The Post Caliphate Threat in Asia

Prof Rohan Gunaratna, former head of ICPVTR at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Prabha Rao, Former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat presented their views on post caliphate threat in Asia during the Synergia Conclave 2019.

Background

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) loses its grip on territories in the Middle East, it is likely to focus on South and South-East Asia to perpetuate its claims to the Caliphate. ISIS seeks to establish a caliphate governed by sharia law, which will expand as Muslims from across the region and world join in. Possible targets include Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore where the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Jemaah Anshar Khilafah terror networks, as well as the Abu Sayaf, operate. These are existing sanctuaries that the IS would like to plugin. It has also embedded itself in the ecosystem of militancy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, using the lawless region as a sanctuary.

Beginning from the early to the mid-1990s, the Al Qaeda terrorist network extended its reach into Southeast Asia – setting up local cells to support its global operations and fostering cooperation among indigenous radical Islamic groups. In the ensuing decade, the Islamic Caliphate was able to leverage this network to attract recruits into the Caliphate rising in the Levant. Though the Caliphate lies crushed in the ruins of Syria and Iraq, the committed cadre has gone underground, many sneaking back to their homelands. These sleeper cells and potential leaders spell serious threat to countries of the Asian region which remains most vulnerable to radicalisation. 

ISIS designs for South Asia are on record when in 2014 it announced the Khorasan province centred on Iran-Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.  ISIS has embedded itself in the ecosystem of militancy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, using the lawless region as a sanctuary.

The ISIS has shrunk since its heydays of holding a huge swathe of an area encompassing Syria and Iraq and is confined mostly in the Idlib province of Syria (where its Caliph Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi blew himself) along with some 40 0000 fighters spread over Syria, Iraq and some elements drifting down the lower Euphrates Valley. 

Analysis

Tracing the rise and fall of the Islamic Caliphate, Prof Gunaratna elaborated how after its spectacular rise in the Levant, the last citadel of the ISIS was finally overrun in March this year. Even as America declared the demise of the  Caliphate in the Levant, the IS had entered a new phase of global expansion over the legendary provinces- Afghanistan, India, Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. The signs of ISIS expansion into Asia, especially South Asia are very much there.

IS has gained mastery in cyberspace. It was able to bring 40,000 fighters to Syria and Iraq due to its mastery of social media. To the credit of Indian Muslims, no Indian travelled to Afghanistan to join one of the jihadi groups to fight the Russians other than Dhiren Barot (aliases: Bilal, Abu Musa al-Hindi, Abu Eissa al-Hindi, and Issa al-Britani) an Indian origin UK Citizen who became a terrorist and later joined Al Queda.  Credit goes entirely to the multicultural nature of Indian society and a polity that encouraged it. It is estimated that not more than 120 Indians went to Syria and Iraq, which is a minuscule number considering the over 200 million Muslim population, the second largest in the world. Sri Lanka, with 20 million Muslims sent 41 to Syria and even tiny Maldives had a much larger presence with ISIS in comparison to its population.

But India cannot remain complacent as ISIS would be quick to seize an opportunity in Kashmir exploiting the current turmoil.  It has the expertise to exploit the social media to reach out to the youth to send its message of radicalisation and make Kashmir its new battlespace.

Acutely aware of its inability to hold territory to define a caliphate in the physical sense, the ISIS has expanded in a non-contiguous manner seeking strategic partnerships with local groups and fighters and networking with local clerics. While these local affiliates, fight under the banner of the ISIS, they are more or less independent in all respects.  This has been especially effective in South East Asia with the Philippines being the prime example.  The spread has been much less in South Asia.

After its physical destruction in its heartland, the Levant, ISIS has continued to wage an ideological battle, influencing its cadre spread over the globe. They are now focussing on territories outside of Syria/ Iraq – In Africa region, North of Nigeria, strife-torn Libya, Algeria, Mali and Chad all are already heavily infested with ISIS-affiliated groups.  In East Africa, the Al Shabab is the most violent group swearing allegiance to ISIS and the influence is spreading to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.  Southeast Asia-Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia-an island-studded region hard to govern has attracted ISIS fighters, both homegrown and foreigners.  Yemen is another battle zone which is increasingly seeing ISIS influence.

The IS influence in Sri Lanka can be traced to  Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a radical Islamist imam believed to be behind the Sri Lanka bombings. He is known to preach on a pro-ISIL Facebook account, known as "Al-Ghuraba" media, and on YouTube. This is a prime example of how ISIL harnessed the cyberspace to get far-flung groups to pledge allegiance to the IS philosophy and conducted such a sophisticated bombing campaign.  

Despite American claims that IS has been defeated, the movement lives on. IS is more dangerous than Al Qaeda which had always attracted recruits from the periphery of the Muslim community. But IS has been able to attract lawyers etc and therefore poses a greater threat. The challenge for secular governments is how to prevent the radicalisation of its communities.  Earlier it was assumed that only the poor and dispossessed were prone to this kind of indoctrination but in Sri Lanka, it was found that most of the bombers were from affluent families with western education.

Prabha Rao, Former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, decried the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria and said that the vacuum left by SDF would be exploited by the ISIS.  She claimed SDF has over 70,000 hardcore ISIS fighter in their custody and already there were reports of jailbreaks. Oil politics is playing out in the region and it will have serious consequences for the global community. Tactics learnt in the Levant will be used in South Asia with deadly consequences.

ISIS is riding on technology to spread its message around the world and to wage sophisticated attacks. The explosives used in Sri Lanka were TATP, chemically known as triacetone triperoxide, an explosive made from commonly available household ingredients including nail polish remover – acetone – and hydrogen peroxide.  Most standard bomb sensing equipment cannot detect TATP. ISIS has also resorted to using drones in the Middle East. This is a matter of concern as countries like India need to formulate UAV policy to counter this threat.  

After the furore in Kashmir after the killing of Burhan Wani, it was suspected that there was an expansion of ISIS footprint in J&K.  

The Maldives has become heavily radicalised with museums being vandalised and cultural radicalisation making tourists a target. This small island is reported to have sent over 100 fighters to Afghanistan and 40 to the Levant.

She also spoke about the threat posed by Pakistan in furthering state-sponsored terrorism. She stated that this was incubating an environment where Islamic radicalism can thrive. She also warned that what happens in Yemen is of immediate concern for India.  

Assessment

  • Historically the rise of Islamist groups in Asia is traced to the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahidin campaign beginning in the 1980s.
  • While western powers may declare ISIS as a spent force, the reality is that ISIS has mutated from a purely military force to an ideology exercising control over a willing population far from the Middle East.  It has propagated the system of ‘baya’ to seek allegiance with radical Muslim groups worldwide. Thus an attack anywhere in the world will carry the ‘brand name’ of ISIS.
  • The IS presence in Afghanistan has implications for the Taliban peace talks with the US and Pakistan.
  • With nationalistic leaders dominating politics in both Islamabad and New Delhi, perpetual unrest in the disputed territories, and precedent of state-sponsored terrorism, Kashmir is fertile ground for future IS-K subversion.
  • ISIS has a footprint in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya and along the Pakistan border.  An abrupt US withdrawal forced by electoral compulsions without placing adequate safeguards against the return of Afghanistan as a haven for international jihadis presents a dire situation to India and the entire world.
  • Hypothetically speaking a Kashmir centric ISIS (IS-K) would carry out its global strategy in different operating environments by curating it to local conditions. In Kashmir, it sits at the top of the Indian subcontinent and serves as a flashpoint for conflict between historically feuding nuclear powers, Pakistan and India.

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