Assessing ISIS’s emergence as prime terrorism threat in SAARC countries - II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 29 Feb 2016 2 Comments
Maldives’ Vulnerability: This small nation comprising some 1,200 coral islands inhabited by fewer than 350,000 people had long been unstable and has become a target of drug-traffickers, smugglers, and terrorists posing as Islamists. Because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean the island nation has long been on the radar screens of China, India, and the Western naval powers. The chain of islands is of particular geostrategic importance to India because it straddles three of the most important sea lanes through which India conducts the vast percentage of its vital oil and commodity trade.


Despite its special importance, India looked aside as the Maldives became radicalized and increasingly politically unstable. Since 2012, when ISIS began gaining ground, the security situation in the Maldives went downhill in the aftermath of the undemocratic ouster of President Mohammad Nasheed. While New Delhi claimed it was monitoring the Maldives situation closely, the ousted President Nasheed went on record telling Economic Times magazine: “Even before I had tendered my resignation as president, India sent its congratulations to the coup government. I’m at a complete loss to understand how India failed to read the writing on the wall. It is very unfortunate” (“GMR Maldives spat: Maldives’ decision against GMR part of political strategy that pits orthodoxy against India,” Sruthijith KK, ET Bureau, Dec. 9, 2012).


Notwithstanding New Delhi’s effort to “play fair” with whoever comes to power in the Maldives, the archipelago’s headlong march toward becoming an Islamic extremist-led nation could pose a threat to India in the future. While a handful of powerful families preoccupied themselves with trying to weaken each other, militants gained ground. The power struggle took a nasty turn in 2011, ahead of the 2013 election, when the duly-elected President Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign under pressure exerted by street demonstrators and some police officers. Nasheed contested the 2013 presidential elections, but was defeated by President Yameen, the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the scion of what is arguably Maldives’ most powerful family. Gayoom had previously ruled the archipelago for 30 years. Nasheed, who has made a serious effort to establish a democratic foundation in the Maldives, was arrested in February 2015, and one month later the Yameen administration sentenced him to a 13-year prison term, accusing him of terrorism.


The political instability in the Maldives, a necessary ingredient for the growth of extremism everywhere, has spawned a horde of extremists who openly align with ISIS. The Guardian of the UK reported last March of a surge in departures of young men from Maldives for Syria (“Paradise jihadis: Maldives sees surge in young Muslims leaving for Syria,” The Guardian, Jason Burke, Feb. 26, 2015). The Guardian claimed that between 50 and 100 of the young potential jihadis had left for Syria to join the ISIS-led Caliphate.


Some of those travelling to Syria have come from poor fishing communities on outlying islands, but most of the recent departures are from Malé, the capital. There were reports of hundreds of protesters marching through central Malé in September, bearing banners reading “Send democracy to hell” and “Islam will dominate the world.” Many carried the black flags of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, an arm of al-Qaeda active in Syria. In an interview with The Independent of the UK in September 2014, former President Mohamed Nasheed stated that up to 200 Maldivians were fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A recent U.S. State Department terrorism report said that links had now been made “between Maldivians and violent extremists throughout the world.” Nasheed also said: “They (Islamic extremists) have people in strategic positions within both [Iraq and Syria]. Of the 200 people who have gone to jihad, the vast majority are ex-military” (“Islamic State: The Maldives–a recruiting paradise for jihadists,” The Independent UK, Oliver Wright, Sept. 13, 2014).


These developments make Maldives a potential base for ISIS. The implications are disconcerting for India: First, if, and when, the pro-ISIS terrorists actually seize control of the Maldives is largely dependent on finances in the form of drug trafficking, smuggling, and other criminal operations. Second, as a controlling force in the Maldives the pro-ISIS terrorists would become increasingly dependent on both Pakistan and China, who would very much like to deprive India of a strong presence in these coral atolls. China has already expressed its plans to set up a port in Maldives.


The Case of Afghanistan


Although ISIS is not viewed as a serious threat in Afghanistan yet, there are reasons to believe that conditions exist for the group to emerge as a power there. There are, however, two major obstacles: One is the Afghan National Army (ANA), a well-armed army to reckon with because of its continuing interaction with U.S. and NATO troops based in the country; the second is the Afghan Taliban fighters who want to secure control of Afghanistan. Although the Taliban are imbued with Islamic religiosity, they are primarily an Afghan fighting group who will resist all efforts by foreign Arabs or Central Asians to take over. It is almost a certainty that if ISIS tries to assert itself in Afghanistan, a bloodbath will follow.


