Jihadi Terrorism in Af-Pak Region and its Regional Implications
September 13, 2017
India Foundation hosted a workshop on the ‘Jihadi Terrorism in Af-Pak Region and its Regional Implications’ at the 17th World Summit on Counter Terrorism organised by Institute of Counter Terrorism, Herzliya, Israel. World Summit on Counter Terrorism is an annual event of the ICT, Herzliya, post the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The specific subject was chosen by India Foundation to sensitise Western countries to the threat posed by Jihadi Terror in the Af-Pak region as earlier discussions on the subject were restricted to terrorism concerns that emanated from threats from the Middle East to the Western world. There was thus a need to shift the focus of the international community to acts of terrorism in the vicinity of the Indian subcontinent. The workshop was chaired byCapt (IN) AlokBansal, Director, India Foundation. The following speakers participated:
- Shri Amar Sinha, Former Ambassador and Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, India,
- Michael Barak, Senior Researcher, ICT, Inter Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel,
- Shri Milo Comerford, Analyst, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, United Kingdom
- Peter Knoope, Associate Fellow and Former Director, International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT), The Netherlands,
- Jonathan Paris, Senior Advisor, Chertoff Group, United Kingdom.
- Gen. (Ret.) Syed Ata Hasnain, Former Military Secretary & Army Corps Commander, Indian Army.
- (Res.) Dr. Shaul Shay. Research Fellow, ICT and Director of Research, Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS),
- IDC, Herzliya, Israel was the respondent.
A gist of the points emphasized by the various speakers is given below.
Capt. (IN) AlokBansal
The world view at the conference has been limited to Middle-East and the Western World, sometimes giving the impression that only the area between Israel and the United States was affected by terrorism. However, India has been affected by terrorism much before 9/11. A common narrative being propagated gives one an impression that the Middle East is the only arena of terror and everything will be perfect if Shia extremism, as reflected by Iran today, is countered. It tends to project global terror outfits like al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) being in a state of decline and consequently, easy to tackle. This warped view also does not take into consideration, the existence of rogue nations like North Korea.
Ground realities however suggest that terror outfits like al Qaeda and IS are still a very major threat to global peace. Whilst it is true that the territory they control is shrinking, their influence is certainly not declining. A large number of youth continue to be driven towards these radical outfits, not because of any sense of alienation or deprivation, but due to a theological narrative that justifies their actions. We cannot undermine the theological undertones of terrorism, as it is this which attracts youth across the globe. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, though born in Middle East, moved to Af-Pak region as they believed that for theological validation, they needed to fight the war in Khorasan. Similarly IS also established a Khurasan Chapter, as soon as they had some presence in the region. It is essential to understand the theological underpinnings of terror and come up with a counter narrative. Since Khurasan incorporates Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is essential to understand the strands of terrorism there, because they will impact the whole world.
Ambassador Amar Sinha
While sitting in Israel and talking of terror, the outer boundary seems limited to Iran. One only has to glance at the map to realise that Israel and India are two extremities between which various proxies, non state actors and non states are acting. The Taliban remains the most radical and obscurantist group that was created in 1994 to fight the anti USSR Afghan Mujahideen after the withdrawal of USSR. Pakistan desired a pliable government in Kabul and chose an ignorant village cleric, Mullah Omar to lead it till his death was announced in Pakistan two years ago. Mullah Omar had declared himself as Amir al-Mu’minin. The Taliban leadership operates from the safe havens in Pakistan, like al Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden till he was located and killed in Abbottabad. The Afghan Mujahideen groups also known as the Peshawar 7 were all based in Pakistan and ISI was the main channel for all material support that came from the USA, Saudi Arabia also China. The jihad was launched to fight the godless communists. In a way, Taliban is a residue of this war.
