The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recently announced the launch of Wilayah-e-Hind. “Wilayah” means province in Arabic; in this case, the reference is to Jammu and Kashmir in India. ISIS first announced its presence in Kashmir in 2017 when it claimed responsibility for attacks on Indian forces.
ISIS has also appointed Abu Muhammad al-Bengali as the emir of Bengal. The emir’s jurisdiction will apparently be Bangladesh, but its posters threaten both Bangladesh and India.
The ISIS announcements reflect its growth plans for South Asia. After losing its territorial gains in Syria, it is rejuvenating its plans to establish areas of control elsewhere.
US President Donald Trump said on February 28 that “we just took over 100%” of the area controlled by ISIS. However, long before the group was decimated in Syria, there was speculation about its next moves. Its plans for a caliphate that extended from parts of Europe to Asian countries may not have borne fruit, but the huge migration of Syrians to various destinations has allowed hardened radicals to merge with refugees and find a foothold way beyond Syria’s borders.
A new modus operandi of the group that was often repeated was the lone wolf attack, primarily in Europe, which complemented a few better-organized operations like the one in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people and injured 494.
Among those that chose to leave the caliphate’s dwindling territory were also those who had joined the jihad from other countries. A lot of them have chosen to return home. Others turned their eyes toward hotspots like Afghanistan, which has a well-entrenched ISIS contingent already operational. ISIS has carried out 24 attacks in Afghanistan so far in 2018.
The fact that Pakistan requires a continuous flow of jihadists to maintain its interventions in Afghanistan and India also offered militants choices. Among other options are other South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, especially those from which men and women had left for Syria to do or die for the promised caliphate. It’s pertinent to have a look at the high-risk nations.
Sri Lanka was perhaps ripe for the explosive reverberations that shook the island nation on Easter Sunday. Nearly 260 people were killed and over 500 injured were the grim statistics from the attack. National Tauheed Jamaat has been blamed for the attack. ISIS has also claimed responsibility. A nexus between the two is obvious.
Sri Lanka had just got over the political turmoil arising from the president ousting the elected prime minister, only for the latter to return to power through the parliamentary process. The discord created a dysfunctional environment at operational levels. Though the state had inputs from India, apparently the warnings were not conveyed to the top leadership. The moot question that begs answering is, how precise was the intelligence available prior to the incident? Notwithstanding the Sri Lankan response, other countries in the region have also been either soft on terror, or responded tardily.
The appointment of Abu Muhammad al-Bengali as the emir of Bengal is particularly disturbing. The posters of the organization are in the local Bengali, Hindi and English. The emir’s writ, it can be appreciated, includes Bangladesh and adjoining Indian states that border Bangladesh. Incidentally, before the current prime minister, Shaikh Hasina, came to power over a decade back, the penetration of Bangladesh by terror groups was alarming. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence had also established itself powerfully. The country was, like Pakistan, at risk of becoming another failed state. The current dispensation has not only been to arrest the slide but also achieve an enviable level of economic growth.
Turmoil in Bangladesh flows across the porous borders to the Indian side. India has over 15 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who form a restive community with some of them living in abject poverty. The immigrants have led to disruptive changes in the ethnic and religious composition in many Indian border districts. Local politicians have made things worse by providing identity papers and using them as vote banks. There are plenty of inputs warning of terrorist cells forming in these districts.
A tenuous situation is also to be found in some southern Indian coastal states. The Sri Lankan army chief has stated that a few of the suicide bombers who staged the Easter attack had visited Kashmir, Bangalore and Kerala, possibly for training. The Indian establishment has denied it. However, the Indian National Investigation Agency (NIA) unearthed ISIS cells in Tamil Nadu after arresting terror suspect Riyas Aboobackar in Kerala. The NIA raided eight offices of the Popular Front of India and three of Tauheed Jamaat in Tamil Nadu. Obviously, these organizations have greatly expanded. Meanwhile, Tauheed Jamaat in India has denied having any links with the Sri Lankan Tauheed Jamaat.
