Mohammed Sinan Siyech, Research Analyst, and Teertha Samal, Intern, work with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies RSIS), NTU. They contributed on India
By Abdul Basit , Sara Mahmood, Iftekharul Bashar , Mohammed Sinan Siyech and Teertha Samal of RSIS
Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses
Volume 10, Issue 1 | January 2018
South Asia, along with the Middle East and Africa, were among the most affected regions by terrorism in 2017. The worst hit were Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the face of the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East, particularly the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, the South Asian threat landscape has evolved continuously. In addition to the lingering conflicts in Kashmir and Afghanistan, the reemergence of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar‘s Rakhine state, has left South Asia vulnerable to jihadist exploitations. Both Al-Qaeda and IS issued statements in favour of Rohingya Muslims in a bid to exploit another conflict involving Muslim grievances in the region. At the same time, the on-going religious revivalist movements involving perceived insecurities of the majority faiths in India and Pakistan can create more openings for jihadists, if the trend is not checked in earnest.
South Asian jihadism is both complex and varied with overlapping ideological narratives and political agendas of varying scopes and orientations. The region is home to the largest number of jihadist groups of various hues in the world. The most lethal jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-eMuhammad (JeM), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), among others, continue to operate from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. This overwhelming presence of jihadist groups constitutes three models of jihadism in South Asia: Al-Qaida‘s readjusted version of Gloacalised jihad, IS‘ caliphate narrative and the Taliban‘s emirate model along with narrower sectarian versions of Sunni and Shia jihadism as well as groups focusing on Kashmir.
Notwithstanding IS defeat in the Middle East, the ISK in Afghanistan has significantly upgraded its capabilities to inspire and lead attacks not just in the region but in the West as well. In the last two years, two foiled attack plots in the US were traced back to ISK, one of which involved a complex network of IS operatives in Pakistan, Canada and the Philippines. In mid-December 2017, the involvement of a US citizen of Bangladeshi origin, Akayed Ullah, in the failed pipe bomb attack in Manhattan‘s Port Authority Bus Terminal, is the precursor of likely things to come. The defeat of IS can make Afghanistan, once again, the most favoured destination for jihadists resulting in increasing levels of threat to regional and global peace. This year, ISK has succeeded in spreading its tentacles in Afghanistan to the northern Jawzjan province where it is training over 300 Afghan youth under the age of 20 for future attacks. Alarmingly, some French, Moroccan, Algerian, Tajik and Chechen foreign fighters who returned from Syria were spotted in Jawzjan‘s Darzab district.
A new dimension of the South Asian jihadist landscape in 2017 was the focus on recruiting and utilising female jihadists in primary and secondary roles as supporters and combatants. The Pakistani Taliban published two issues of its new English language magazine Sunnat-e-Khaula highlighting the importance of females with an aim to attract recruitment. Similarly, in Bangladesh, the IS-affiliated jihadist group, Neo-JMB has employed females in combat roles. Usually, females have been forced by their male family members to join the jihad. A linked but separate trend in 2017 was the growing involvement of South Asian educated youth from urban middle and upper middle-class backgrounds into militant activism. The university and college educated youth have not only been joining the jihadist groups more frequently from South Asia at individual level but they have formed lone-wolf cells to carry out the so called jihad by using the ideological umbrella of either Al-Qaeda or IS. The emergence of Al-Qaeda linked Jamaat Ansar Al-Sharia in Pakistan, comprising university-students and faculty members, and Ansar Ghazwat-ulHind in Kashmir under the disaffected Hizbul-Mujiadeen commander Zakir Musa, are worrying trends. It underscores the fact that educated youth of urban locales have become particularly vulnerable to slick propaganda operations of jihadist groups through social media.
Given the above, the jihadist threat will persist in South Asia with its epicentre in AfPak region for five particular reasons. First, porous borders coupled with pockets of conflict spread throughout the region provide jihadist groups with suitable conditions and openings to operate with impunity. Second, the US-Russia geopolitical fault line developing in Afghanistan, manifested by Moscow‘s assertive role in its backyard and Washington‘s new Afghan policy of stepping up the war effort in Afghanistan, will keep the jihadist threat alive. Russia, Iran and Pakistan have developed nexuses with the Afghan Taliban to counter ISK‘s security threat and US presence in Afghanistan, which they deem as threats to their regional interests and national securities.
Under President Donald Trump‘s new Afghan policy, the US military is also reviving the anti-Taliban tribal militias (known as local/tribal peace councils) at the village levels to counter Taliban‘s growing influence. However, backing such jihadist and anti jihadist militias in Afghanistan is a recipe for more violence and instability. The Trump administration is also expanding the CIA-led drone programme to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, which will fuel jihadist recruitment and increase anti Americanism. Both narratives will feed into the jihadist propaganda. Third, the geo-sectarian fault-line emerging between Iran and Saudi Arabia with a renewed competition for dominance and influence in the Middle East will keep South Asia‘s Muslim majority nations vulnerable to the pull and push factors of this sectarian struggle. Fourth, the regional proxy-battles between India and Pakistan involving aiding and funding jihadist groups against each other in the region will keep the jihadists in business in South Asia.
Finally, the absence of regional counterterrorism frameworks under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) umbrella not only keeps the counter-terrorism potential of the region under-utilised but provides jihadists a permissible environment to operate. This is unlike Southeast Asia where various initiatives under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework have been instrumental in enhancing the regional cooperation against the twin threats of extremism and terrorism. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have advanced militaries, intelligence apparatuses and lawenforcement structures and each country has done well, operationally, against the domestic terrorist threat. Moreover, the bilateral cooperation between India and Bangladesh in counter-terrorism and border management has been effective but it needs to be expanded at the SAARC level.
Pakistan, Indian and Bangladesh have also formulated their PVE and CVE strategies focusing on social media narratives, local grievances that drive jihadist recruitment, creating counter narratives against violent ideologies, targeting avenues that can possibly be exploited by jihadists to further their agendas such as madrassas, revision of religious curriculum and monitoring of vulnerable individuals. Along with enhancing the scope of existing PVE and CVE policies in South Asia, the region needs to move towards preventive approaches to complement the existing initiatives to fight extremism.
In 2017, the security situation in Afghanistan remained turbulent as Afghanistan ranked the second most volatile country in the world after Syria, according to the Global Peace Index 2017.1 While the Afghan Taliban further expanded their territorial control, the failure of Afghanistan‘s National Unity Government (NUG) to govern and provide security to the masses has added to public anger and frustration.2 The overall deadlock of the Afghan conflict continued, despite US President Donald Trump‘s Afghanistan Policy of staying the course that has preserved the existing status quo. The stalled Afghan peace process was reinitiated in October under the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), comprising Afghanistan, United States, Pakistan and China, but it did not make much headway.3 Parallel to the QCG process, Russia launched its own Afghan peace initiative and held three meetings between late 2016 and early 2017.4 This has not only complicated the on-off Afghan peace process but also ended the regional and international consensus of reaching a joint settlement to end the war.
Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan
According to Daniel Byman and Bruce Hoffman et al., insurgent movements require expertise in guerrilla warfare, control of territory, external support (sanctuaries, supply of weapons and finances) and a popular narrative that resonates with the local population to succeed.5 The Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have an advantage over the NUG in all four respects. Insurgency is a political competition to gain credibility where the insurgents target the governments in an attempt to supplant them by creating parallel governance structures (state-within-a-state, Taliban fiefdoms). The Taliban have a well-entrenched shadow governance system in Afghanistan with their governors and ministers.6 On the contrary, the NUG has failed to deliver on its promises of economic development, curbing corruption and improving governance and security, which has further strengthened the Taliban‘s position.
The insurgency in Afghanistan remains resilient and undefeated and is expanding its territorial control. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Taliban control 11 of Afghanistan‘s 400 districts and influence another 34, while 100 districts remain contested between the Taliban and NUG. At the same time, the Taliban have secured external support in the form of safe havens, financial assistance and weapon supplies from various neighbouring countries by exploiting the existing global and regional fault lines.
In the context of an armed conflict, terrorist attacks work as communication and political strategies, which serve multiple purposes. According to Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, five main strategic logics underpin terrorism campaigns: attrition, intimidation, provocation, spoiling and outbidding. For instance, attacks against government and security institutions aim to discourage people from joining government organisations, lower the morale of security personnel, and shake population‘s confidence in the government. On the contrary, attacks targeting the civilians are meant to create an impression that the government is incapable of providing security to the masses. The Taliban are attacking both the government and civilians in Afghanistan to further discredit NUG and shrink its already narrow political base.
In 2017, the Taliban changed their operational strategies from solely relying on terrorism to more ―traditional conflict tactics‖ against the NUG and the Afghan national police and army. This year, the civilian casualties witnessed a slight decrease in Afghanistan due to the Taliban’s strategy of conventional military methods to target the NUG and Afghan forces. Compared to 2016, there was an overall decrease of six percent in civilian casualties. Additionally, knowing the local terrain, the Taliban have honed the art of guerrilla war, reflecting a superior will and a patient approach of waiting out on the US-led military mission in Afghanistan (you have the watch; we have the time). Most significantly, the Taliban‘s narrative of ending the US occupation in Afghanistan resonates with the masses even if they disagree with the ideological outlook and extremist worldview of the former.
Notwithstanding Taliban‘s impressive battlefield victories, the insurgency in Afghanistan is stalemated. Neither side is in a position to impose a military solution over the other, nor are they willing to moderate their stated positions to reach a political compromise. The Taliban lack the manpower, expertise and firepower to transform tactical gains into permanent strategic advantages. Similarly, with the international community‘s assistance, the NUG has managed to survive, albeit on a narrow political base, by retaining control of key urban centres, denying Taliban a complete takeover.
The deadlock is further perpetuated by the efforts from both sides to gain an advantageous position to influence future negotiations. The Taliban have been expanding their territorial control to gain a better bargaining position, if and when, peace negotiations resume. Likewise, the NUG and the US have intensified their military operations and airstrikes against the Taliban to compel them to rethink their militaristic approach and reconcile with the government.
The deadlock has allowed the peace spoilers to exploit the existing fault lines. For instance, various factions of the Pakistani Taliban, which were uprooted from Pakistan‘s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) during the military operations, have found sanctuaries in Afghanistan‘s border areas. They continue to launch attacks inside Pakistan from their Afghan bases forcing the Pakistani authorities to fence the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which has been a source of constant friction between the two neighbours. The hideouts of Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan have generated recriminations and blame games. Similarly, the unrest in Afghanistan has allowed the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), the regional affiliate of IS, to create footholds in the eastern Nangarhar and northern Jawzjan provinces.
Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK)
Since its creation in 2015, the group has upgraded its operational capabilities from an opportunistic entity to a well-entrenched terrorist group, possessing the capability to carry out attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the ideological allure to attract vulnerable individuals from India and Pakistan to its training centres in eastern and northern Afghanistan.18 Presently, ISK has its presence in Afghanistan‘s Nangarhar, Ghor, Jawzjan, Uruzgan, Logar, and Kunar provinces.
The defeat of IS in the Middle East has not affected the operational strength of ISK in Afghanistan, per se. Following territorial losses, IS has moved most of its external operations outside of Iraq and Syria. In early 2016, a cell comprising IS operatives in Pakistan, Canada and the Philippines plotted a high profile attack, involving suicide vests and firearms, in New York‘s Time Square. The explosive used in suicide vests was signature IS-explosive TATP. Moreover, the authorisation of the attack came from IS‘ ―Wilayat Khorasan‖ in Afghanistan. The cell was neutralised in late 2016. Another USbased IS lone wolf terrorist Mahin Khan was arrested from Arizona in July 2016 for contacting ISK leaders in Afghanistan in a bid to seek help to carry out an attack on behalf of the group This points to ISK‘s growing capabilities of inspiring and directing attacks in the US and the West from Afghanistan. Evidently, the aspiring jihadists of South Asian origins in the US and the West are taking directions from ISK leadership for carrying out lone-wolf attacks. Given this, it is quite likely that in future pro-IS jihadists may travel to Afghanistan for training. The group has spread its tentacles to northern Afghanistan as well. In February, Abdul Malik, the son of IMU‘s founder Tahir Yuldashev, moved to northern Afghanistan‘s Jawzjan province along with fighters and families of pro-IS Pakistani Taliban factions by defeating the Afghan Taliban. As of November, they have achieved full freedom of operations along with getting reinforcements from southern Afghanistan.
Despite losing three of its top leaders (Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim and Abdul Haseeb Loghari), ISK has consistently carried out attacks underscoring its organisational strength and resilience. Other than attacking security and government officials in Afghanistan, ISK terrorists have also targeted the Shia community in an effort to exploit the SunniShia sectarian fault-line. In 2016, ISK carried out as many as 51 attacks, leaving over 500 people dead as opposed to 120 killings in 2015. This upward trend is likely to continue in the future as well because some of the IS-affiliated foreign fighters, uprooted from Iraq and Syria, will relocate to the Khorasan chapter, augmenting the operational and organisational strength of ISK. Alarmingly, some French, Moroccan, Algerian, Tajik and Chechen foreign fighters who returned from Syria were spotted in Jawzjan‘s Darzab district.
The presence of ISK has generated fierce inter-group competition with the Taliban leaving very little space for the latter to engage in the peace process with the NUG. The more ambitious and ideologically devout elements of the Afghan Taliban have the alternative option of joining the ISK if the pronegotiation section of the insurgent movement joins the political negotiations.
