Implications of Islamic State’s Expansion in South Asia
The Islamic State has declared a Wilayah in India. (Photo: AP) 
By Abdul Basit

Implications of Islamic State’s Expansion in South Asia

Jun. 19, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Following territorial losses in Syria, the Islamic State (IS) declared Wilayahs (provinces) in India and Pakistan on May 10 and 15, 2019, respectively. In a recent statement, IS also threatened a fresh wave of attacks in India and Bangladesh. Parallel to these announcements and threats, the terror group claimed responsibility for two attacks in Balochistan’s Quetta and Mastung districts, a clash between Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK) militants and Indian security forces in Kashmir as well as an attack in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka that killed three police personnel.


IS’ efforts to expand in South Asia should be situated in the group’s organizational restructuring from a quasi-state to a global insurgency and a network of terrorist groups. Like a multinational, IS has compressed multiple Wilayahs in Iraq and Syria into two while decentralizing Wilayah Khorasan, which was deemed to have the mandate for the whole of South Asia, into three. In his April 24 video, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was shown as a “guerrilla caliph” wearing khaki color military waistcoat and an AK-47 in the background instead of an “imam caliph” leading a prayer in Iraq’s Al-Nuri mosque in June 2014. This indicates the military defeats have forced IS to revert to its roots of guerrilla warfare and wage a war of attrition against its enemies. IS online newspaper al-Naba also issued a new guerrilla manual for its militants, urging them to fight on and stressing that waging the war is more important than winning it.   


South Asia has one of the highest regional concentration of militant groups in the world with a history of jihadist insurgencies. The region offers tremendous recruiting, hiding and training opportunities to IS in the form of ungoverned spaces, porous borders, easy availability of weapons and longstanding disputes like Kashmir and Afghanistan.


Now, IS has three Wilayahs in South Asia: Wilayah Khorasan, Wilayah Hind and Wilayah Pakistan. However, these Wilayahs have been pronounced in different operational environments and circumstances. For instance, Wilayah Khorasan was pronounced in 2015 from a position of strength, when IS was at its peak and the local militant groups were keen to affiliate with its brand to benefit from its success. On the contrary, Wilayah Hind and Wilayah Pakistan have been declared from a position of weakness when IS has lost the territorial Caliphate in the Levant and its terror brand needs the local militant groups to stay relevant. This expansion has great propaganda value for IS: it will fuel its claims of a global militant group.


Previous IS efforts to grow in South Asia met with moderate success. Barring Afghanistan, IS struggled to make significant inroads in South Asia due to two main factors. First, IS is a Takfiri-Salafist group that espouses a puritanical vision of a Sunni Caliphate, while most of the militant groups in South Asia are Deobandi-Hanafists and are focused on local and regional issues like Kashmir and Afghanistan. These groups believe that an association with IS will dilute their indigenous-local struggles with global jihadism. Second, most of South Asia militant groups are still loyal to Al-Qaeda, IS’ arch-foe, and consider IS an enemy which divided and weakened the global jihadist movement by revolting against the former.

IS efforts to grow in South Asia will fuel militant competition for recruits and resources, making the regional threat landscape more volatile and complex.

In Afghanistan, Wilayah Khorasan or the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) is headquartered in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. ISK is well-entrenched in Afghanistan’s volatile militant landscape. In the face of Afghan Taliban’s reprisal attacks, the US airstrikes and Afghan National Army’s (ANA) ground operations, ISK has proved to be resilient with incredible regenerative capacity. ISK has its footprint in Kunar, Nuristan, Badakhshan and Jawzjan provinces of Afghanistan. ISK has forged several strategic, tactical and operational alliances with like-minded militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These alliances have not only added to ISK’s resilience and longevity but enhanced its geographical outreach and operational capability as well. In fact, the loss of IS territories in Iraq and Syria had been beneficial for ISK. The reverse flow of IS fighters from the Middle East to Afghanistan has strengthened ISK’s organizational and operational capabilities. According to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report, as many as 60 members of IS-core have relocated to Afghanistan along with 300 to 400 fighters.


In Pakistan, IS declared a Wilayah on May 15 while calming responsibility for killing a rival Taliban commander in Quetta and a traffic police warden in Mastung district of Balochistan. A former commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Dawood Mahsud has been appointed as the new emir of Wilayah Pakistan. IS has no formal organizational structure in Pakistan. So far, all the IS attacks in Pakistan have been claimed in the name of the group's Khorasan Wilayah. IS has isolated pockets of support and influence in Balochistan, interior Sindh and some parts of northwestern Pashtun tribal areas. IS has also been successful in finding support with a radical fringe of educated youth from well-to-do families in Pakistan. A case in point is the Saad Aziz network which was involved in a series of high-profile attacks in Karachi, including the killing of noted social worker Sabin Inam and the massacre of Ismaili Shia community in 2014. The militants involved in these attacks, including Aziz’s wife and mother-in-law, were well-educated and from middle and upper middle classes.


In India, IS declared a Wilayah on May 10, following a clash of ISJK militants with the Indian security forces in Shopian, Kashmir. Signs of IS ingress became visible when post-attack investigations of the Sri Lanka bombings established that the ringleader of suicide bombers Zahran Hashim traveled to India several times and received his militant training there. IS has found some pockets of sympathy in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where Salafist influence is quite pronounced, given a large number of people from these states work in the Middle East. In 2016, around 21 people from Kerala traveled to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province to join ISK via Dubai.


Notwithstanding success or failure of Wilayah declarations in India and Pakistan, IS’ newfound interest in South Asia is unmistaken. The announcements of new Wilayahs is aimed to bolster IS’ local credentials in the region. IS efforts to grow in South Asia will fuel militant competition for recruits and resources, making the regional threat landscape more volatile and complex. The Wilayah declarations might trigger a new wave of defections from existing militant groups towards IS. It might also unify various disaffected factions of existing militant groups under the IS umbrella.


It will be myopic to judge IS influence in South Asia based on the group’s organizational footprint and operational capability. With a minimal operational capacity, IS carried out the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka by linking up with a local radical network, the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ). The real IS threat in South Asia is its ability to link up with like-minded local radical groups and militant organizations to carry out terrorist attacks. Prior intelligence of how these networks are formed would be critical in neutralizing future IS threat in the region.


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