Yesterday, London-based counter-extremism organisation Quilliam launched its most recent report: “South Asian Militant Groups and Global Jihad in 2015”. Authored by Nikita Malik and Eleanor Beevor, the launch was chaired by Maajid Nawaz, with Baroness Kishwer Falkner as a guest speaker.
Ms. Beevor opened the session with an analysis of major recent activity from international jihadist groups, and deconstructed the concept of global jihad. She stressed that in the report, jihad refers to a military rather than spiritual application. Jihad was presented as both an idea and a culture: the idea being a global caliphate, and the culture being shared activities and ideologies. Moreover, she added that jihad has become an increasingly glamorised concept with a strong pull factor which translates to media audiences. She also questioned whether global jihad can be considered as strategic, clarifying that in South Asia, this appears not to be the case. For example, although Al Qaeda was formally controlled centrally, large numbers of local affiliates are acting more independently than has been seen in the past. As an organisation, Al Qaeda has been side-lined by IS. IS’ growth in 2014 re-energised the global jihadi movement, attracting an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters, and having an instantly recognisable flag. However, the fact that the global jihadi movement pursues local goals should not be overlooked.
Outside of the Middle East, IS has an important presence in South Asia. Here, its main organ of control is Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Its Shura (leadership council) is comprised of former Afghani Taliban, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members. At the time of the group’s creation, Abdulrahim Muslim Dost (a former Guantanamo detainee) acted as its leader. However, following a suicide bombing on a bank in Jalalabad, there has been increased disagreement amongst ISKP leadership over responsibility. As a result, although jihad has become globalised, a global jihad does not exist. Networks which connect militants internationally are not organised or coordinated. Moreover, IS has energised jihad in the pursuit of local goals that differ significantly, and enmity between groups is rife. A good example of this is the conflict which exists between Al Qaeda and IS, resulting in mutual takfirism.
Two of the most important South Asian jihadi groups – the Afghani Taliban and the TTP – are both aligned and friendly with Al Qaeda. As of 2015, the former finds itself at a crossroad. Their leader, Mullah Omar, has disappeared. He created an authoritative mystique through his absence, but now, there appears to be less control within the group itself. For those in favour of negotiation between the Taliban and Afghan government, this would have been a point of hope, but this seems increasingly unlikely due to recent attack on Afghan’s Parliament. Within the Afghani Taliban there is discord between pro and anti-reconciliation camps. Although drone strikes have fractured certain militant groups; structural damage to an organisation does not translate to better security on the ground. IS also has a worrying presence as an ideological destabiliser, not only do they inspire a response from existing groups, but it is likely that existing groups will become more violent in the future.
Ms. Malik spoke next, outlining regional government policy to IS: India banned the group in 2014, Pakistan have thus far largely ignored IS presence, and the Afghan Taliban have been working with Iran to counter IS influence within Afghanistan. She attributed IS’ local rise in popularity to other groups’ lack of charismatic leaders. Mullah Omar acts as the best example of such an individual. To focus efforts on IS, she recommended further attention be given to the following areas: education, media, prisons, the opium trade and DDR. She also highlighted that South Asia is one of the most corrupt regions in the world. This has led to high levels of disillusionment with local states and governments, which feeds radicalisation along with poverty levels. An attempt to reduce both of these should be made. It was also suggested that the causes of violence and relevant areas of mental health should be further investigated. The role of prisons as tools for local radicalisation was also highlighted, as well as the negative implications of extremism in schools and need to analyse educational materials.
Baroness Kishwer Falkner who attended the launch stressed the need for improved socioeconomic conditions and a stronger rule of law. Societies – such as Afghanistan and Pakistan – with low GDPs and no real “rule of law” often struggle to democratise, and counter the influence of extremist groups such as IS and the Taliban in its various local forms. Baroness Falkner also highlighted that Quilliam’s report must take into account the vested interest local elites have in the status quo: in the case of Pakistan, this allows members of extremist groups to pursue damaging agendas in the public sphere, while officially partnering with government officials. The Baroness also defended the British government’s spending on international development, as she felt that this aided in creating conditions conducive for fighting extremism.
Numerous questions were posed by the audience. One of the most significant was based on IS’ overall presence in South Asia. Ms. Beevor explained that much of their power lies in the impression their individual operations have, rather than their force of numbers. Another audience member also highlighted that this week’s attack on the Afghan parliament could partially be interpreted as a Taliban attempt to prove their significance and capabilities to IS, vying with the group for attention and influence.
To conclude, terrorism groups in South Asia are far from structured, cohesive units. A new approach in policy aimed at combatting them is much needed. The potential for counter-radicalisation strategies as well as mental health policy to reduce the risk of radicalisation should be revisited. Moreover, by coupling civil society initiatives with local, regional and international policies, the affected governments will be better able to counter these violent ideologies and groups.
The full report can be accessed here.
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