This year, the peace process resumed under the QCG framework but it failed to make any progress. Until late 2016, despite its inability to produce any positive outcomes, the regional and international consensus of achieving a unified political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan remained intact. In 2017, the largest setback to peace process was the breakdown of regional and international consensus. While the QCG process was shelved in April 2016 with the killing of Taliban‘s supreme leader Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor in a drone attack in Balochistan, Russia launched its own diplomatic initiative on Afghanistan with the backing of Pakistan, China and Iran. Three meetings were held under the Russian initiative without much avail.
This has created two rival blocs on the Afghan peace process led by the US and Russia, respectively. The US camp has India, Afghanistan and the West aiming to find a solution within Afghan democratic and constitutional framework. The Russian camp has Pakistan, China, Iran and some Central Asian states advocating powersharing agreement between the Taliban and NUG, while demanding a credible timeline from the US to exit from Afghanistan.
Impact of Trump’s Afghanistan-South Asia Policy
Like his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama, US President Donald Trump‘s Afghanistan policy, announced in August 2017, was no different. Trump adopted a condition-based approach instead of a timeline-driven agenda, moved from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism, increased US military deployment by 4,000 soldiers and adopted a tough-line against Pakistan. Moreover, the Trump administration gave the US military a greater role in handling matters in Afghanistan.
However, despite making the right political noises the gap between policy and implementation is gigantic. For instance, the condition-based approach that ensures the long-term US commitment to Afghanistan has stabilised the NUG but the addition of 4,000 troops is insufficient to break the deadlock of insurgency.32 Simply put, 15,000 troops cannot achieve what 150,000 US and NATO troops could not do. Furthermore, conflict militarisation in Afghanistan will prolong the war fuelling geopolitical competition and regional proxy-wars. Similarly, pressurising Pakistan to use its influence on the Taliban to give up violence and negotiate with the NUG is appropriate but playing off India to force the former to comply with US demands is counterproductive. This strategy will further strengthen Pakistan‘s support of the Taliban and embrace of China because the policy rhetoric of giving India a larger role in Afghanistan adds to Pakistan‘s strategic anxiety of encirclement by India between its eastern and western fronts.
The paradox emanating from the continued US presence in Afghanistan has simultaneously generated both stability and instability, hopes and fears, peace and conflict in the war-torn country. No external power other than the US wields enough diplomatic influence, military prowess and financial strength to support the government in Afghanistan. At the same time, the continued US stay in Afghanistan has generated a hedging attitude in regional powers, which have cultivated their own proxy groups in Afghanistan to secure their regional interests.
Taliban’s Diversified Regional Relations
Since 2015, the Afghan Taliban have diversified their ties with Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, minimising their sole reliance on one particular country. This has increased their leverage and enhanced their options for safe havens, weapons and funding. More importantly, the diplomatic support of these regional countries has given them more space to operate with greater freedom. The common threads in these nexuses are their reservations and antipathy towards the US and to neutralise the ISK threat.
Pakistan hosts Taliban‘s top three Shuras (religious and political councils), the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Shura in the Kurram tribal region and the Peshawar Shura. Cultivating the Afghan Taliban is Pakistan‘s most cost-effective leverage to influence future developments in Afghanistan and minimise the Indian influence. Islamabad has always advocated finding a peaceful settlement of war in Afghanistan by engaging the Taliban politically. In fact, Siraj Haqqani is considered the defacto leader of the Taliban movement for managing the group‘s successful military campaign and helping the Quetta Shura in overcoming the internal divisions within the movement.
The inconsistent US policies in Afghanistan has strengthened the impression in Islamabad that the US will, like in the late 1980s, abandon Afghanistan leaving Pakistan alone to face the blowback of Afghan civil war. To minimise the expected blow back, maintaining ties with the Taliban, arguably the most powerful non-state actor in Afghanistan, is necessary as its influence will increase even more in case of a civil war in Afghanistan.38
Moreover, the US tendency of scapegoating Pakistan for its policy failures in Afghanistan and ignoring Pakistan‘s genuine security concerns via a vis Afghanistan is another reason why Pakistan supports the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan alleges that India is aiding, arming and financing various Pakistani Taliban groups and the Baloch separatists to destabilise Pakistan from Afghanistan. However, the US has ignored the Pakistani complaints forcing it to rely on the Afghan Taliban as its proxy. The rise of ISK, which primarily comprises former Pakistani Taliban commanders and fighters has added another convergence of interest between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban to cooperate.
Historically, the ties between the Taliban, a Sunni extremist group, and Iran, a Shia majority country, remained tense. In fact, the two came close to a war in 1998 following the killing of 14 Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan‘s western Herat province. Moreover, Iran provided key intelligence to the US after 9/11 to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, since 2015, Iran‘s relationship with Taliban has evolved. Tehran is supporting the Taliban to create a buffer between its 91kilometre long border with Afghanistan and the US military bases in the country, and to eliminate ISK, which has targeted the ethnic Hazara Shias in Afghanistan.41 It is important to point out that Iran has recruited Shias from Afghanistan to fight its proxy war in Syria making the Afghan Shias a potential target of ISK.
The closeness of Iran-Taliban ties can be measured from the fact that the former Taliban chief Akhtar Mansoor had his businesses in Iran. He was killed while returning from Iran. The Taliban have opened an office in Iran‘s city of Mashhad known as the ‗Mashhad Shura‘. Families of various high-ranking Taliban leaders live in the Iranian cities of Yazd, Kerman and Mashhad. Tehran also has a covert open Following the killing of Akhtar Mansoor in 2016, Pakistan further increased and consolidated its control over the Taliban movement by elevating the head of the Haqqani Network Siraj-ud-Din Haqqani as one of the two deputies of the Taliban supremo Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada border agreement with the Taliban providing them medical facilities, finances, weapons and shelter.
The geopolitical developments in Afghanistan have compelled Russia, who fought jihadists in the 1980s, to align with them. Moscow has cultivated close ties with the Afghan Taliban to use them as a proxy against US military presence in Afghanistan. Russia views the US long-term presence in Afghanistan through a broad geo-political perspective instead of taking a narrow view of defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The Russian President‘s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kablouv has termed the long-term US presence in Afghanistan as a threat to Russian security and regional interests. In a statement, he mentioned that the level and magnitude of US presence in Afghanistan allows it to mobilise against Iran, China or Russia in two weeks. Moreover, Afghanistan gives America a strategic toehold at the confluence of South and Central Asia to contain the globally rising China, diplomatically and militarily assertive Russia and the defiant Iran and Pakistan.