ISIS has also been able to gain some traction in the Kashmir Valley. Notwithstanding their claims of attacking Indian forces in 2017, as yet their activities are limited to occasionally displaying ISIS flags. However, with local recruits being available in greater numbers, there could well be more young men opting for the ISIS brand. The increasing radicalization in Kashmir could also drive the youth to join the more radical and violent groups that ISIS represents.
Malaysia has a peculiar situation. Over 100 Malaysians had gone to Syria during the heyday of ISIS and some of them want to return. The Malaysian government is seemingly quite open to it. They plan to closely scrutinize the individuals and put them through de-radicalization program. However, a couple of months back Malaysian police arrested seven Abu Sayyaf Group suspects. Abu Sayyaf, incidentally, has sworn its loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS.
The returnees also open up avenues for new terrorist cells sprouting in Malaysia. Foreign terrorists who have operated in Syria with the Malaysians are desperately trying to move out and could try to gain entry into Malaysia either as a transit point before they move to other countries or create problems in Malaysia itself. The Malaysian police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement, “We view seriously the infiltration of foreign terrorist fighters in the country due to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”
It can be inferred with certainty today that radical Islam’s battle-hardened protagonists are well positioned globally to stage attacks in multiple locales
Another vulnerable country is Indonesia. Over 800 Indonesians reportedly moved to Iraq and Syria after ISIS declared the caliphate in 2014. Fifty percent of these people have returned. They have undergone de-radicalization and have been sentenced in certain cases. Incidentally, it was not illegal in Indonesia until last year to join a terrorist organization abroad. Indonesia has its own insurgency problems. Indonesian police reported the arrest of seven militants and the killing of an eighth one on May 6. These militants were from Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a group linked to ISIS. Indonesia’s unstable political situation makes it all the more vulnerable.
The other Asian country that is vulnerable is Maldives. About 250 Maldivians are reported to have joined ISIS and 30 have returned.
It can be inferred with certainty today that radical Islam’s battle-hardened protagonists are well positioned globally to stage attacks in multiple locales. A few South and Southeast Asian states are more likely to be attacked because of reasons as diverse as poor law enforcement, sectarian politics, existing fundamentalist movements with similar theological precincts, poor leadership, inadequate intelligence, and poorly trained and equipped anti-terror forces.
There is every reason for these countries to get their acts together and jointly fight a menace that could threaten their social cohesion and economic progress. Sri Lanka is already suffering an economic blow as a result of the impact the Easter attacks have had on tourism. Maldives depends primarily on tourism. Any violence will have a telling effect. Malaysia prides itself on being a very liberal Islamic country. Indonesian GDP growth requires a boost to keep up with projections. India is fighting an endless proxy war. The Afghan talks are not making any headway.
South and Southeast Asia and the strife-torn countries of Africa are the areas where ISIS has the best chance of growth as of now. ASEAN countries have both excellent agreements in place to fight terror. These are regional, bilateral and also multilateral arrangements that go beyond ASEAN. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation also has protocols for countering terrorism. However, even with the best arrangements in place, ISIS is spreading and the activities of terrorist groups are escalating.
Closer co-operation and intelligence-sharing are needed between the countries in the region. Afghanistan remains extremely vulnerable, and expecting the Taliban not to host or allow training of foreign terrorist organizations in the country, one of the conditions that the Americans have imposed, may prove to be a pipe dream and no more. Even today they continue to host al Qaida.
Pakistan has come under pressure with Masood Azhar being declared a terrorist, but its internal dynamics may not allow it to take a strong stand against dozens of terror groups operating from its territory. It’s important for the Financial Action Task Force to scrutinize Pakistan’s case with a fine-tooth comb and, if required, blacklist the country.
Asian countries have protocols and agreements in place to fight terror. The requirement in these countries is combating terror within their territories. While certain countries continue to allow terrorist groups to operate from their soil, others are soft on terror to varying degrees due to domestic political considerations. Every nation needs to fight terror outfits with all its might. In the globalized community of nations, each nation is part of the chain fighting terror. And like any chain, the weakest link determines the overall strength of the chain.