June 12, 2018

The Af-Pak Region as the Epicentre of Global Terrorism

The world has seen various changes in international terrorism but also first and foremost many successes in rooting out this menace. For many years, al-Qaida was the most evident threat which was followed by the creation of a caliphate by the Islamic State in the Middle East in 2014. Recent years have seen new concentrated political, economic and military efforts by the international community in order to fight international terrorist groups. Many states have coordinated their efforts to help each other in the fight against local and global terrorist networks. New regulations against terrorist financing have been enforced and new sanctions have been imposed against various states and individuals.
Due to efforts on different levels the number of attacks from al-Qaida has come down and the Islamic State’s control over territories in Syria and Iraq has been broken in 2017. Nevertheless, the threat of global terrorism is not over but has only shifted its focus. There are several new challenges. First, will the IS be able to survive in other countries? The caliphate of Al-Baghdadi may be no longer exist but there are still IS branches operating in many countries. Second, countries especially in Western Europe are confronted with the return of foreign IS fighters to their home countries. It is not clear how far these fighters will continue their struggle and how far they can be legally prosecuted. Finally, the ideological attraction of Islamic extremism is still high and the new forms of radicalization, especially over social media are difficult to control in open democratic societies.
Global terrorism in South Asia
South Asia and the West have suffered in different ways under global terrorist groups. Global terrorism refers to terrorist groups who pursue a global ideological agenda (i.e. creation of an Islamic caliphate that negates national boundaries, attack on the West / United States) and who have the capacities to operate globally (i.e. to execute attacks on different continents). When these criteria are used it is evident that Western countries have suffered mostly from al-Qaida and IS attacks in recent years whereas India had been targeted by other terrorist groups.
At least since 9/11, al-Qaida was the most important global terror organization which has conducted attacks on different continents. In 2014, al-Qaida set up its regional branch al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) as an umbrella organization for different jihadi groups.1In recent publications the groups has focused on India and its activities in Bangladesh and on Kashmir. But despite its propaganda AQIS has found very little resonance among Indian Muslims. Local al-Qaida groups in Kashmir could be eliminated by the security agencies. So far there has been no noteworthy attack in India which could be attributed to AQIS.2
The Islamic State also has a clear global agenda, not only targeting Muslim societies but also Western countries with new forms of militancy, as we have witnessed in the attacks in London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin and other places. Western European citizens have also been more often recruited by the IS. The estimates for Germany are around 900 to 1000 fighters who joined IS.
With the creation of its Khorasan province which includes large parts of South and Central Asia, the Islamic State also found its way to South Asia. In Afghanistan it was able to establish its own networks partly in cooperation with local militant groups who split from the Taliban. IS was also able to link up with local militant groups in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In India, a small three digit number of people have been arrested as supporters of IS but there have been only very few attacks in India that are attributed to IS so far. The most prominent one was the train attack in Madhya Pradesh in March 2017.3 The main threat is the radicalization of “lone wolves” which may be able to carry out attacks.4 The interesting point is that many IS followers have middle class background which differs from the social profile of IS fighters from European countries.
India may not have experienced attacks by al-Qaida or IS but it has been confronted for many years with attacks from groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).5 They also have an international orientation but it is more limited compared to that of al-Qaida or the Islamic State. LeT has trained foreign fighters in its camps but most of its operations have targeted India.
Al-Qaida, Islamic State and LeT follow different ideological traditions in Islam. Their political, economic and ideological rivalry has already led to many armed clashes among them for instance between al-Qaida and Islamic State but also between the Taliban and the Islamic State.
Changing Dynamics in the Af-Pak Theatre
These changes have also affected the dynamics in the Af-Pak region in various ways. Generally, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan belong to the top ten countries most affected by terrorism in 2016 according to the Global Terrorism Index.6 So despite all successes these figures remind us that the region is still plagued by different forms of militancy which pose a threat to all South Asian states and their societies.
Moreover, it seems that Af-Pak remains one of the main epicentres of terrorism. First, Afghanistan is one of the places where the Islamic State has the highest presence in Asia after its defeat in the Middle East. Second, the new South Asia policy of the Trump administration and the efforts of the international community against the infrastructure of terrorist financing have shifted the focus much more on Pakistan.