Moreover, Russia‘s proactive military role in defeating the IS in Syria and keeping the Assad regime in power with the Iranian has made it IS‘ main enemy. After Arabic, Russian was the second largest language spoken in the IS-held territories in Iraq and Syria. Approximately 5,000 to 7,000 militants of Russian, north Caucus and Central Asian origins moved to Iraq and Syria to join IS.47 Now that IS has lost more than 80% of its territory in the Middle East, Moscow fears the return of these fighters will create serious security issues for it. Hence, it has fostered closer ties with the Afghan Taliban to deny ISK any substantial presence in Afghanistan.
The American interventions in Vietnam (1955-1975) and Afghanistan (2001-present) and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1988) have three common features. First is the failure of Russia and the US to sell the war to the locals: the foreign occupation remained highly unpopular in all three cases. Second, they failed to stop the predatory behaviours and interventions of neighbouring states into Vietnam and Afghanistan. Lastly, they failed to find credible and capable local partners to strengthen democracy, improve governance and build up the economy. As a result, they preferred personalisation of politics as opposed to its institutionalisation and not allowing the system to evolve and take roots.
Three major fault lines, Russia-America geopolitical competition, India-Pakistan proxybattles and the Saudi-Iran geo-sectarian rivalry, have prevented the development of a genuine Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. To give peace a real chance in Afghanistan, these fault lines will have to be neutralised. Unfortunately, Afghanistan‘s heavy reliance on foreign aid as well as dependence on neighbouring countries, being a landlocked country, for its trade has kept it vulnerable to external manipulations.
At the local level, the greatest challenge for Washington and Kabul is to extend an olive branch to the Afghan Taliban and convince them to shun violence and engage in meaningful peace talks without compromising Afghan constitutional framework and democratic order. While Pakistan can be compelled or persuaded to use its influence on the Afghan Taliban to pursue peace talks, if various power centres within the Afghan government do not speak with one voice, progress in the peace process is unlikely. In the past, the divisions within the NUG undercut the peace process.
At the regional level, to break the current gridlock, it is instructive to re-examine Afghanistan‘s pre-Cold War position of neutrality. A neutral Afghan government at the regional and global level can pave the way for a regional agreement of noninterference to create a suitable environment for the peace process. Afghanistan should disengage from security-based regional partnerships in favour of cooperation agreement signed by all its neighbours. As long as Afghanistan takes sides in regional and global geopolitical competition, it will force certain states to respond in kind by cultivating proxy groups.
At the global level, if Russia and the US continue along the same trajectory of outbidding each other in Afghanistan with the help of pliant neighbouring states then the country might turn into another Syria where the jihadist groups will be the ultimate beneficiaries. The Af-Pak region has the highest concentration of terrorist groups in the world. Of the 98 US-designated terrorist groups, 20 operate in the AfghanistanPakistan tribal region, including Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jandullah, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Lahkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS). Any further destabilisation of Afghanistan will negatively affect South and Central Asian regions with reverberations felt as far as Russia and China. The defeat of the IS in the Middle East can once again transform Afghanistan into the most favoured destination of jihadists around the world.
The status quo is likely to prevail in Afghanistan and further intensify the regional and global geopolitical competition. Afghanistan will continue to be the epicentre of jihadism in South Asia, providing various jihadist groups enough space to survive and expand. Moreover, the presence of ISK will attract sympathisers of the Caliphate narrative from South Asian states to undertake the so-called hijrah (emigration) to ISK-held territories in Afghanistan. This is both a challenge and opportunity for South Asian countries to work together in regional settings to overcome the common threat of violent-extremism and terrorism.
Pakistan faces security challenges from a plethora of terrorist groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) and Al-Qaeda linked networks that are either working in tandem or at odds with each other. The overlapping ideological narratives of these jihadist organisations espouse sectarian agendas (anti-Shia/Ahmadi inclinations), the creation of an Islamic caliphate, Kashmir jihad and Ghazwa-e-Hind ambitions.
Beyond the threat of jihadist movements, the mainstreaming of extremist values that legitimises intolerance, sectarian polarisation and radicalism has been troublesome. This is best illustrated by the glorification of a convicted terrorist (Mumtaz Qadri) by religious-political parties and approval for Hafiz Saeed, a UN-designated terrorist leader, to contest the 2018 general election. Both IS and Al-Qaeda have gained more clout in Pakistan‘s jihadist landscape and strengthened their recruitment campaigns, specifically targeting the disenfranchised youth including women. The traction of extremist narratives among educated young men and women signals the deepening political crisis, characterised by growing alienation from mainstream politics and worsening sectarian, ethnic and religious polarisation. These threats will mostly likely spill-over into 2018 with local and transnational groups perpetrating attacks at soft targets in urban centres. The state‘s militarised counter-terrorism policies are fragmented at best, and marked by the neglect of soft policy approaches to counter and prevent extremism and radicalisation.
Mainstreaming the Far-Right and Traction of Extremist Narratives
The mainstream political participation of radicalised entities and the state‘s subsequent lack of response highlight a growing space for intolerance and extremism. This trend is best illustrated by the rise of the Milli Muslim League (MML), the newly-formed political front of the proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), bagging as many as 5,822 votes, and the Tehreek-iLabaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), a Barelvi extremist organisation garnering 7,130 votes, in a national assembly by-election which was won by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz‘s (PML-N) with 61,254 votes.
Traditionally, religious parties have not performed well in Pakistan‘s electoral politics and have never been in power at national level. They have largely been reduced to being a part of coalitions and harnessing their street power to advocate religious interests. The by-election and the recent sit-in by TLY in Islamabad resulting in the resignation of the law minister indicate growing political clout and influence for the new religious-political groups. These groups are transforming Pakistan‘s Islamist politics from pan-Islamism to narrower sectarianism. The shift in voting patterns in favour of MML and TLY can be attributed to the political evolution of the PML-N from being a centreright to a centre-left party in Pakistan.
TLY‘s case in particular threatens to polarise the society along sectarian lines because it is glorifying the former Punjab governor‘s selfrighteous assassin Mumtaz Qadri as a hero. TLY, initially named the Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri, adopts a strict anti-Ahmadi and anti-Deobandi stance, and had sieged Islamabad for three weeks. More than 3,000 TLY supporters blocked the bridge connecting the garrison city of Rawalpindi, home of Pakistan military‘s General Headquarters (GHQ), with Islamabad. The 21-day sit-in symbolises the rise of the farright and their street power in Pakistan. The protests ended with an agreement between the civilian government and TLY, whose demands included easy registration of blasphemy-related cases, and direct oversight of the education board and related textbook changes.
