By Qasim A. Moini
August 13, 2016
WHILE THE Middle East battlefields of Iraq and Syria have seen the worst atrocities committed by the self-styled Islamic State (IS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, countries far beyond this region have felt the shock waves of terrorist violence.
The spillover of the Iraqi/Syrian conflict has been felt in Europe, as the recent atrocity in Nice, the March attacks in Brussels, and last November’s incidents in Paris show. Many homegrown European extremist Muslims have dedicated the violence they have perpetrated to IS.
But the broader Asian region—beyond the Middle East proper—is not immune to mass-casualty terrorism carried out in the name of IS. The bombing targeting Afghan Shia Hazaras in Kabul and the Dhaka café attack, both in July, as well as the attacks in Jakarta last January, have all been carried out by fighters pledging allegiance to IS.
Thus the question: How is a militant group based in the Syrian town of Raqqa—and being attacked by a number of powerful opponents, including the Syrian state, the United States and Russia—able to coordinate violence on such a spectacular global scale?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed IS “caliph,” does not have to spend time, money, or resources in physically activating cells in lands far and wide. Technology and social media are largely doing the job for him. Extremist groups and individuals in various states provide willing recruits for the IS cause, abandoning or altering their previous affiliations to accommodate the IS “brand.”
Take Pakistan. Since the 1980s, militant Islamist groups have grown exponentially, due to the initial patronage of military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, and the unfolding of the anti-Soviet, Saudi- and US-backed Afghan “jihad” in the region.
Many of the militias that were formed in Pakistan during this period, which drew recruits from Afghanistan itself, from Pakistan and across the Muslim world, spawned “Jihadi” successors after the Afghan campaign was over. Some of these were anti-India and Kashmir-centric, while others were virulently sectarian, taking aim at Pakistan’s sizeable Shia Muslim minority. The vast majority of the groups adhered to the Salafi/Wahhabi or Deobandi creeds.
In the 1990s and beyond, these militant groups flourished as the state chose not to act, indulging in horrific acts of violence. Post-9/11 the Pakistani establishment did act, shutting down some militant groups. In the aftermath of 2007’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in the heart of Islamabad, the country witnessed an explosion of Islamist violence. This violence was only significantly controlled when the military went into the north-western tribal regions in June 2014 to flush out the militants there.
Now, there are many willing recruits for the IS cause in Pakistan, thanks to over three decades of active militancy.
Unfortunately, many in the top tiers of government have dismissed the idea that IS may be making inroads in Pakistan. For example, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan has said IS has no presence in the country. Yet there are frequent news reports stating that militants linked by police to IS have been arrested in various Pakistani cities. In fact, in the aftermath of the recent Kabul Hazara bombing, a top US general said most IS fighters in Afghanistan were formerly associated with the militant Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan before switching sides.
The Pakistani interior minister has said other “terrorist groups” use the Daesh name. But this seems to be merely a matter of semantics as the local militants are self-identifying as IS fighters. Why is the government insisting on denials?
Despite the wavering at the top, some officials are calling a spade a spade. The head of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau, a top civilian intelligence agency, has said on record that ISIS is an emerging threat in Pakistan; he named Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, two anti-Shia sectarian militant groups, as likely to be allied with IS.
The Pakistani example—home-grown militants and extremists pledging allegiance to IS—can be applied to other Asian states as well. The Bangladesh government also initially denied IS presence in that country despite the group’s own claims. It has blamed mainstream opposition parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party for the violence. But as some observers noted, those involved in the violence in Bangladesh and claiming to fight for IS were linked to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a long-active militant group.
According to the United Nations, over 30 groups worldwide have pledged allegiance to IS. Southeast Asia (SEA) is among the regions on the IS radar, and indeed, established militant networks in the region are being used to advance the IS cause. This is pointed out in great detail in the report “Radicalisation in Southeast Asia,” published by the Malaysian government and supported by the European Union, and which focuses on Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
In fact, SEA fighters have been active in the Middle East, and many have returned home. In May 2015 the Singapore prime minister said SEA had turned into a key “recruitment centre” for IS; experts said Mindanao in the Philippines was particularly vulnerable as far as the establishment of a possible IS province was concerned. Groups such as Ansar al-Shariah, Abu Sayyaf, Jamaah Islamiyah, and others have been linked to IS.
The Syrian conflict has played a key role in raising the IS profile in Indonesia and Malaysia. Groups and individuals drawn to IS’ Takfiri and sectarian creed form the base of its Asian support. Actual transfer of funds has been reported from Raqqa and Australia to Indonesia.
In the Philippines, the official position isalso that IS has no real presence in the country, although Abu Sayyaf members have pledged allegiance to IS and there has been IS recruitment in Mindanao.
The fact is that denying IS presence in their countries will not help governments deal with the problem. While it is true that fighters may not be hopping on planes out of Syria and Iraq to form cells or “provinces” abroad, all the militants need is a good internet connection and enough propaganda material to “inspire” would-be Jihadis in far-off lands. Perhaps Asian governments need to take a long, hard look at the militant and extremist movements that already exist to stem further acts of terrorist violence.
Qasim A. Moini is assistant editor at the Dawn in Pakistan.