Deadly attack on Sikhs in Afghanistan and rise of IS in the region
On 1 July 2018, a suicide attack carried out in the Afghan city of Jalalabad claimed the lives of at least 19 people and injured more than 20 others. Responsibility for the bombing was subsequently claimed by the Islamic State (IS) and majority of the victims were members of the minority Sikh and Hindu communities. The attack took place while they were on their way to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who had just inaugurated a hospital in Jalalabad hours prior to the bombing. Among the victims was Avtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate to run in the upcoming October parliamentary elections.
The attack has been uniformly condemned by states and supranational bodies. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also condemned the attack, with its Deputy Head and Deputy Special Representative, Ingrid Hayden, saying, “…The architects of this appalling crime must be brought to justice”. The UN Secretary General further reiterated that the deliberate targeting of civilians is unjustifiable and is a clear-cut breach of the principles of international law.
It is estimated that around 1,000 Sikhs and Hindus currently live in Afghanistan, that is otherwise an overwhelmingly Muslim country. The vast majority of them reside in Jalalabad, while small numbers live in the south-eastern city of Ghazni and the capital Kabul. Almost 30 years ago the situation was different as Afghanistan was home to as many as 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before the harrowing Afghan Civil War of the 1990s, when these minorities were targeted and Sikh gurdwaras (temples) were systematically destroyed.
Although politically recognised by the Afghan Government and haven been given the freedom of worship, many Sikhs continue to experience persecution and discrimination alongside violence from extremist Islamic groups, which in return prompts many of them to seek refuge in India, their religious homeland. Some have argued that the attack of July 1 has further come as an attempt to polarise relations between Afghanistan and India, which have had strong economic, cultural and historic ties.
“Our religious practices will not be tolerated by the Islamic terrorists. We are Afghans. The government recognizes us, but terrorists target us because we are not Muslims", said Tejvir Singh, the secretary of a national panel of Hindus and Sikhs, whose uncle lost his life in the attack.
As a response to the suicide bombing in Jalalabad, many Sikhs have sought shelter at the city’s Indian embassy. Currently, India is issuing long-term visas to members of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities. Vinay Kumar, India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, has argued, “…India is welcoming them to resettle on its territory”. Nevertheless, many Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are reluctant to relocate since they have their families and businesses in Afghanistan.
The bombing came a day after Ashraf Ghani put an end to the declared ceasefire against terrorist groups and ordered Afghan security forces to resume offensive operations against the Taliban. IS was not part of this so-called truce, evidenced by the fact that it carried out two suicide attacks in the said period in Nangarhar, killing dozens of people.
Since 2015, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), the proclaimed branch of IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been on the rise and has enjoyed support in the subcontinent, especially after starting to lose grip in Syria and Iraq. It has been responsible for some of the most lethal attacks in Afghanistan in the past three years.
With a different nature and organizational set-up than the IS in Syria and Iraq, this group was established in January 2015, and appointed former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist Hafiz Saeed Khan and former Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Aliza as its leaders. They were both subsequently killed in US drone strikes. Nevertheless, IS continued to actively recruit defectors from the Taliban, who were disenfranchised with the terrorist organization. ISKP’s control was further boosted by the involvement of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which joined forces and declared they were supporters of ISKP’s cause for a Khorasan province. Overall, ISKP in its structure is more like a cartel, which comprises of disgruntled former members of other fragmented terrorist groups, such as the TTP, IMU, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammed. As Yaqoob ul Hassan, Fellow of the policy platform South Asian Voices, has argued: “These terrorist outfits tasked to operate under the banner of ISKP are more like a marriage of convenience than a union based on shared ideology”. It is evident that these terrorist outfits are extremely dependent on each other in order to survive.
The IS’s presence in Afghanistan might not be currently compared to the dominion of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, yet the recent terrorist attacks and its refusal to reciprocate the government’s ceasefire offer suggest that ISKP is growing stronger. The created rift between ISKP and the Taliban has further consolidated their power – recent executions of Taliban fighters by ISKP and the increasing appropriation of drug trafficking routes used for bankrolling their terrorist operations, which have been previously under the control of the TTP, suggest ISKP’s growing control. Massoumeh Torfeh, the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and currently a research associate at the London School of Economics, has warned, “…ISIS could take advantage of another "lost" American war and another failing state, as it did in Iraq. Afghanistan's complex set of security and political problems are providing the armed group the chaos conditions that it needs to prosper”.
However, the major difference between the IS in Afghanistan, and in Iraq and Syria, is that IS in Iraq and Syria attracted individuals who opposed regimes and believed in a certain ideology, while ISKP seems to have been established by disenfranchised members of terrorist groups, which aim to rebrand themselves under a different name. Earlier, worried by the international ambitions of IS, Al Qaeda had decided to bring at least a dozen independently operating extremists groups (mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan) together into one branch. These groups have longstanding, extremely extensive networks in the region supplemented by the formidable infrastructure of thousands of madrassas. This new branch in South Asia, called Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) proposed several locations for potential operations including Jammu & Kashmir, Gujarat, Assam, Burma and Bangladesh.
The ultimate aim of such groups remains the same – leaving Afghanistan in a state of disarray and unrest, prolong the conflict, extort money to fund their operations, and drive away any ‘competition’ in order to emerge as the chief Jihadist group in the region. The result of this strategic competition comes with the price of hundreds of innocent Afghan lives and rise in sectarian violence. A rise which could create havoc if it spills over to neighbouring countries in the Indian Subcontinent, which is an exceptionally plural region, consisting of numerous religious and ethnolinguistic groups.
Now that IS seems to be defeated in Iraq and Syria, South Asia, with its many interrelated conflicts and more than a few dozen extremist organizations operating in the region - some with active backing from state actors - could prove to become fertile land for the terrorist group’s ambitions.
Alternative regional narratives to fight terrorism at the ideological level are critical and can only succeed if all nations understand and adopt a resolute policy towards all terrorist organizations irrespective of their ‘perceived’ strategic utilities. The need to formalize intelligence sharing policies among the region has never been more urgent. The spread of extremist forces in addition to their interrelated networks and infrastructure must compel the nations in the region to overcome mistrust and embark upon a path of institutionalized cooperation regarding timely and accurate counter-terrorism policies based on intelligence sharing and aimed at satisfying the common population’s collective appetite for peace and prosperity.