The Taliban ran a government from 1996 to 2001, but controlled only 75 percent of the country and received recognition from only three nations—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE while the Rabbani government retained the seat in the UN and existed in the North.Post 9/11, Taliban was given the option of handing over Osama bin Laden or facing US military. They chose the Pashtun tradition of standing by their guest. Their government collapsed within weeks and it required only a dozen of special forces supporting the Northern Alliance to do the job.
A number of myths exist about Taliban, the two most common being:
- Taliban controls 50 percent of Afghan territory. This is an exaggeration.
- Taliban has no global ambition and is a local insurgency. This is a self serving argument to downplay the threat of Taliban. A common saying in Afghanistan is that a good Taliban is a dead Taliban. This underlines how Taliban is viewed in that country.
When in power, the Afghan Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to the region. This created conditions for jihadists and foreign fighters of all shades to find a foothold in the region, to include al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement and several India focussed Pakistani groups. As of now, Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun group and there are various conflicts happening at the same time. There is an intra-Pashtun jostling for power, with a desire to see Pashtuns prevail over the non-Pashtuns. There is also a fight against presence of infidel foreign troops and a fight over resources including drugs. Thus, there are many drivers of conflict beyond religion. Seeking power too is an important factor. There is also the additional element of Pakistani policy of strategic depth and its search for reach beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia. Pakistan sees itself as the original Islamic state after Zia era. Pakistani Madrassas are churning out possible fighters in thousand.
With respect to Afghanistan, President Trump has departed from previous policy in that he has empowered military commanders and done away with artificial timelines. He has now linked US withdrawal to conditions on the ground. The policy also brings within its ambit the Pakistani nukes and the danger of it falling in the hands of the terrorists. The policy also underlines that fight and talk with Taliban will not go on together. Some of Afghan neighbours want US to fail for their own reasons, and leave the region. The situation in Afghanistan directly impacts India’s security. Taliban and Pakistan already boast of defeating one super power, and hope to do the same to the US.
Dr. Michael Barak: AQIS—The Neglected AQ’s Affiliate: A Growing Threat to the Region.
The rise of IS threatens the existence of al Qaeda. While IS was in focus of the entire world, al Qaeda become stronger at the same time. Aymanal-Zawahiri announced the AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) as its newest branch with an aim to broaden its influence in South Asia. AQIS is active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It has been targeting mosques in Pakistan, is active in Kashmir in India, is involved in acts of killing bloggers and LGBT activists in Bangladesh and is working against Buddhists in Myanmar. It believes in establishing Caliphate and the rule of Shariah. AQIS was involved in an attack on naval dockyard in Pakistan in September, 2014. It uses technology to meet its purposes, to include messaging services like Telegram, Twitter and YouTube. It also believes in promoting the idea of Maritime Jihad by targeting ships and naval trade routes and controlling the Indian Ocean. AQIS is different from IS in that it believes in winning hearts and minds of the people. It portrays itself as more liberal and modern than IS and believes in avoiding antagonising the civil society. AQIS aims to regroup and unite jihadi groups in South Asia.
AQIS believes in Ghazwa-e-Hind and aims to gain wider support among the people by focusing on domestic political agenda. For instance, they supported the protests against killing of the terrorist BurhanWani. Zakir Musa, the Kashmir leader of the AQIS has said that he wants to create an Islamic State in Kashmir. In Myanmar, AQIS has supported Rohingya cause and given a call to fight for them. Fighters from Bangladesh are now going to fight for the cause of Rohingya. AQIS has a strategic understanding and their capability should not be underestimated.
Mr. Milo Comerford: ISIS & the Taliban—A battle of Ideas in Afghanistan. A lot of propaganda is being spewed by various groups and they have differences in their theological understandings. We can now see the emergence of a Khorasan province in Afghanistan to build theological legitimacy. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Islamic State’s now-deceased spokesperson, announced an expansion of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate into the “Lands of Khorasan.” Militant violence escalated rapidly and Afghanistan saw more deaths from terrorism in 2015 than ever before in the country, with around 800 more casualties than in the previous year. The Taliban perhaps could have refashioned itself as a “moderate” alternative to ISIS brutality. Instead it doubled down, launching renewed attacks under sustained pressure, culminating in the brief capture of the city of Kunduz in September 2015. ISIS’s rise undoubtedly played a role as a catalyst for the commencement of a “race to the bottom” between militants, as the Taliban’s monopoly on anti-state violence diminished.
