New Age Islam
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Islam and Sectarianism ( 8 Sept 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Clouds of Sectarianism


By Dr Muhammad Ali Saif

September 08, 2014   

ISIS has unleashed its blitzkrieg in Syria and Iraq. Its lightening advance in the Levant region has not only caused ripples in the western world but has also aroused sectarian animosity that had been simmering under the surface in the Muslim world. The recent massacre of Yazidis has further escalated the conflict by compelling the US and its allies to intervene.

In its efforts to assert control over the Jihadi groups active in the Middle East, Al-Qaeda is now confronted with a serious challenge from ISIS. Although during his stay in Afghanistan and in the early days of Iraqi resistance, ISIS leader Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi was affiliated with Al-Qaeda, later differences emerged between them during the anti-Assad campaign in Syria.

ISIS was successful in attracting fighters from Jihadi outfits under the control of Al-Qaeda. Friction between these militant groups has heightened tensions between Al-Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups as well. It has also increased the potential of militants with sectarian ideologies in Pakistan.

Two major reasons have adversely impacted the relationship of militant groups in the Middle East. The main reason is the strict anti-Shia ideology of ISIS which Al-Qaeda had always avoided due to its global vision of Islamic jihad. Second, unlike Al-Qaeda, which had been operating in the shadows, ISIS has been able to occupy and establish its writ over large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria and has successfully established its military and political authority by defeating the militaries of these powerful states. This situation has not only established its credibility among the Jihadis and increased its political strength but has also enabled it to implement its policies and ideology.

In addition, ISIS’ staunch anti-Shia sectarian bias has won it support in a region where Shia-Sunni strife has been simmering for centuries. For the militants, ISIS is a successful model. The rise of ISIS in the Syrian conflict has introduced a new page in the globalisation of jihad. Its wider implications have also affected the organisational cohesion of Taliban in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.

Following the convergence of international Jihadis on Syria, the TTP also became involved in the campaign. It established units under various commanders including Omar Khorasani and Quari Zia-ur-Rehman, and began recruiting and dispatching fighters to Syria and Iraq from South and North Waziristan, Mohmand and Bajaur agencies. These fighters were primarily allied with Al-Qaeda and owed allegiance to Aiman-al-Zawahiri. The TTP and Al-Qaeda jointly managed two training centres in Iraq for fighters’ enroute to Syria. These camps were managed jointly by Al-Qaeda and the TTP.

However, the situation has changed in the recent days after differences developed between the ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Control of most TTP operated camps in Iraq has now shifted to the ISIS. This tussle between ISIS and Al-Qaeda is now seriously affecting the rank and file of the TTP and its affiliate organisations in Pakistan as well.

In the earlier phase, from 2002-2007, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish Muhammad (JM) militants operating in Pakistan were affiliated with Al-Qaeda and operated as its foot soldiers. LeJ and JM had always professed an extreme form of anti-Shia ideology. However, for a considerable period, they remained shadowy groups in Pakistan as they were never able to acquire control over an independent area. The emergence of the TTP in the tribal areas in 2007 changed this scenario. The TTP carved out a niche for itself in Fata where it was successful in occupying territory and established its writ beyond the state of Pakistan.

This factor enabled it to emerge as a strong force; groups including LeJ, JM and many others either became affiliated with the TTP. The TTP attempted to gain religious credibility by proclaiming its allegiance to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, they remained masters of their own policy and carried out many operations without consulting the Afghan Taliban, rather to their annoyance in some cases. The TTP also proclaimed its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and later, his successor, Aiman-Al-Zawahiri.

Following its alliance with the TTP and Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had softened its anti-Shia agenda. That, however, has changed in recent days. Those among the TTP with extreme sectarian anti-Shia views are now splitting away from the mainstream TTP. They have been influenced by the strong anti-Shia views of ISIS and their enthusiasm has increased due to the group’s lightening advance and military successes in Syria and Iraq.

Support for ISIS also means splitting away from mainstream Al-Qaeda. The dispersal of TTP fighters and erosion of its power base in Waziristan as a result of Operation Zarb-e-Azb has also accelerated this phenomenon with adverse implications.

Differences within TTP ranks had already emerged due to multiple factors including the truce/ceasefire negotiations with the government, dispute over the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah as its Amir and the interference of the Afghan Taliban. However, the only issue that remained was the relationship with the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership. Now, following the recent split of Al-Qaeda with ISIS in the Middle East, cohesion within TTP ranks has been adversely affected.

A group affiliated with the TTP, headed by Usman Ghani, a staunch anti-Shia commander who was formerly affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has developed differences with the TTP. Assassination attempts have been carried out against him by his rival groups. The recent announcement by Ghani wherein he hailed the proclamation of Khilafat by ISIS in Iraq has also resulted in serious disagreements among Taliban supporters of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Another group which has recently emerged is called Tehreek-e-Khilafat-wal-Jihad, which has also declared its allegiance with ISIS at the cost of annoying Al-Qaeda.

This spate of splits among Jihadi groups is an indication of a serious threat looming over Pakistan. These splinter groups will not only seek inspiration from ISIS in terms of its extreme anti-Shia ideology but will result in the escalation of sectarian violence with serious socio-political consequences for Pakistan.

On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban have always exhibited extreme anti-Shia attitudes. The brutal massacre of Hazara Shias in the Bamiyan region is a glaring example of their sectarian bias. This helps the ISIS gain adherents for its cause among the Afghan Taliban. The current state of affairs has recently compelled Al-Qaeda to declare its allegiance to Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. This renewal of the oath of allegiance and declaring Mullah Omar as the sole leader of Muslims is seen as an attempt by Al-Qaeda to diffuse the impact of ISIS and its declaration of Khilafat in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Dr Muhammad Ali Saif is an advocate of the Supreme Court and former federal minister.