Born from a brutal Al-Qaeda faction, the IS or Daesh has grown from relative obscurity in recent years to overshadow its extremist patrons. After controlling large swathes of land in the Middle East, due to its transnational nature, the organization is having its spillover effects across the globe, especially in the regions nearer to the Middle East. The lethal outfit is increasingly making inroads in the already volatile South Asia. The ominous rise of this self-proclaimed “state” signalled the start of a new era of terrorism. The spread of Daesh is exactly in accordance with its stated motto “remaining and expanding” and it amply explains its ambitions of claiming more and more territory in order to maintain its strongholds. The volatile security architecture and conflict prevalence alongside militant tendencies in South Asia could turn the region into a breeding ground for Daesh to grow across the region with wide range of implications.
At a time when international forces are striving hard to push Daesh out of territories under its control, its resurgence in the Khorrason region – areas comprising South Asia – and its claims of successful operations in Europe and the Middle East have raised many questions over the longevity of the Daesh threat within its heartland and beyond the borders of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Some analysts contend that Daesh will continue to hold considerable sway but many believe that the group’s extreme brutality, flawed strategizing and growing internal rifts will lead to its ultimate demise. However, as Daesh loses territory in the Middle East, especially in Iraq where the forces claim that IS’s defence lines are collapsing, and its dwindling economic power, there has been heightened interest in the group’s future in South Asia.
In addition to radicalizing vulnerable individuals through its ideological appeal, Daesh’s tendency to graft onto existing terrorist organizations and utilize their arterial linkages to further its designs pose a daunting threat of its geographical expansion into the region. Recent attacks in Afghanistan Bangladesh and Pakistan claimed by, or attributed to, Daesh hint at the group’s expanding foothold in the region. Although the number of nabbed Daesh-related terrorists from the region is small, yet the magnitude, scale and intensity of attacks claimed by, or attributed to, Daesh in this region denote a ‘growing’ threat. For instance, since early 2015, there have been at least 14 attacks by, or allegedly by, Daesh in Afghanistan and about half as many in Pakistan with huge death toll. These attacks have strengthened the fear of the terror group’s direct, or affiliated, presence in the region. The imprint of Daesh on the Holey Artisan bakery attack in Bangladesh in July of last year cannot be denied, despite the Bangladeshi leadership’s denial that the group has established a potent presence in the country.
However, even if it fails in establishing territorial control in the region, Daesh’s assertive presence in South Asia through local affiliates and ideological conglomerates could trigger a dangerous domino effect of bloodshed and terrorism, catapulting the region into the throes of a prolonged instability.
Here is an insightful look on the situation in South Asia in general and the three main countries i.e. Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, in particular.
Due to ongoing counterterrorism operations, terrorist sanctuaries and their command and control systems have been demolished in Pakistan. However, Daesh can provide fractured and disenfranchised militants and groups an opportunity to enter its fold for the purpose of rebranding. Pakistan has arrested 400-500 of people who were part of the organization. The civil and military leadership is, however, confident that state’s security apparatus is fully capable of dealing with this global threat. On multiple occasions, it has been said that not even the shadow of Daesh will be tolerated in Pakistan. According to Sartaj Aziz, advisor to Prime Mistier on National Security and Foreign Affairs, “Daesh is not a major threat for Pakistan … the threat of Daesh can be suspected in the tribal areas where the government believes that it has significant military operations in place to combat it.”
The emergence of Daesh, and its subsequent growth, in Pakistan could have been a question mark if the government had not initiated a full-scale antiterrorism campaign across the country. In this regard, Pakistan has adopted a two-pronged strategy i.e. military operations in the tribal areas and small-scale intelligence-based operations (IBOs) in urban areas. These IBOs and combing operations in the form of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad have been designed keeping in view the spillover effect of the military operation in North Waziristan. This strategy, particularly aims to target the sleeper and facilitation cells of terrorists in urban areas. This manifests the seriousness of Pakistan’s security forces to eliminate internal militancy.
As per the latest data extracted from the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2016-17, “[S]uccess in counterterrorism has played a critical role in creating a conducive economic environment whose results have now started appearing in terms of growth across different segments of the economy. As a result of these efforts, the total losses incurred due to incidents of terrorism are declining. The direct and indirect cost incurred has been gradually declining. During 2015-16, it declined by 29.8 percent while during July-March 2016-17, it declined by 40.2 percent which clearly reflects the effectiveness of the Government’s efforts to eliminate terrorism and extremism from the country.”