ISIS and the Taliban’s competing claims of legitimacy are framed in almost exclusively religious tones, while their criticisms of their rivals are primarily ideological. Taliban rhetoric and propaganda focuses on showing itself as a truer and more pious defender of Islam than its rival. The Taliban explicitly differentiates itself from ISIS by emphasising its adherence to Hanafi jurisprudence, one of the four orthodox Sunni schools, in line with the practice of the majority of Afghan Sunnis. According to Michael Semple, an expert on Taliban ideology, “Taliban opposition to ISIS rests on the movement’s well-established position of rejecting Salafism as an alien deviation from Afghan clerical tradition.” This is paradoxical as it gets support from Saudi. ISIS seeks to show that the Taliban is religiously ‘deviant’ and has criticised the group’s “significant Sharia mistakes.” But non-religious arguments are also being made by ISIS propaganda to broaden its appeal across Afghanistan. ISIS portrays the Taliban’s mission as being narrow and nationalistic, and by “emphasising the Pashtun-centric nature of the Taliban,” the group has worked to appeal to other rival ethnic groups, evidenced through its recruitment of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to its cause.
Till date, there have been only three points of convergence between IS & al Qaeda and all these have been against Afghan forces. An analyst Obaid Ali has suggested that sympathy for ISIS is rising among young fighters and there are prospects of collaboration-against non-state targets too. In an attack on Hazara village where fifty Shia muslims were killed by a Taliban commander, he pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. IS commanders have said that they will sanction joint attacks with Taliban on Hazara Shias in Afghanistan. There are echoes of jihadi consolidation globally.
Mr. Jonathan Paris: Trends in Pakistan-related Terrorism.
Pakistan continues to sponsor terror from within its borders. India, for the first time, is announcing and mounting attacks on cross border terror groups. Despite all this, South Asia has limited state capacity in law enforcement and intelligence.
Pakistan is not a failed state but is a nuclear failing state but it continues to muddle through. Whilst politics in Pakistan may be dysfunctional and military may be involved in the political process, but Taliban is unlikely to make major inroads in Pakistan with support from mainstream society as long as military is cohesive, the public remains conservative and deep ethnic differences in Pakistan continue to remain muted. Today, it can be said that we are living in a security village where one country’s security depth is another country’s insecurity.
Mr. Peter Knoope: The Indian Subcontinent
In the early 20th century, Britain played the sectarian card and gave rise to tension by playing divide and rule. The animosity between India and Pakistan has its basis is religion and runs in the DNA of the region. ISI and Army in Pakistan are part of mixture of political and security arrangement. The general population of Pakistan is anti US/West, while in India, larger population is pro US.
Twenty percent population in Pakistan is Shia, which is the largest Shia population after Iran; in some parts it is even in the majority. But since 2004, there has been increased targeting of Shia population. In Bangladesh, the attack on the Holey bakery, which was claimed by IS, was an anti-Shia attack. There is increased presence and action by IS in India since 2014, with significant presence on Bangladesh border and Kerala. There is a deliberate attempt to increase the Wahhabi influence in India to create influence against Shias. The sectarian divide may shift in India from Hindu-Muslim to Shia-Sunni. There is a constant influence of external factors like that of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, US and UK in the Indian Subcontinent and it is important that the governments respond.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Syed Ata Hasnain: Terrorism & Hybrid Conflict in Kashmir—Its Effects on the Af-Pak Region.
