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EFSAS Commentary

Terror attacks in Sri Lanka: Could South Asia become a prospective hotbed of the Islamic State?


In the wake of the Sri Lankan terror attacks that took place on 21 April, South Asia has been on high alert. Sri Lankan officials stated that the attacks in Sri Lanka were carried out by the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), however the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility shortly after the events. While the group has been driven out of Syria and Iraq and the so-called Caliphate (Islamic State) in these countries is lost, IS' followers and ideology remain very much active. 

Less than 10 days after the Sri Lankan attacks, IS claimed responsibility for yet another bombing, this time in Dhaka, Bangladesh. On 29 April, IS terrorists detonated an improvised explosive device which injured 3 police officers and the following day, the group issued threats against India and Bangladesh. A poster was released, in which IS declared the appointment of a new Emir in Bangladesh, Abu Muhammed al-Bengali, and stated: “If you think you have silenced the soldiers of the Khilafa (Caliphate) in Bengal and Hind and you are certain about that then listen we men are never to be silenced. And are [our] thirst for revenge is never to be faded away”. The week before, another IS propaganda poster circulating on a pro-IS Telegram channel had the words “Coming Soon” displayed in Bengali, leading authorities to believe an attack would be carried out in either Bangladesh or West Bengal in India. 

This is not the first time IS has claimed responsibility for attacks in Bangladesh. In 2016, members of the IS-affiliated group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) attacked a bakery in Dhaka and killed 20 people. In 2017, IS claimed to be responsible for explosions in the city of Sylhet which resulted in 6 deaths. Despite the fact that Bangladeshi authorities have continuously rejected the claims of IS, stating that the aforementioned attacks were solely carried out by JMB militants, with IS claiming two attacks in one week, the group's influence in South Asia is not easily dismissible. 

Although IS has been defeated on the ground and lost the cross-border territory of its so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, al-Baghdadi, the current leader of IS, stated that “the scale of victory or defeat for the mujahideen is not dependent on a city or town being stolen or subject to those who have aerial superiority”. Furthermore, it should be noted that most reports propose that thousands of IS fighters and planners could have survived and slipped into the Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Libya, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The coordinator of the ISIS/Al Qaeda/Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations has stated that: “We don't know how many have died. But we can assume that at least 50% survived. My personal guess is more”. IS has long prepared itself and adapted its internal structures for this new phase of existence. In accordance with this line, its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, by emphasizing that suffering “significant” losses of territory would not spell the group’s end, said: “No, defeat is losing the will and the desire to fight”

Beyond the battle-hardened survivors of the so-called Caliphate, IS has been attempting to morph from a regional quasi-state terrorist group into a covert global network including plenty of IS sympathizers sustained by online radicalization and extremist preachers. The battle leadership on the ground has been hollowed out and the ground infrastructure necessary to start a new war has been disrupted, however, the message of IS still fuels radicalization and extremism. A UN report early this year stated: “This network is being established at the provincial level with a cellular structure mirroring the key functions covered by the central leadership”. According to one estimate conducted by the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, IS has over 90,000 accounts just on Twitter. This global network, alongside the remaining IS members in Iraq and Syria, could look for new opportunities to launch sporadic attacks in Western countries and at the same time take advantage of the chaotic situation in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to regroup and foster the arising of a new generation of jihadists. 

From the standpoint of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a causal relationship between moral decadence on one side and implemented Western policies in their countries on the other side. Generally, Muslims in regions like South Asia feel that they are oppressed by the international system and Western society while they struggle with feelings of injustice and experiences of discrimination. This was reflected in the so-called Fatwas (religious orders) by leaders of IS such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that western strategies in the region have constituted “a clear declaration of war against God, His Messenger and Muslims”. Mark Juergensmeyer, an American scholar expert on religious violence, conflict resolution and South Asian religion and politics, interviewed a great number of ex-militants and ex-terrorists and found that almost all of them hold the same conviction and the recurring phrase, ‘We are already at war’, continues to appear in their interviews. To elucidate on the promotion of IS ideology and respectively radicalization among people in South Asia, it is worth mentioning that IS’ global network mainly relies on a syndrome of beliefs about the current situation and the historical experiences of the people in the region. The ideology of IS and its propaganda are well-equipped to foster or restore the aforementioned feelings by promising a global Sunni Caliphate in which not only their needs are met effectively, but the people can also jointly practice religious activities. 