Afghanistan is confronted with multiple militant challenges. For many years the Taliban have been fighting the elected government. Moreover, al-Qaida are still present in the country and the Islamic state has also gained its strongest foothold in South Asia in Afghanistan. The IS successfully used frustration within the Taliban so that many former Taliban groups joined the new grouping after 2014. The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated in recent months. It was not only the fights between the Afghan National Army and the Taliban but also the clashes between the Taliban and the Islamic State. Moreover, the IS was responsible for several attacks against government institutions, religious minorities and the civil society. The international community has increased its military cooperation with the Afghan security forces and has stepped up its number of troops.
In contrast to Afghanistan, the security situation in Pakistan has improved since 2015.7This was the result of military operations in the Tribal Areas in 2014. Moreover, the IS has never been successful in gaining a permanent foothold in Pakistan. The IS was however able to win supporters among parts of the Pakistani Taliban and some sectarian Sunni groups. The IS has also claimed responsibility for attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan.
However what is more important is the changing international focus which has shifted to Pakistan. This was brought about by two developments since 2017. First, the new South Asia policy of the Trump Administration targeted Pakistan for its lack of commitment in fighting terrorism. It was followed by various financial sanctions and has led to a deterioration of the bilateral relationship. Second, it was the successful effort of the international community to put Pakistan again on the watch-list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for its inadequate anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing policy8.
Pakistan has used non-state actors in its wars against India from the beginning starting back in 1947 when tribal warriors invaded the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan abilities were used by the West during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) trained the Afghan Mujahedins. Pakistan copied this successful strategy when it sent foreign fighters to Jammu & Kashmir in the 1990s. Moreover, Pakistan supported the Taliban in the Afghan civil war in the 1990s in order to establish strategic depth vis-à-vis India. The Taliban regime also provides space for inter-national terror groups like al-Qaida which found refuge in Afghanistan. The support of militant groups by the Pakistan armed forces is widely acknowledged. In 2017, former president Musharraf praised publicly the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).9
Although LeT and its political arm Jamat-ud-Dawah (JuD) are listed as terrorist organisations by the United Nations10, Pakistan has only banned the LeT back in 2002. In early 2009 the Pakistan government promised to ban JuD after the Mumbai attacks. But this has not happened so far. JuD has for some years been only on the watch-list of terrorist groups of the Interior Ministry.11 JuD bank accounts have officially been frozen according to UN Resolutions. LeT leaders have been banned from foreign travel but are still allowed free movement in Pakistan.12
Since 2017 we have witnessed new actions by the Pakistani state against JuD and its leader Hafiz Saeed. In January 2017 the Pakistan government put Hafiz Saeed again under house arrest.13 The army welcomed this as a “political decision” for the national interests.14 The Punjab government put Hafiz Saeed and some of his supporters on a list of terror suspects in February 2017.15 Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said during the Munich Security Conference in 2017 that Hafiz Saeed was arrested because he was a threat “to his country”.16
In February 2018 the Pakistan government promulgated an ordinance amending the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997.17 This allowed the government to put further sanctions on proscribed groups from the UN terror list. A first step happened when the Punjab government took over several institutions from JuD and the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF).18 In March 2018, the government had taken over all institutions in Gilgit Baltistan (GB) and ‘Azad Kashmir’ and has confiscated more than 140 properties of the two organisations in Punjab.19 In the same month, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) also shut down offices of JuD and FIF.20
But it seems that JuD and FIF have been able to transfer some properties to individuals before the confiscation. So it will take more time for the Pakistani authorities to get hold of the organisations’ infrastructure. Moreover, press reports indicate that Hafiz Saeed and other JuD leaders are still using these institutions for their purposes.21
With these steps Pakistan tried to prevent further sanctions from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which met in Paris in February 2018. The United States and European countries like Germany, the United Kingdom and France have tabled a motion to place Pakistan on a watch-list of countries which are considered not to be compliant with the global regulations against terror financing. Pakistan had been on the FATF grey list from 2012 to 2015. It was removed then after improvements in its anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-financing terrorism (CFT) laws.22 Pakistan’s opposition to the move of the FATF was first supported by China, Turkey, and Saudi-Arabia. But Pakistan was finally put back on the list after two important allies China and Saudi-Arabia withdrew their support for Pakistan under American pressure.23 China’s decision against its main ally Pakistan was welcomed in India. This step has also raised hopes that China may give up its veto in the United Nations to put Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) leader Masood Azhar on the list of global terrorists of the U.N. Security Council’s al-Qaida Sanctions Committee.24
