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Identities Based On Ethnicity, Clan, Sub-Clan and Sect Act as Binding Forces for Terrorist Organisations

By Khurram Minhas

May 20, 2018

Terrorist organisations often portray their struggle as effort that protect and promote their particular strand and interpretation of Islam. They often propagate their mission and its universality. Contrary to their claims, these groups are highly conservative in nature when it comes to local identities within themselves.

Identity based on ethnicity, clan, sub-clan and sect acts as a binding force for a majority of terrorist organisations. This identity provides them leverage at the local level that in turn helps them to thrive within a particular environment and society. The absence or lack of an identity in terrorist organisations often severely damages their activities in the region and encumbers their growth.

For instance, Al-Qaeda was organised and run by an Arab, Osama Bin Laden (OBL), and thrived in the Arabian Peninsula. Most non-Arab Muslim terrorists groups were attracted by Al-Qaeda because of its Arabian origin. However, ever since Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, Al-Qaeda has been struggling with an acute identity crisis.

OBL had very vividly laid down a well-defined organisational structure, and being Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri was the logical successor of this organisation. However, since Zawahiri is an Egyptian national, he is not enough of a pull factor for many Islamist or Jihadist organizations.

Most people, therefore, follow Bin Laden’s son. His son is active in Afghanistan and has proved to be a source of attraction and a unifying force for many local Afghan terrorist outfits, simply because of his Arab origins.

ISIS is another organisation that remains prisoner to the paradigm of identity. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, for instance, was a Jordanian national. Hence, despite his robust commitment to the terror group and his charismatic personality, he could not convince Iraqis and various other groups to unite under his rule against the central government. Generally, he was considered an outsider by the local public and other groups.

The world has therefore witnessed that his two immediate successors Abu Omer al-Baghdadi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used ‘Baghdadi’ as their identity to portray themselves as representatives for the local community in Iraq. ‘Baghdadi’ is not a name but a metaphorical reference to an identity.

Historically, moreover, Baghdad remained the centre of the Islamic Caliphate for nearly five centuries. Consequently, a majority of overseas Muslims found this slogan attractive enough to join this organisation. Hence, identity not only allows terror groups to keep unity within their ranks, but is also helpful in attracting dedicated manpower for their activities.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is another prime example of a terrorist organisation dominated by notions of identity. The TTP was established in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. A branch of the Mehsud Tribe mostly dominated the organisation by contributing resources and manpower. Its head Baitullah Mehsud and later Hakeemullah Mehsud both belonged to the Mehsud Tribe.

Their leadership attracted many Pakistani tribal Pashtuns. The local public was also highly supportive of the TTP because of its local identity. However, after the deaths of Baitullah and Hakeemullah Mehsud, the TTP’s centre of gravity shifted to Mullah Fazalullah, who is a non-tribal Pakhtun from Swat.

Since then, the local support the TTP received from various Pakhtun tribes has either sharply dwindled or has altogether been terminated. Many new factions dominated by tribal-Pakhtun leaders of the TTP have emerged over the last few years after Mullah Fazalullah became the TTP’s chief. For instance, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a local terrorist organisation, was established in response by Omar Khalid Khurasani who hails from the Mohmand Agency.

After almost 16 years of the War on Terror, the world is finally witnessing a sharp decline in terrorist related incidents and a breakup or weakening of terrorist organisations. According to some conservative estimates, a 12 percent decrease has been reported in the five countries that were the biggest victims of terrorism.

In Pakistan, the decline of terrorist incidents is around 70 percent. One of the major reasons behind this success is the international community’s hardened approach against terrorist organisations and their centres of gravity. As a result, these terrorist organisations have been divided on the basis of identity and a power struggle has ensued.

Identity, therefore, has proved to be a source of strength as well as a source of division for terrorist organisations. The international community in general and Pakistan in particular, needs to continue to target the centres of activity of these groups. Focused efforts that aim to weaken identity will not only further dismantle terrorist networks but will also discourage and distract the radicalised youth from joining the ranks of these terrorist groups.