The depicted narrative of an Islamic State by IS has shown the capability and flexibility to adapt itself with particular unmet needs of the people in different regions. Furthermore, it presents its utopia in accordance with regional demands; In the case of Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, where sections of Muslims living in the Kashmir Valley foster feelings of unfair treatment and betrayal, IS has unfurled its black flags along with Pakistani flags to provoke Indian forces. Meantime, the situation in Afghanistan is more complicated owing to its complex ethnic demographics, its fragile-decentralized government and more importantly the presence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Since the emergence of IS in Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda has issued a stunning rebuke of the “Islamic State” in its formal statements and called upon Muslims everywhere to rise up and destroy IS. However, in January 2015, IS officially announced the formation of its Afghan affiliate called Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), located in the eastern part of Afghanistan. This group has growing operational abilities and could occupy various districts in the province of Jowzjan, while it is made up of mostly IS survivors and former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters. While in January 2016, former US President Obama, designated ISKP as a Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), NATO described Jowzjan, the region held by ISKP, as “the main conduit for external support and foreign fighters from Central Asian states into Afghanistan”. According to UN reports, IS is winning over a growing number of its adherents and sympathizers in 25 provinces of Afghanistan. Although Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been fighting against IS alongside with each other, the dynamics of their relation are constantly shifting which may forge cooperation at some point of time. Furthermore, one cannot deny the fact that the trajectories of these three terrorist groups highlight a significant ideological overlap, including establishing a global Caliphate, which may facilitate probable collaboration between these groups in the future. This deadly alliance has already been formed in some provinces of Afghanistan such as Helmand and Farah. For instance, Abdul Rauf Khadem, former Taliban adviser to Mullah Omar, has been recruiting Afghan militants who have close ties to Al Qaeda in order to fight under the banner of IS. 

In Pakistan, though the official narrative has denied the organized presence of IS, the footprint of this group has been alarmingly increasing particularly in Baluchistan and northern Sindh. Reportedly, the high ability of IS in appealing to and forging alliances with other terrorist groups has tempted some groups in Pakistan to extend the hand of friendship and assist IS in the country. 

Despite the fact that to this date, IS has not established a significant presence in India, the various disrupted plots of Indian radical groups such as Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind and Ansar-ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind and also the activities of IS deployed to attract young Indians to its new heartlands in Afghanistan should not be ignored, as ISKP in Afghanistan does not only threaten Indian interests in Afghanistan, but has also promised to wage a war in Indian Administrated Jammu & Kashmir. In addition, as mentioned above, IS has affiliated groups in Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi government is struggling heavily in tackling local terrorist groups and growing radicalization. The rise of Islamic extremism in the country, combined with the lack of effective counter-terrorism measures, presents an opportunity for IS to spread its ideology more vehemently. 

The ability of IS to disseminate its ideology in regions plagued with insurgency, growing radicalization and political instability has to be taken into account by governments in South Asia as well as the international community in order to halt the influence of IS in the region. Surviving IS combatants have been seeking to relocate from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and Pakistan and beyond that, the global network of IS has been strategically exploiting social media outlets in order to fuel extremism and recruit young people in India, Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir and Bangladesh. Therefore, countries should also establish counter-terrorism measures to defeat this group on end-to-end encrypted communication platforms and shut down sites of online radicalization which have no borders and are thus posing a global threat. In the current age of digital radicalization, youngsters - being impressionable and vulnerable - are an ideal target. 

While armies have the capacity to conduct airstrikes and attacks against tangible IS bases and terrorists, fighting its venomous ideology will require a different arsenal; Cooperation and intelligence-sharing among South Asian countries should be facilitated and these countries should take the lead in implementing policies that compliment global objectives and stem the tide of radicalization in the region as growing interrelated stakes, increasingly demand a collective approach against this global threat.