Yet ISIS has already shown its fangs in Afghanistan. In April 2015, a suicide attack was carried out on the Kabul Bank that killed more than 30 people. Condemned by the Taliban, the attack was allegedly claimed by ISIS. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani told journalists: “In the horrific incident in Nangarhar, who took responsibility? The Taliban didn’t claim responsibility. Daesh claimed responsibility for it” (“First wave of IS attacks? Claim and denial over the Jalalabad bombs,” Afghan Analysts Network, Kate Clark and Borhan Osman, April 22, 2015). In another incident, in February, CBS News reported that gunmen, identified as members of ISIS by Zabul province Deputy Police Chief Ghulam Jilani Farahi, kidnapped 30 members of the Hazara Shi’a community without seeking ransom (“ISIS kidnaps dozens in Afghanistan, official says,” CBS News, Feb. 24, 2015).


In addition, quoting provincial officials, CNN has reported sightings of the black ISIS flags, and even likely ISIS fighters of Afghan origin, in a number of provinces, including Zabul, Nangarhar, Farah, Wardak and Ghazni (“Afghanistan’s changing of the guard: ISIS recruits in Taliban territory,” Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, April 6, 2015). Russians report that they have noticed the presence of the ISIS fighters in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan and Helmand provinces trying to take control of a part of the Afghan heroin-trafficking network.


There is no doubt that both the United States and NATO, which still have thousands of troops operating inside Afghanistan, albeit with a limited responsibility, will be watching the ISIS developments carefully. However, not all observations by the Pentagon mesh into a pattern. For instance, in January 2015 in an interview with Army Times, the top U.S. commander of Resolute Support Mission, John Campbell, put more emphasis on ISIS efforts to recruit from both Afghanistan and Pakistan and underplayed the group’s presence in Afghanistan.


Referring to the likely recruiting efforts of ISIS from Afghanistan, Campbell said: “The Taliban have their allegiance to Mullah Omar and a different philosophy and ideology than ISIS, but, potentially, there are people who are disgruntled with the Taliban, they haven’t seen [Taliban commander] Mullah Omar in years, or they want to go a different way” (“ISIS recruiting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Army Times, Michelle Tan, Jan. 15, 2015).


A month later, in February, The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., reported Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Maj. Bradlee Avots stating in an e-mail: “The expansion of ISIL into the region is of great concern.” The Hill cited Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the coalition’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, saying, “We believe this group is nascent, relatively small, but maintains aspirations for the region” (“Pentagon acknowledges ISIS spread to Afghanistan amid US troop drawdown,” The Hill, Kristina Wong, Feb.12, 2015).


As of now, there are claims and counterclaims by analysts and extremists alike on how strong the ISIS presence in Afghanistan is. At a press briefing in Moscow on Dec. 10, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova raised the alarm that ISIS has already opened a “second front” in Afghanistan, threatening Russia’s backyard, Central Asia. “Afghanistan may let the Islamic State continue to position itself as a still effective military structure, which has opened a ‘second front’ despite the offensive of the anti-IS forces in the region of the Middle East and North Africa,” she said on that occasion (“Moscow warns IS terrorists may open second front in Afghanistan,” Tass, Dec. 10 2015).


It is likely that Russia is overstating the reality and using these statements to put the Central Asian nations on alert. But there is little doubt that Afghanistan could be a future base for ISIS, if, as pointed out earlier, the Taliban and the Afghan National Army fold up under pressure from the followers of al-Baghdadi. That Afghanistan can be considered a viable ISIS location is not because most Afghans want to become part of an international, borderless Caliphate, but because the country has weak borders on all sides. Moreover, beyond these borders lurk thousands of fighters belonging to the Islamic faith, many of whom are rootless and homeless, and as a result are extremely dangerous.


Across Afghanistan’s northern borders lie weak states with weaker security apparatuses and a terrain that could easily protect terrorists from routine military forays. These borders are porous, and hundreds of Central Asian fighters move across them regularly. In the earlier part of this century, many of these Central Asian and Russian fighters moved into Pakistan’s almost-ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and, from there, crossed into eastern Afghanistan to attack the U.S. and NATO troops, in support of the Afghan Taliban, who, however, consider these fighters as merely “fellow travelers” and helping hands - not part of the Taliban.