Beyond an extremist party embroiling itself in national politics, the leader of the internationally designated terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba‘s (LeT) (now JuD), Hafiz Saeed, announced that he will contest the general election in 2018 under the MML. Saeed and his organisation has adopted an anti-India stance on Kashmir and was placed under house-detention for terrorism-related charges that were withdrawn in October 2017. Saeed was released in November and was greeted by hundreds of his supporters, who identify with his brand of ‗Kashmir jihad‘ and anti-India positioning. This development signified that a section of Pakistan‘s security establishment still views Saeed and his party as an asset and a useful proxy against India, as their support base furthers Pakistan‘s confrontational outlook towards the country. Overall, the electoral performance of both parties will not result in a political upheaval with them winning a majority of the vote during the 2018 elections. However, allowing TLY, an organisation defending a convicted terrorist and the MML, the political wing of a terrorist organisation, to gain electoral strength signifies that radical and militant Islamism will gain a deeper foothold within the country. In the context of efforts to fight terrorism, this is a serious if not ominous development. As such, Pakistan‘s accommodation of extremists in hopes of moderating them is a flawed approach as moderation should be a prerequisite to political inclusion and mainstreaming.
Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence and Islamic State’s (IS) Operational Presence
The emergence of a pro Al-Qaeda group, Jamaat Ansar al-Sharia Pakistan (ASP), comprising jihadist returnees from the Middle East, in June 2017 signalled the revival of AlQaeda in the country. ASP has conducted multiple attacks in Karachi and is headed by a relatively less well known jihadist named Ahmad Farooq.54 The group‘s ascendance indicates an acceptance of those returning from Libya, Iraq and Syria and an operational resurgence of Al-Qaeda to compete with IS Khorasan (ISK) in Afghanistan. ASP has been making efforts to establish itself as a highly active and trained organisation, in comparison to Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) that was unable to elicit significant recruits or perpetrate major attacks since its formation in 2014.55 However, ASP was neutralised in October 2017 after its members and leader were killed in security forces operations in various parts of Karachi.
Broadly, Al-Qaeda‘s resurgence is likely to have two major implications for the local militancy landscape. First, IS‘ territorial losses in Iraq and Syria will grant credence to AQ‘s claims as the leader of the global jihadist movement among local militant outfits. As such, returning fighters and those attracted by IS ideology could turn towards Al-Qaeda to wage jihad in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Second, Al-Qaeda‘s credibility and legitimacy will be strengthened further with growing linkages with local militant groups.
However, throughout 2017, IS in Pakistan has managed to remain operationally strong and visible, through its local affiliated groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami (LeJ-A) and Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA).56 Both groups perpetrated mass-casualty and high-profile attacks targeting Sufi shrines and in urban centres such as Lahore. Both organisations have targeted religious minorities, such as Shia and the Barelvi sect, with ISK claiming responsibility. A report by the Royal Unit Services Institute in January 2016, estimated that IS had at least 2,000 to 3,000 members in Pakistan.57 Alternately, intelligence representatives confirmed that more than 650 Pakistanis are fighting abroad in different conflict zones, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan and 100 of them are fighting for IS.58 It is evident that Pakistan faces a more significant threat from local IS-inspired fighters than those who have travelled abroad and might return after territorial losses.
However, the likelihood of IS and its fighters moving towards Afghanistan after facing losses in Iraq and Syria cannot be denied. Afghanistan‘s current situation, including the active insurgency and general lawlessness, confirms this. Any influx of IS fighters in Afghanistan is bound to further increase already high levels of radicalisation and extremism in Pakistan, as the group seeks to expand and attract more recruits. The threat from Al-Qaeda and IS-linked groups will possibly accumulate and inspire attacks in urban centres with religious sects being targeted as both groups continue vying for power and recruits.
Urban Educated Jihadists as a Growing Support Base
The recruitment of urban and educated jihadists from universities in Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Multan continued to negate the madrassa-terrorism nexus in 2017. The move towards violent extremism within these self-radicalised and lone-wolf jihadists is primarily related to desires to create a global Sunni caliphate.59 This recruitment is also triggered by the use of social media and its related manipulation by local and transnational jihadist organisations, and the political disenfranchisement of the youth. The authorities are aware of the threat, with the head of the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Sindh, Additional Inspector General stating, ―Radicalisation is growing at academic institutes with the CTD assessing that the next generation of militants is more likely to have university education rather than a madrassah background‖.
Moreover, reports of recruitment of the students and faculty members from Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, Karachi University and International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI), University of Peshawar (UoP) represent a potent challenge for the state. The urban and educated jihadists are being recruited from networks outside their universities, but then seek to establish cells and networks within their institutes. These cells then come together to form small militant organisations that conduct attacks targeting soft targets which is evident in the case of ASP, identified above. Effectively this phenomenon represents a ‗decentralisation of jihad‘ where smaller terrorist cells can operate without oversight from larger organisations, making it easier to perpetrate small-scale attacks without being detected by the authorities.
Female Radicalisation and Recruitment
Pakistan witnessed an uptick in female radicalisation and recruitment by IS and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The recruitment drives by IS and the TTP underscore a growing realisation of the benefits a female membership can offer. First, incorporation of women highlights the long-term approach for traditional Islamist societies where mothers indoctrinate their children as future members of the group. Second, women provide a critical support base as financiers, propagandists and recruiters to strengthen the organisation further. Lastly, women are elicited as fighters and suicide bombers as they can penetrate targets more easily than men and attacks by women provide higher shock value. Specifically, in April 2017, Noreen Leghari, a student from Liaquat Medical University, was supposed to conduct a suicide attack targeting a church before she was arrested by the authorities.61 Reports revealed she was being deployed as a suicide bomber because of the lack of physical checks at security check-points due to the presence of male staff that subsequently increases the chances of striking the location for maximum casualties.
In 2017, TTP released two issues of the Sunnat-e-Khaula magazine, named after a historical Muslim female fighter, urging women to wage ‗jihad‘. TTP‘s female recruitment drive is likely linked to its weakened position in Pakistan that has been triggered due to the recruitment drive by IS. Despite suffering losses in Iraq and Syria, signs of IS‘ recruitment efforts within Pakistan pose a threat to TTP‘s already diminished status. The drive to recruit women coincides with TTP‘s ongoing battlefield losses due to intensified military operations and drone strikes in its tribal strongholds.
Pakistan’s Regional Policy Conundrum
In August 2017, the United States (US) announced its Afghan policy, which indicated that the country is reinforcing and asserting its presence in Afghanistan as the country faces violence with an active Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network and ISK. First, the US has threatened to decrease its military aid to Pakistan, if the former did not dismantle sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban (based in Quetta) and Haqqani Network (based in Kurram Agency) from its soil. The US specifically stated that at least USD527 million will be released in aid to Pakistan, if the country takes strict action against Afghanistan-focused terrorist groups on its soil. The adoption of a threatening stance towards Pakistan is unlikely to change Pakistan‘s policies and could alienate it further. Second, the US open invitation to India to cooperate in Afghanistan is not well received by Pakistan. As such, propping up India in Afghanistan means that the country is effectively circled in the east and the west. This relates to the concept of strategic depth that focused on supporting the Afghan Taliban against the India-backed Northern Alliance (NA) in the 1990s, which is not an ideal stance to adopt today as instability in Afghanistan is correlated with instability in Pakistan partly due to the presence of crossborder terrorism.
