influence over the Af-Pak region. Therefore, one should rather watch very closely IS propaganda and rhetoric regarding its radicalisation and Islamisation of the people and how far it will inspire Islamist militants. Especially the younger generation of terrorists are attracted by the successes of IS in Iraq and Syria. In case there is no significant decisive victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan over the new government and the remaining international combat troops, young Islamists might turn towards IS. This might also happen in Pakistan in case the military is finally successful against the Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The fact that IS has much more financial resources available and can offer better military training in combination with the rising significance and recognition among global jihadist circles, South Asian Islamic fundamentalist might be even more attracted to the ‘new arrival’ from the Middle East.

Third, the differentiation between “good” and “bad” Taliban sounds extremely artificial if one takes the strong ideological bonds, especially the allegiance to Mullah Omar, as a spiritual leader (Amir ul-Momineenr, literally commander/leader of the faithful) into account as well as their common commitment to same ideological principles and strategic goals. After years of tremendous efforts in the official political rhetoric by regional governments as well as westerns states involved in Afghanistan to create an artificial distinction between Pakistan and Afghanistan Taliban as well as between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, it finally seemed that this fruitless exercise came to an end. Of course all three camps – the former Karzai administration in Kabul, the security establishment in Pakistan, and the governments of NATO members involved in the Afghanistan imbroglio had their very own reasons why they invented the idea of ‘good Taliban’. However, the common bottom line of their rhetorical manoeuvres remained the same: the Taliban are serious fractious and one can cooperate with some sections (the ‘good ones’) and the rest (the ‘bad ones’, the terrorists) must be overpowered by force. Most disastrous in this direction is the fact that in Pakistan this ‘line of thinking’ might experience a revival. In other words, Pakistani security circles could continue to believe that certain extremists Islamic fundamentalists groups and other extremist organisations are still an option for the country’s foreign policy portfolio or to counter and balance different militants’ streams on its own soil.

Closely linked with the notion of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ Taliban -which includes the attempt to exaggerate the weakening impacts of potential splits- is the claim of rising conflicts between major terrorist groups, especially between IS and Taliban as well as IS and al-Qaida. This rationale was inspired by rumours about the emergence of severe factionalism within the Taliban movement after several Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-i- Taliban Pakistan/TTP) commanders declared their allegiance to IS Chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, TTP leader Maulana Fazlullah made it clear that his allegiance remains with Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban. In addition, a larger confrontation between IS and al-Qaida in the AfPak region sounds more like an offspring of ‘wishful thinking’ than a result of a realistic assessment of a future scenario. Doubtless, IS and al-Qaeda are currently engaged in an open competition for leadership in the global jihadi movement. But the battlefield for this conflict is primarily the Middle East with its specific context and dynamics. Instead the belief that these confrontations between major jihadist groups will help to break the swing of the Islamic fundamentalist movement in South Asia is a perilous misperception.

Having this in mind, the important question, which one should ask, is what do IS, Taliban and other local extremists groups have in common. First of all, both IS and Taliban follow an approach of strict implementation of Islamic government in territories under their control. More concrete, both groups are not only interested in governing and extending their territories but also to engage in state-building efforts, especially to enforce an extreme and narrow interpretation of Sharia law. The setup of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan by the Taliban (1996-2001) and the unilateral declaration of the Caliphate by IS prove that both are aware of the importance and benefits of governing the areas under their control and that IS and Taliban over time developed clear state-building agendas. In this context, one also has to be aware of the fact that all of these groups are inspired not only by Abul A’la Maududi’s (founder of Jamaat-i-Islami/JI) concept of Islamic citizenship which is only granted to Sunni Muslims but also by the ideology of “takfirism”. A takfir is convinced that the Muslim “umma” (community of believers) is weakened by deviations in the practice of Islam. Therefore, the takfirists are focus on the elimination of the enemies from within, like the Shias or Ahmadiyyas, and all kinds of moderate Islamic reformist movements. Despite the competition and conflicts between IS, Taliban, al-Qaida, it is most likely that the AfPak region will constitute a ‘Islamic fundamentalist level playing field’ for the major Jihadist groups rather than a ground for existential rivalries. In other words, shared ideological bounds, the joint commitment to fight the infidels from within as well as outside the “umma”, and the common aim to establish Islamic state entities will help to bridge major differences regarding spiritual and political leadership.

In sum, the essential question to ask, is not if the days of the Taliban are numbered, if al-Qaida has become weakened and which kind of inroad IS is currently making into the AfPak region. The major puzzle one has to address, is how far will IS enforce the merger of global Jihad with local sectarian war (especially Shia-Sunni conflict) and how will groups work together in future in order to enforce the Islamic fundamentalist challenge for the states and societies of the entire South Asian region.