Since 2017 one can also observe attempts to bring militant groups into the political mainstream. In August 2017, JuD tried to set up its own political party with the Milli Muslim League (MML). The registration was refused by the Government.25The party was able to run in the by-election in Lahore in September (NA-120) with an independent candidate who used posters of Hafiz Saeed. He secured nearly 6000 votes, which was nearly five percent of the total vote. That was also much more than the combined votes for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).26 The Islamabad High Court has also challenged the decision of the Election Commission not to register the MML as a political party without a hearing of its case.27
Besides the MML, various Islamist parties have, for the elections in 2018, revived the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) which had ruled KP province from 2002 to 2008.28 Moreover, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a political party headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, which had blockaded Islamabad in November 2017 and brought parts of the capital to a standstill, has also announced that it would enter the political mainstream in the 2018 elections. In contrast to traditional religious parties which are part of the MMA that follow mostly the Deobandi School, the JuD/MML follows the Ahl-e-Hadith tradition and the TLP represents more radical parts of the Barlevi school.29
It is not really clear why the security forces allow the entry of extremist groups into the political mainstream. On the one hand, the greater number of religious parties may foster religious extremist views in the election campaign. This can be a challenge for moderate parties. On the other hand, religious parties never had a large following in Pakistan. With the exception of 2002 they have achieved between three to eight percent of the votes. The new parties represent different religious traditions. This may increase competition among the religious parties which may lead to a further split of the vote.
Moreover, the military seems to be more confident to control the militants after its success in the Operation Zarb-i-Azb in 2014 against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups. These military operations have been decisive to improve the security situation in Pakistan after 2015. Finally, the religious parties may be seen as a useful instrument against the dominance of the PML-N especially in Punjab in the forthcoming electoral battles.30
The Af-Pak region will remain a centre of terrorism. But the real challenge for the region emanates from the variety of national and regional militant groups rather than from global terrorist groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State. The main center of the militant confrontation will be in Afghanistan, where the government and the international community are fighting not only against the Taliban but also against al-Qaida and IS. But it is important to keep in mind that these groups are also fighting amongst each other. Pakistan is facing new challenges with the sanctions of the FATF. This has put the focus on the supporting structures of terrorism whose elimination remains a persistent task for the international community.
It also remains a persistent challenge for the countries in the region to set up new initiatives for fighting the different forms of trans-national terrorism. This has not worked in the context of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which had passed a convention against terrorism already in the late 1980s. India has expanded its security cooperation with its neighbors in recent years.31Moreover, the Indian government is promoting new regional formats like BIMSTEC which may be a more adequate institution for a regional approach against terrorism than SAARC.
The new wildcard in the regional equation will certainly be China. Massive Chinese investments in Pakistan and other South Asian countries will increase Chinese interest in a secure regional environment. China’s support for the FATF sanctions against Pakistan may be a first step towards a greater Chinese engagement in this regard. It will also be interesting to see how far this will affect the relationship with Pakistan.
1 Mohammed Sinan Siyech, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS): Renewing Efforts in India, Singapore (International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), Sep 19, 2017,
2 http://www.mei.edu/content/map/al-qaeda-indian-subcontinent-aqis-renewing-efforts-india
3 Hugh Tomlinson, Isis launches first strike on India with train attack, The Times, March 9 2017,
4 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/world/asia/isis-messaging-app-terror-plot.html
5 Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage.The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, London 2011.
6 http://globalterrorismindex.org/ 08.03.18
7 Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Pakistan Security Report 2016, Islamabad 2016.
8 Naveed Siddiqui, “Govt confirms Pakistan will be placed on FATF terror financing watchlist in June”, dawn.com, 28.02.2018.
9 Pakistan supported, trained terror groups: Musharraf, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/south-asia/pakistan-supported-trained-terror-groups-like-lashkaretaiba-pervez-musharraf/article7813284.ece? homepage=true, 28.10.15; Musharraf’s balderdash, Editorial, https://www.dawn.com/news/1373914/musharrafs-balderdash, December 01, 2017.
10 http://www.un.org/press/en/2012/sc10578.doc.htm.
11 https://nacta.gov.pk/proscribed-organizations/ 08.03.18.
12 Roul, Animesh (2015), Jamaat-ud Daawa: Into the Mainstream, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/jamaat-ud-daawa-into-the-mainstream, April 30, 2015, p.4 (accessed 22.11.16).