In November 2017, US Defense Secretary James Mattis urged Pakistan to take action against cross-border movement of terrorists. In response, Pakistan affirmed its resolve in fighting terrorism, highlighting the efforts made specifically through military operations. However, 2018 remains a critical year with reference to counter-terrorism efforts, and letting go of the notorious ‗Good Taliban‘ and ‗Bad Taliban‘ distinction which has been doing the country more harm than good. Overall, cross-border ties between the good and the bad terrorists make it harder to defeat and eliminate them, which could further instability between US-Pakistan relations and block the release of military aid to the country.
Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Revival and Military Operations
A fresh wave of terrorist attacks unleashed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from its bases in Afghanistan highlights three security implications for Pakistan. First, TTP has continued targeting educational institutes as part of its reprisal attacks against the Pakistani state and security forces. In December 2014, TTP targeted the Army Public School in Peshawar and earlier in January 2016, the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda was attacked. Specifically targeting educational institutes signifies efforts to eliminate the ‗future generation‘ that does not subscribe to the group‘s vision of a state imbibing Sharia law. Second, this attack marks TTP‘s continued revival after being targeted and operationally weakened through drone strikes and ground operations since 2014. As such, TTP is likely to become more active in 2018, as it was previously overshadowed by JuA and LJA which claimed a majority of the attacks over the past two years. Lastly, this attack points towards the inability of military operations to fully ‗eliminate‘ or ‗defeat‘ the organisation that killed more than 140 people in the Army Public School in 2014.
As of 26 November 2017, South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database points to a decrease in terrorism-related casualties in Pakistan from 612 to 489 in 119 terrorist attacks.65 In addition, a US State Department report looking at global terrorism and its impact in 2016 stated that Pakistan experienced decreasing casualties in terrorism in the past two years. The National Counter Terrorism Authority of Pakistan (NACTA) also affirmed that terrorist incidents had decreased by 31 percent in Pakistan with 426 incidents till September 2016. This decrease in attacks and casualties can consistently be explained by the various operations (Zarb-e-Azb, Rad-ulFassad and Khyber-II) targeting terrorists in the restive tribal areas. They have contributed to the elimination of multiple highprofile terrorist commanders and their cadres/support base. A temporary lull in violence was seen since these operations began, but a revival is now evident as the militant group recover from the loss of fighters, leaders and operational bases. This revival is likely to continue as terrorists move from rural to urban areas and form smaller isolated cells to perpetrate attacks in the mainland (specifically urban cities in Punjab).
State Responses: The Neglected National Action Plan (NAP)
Pakistan‘s counter-terrorism policies continue to be dictated by an over-militarised approach, where counter-ideology, countering violent extremism (CVE) and peace-building measures are neglected. Any cohesive and holistic policy to fight terrorism in Pakistan must pair kinetic measures with CVE measures. In this regard, the engagement of the religious clergy and educational institutes in promoting narratives of tolerance, and negating extremist interpretations of Islam are limited at best. The National Action Plan (NAP), a 20-point instrument geared towards fighting sectarianism, intolerance and extremism within Pakistan, has been in force since 2014. However, the lack of initiative to act upon the plan shows that Pakistan has become adept in killing terrorists, but not in negating the ideology that fuels them. In addition, considering the mainstreaming of religious intolerance and sectarianism, it would be advantageous to implement preventing violent extremism (PVE) narratives. Overall, a holistic response that extends beyond short-term kinetic policies would include promoting peace and coexistence through the education system, and increased oversight on madrassas and educational institutes advocating sectarianism and intolerance. Here, the growing radicalisation of educated urban youth, including young women, highlights the urgent need to address their grievances, integrate them politically and provide alternatives for taking up arms against the state.
In 2017, Bangladesh witnessed a significant decline in terrorist attacks across the country as compared to 2015 and 2016. This can be attributed to the successful counter-terrorism operations launched by the Bangladeshi authorities. However, there are new challenges. The persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar‘s Rakhine state has resulted in an influx of over 600,000 refugees into Bangladesh. The resultant humanitarian crisis has opened up the space for jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) to exploit the Rohingya issue for recruitment and propaganda. Bangladeshi militant groups have also been changing their operational tactics to adapt to the rapidly evolving security environment. The plight of the Rohingya Muslims has given them an opportunity to propagate their jihadist narrative to win over vulnerable Bangladeshi youth.
Islamic State (IS) Threat
Notwithstanding IS defeat in the Middle East, the group remains a long-term internal security challenge for Bangladesh. On this issue, counterterrorist operations have achieved a measure of success as they have weakened the Neo-JMB, a local IS affiliate group. Bangladeshi authorities have carried out nearly a dozen counterterrorism operations across the country to contain IS, forcing IS operatives to maintain a low profile. IS/Neo-JMB‘s organisational structure in Bangladesh has been damaged, and most of its top leaders have been arrested or killed since the Dhaka Café attack in July 2016.Instead of carrying out attacks, Neo-JMB is now focused on recruiting new members, mostly online, particularly from the urban areas and scaling up its explosive-making capabilities. According to Bangladeshi lawenforcement agencies, every month at least two or three youth go missing and some of the cases go unreported. For now, the group has decentralised to avoid further disruption to its network and penetration in social media.
IS currently has highly mobile teams which move from district to district, and small preattack dens in all the country‘s six divisions, highlighting IS‘ nationwide outreach and penetration. The group is stockpiling arms and explosives, like Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) [used by terrorists in the Paris, Brussels and London attacks]. The militants have possibly learnt to stabilise TATP. Moreover, there has been a sharp increase in the recovery of suicide belts in Bangladesh. According to explosive experts, these surgical belts are difficult to detect, and an upgraded version of suicide vests compared to the ones recovered earlier.
The rebuttals by IS propagandists of the counter-narratives given by the local Muslim scholars against extremist ideologies, is another noteworthy trend in 2017. This means that IS ideology will have long-term implications for Bangladesh‘s internal security. It underscores the need for a more pro-active counter-ideology strategy and investment in building social awareness against violent-extremism.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) Threat
In 2017, Al-Qaeda‘s (AQ) Bangladeshi affiliate Ansar Al-Islam did not carry out any attack in Bangladesh; the group was mostly active in the propaganda domain using social media platforms. AQ in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) regularly published its Bengali language magazine Al Balagh (The Conveyed), which covered various issues for the Bengali-speaking audience. Before 2017, the group had carried out eleven targeted assassinations of writers and secular bloggers, social media activists and one publisher.
