October Issue 2014
ISIS: The New Player
There is no evidence yet that the Middle East-based Islamic State (IS) militant group has found a foothold in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it seems efforts are being made by certain local militants to establish links with it and provide it a platform in the so-called Af-Pak region.
On its part, the IS has not announced its unit or leadership anywhere in South Asia, not even in Afghanistan and Pakistan where militant groups have thrived. However, the IS did seek the release of Pakistani-American Dr Aafia Siddiqui in exchange for some of the American hostages in its custody. When the US refused to accept this and other IS demands, the hostages were promptly beheaded. By seeking Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s release, the IS must have figured out the gains that it could make by attracting the support of the militants and ordinary Muslims to its cause.
Alarm was raised recently when a Pashto and Dari language booklet, Fatah (Victory) in support of IS, also known as Daish and formerly as ISIS and ISIL, was distributed in at least two camps for Afghan refugees near Peshawar. The choice of the Shamshatoo and Khurasan camps was particularly interesting, as the former is known as the stronghold of former Afghan mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s faction-ridden Hezb-i-Islami and the latter’s name, Khurasan, is commonly used by the militants to convey their belief that the Muslim uprising and military campaign to regain glory would originate from the old Khurasan region comprising Afghanistan and parts of Iran and Pakistan, and culminate in victory against the Jews and the infidels in Palestine and Syria.
It was obvious that those seeking support for IS and hoping to find recruits were focusing on the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. It is unclear if any Afghans have joined it already. There were no reports that the said booklets had also been distributed among Pakistanis. Pakistan’s Foreign Office maintained that the IS had no presence in the country. However, one should ignore the Foreign Office’s denial, as its past denials about the presence of Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan were proved totally wrong.
Suspicion initially fell on Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, as the booklets were distributed in the Shamshatoo camp for Afghan refugees where it has a strong presence. The suspicion increased when Mirwais, a Hezb-i-Islami commander in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province, was quoted as saying that he was joining the IS for the establishment of a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
However, the Hezb-i-Islami issued two statements denying any nexus with the IS and making it clear that it had no links with any group outside of Afghanistan. “The Hezb-i-Islami has no political or organisational links to any political party outside the country, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-i-Islami, Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban,” the statement said. It added that Hezb-i-Islami’s armed resistance against foreign forces was confined to Afghanistan. It maintained that it has not carried out any jihadi activities outside the country in the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan or against the Soviet forces during the Afghan jihad. However, the statement pointed out that the Hezb-i-Islami morally supported the oppressed in every part of the world.
The Afghan government contributed to the debate about the presence of IS-affiliated fighters in Afghanistan by claiming that the latter had taken part in the recent fighting in four districts of the central Ghazni province. In particular, they pointed to the presence of IS-linked fighters in Ajristan district that was stormed by up to 700 Taliban militants and captured. The Afghan officials claimed 12 cops and their family members were beheaded in Ajristan, apparently by the IS’s non-Afghan fighters, as this practice was alien to the Afghans. However, the Taliban denied the presence of IS or other foreign fighters in their ranks and also rejected the claims about the beheadings. The NATO military authorities also downplayed the intensity of the fighting and the casualty figures in Ajristan and argued that the local Afghan officials in Ghazni were exaggerating the issue in a bid to seek attention and reinforcements from the central government in Kabul.
Earlier in Pakistan, an almost unknown militant group, Tehreek-e-Khilafat, had announced allegiance to the IS. The shadowy group’s claim was first published in The Telegraph in the UK rather than in Pakistan, where hardly anyone knew its name or origin. It was the first time that a militant group outside the Middle East said it was aligning with the IS, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, the antecedents and leadership of the Tehreek-e-Khilafat are still unknown.
It is unlikely for a militant group in Pakistan to support a non-Al Qaeda organisation such as IS because most Pakistani, Afghan and Central Asian militant groups are linked to Al Qaeda and its present head, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had replaced Osama bin Laden after the latter’s death in a US Special Forces raid in May 2011 in Abbottabad. The IS has defied Al Qaeda, which is backing the al-Nusra Front in Syria against the IS.
However, a statement by Jamaat-ul-Ahraar, the breakaway faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in support of IS was disturbing as it is a known militant group with a strong presence in Mohmand Agency and certain other tribal areas and possessing the capability to carry out attacks in many parts of Pakistan.
The rise of the IS has certainly unnerved Al Qaeda, and it wasn’t surprising that its head Zawahiri tried to counter it by launching the South Asian branch of his organisation. However, it was a desperate effort to stay relevant as Al Qaeda has yet to find recruits and allies in India, Bangladesh, Burma or other South Asian countries. It has no presence in Jammu and Kashmir, where militants have been fighting the Indian forces for years. In fact, Al Qaeda is finding it difficult to survive even in the Af-Pak region, where it has been active for years, fighting first the Soviets and later the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. Due to its failure to find an individual or group in India or elsewhere to lead its Al Qaeda chapter for South Asia, Zawahiri had to appoint a Pakistani militant, Asim Umar, to the post. This alone explains the inability of Al Qaeda to expand its operations beyond the Af-Pak region to India or the other South Asian countries. It also shows that other than Afghanistan and Pakistan, the remaining South Asian countries are not a fertile ground for either Al Qaeda or IS as they try to expand their influence and area of operations.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.