With troops stationed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), it would be difficult for the Daesh-linked militants to gain any physical space or control. Moreover, the limited Daesh ‘leadership’ in Pakistan will be unable to extract the same levels of control its Middle Eastern counterpart has been able to in the short- to medium-term.
Afghanistan faces an increasing threat from Daesh, where the group aspires to expand its base by winning favours from fractured and disenfranchised schisms, particularly in the eastern provinces of the state. Afghanistan can also provide the group with space for physical growth and on-ground bases as it has large swathes of lawless, ungoverned, undeveloped and remote areas. There is an active presence of Daesh in the south of Afghanistan which could be devastating for a country already in chaos. Daesh is perceived to be concentrated in Zabul, Faryab, Helmand, Ghazni, Kunduz and Nangarhar provinces, trying to extend its holds beyond remote locations such as Jalalabad, Kunar and Nuristan.
There are reports of militants recruiting, settling and carrying out attacks under the Daesh banner in nearly 70 percent of the Afghan provinces. However, the group could face three-pronged challenges here. The first challenge is the US-led coalition forces as they have been hitting Daesh hideouts and sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria and have vowed to replicate the same offensive strategy in Afghanistan. The second challenge is the Afghan National Security Forces. Though, a lot needs to be done regarding the capacity-building of ANSF, they have been conducting joint raids with US forces to thwart Daesh presence in Afghanistan. The third biggest challenge is the Afghan Taliban who claim complete ownership over the country and wouldn’t allow Daesh to replace them.
Although India is also threatened by the ingress of Daesh, the threat is often portrayed as “manageable, but serious.”
India is home to multiple religious and cultural ethnicities. According to the 2011 census, India has a population of 1.21 billion which constitutes 80.5 percent Hindus, 13.4 percent Muslims, 2.3 percent Christians, 1.9 percent Sikhs and 1.8 percent other religions. Amid such diversity, there have been issues of communal violence, use of force and hate speech against minorities, especially the cow vigilantism is fanning the flames of hatred between the Muslims and the Hindus. The greater ethnic/communal divide and presence of extremist Hindu factions are elements that could provide fertile ground for the growth of Daesh in India.
Unlike Syria and Iraq, where Daesh made rapid strides, the group would face huge tactical challenges, if it tries to consolidate territory in South Asia. Relative political stability, softer sectarian divisions, stronger state defence institutions, and markedly different politico-economic structures and socio-cultural contexts do not provide the most conducive environment for Daesh to successfully infiltrate the region.
Countering the Challenge
It is imperative that South Asian governments work together to combat traditional terror structures and prevent Daesh’s expansion in the region. Domestically, a balance between retributive strategies, which involve military, police and legal action, and restorative approaches, or winning “hearts and minds,” is essential. While kinetic counter-terror measures are essential, exclusively relying on such an approach does little to address the cycles of grievance, aggression and revenge among affected populations, which can ultimately lead to radicalization. More nuanced counter-terror strategies that focus on policies addressing the underlying “push” and “pull” factors behind radicalization are more likely to secure lasting and transformative solutions.
Thus, generating and disseminating viable counter-narratives to extremist propaganda is inevitable. Radicalization must be countered through socialization. However, instead of imposing rigid, platitudinous and often alien diktats, governments must involve credible, local messengers to communicate counter-narratives in order to enhance people’s receptiveness. Counter-narrative campaigns and messages must be targeted to suit the social, cultural, economic, geographical and demographic peculiarities of specific localities.
From a regional perspective, it is essential that states cooperate in anti-terrorism efforts through intelligence- and information-sharing, collaboration between law-enforcement agencies and “best practices.” States must look beyond bilateral bottlenecks in trying to take on a challenge which is truly global in its reach and agenda. The window of opportunity for South Asian countries to immunize their populations from the sway of extremist ideology seems to be closing, as military setbacks force Daesh to build a decentralized network of operations. It is vital that governments immediately and aggressively capitalize on all available counter-terror opportunities.
1. The volatile security architecture and conflict prevalence alongside militant tendencies in South Asia could become breeding grounds for Daesh.
2. Daesh’s presence in South Asia through local affiliates could trigger a dangerous domino effect of bloodshed and terrorist one-upmanship.
3. Unlike Syria and Iraq, where Daesh made rapid strides, the group would face huge tactical challenges, if it tries to consolidate territory in South Asia.
4. Radicalization must be countered through socialization.
5. Generating and disseminating viable counter-narratives to extremist propaganda is inevitable.
6. States must look beyond bilateral bottlenecks in trying to take on a challenge which is truly global in its reach and agenda.