AQIS tried to exploit the Rohingya issue and frame it as part of its jihadist narrative. In June 2017, the group released a publication titled ―Code of Conduct‖ which defined the parameters for its members, supporters and sympathisers. The publication was a public relations effort by the group to appear more acceptable to the larger community of extremists who are somewhat uneasy with the brutality and excessively violent methods of IS. AQIS‘ attempt to appear ‗more legitimate‘ and ‗rational‘ than IS through the ―Code of Conduct‖, shows the group‘s desire to reclaim its place in the jihadist domain, which it lost to IS in the last few years.
Additionally, AQIS is being advised by other AQ affiliates to target Myanmar. For instance, in a video message released in September, a senior leader of AQ‘s Yemeni branch Khaled Batarfi called on Muslims in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Malaysia to support their Rohingya Muslim brethren against the ―enemies of Allah Although more propaganda and less attack appears to be a core strategy for AQIS, the law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh believe that AQIS will possibly try to re-emerge and rebrand itself by capitalising on the Rohingya issue. The persecution of the Rohingya resonates with the Bangladeshi public at an emotive level, giving AQIS an opportunity to recruit some vulnerable youth.
Radicalisation and recruitment of females by the jihadist group Neo-JMB is concerning for Bangladesh‘s internal security and it underscores a need for more gender-specific policing as well as gender-targeted counternarrative. Women‘s involvement in jihadist groups is a relatively new trend in Bangladesh which has been partly influenced by IS‘ strategy of integrating women in the group‘s activities in order to boost manpower of the group and to operate below the radar of the law enforcement agencies as women are not the usual suspects. In the Bangladeshi context, women are radicalised, recruited and often forced to join the militant groups by their male family-members. Interrogation of some of the female terrorist detainees show that they accompanied their husbands as they were worried about how the society would treat them if their husbands’ involvement in militant activities came to light.
Several counterterrorism operations conducted in 2017 shows that some women are also highly trained. During counterterrorism raids, some female militants also committed suicide with their husbands and children to avoid arrests. Bangladesh police however has no information so far about women joining the terrorist outfits willingly but possibilities of a greater involvement of women in the future cannot be ruled out.
The situation at the India-Bangladesh border posed a major challenge to counter-terrorism efforts in Bangladesh. Various Bangladeshi militant groups, particularly Neo-JMB, have found safe havens in Indian West Bengal where most of the high-profile terrorists are hiding. Some of the militants released on bail from Bangladeshi prisons have also managed to cross the border to hide in and operate from India. For instance, in September 2017, Samiun Rahman alias Ibne Hadan, a 31-year-old British citizen of Bangladesh origin, was arrested in New Delhi by Indian law enforcement authorities for trying to set up bases in Delhi, Mizoram and Manipur to radicalise and recruit young Muslims to attack India and Myanmar.Samiun was detained in Dhaka in 2014 but was released on bail by the High Court in April 2017.
During his interrogation, Samiun revealed to Delhi police that his task was to raise funds and incite youths to fight against the Myanmar military and to facilitate their entry into Myanmar from northeastern states.80 Being bound by India on three sides and sharing a border with Myanmar‘s conflict zone, such cross-border linkages are highly problematic for Bangladesh‘s counter terrorism campaign. In addition to being a sanctuary for Bangladeshi militants, India‘s black-market for weapons is a key source of explosives and small weapons for Bangladeshi jihadists.81 Several border districts of the Indian state of West Bengal have pockets of support for Bangladeshi militant groups. Moreover, the BangladeshIndia border is a major conduit of illicit flows, which creates a permeable environment for the militants to operate there.
To effectively combat terrorism at the operational level, the Bangladesh government has created the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU) in 2017. With a nation-wide mandate, this unit will focus solely on counter-terrorism in Bangladesh. An additional Inspector General of Police (IGP) will head the new anti-terrorism unit, which will have around 600 officials, including a Deputy Inspector General (DIG) and two additional DIGs. The new unit will have 41 vehicles, including ambulances and armored personnel carriers. Bangladesh currently has a Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC), under the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), which has been carrying out operations outside the capital Dhaka under special arrangement, but the new ATU will have a country-wide jurisdiction.
CVE Initiatives in Bangladesh
Bangladesh‘s renewed CVE initiatives are in response to the IS-led attack on the Holey Artisan Café in Dhaka. A 17-member National Committee on Militancy, Resistance and Prevention is overseeing the ongoing CVE measures in the country. The CVE policy in Bangladesh focuses on creating better awareness of religious teachings and building social resilience. Moreover, Bangladesh‘s CVE programme partners with religious leaders who play an important role as community leaders. Religious leaders are co-opted to educate the Muslim community about violent extremism. For instance, Bangladesh Islamic Foundation (BIF), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, is working with Imams (prayer leaders) from a network of 70,000 mosques to ensure that the BIF-prepared pre-sermon speeches are delivered during Friday prayers.
Bangladesh‘s ministries of Information and Culture use newspapers, radio, and televisions for CVE messaging. Presently, the government is producing documentaries, short-films, and advertisements with a focused CVE messages to confront the extremist narratives. The core message of CVE in Bangladesh is that Islam stands for peace, tolerance and peaceful coexistence and that Islam does not approve of militancy.Similarly, the ministries of Education and Home Affairs are engaging with the educational institutions to create awareness about extremism and terrorism among teachers, students, and parents. The educational institutions have also instructed the teachers, parents, and students to remain vigilant and report to the police if any student is involved in extremist activity or goes missing for ten days.
Likewise, the Ministry of Youth is preparing a Youth Database to develop new programmes. Through its countrywide network, it is organising various sporting events across the country to channel the energy of Bangladeshi youth into creative and constructive activities. Some madrassas have been known to preach religious intolerance and extremism. Consequently, madrassa textbooks have been revised and the government has directed the Ministry of Education to continue its scrutiny of the madrassa curriculum. Additionally, the government has co-opted the Qawmi Madrassa, which is one of the two major madrassas in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has also taken steps to monitor social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Efforts are underway to develop the technological capacity of the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre (NTMC) to enhance the detection of extremist websites. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is also working in this regard with Muslim clerics in Bangladesh.
By preventing further terrorist attacks following the Holey Artisan Bakery siege, Bangladesh has certainly made progress in counterterrorism. The authorities have also prevented the speed of IS expansion in Bangladesh by disrupting IS leadership through operations. Due to the absence of charismatic and capable leaders, the supporters are unable to mount large-scale attacks.
In 2018, the key challenge for Bangladesh will be to tackle the residual strength of militants and checking new recruitment in the face of the worsening Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. The law enforcement agencies will also have to grapple with the changing tactics of the groups. In this respect, Bangladesh will need to enhance the capabilities of its counterterrorism agencies and at the same time broaden its CVE campaign to negate terrorist propaganda and appeals.