13 The Express Tribune (2017a), Protests expected after Hafiz Saeed placed under house arrest,
http://tribune.com.pk/story/1312278/protests-expected-hafiz-saeed-placed-house-arrest/, January 31, 2017
14 Yousaf, Kamran (2017), Hafiz Saeed’s arrest a policy decision: army, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1313508/civil-military-convergence-hafiz-saeeds-arrest-policy-decision-army/, February 1, 2017.
15 Chaudhry, Asif (2017), Names of Hafiz Saeed, aide added to ATA’s fourth schedule, Dawn 18.02.17,
http://www.dawn.com/news/1315473/names-of-hafiz-saeed-aide-added-to-atas-fourth-schedule, 18.2.17.
16 The Hindu (2017), Hafiz Saeed can pose a serious threat to Pakistan: Defence Minister, 21. Februar,
http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/Hafiz-Saeed-can-pose-a-serious-threat-to-Pak-Defence-Minister/article17339021.ece (eingesehen 21.02.17).
17 Baqir Sajjad Syed, Anti-terror law amended to ban UN-listed groups, individuals, https://www.dawn.com/news/1389042/anti-terror-law-amended-to-ban-un-listed-groups-individuals, February 13, 2018.
18 Aamir Yasin, Government takes over JuD seminary, dispensaries in Rawalpindi, https://www.dawn.com/news/1389282/government-takes-over-jud-seminary-dispensaries-in-rawalpindi, February 14, 2018.
19 Qadeer Tanoli, FATF grey list: 148 properties of JuD, FIF confiscated in Punjab, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1654882/1-fatf-grey-list-148-properties-jud-fif-confiscated-punjab/, March 8, 2018.
20 Sirajuddin, KP government seals offices of Hafiz Saeed’s JuD, FIF; seizes mosques, seminaries,
https://www.dawn.com/news/1395851/kp-government-seals-offices-of-hafiz-saeeds-jud-fif-seizes-mosques-seminaries, March 17, 2018.
21 ‘Saeed still operating out of JuD head office’, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/saeed-still-operating-out-of-jud-head-office/article22950543.ece, March 06, 2018.
22 Mohiuddin Aazim, Banks have mixed feelings on FATF move, https://www.dawn.com/news/1390297/banks-have-mixed-feelings-on-fatf-move, February 19, 2018.
23 Kamran Yousaf, After FATF fiasco, govt looks inwards, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1644771/1-fatf-fiasco-govt-looks-inwards/, February 26, 2018.
24 K.J.M. Varma, China blocks US, France, UK bid to list Masood Azhar as global terrorist by UN,
http://www.livemint.com/Politics/ABEmOW05luaAgJjaVcrfqI/China-says-no-consensus-over-listing-Masood-Azhar-as-global.html¸ 2.11.17.
25 Mubashir Zaidi, Pak. govt. against registration of Hafiz Saeed’s JuD’s political wing as political party,
http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/pakistan-opposes-registration-of-milli-muslim-league-as-political-party/article19756502.ece, September 26, 2017.
26 Despite Pakistan govt’s opposition, Hafiz Saeed opens MML office in Lahore, http://www.business-standard.com/article/international/despite-pakistan-govt-s-opposition-hafiz-saeed-opens-mml-office-in-lahore-117122500197_1.html, December 25, 2017; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NA-120_by-election,_2017.
27 Iftikhar A. Khan, ECP’s decision not to register JuD-backed Milli Muslim League as political party set aside, https://www.dawn.com/news/1394052/ecps-decision-not-to-register-jud-backed-milli-muslim-league-as-political-party-set-aside, March 09, 2018.
28 Habib Khan Ghori, Maulana Fazl to head recently revived MMA, Dawn march 21, 2018,
29 Pervez Hoodbhoy, Mainstreaming jihad: why now? https://www.dawn.com/news/1376805/mainstreaming-jihad-why-now, December 16, 2017.
30 Pervez Hoodbhoy, Mainstreaming jihad: why now? https://www.dawn.com/news/1376805/mainstreaming-jihad-why-now, December 16, 2017.
31 Christian Wagner, India’s Bilateral Security Relationship in South Asia, Strategic Analysis, Volume 42, Issue 1, January-February 2018, pp. 15-28.
(This article is a summary of the remarks made by Habil. Christian Wagner, Senior Fellow, Stiftung Wissenschaft and Politik, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Germany at the Counter Terrorism Conference 2018 on 15th March, 2018 at Gurugram, Haryana.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of May-June 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)


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