There are historical similarities of security issues that face Israel and India. Both nations attained their independence around the same time. Immediately after independence, India faced a tribal attack from Pakistan while Israel faced attack from the Arab world. Israel won the important ‘Six Day War’ in 1967 and India won the war in 1971 against Pakistan which created Bangladesh. Israel saw the ideological threat of Muslim Brotherhood in Middle East while India witnessed the Jamat-e-Islami movement. Both were responsible for spread of Islamic radicalism. Islamic radicalism as we know it today, was born in the refugee camps on the boundary of Pakistan and Afghanistan where three million refugees had been displaced by the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. The first jihadi warriors (all transnational) of the world were financed by Saudi Arabia, armed by the US and aided by Pakistan’s ISI. The trend of using radical Jihadism to unite fighters and link the target populace with the ideological sponsors (in this case Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) became a model which was then attempted in Chechnya, Bosnia and Kashmir.
Pakistan’s strategy against India is to flood Kashmir with foreign terrorists and motivate the locals to pick up arms. The foreign terrorists are experienced fighters from the war in Afghanistan. There are Pakistani fighters too, from its bad lands, jails (death row) and even a few HIV patients who were motivated to die for the Islamic cause to atone for their sins. A lot of financial assistance comes from Saudi Arabia, primarily for converting the local Sufi ideology to a more radical strain of Salafism. The Kashmiri Sufi clergy with mosques have been replaced to some extent by Salafi oriented clergy from Central India. Despite this, the population of Kashmir today does not accept ISIS ideology. The frequent display of ISIS flags is a measure of diverting attention of the Indian intelligence agencies and instigating the security forces. At the same time Al Qaeda does have a presence in Kashmir today. In the last 25 years its efforts to find a presence failed miserably but the minuscule presence today is an attempt to get its foot into the door before the ISIS seriously gets in. The Al Qaida threat is not taken very seriously. As a matter of interest some latest techniques that Jihadis use is to concentrate flash mobs with the help of mosque public address systems and social media to disrupt police and army action against terrorists. This is a major challenge to security forces as care has to be taken to avoid civilian casualties.
Pakistan’s security concerns presently has three major areas of focus-first is Afghanistan where it wishes to sustain Taliban and Haqqani network to prevent an Indian foothold emerging. Second is to stabilise the internal conflict in Pakistan where the TTP and other jihadi groups are battling Pakistani security forces. The third area of interest remains Kashmir where the proxy war is calibrated as per situation.
Dr. Shaul Shay
We need a more comprehensive point of view. Did the sixteen years long American intervention in Afghanistan with 2300 American soldiers losing their lives and the war costing around 700 billion dollars, really win the war for America? We need to evaluate what will happen and to learn from history and experience. Rise of IS was a surprise for everyone and no one was able to predict it. It was a combination of failed stated, vacuum left after America and lack of governance. There are similarities in Afghanistan today. Africa and Afghanistan are two theatres that need to be looked closely. The part that most benefitted from Middle East instability is Iran. It wants to fulfil the dream of Shia crest and if Iran could find Shia militias in Africa it can also find them in Afghanistan. Iranian interest in Af-Pak region is to reduce American involvement and the only power that can influence and create stability in Afghanistan is India.
Capt. (IN) AlokBansal
Israel needs to look beyond Ayatollahs in Iran and make a distinction between them and Iranian public. Iranians need to be viewed as potential allies and not as enemies. If Israel and western world would have looked beyond immediate benefits, they would see that it was AQ Khan Nuclear Wal-Mart that provided nuclear technology to both North Korea and Iran. If this enterprise was nipped in the bud, the globe would not have been staring at the nuclear scare that we are faced with today. Again, the world seems to be making the same mistake of looking at immediate benefits. It is important that a counter narrative be created against terrorism, which is seeped in theology and can be used to prevent youth from gravitating towards global terror outfits. This is a battle of the brains and cannot be won by bombs and bullets.
‘The report is prepared by Aaditya Tiwari. Senior Research Fellow, India Foundation who participated in the workshop as a rapporteur.’