In 2017, the twin threats of online Islamist radicalisation and militancy in Kashmir, where a Pan-Islamist sentiment is slowly burgeoning, expanded in India. As a result, India witnessed an increase in violence, casualties, militant recruitment and crossborder infiltration from Pakistan and Bangladesh. At the same time, Hindu extremism has also added a new dimension to violence in India. This year witnessed a significant increase in the number of beefrelated lynching and minority persecutions.
The Quiet Islamic State (IS)
IS has struggled to establish a foothold in India since its formation. India‘s security forces have neutralised six to eight ISaffiliated cells and lone-wolf individuals, which were mainly concentrated across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Although many Indians who travelled to Afghanistan to fight for IS were killed in a US offensive in April 2017, the war-torn nation may remain a prospective site for Indians joining IS in the region. This is because of the growing IS footprint in Afghanistan‘s ungoverned spaces, and IS moving its battles to other parts of the world such as South Asia (Khorasan) and South-East Asia (Marawi) following the loss of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Demographically, 90% of the 100 individuals who travelled to join IS from India are between 18 and 33 years, with 70% having educational qualifications. These figures suggest that the IS threat in India has largely been an urban phenomenon. Multiple intelligence reports across the country have pinpointed the role of the Internet as a facilitator of violent radicalisation. Social media propaganda has spread across the country and encrypted private messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram have enabled prospective members to chat with ideologues without fear of detection or restriction.
Security agencies, investigating online radicalisation, have discovered Shafi Armar and Karen Aisha Hamidon as the two main ideologues subverting India from abroad. Armar, also the emir of the Indian IS branch, is a well-known figure who was reported to be in contact with almost 700 youth across the country through closed Facebook groups. Aisha Hamidon, a female propagandist, is said to have recruited over 20 Indians through private messaging applications; she was arrested in October in Manila, the Philippines Dormant Threat of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)
In 2017, Al-Qaeda‘s South Asian affiliate, AlQaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), continued to maintain a nominal presence in India without carrying out any terrorist attack. The operational preparedness and effective counter-terrorism intelligence of the Indian security forces have been instrumental in keeping the AQIS threat in check. Despite the group‘s propaganda claims of spreading its tentacles to India, most of its operations have been restricted to recruitment and preaching.
It is important to point out that AQIS‘ low profile in India is consistent with Al-Qaeda‘s overall policy of embedding its jihadist agendas within like-minded local groups. This potentially makes AQIS more dangerous and a long-term security threat despite its low-profile posture in India. Moreover, its ability to stay off the radar of Indian security forces allows it time and space to revive and regroup.
To gain a foothold and expand its presence in India, AQIS tried to exploit the fault-lines of the Kashmir conflict. In July 2017, Al-Qaeda managed to secure the allegiance of Zakir Musa, a disaffected leader of the Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). Musa defected to Al-Qaeda and created his own jihadist faction, Ansar Ghazwat-Ul-Hind, prioritising Sharia over a political struggle for freedom. Musa, already an influential techsavvy figure among Kashmiri youth due to his star persona online, rose to prominence in mid-2017 when he criticised the HM leadership for being complacent, and promoted jihadist aspirations in Kashmir While his calls for jihad were initially rejected, a response to his pro-Sharia calls evinced a response in November 2017 when a number of Kashmiris who attended the funeral of a Tehreek-ul Mujahideen militant shouted slogans in his favor. These developments are concerning and will bear close watching in 2018.
According to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, Kashmir witnessed a rise in violence with close to 200 incidents in 2017 and the recruitment of 90 individuals into terrorist groups. India however, claims to have curbed the violence, citing a 90% drop in stone pelting (a general indicator of violence in the region), and restored normalcy. The authorities have attributed this reduction in violence to improved coordination between various security institutions, reduction in lethal weapons used by security forces and better counselling services provided to youth (endeavors that prevented 60 people from joining militant groups). Additionally, HM struggled to recuperate from its loss of fighters following encounters with Indian security forces. The split with Musa and the declaration of HM as a Globally Designated Terrorist group have undermined the group even further.100 But HM‘s decline has created space for IS to gain a foothold in Kashmir where it claimed its first attack in Kashmir in November.101 While unverified, this also accompanies reports of residents draping slain militants with IS black flags.
Coupled with the rise of Zakir Musa, this represents a slight but significant shift from a nationalist to perhaps a pan-Islamist struggle in Kashmir, a development that will not bode well for security and stability in Kashmir.
The Indian responses to terrorism have increasingly incorporated soft measures in 2017. This is reflected in its opening of a new government division to counter radicalisation. This is in line with its programmes in states such as Kerala (in June 2017) and Maharashtra (operational since 2015), where the respective police departments declared successful deradicalisation drives involving close to 500 people. Reportedly, these individuals were radicalised over propaganda present on Facebook and were identified by the cyber security division. Subsequently, police forces worked with the families of the vulnerable individuals to counsel them. To boost the religious credibility of this counselling, the police also brought in local imams who supported the initiative. Similarly, in Kashmir, the Centre pardoned ‗first-time offenders‘ arrested for pelting stones against the military, a move that affected 4,500 such individuals.
Adopting a whole-of-society approach, the main features of India‘s de-radicalisation efforts include avoiding wrongful arrests, prevention of social stigma and alienation associated with arrests, providing local helplines and winning the confidence of the minority community at a larger level. Furthermore, the country‘s major Islamic institutions have openly condemned violent ideologies propagated by the terrorist groups such as IS. These Islamic institutions and their public stand against terrorism serve as strong bulwarks against the radicalisation of Muslim youth in the country; they also probably explain the relatively low presence of IS and Al-Qaeda in India. India has coupled its soft‘ approach with hardline measures against militants perpetrating violence. This was seen in Kashmir, where it resorted to curfews and detention as well as lethal tactics in attempts to disperse crowds that occasionally resulted in casualties.
Violent incidents are likely to continue in 2018. The rightist bent of the central government as well as tough counterterrorism responses will cause a pushback from disenfranchised individuals across the country as witnessed in the state of Kashmir. However, this will be mitigated to some extent by de-radicalisation and rehabilitation initiatives across different states, with police agencies collaborating alongside community leaders, mosques and family members of vulnerable members. Such an approach will prove to be more effective in quelling Islamist extremism and terror across the nation. It is not clear how the two global groups AQ and IS will seek to grow given their poor performance over the past years. At the same time, the government will need to monitor closely and check rising Hindu extremism (manifested by beef-related attacks and provocative statements) and work on addressing socio-economic and political issues that render some susceptible to extremist appeals and propaganda
About the author
Abdul Basit is an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU. Basit contributed on Afghanistan.
Sara Mahmood is a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU. Sara contributed on Pakistan.
Iftekharul Basharis an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU. Iftekharul contributed on Bangladesh.