Afghanistan’s eastern borders are not only porous, but highly volatile. Pakistan remains focused on maintaining proxy control over Kabul to deny India, or any other “unfriendly” nation, a strong presence in Afghanistan. Islamabad has a “sort of an ally” in the Afghan Taliban, but Islamabad does not trust the Taliban. Although they depend to a certain extent on the Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Taliban, as well, have little love lost for Islamabad. As a result, Pakistan continues to harbor and “utilize” many varieties of terrorist outfits to unhinge the Taliban. Those terrorist outfits use Pakistan’s practically-ungoverned border with Afghanistan and are keen to carve out a niche in Afghanistan, mostly to conduct illegal trading of all sorts as part of an overall package. These Islamabad-aided terrorists/bandits/rogues have kept Afghanistan’s eastern border unstable and vulnerable to all levels of terrorism.


Bangladesh: Unfinished Revolution or a New Agenda?


A number of incidents in the wake of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League regime’s recent Court-directed death sentences to the Jamaat-e-Islam and other orthodox Islamist groups who had aided Pakistan more than four decades ago in its violent effort to deny Bangladesh independence indicate that the “Jihadis” have been invigorated. These “Jihadis” were involved recently in highly visible and brutal murders and have reportedly claimed their allegiance to ISIS.


Prior to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in June 2015, Indian media reported the existence of an alleged nexus between the terror groups Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JuM-B) and the Islamic State (IS). They reported that the formation of such a nexus had alarmed the intelligence agencies in India. The JuM-B, which wants to establish a Bangladeshi Caliphate, has been active in India for quite some time (“India, Bangladesh share information to combat terrorism,” India Today, Abhishek Bhalla, May 29, 2015).


Expansion of the JuM-B network within India’s Bangladesh-bordering state, West Bengal, was noted following an explosion in a house in the town of Burdwan in October 2014. India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) had reportedly advised the Home Ministry to entrust the investigations to the National Investigations agency (NIA) in view of “prima facie” evidence that the explosions reveal a larger “trans-regional terror network” involving JuM-B, Indian Mujahideen (IM), and Al Jihad, a new outfit with bases in Pakistan. Quoting a senior IB official, the article stated: “The JuM-B, IM, and Al Jihad are now part of a fraternal terror network that seeks to unsettle South Asia, specially India and Bangladesh” (“Burdwan blast exposes JMB ‘hit squad’,” India Correspondent,, Oct. 9 2014).


Another news item, from the Press Trust of India (PTI) in November 2015, quoted an article in the ISIS online magazine, Dabiq: “The soldiers of the Khilafah in Bengal pledged their allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim (Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi), unified their ranks, nominated a regional leader, gathered behind him and dissolved their former factions.” The article says that the militants have “performed the necessary military preparations, and hastened to answer the order from the Islamic State leadership, by targeting the crusaders and their allies wherever they may be found” (“ISIS appoints regional leader in Bangladesh; threatens more attacks,” PTI, Nov. 23, 2015). The regional leader’s name was not disclosed.


These activities indicate that following the rise of the ISIS the so-called “Jihadis,” who remain ensconced within Bangladesh with funding and support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the London-based Bangladeshi al-Qaeda linked elements, have begun to flex their muscles.


Richard L. Benkin, a human rights activist who has been fighting to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh, points out in an article in American Thinker, a California-based daily Internet publication, that “after the initial allied operation in Afghanistan, Bangladesh became a haven for many fleeing al-Qaeda forces, who almost stole the country’s aborted 2007 election.” He adds: “While posturing as ‘moderate,’ Bangladesh has had Islamists in its governing coalition, named roads and bridges after terrorist organizations, and persecuted journalists and authors with impunity” (“Is ISIS in South Asia?,” American Thinker, Richard L. Benkin, Nov. 11, 2015). The support these “Jihadis” receive from a section of Bangladeshis who remain rooted in their belief that Bangladesh should be an Islamic nation in order to prevent “Hindu” India from gaining control also eased the task.


The bordering Indian state, West Bengal, was governed by a communist party for more than 25 years. Under the pretext of a being a secular outfit, this group of peddlers of a foreign-ideology allowed all kinds of illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and forged currency trafficking to flourish across the soft Indian border. In return, these Indian communists received large donations for their party coffers, which helped them stay in power for more than two decades. But the process corrupted law and order, bureaucracy, party-dominated local administrators and all other instruments that the Government of India depends on to secure the land and maintain the rule of law. One result is that the Bangladeshi “Jihadis” have been able to set up active cells within West Bengal.


Despite these gnawing problems, however, it should be noted that the Bangladesh Army, which works closely with its Indian counterpart in dealing with terrorism, is strong, and there is no indication that the “Jihadis” have made any serious dent in Bangladesh’s security apparatus.


Moreover, Bangladesh is not surrounded by restive Islamic nations. Its north, west, and east are surrounded by India, which prevents the “Jihadis” from bringing in fighters from across the borders. South of Bangladesh is the Bay of Bengal, where the Indian Navy has a strong presence.


Pakistan: Land of a strong military and home-grown terrorists


There had been many analyses in the international media in recent months suggesting that Pakistan is a fertile ground for the growth of ISIS. However, none of those analysts tackled the main issues: the role the powerful Pakistani military will play during such growth of ISIS, or whether there are any indications that the Pakistani military is becoming increasingly pro-ISIS.


The analysts do not address these vital questions because it is inconceivable at this point to assume that with the organizational power it possesses, the Pakistani military will simply roll over and allow ISIS to take control in Pakistan. As pointed out earlier here, the reason ISIS could capture territories in Mesopotamia and establish its Caliphate was because the West dismantled the well-organized Iraqi military and weakened the Syrian regime by backing the anti-Damascus protestors and the al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked terrorists alike.


Is there any reason to believe that Pakistan, which is very much in the future scheme of things for China and Russia, two other major powers beside India in the region, will be allowed to disenfranchise its military to make it a part of the ISIS Caliphate? The answer to that question is a resounding ‘no’.


On the other hand, unless a sea-change in attitude occurs inside Pakistan’s power structure, home-grown extremists there will continue to pose terrorist threats to both Kabul and New Delhi. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services may even provide all possible support to the pro-ISIS militants within India in setting up their terrorist cells. At this juncture, that remains a distinct possibility.


Pakistan harbors, and perhaps nurtures, at least two dozen terrorist groups to serve its hostile interests against both India and Afghanistan. It is likely that it will find cells of ISIS cropping up inside, particularly in FATA and Baluchistan, adjacent to the Afghanistan borders. These ISIS cells may emerge out of various existing terrorist cells that Islamabad allowed to function because of their stated intent to target Afghanistan and India.


There are reasons why such ISIS cells could emerge close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders. More than a year ago, NBC News reported on a “secret” memo penned by the Government of Balochistan suggesting that “ISIS has Pakistan in its cross-hairs, warning that the group aims to stir up sectarian unrest by dispatching the local militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) on offensives against Pakistan’s minority Shiite Muslim community, further destabilizing a country already battling Taliban and al Qaeda elements” (“ISIS Has Master Plan for Pakistan, Secret Memo Warns,” NBC News, Mujeeb Ahmed, Nov. 10, 2014).


Another article, which appeared in July 2014, by the director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) in Islamabad, Muhammad Amir Rana, states that a map released by ISIS shows countries for expansion marked in black across North Africa, into mainland Spain, across the Middle East and into the Muslim countries of the Central and South Asian region. It depicts exactly the states, which are or once were under Muslim control. Interestingly, the ISIS map shows both Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the Islamic caliphate state’s Khurasan province.


Al-Qaeda and its affiliates believe that the movement for the establishment of the Islamic state of Khurasan will emerge from the region comprising the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan and Malakand region of Pakistan. Rana also points out that ISIS considers Khurasan the base camp of international jihad, from where they will expand the Islamic state boundaries into other non-Muslim lands. Mullah Fazlullah of Swat (head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) was inspired by the notion and considered himself the founder of the Khurasan movement, Rana states (“What ISIS and the ‘caliphate’ mean for Pakistan,” The Dawn, Muhammad Amir Rana, July 3, 2014).


Significantly, a November 2015 poll released by the Pew Research Center - a Washington, D.C.-based outfit that conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research - found that a majority in Pakistan offered no definite opinion of ISIS. In that poll, conducted in 11 countries with significant Muslim populations, people from Nigeria to Jordan to Indonesia overwhelmingly expressed negative views of ISIS, but only 28 percent in Pakistan had an unfavorable view of ISIS, and a majority of Pakistanis (62 percent) had no opinion on the extremist group (“ISIS in Pakistan: In nations with significant Muslim populations, much disdain for ISIS,” Pew Research Center, Jacob Poushter, Nov. 17, 2015).


When everything is taken into consideration, what these reports and the poll suggest is that some within Pakistan will support what ISIS stands for, and that could make Pakistan a fertile ground for recruitment of ISIS fighters in the future. But the reports do not constitute tell-tale signs that ISIS will be able to gain a significant level of power within Pakistan.



[First published in Aakrosh, Volume 19.Number 70, January 2016]

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