AMID the political melodrama currently being performed inside and outside parliament a more ominous development has escaped our attention. As the country’s political scene becomes more chaotic, global jihadi groups are seeking to expand their influence, taking advantage of the state’s increasingly fragmented authority. Both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State movement (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) are now competing for support from Islamist militants, raising serious security concerns in the region.
Apparently, prompted by the rapid rise of IS as the most powerful international militant network, Ayman al Zawahiri last week announced the creation of a new Al Qaeda franchise under the banner of Qeadat al-Jihad in an attempt to bolster his organisation’s presence in South Asia.
Operating for a long time from its bases in the tribal territories, Al Qaeda now fears it will lose ground to a better organised and a fiercer splinter militant network with an ambition to establish a so-called Islamic khilafat.
After its spectacular military success in Iraq and Syria, IS has announced its emergence in the restive South Asian region. Pamphlets urging Muslims to join the fight for establishment of a khilafat are being circulated and stickers featuring IS messages have regularly been spotted in north-western Pakistan.
A breakaway group of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) calling itself Jamaatul Ahrar has expressed support for IS, which has established its brutal rule in large areas of war-ravaged territories in the Middle East. It will not be surprising if other radical militant and Sunni sectarian groups jump on this bandwagon soon. Apparently, hundreds of Pakistani volunteers form a significant part of the international jihad brigade currently fighting along IS in Syria and Iraq.
Afghanistan and Kashmir are the other regions where IS is reportedly seeking to boost its influence. Needless to say, both Pakistan and Afghanistan are shown as part of the Islamic caliphate envisaged in the Islamic State’s map. The group’s propaganda pamphlets in Dari and Pashto have reportedly appeared in eastern Afghanistan and in Afghan refugee camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
For the IS, the uncertain security and political situation in Afghanistan close to the withdrawal of the US-led coalition troops by the end of the year provides an extremely favourable environment to win new supporters for its cause. It is, however, not clear whether the group will receive any positive response from the Afghan insurgents led by Mullah Omar.
Being an Al Qaeda breakaway group, IS has old links with various TTP factions and other Pakistani militant groups that go back to the war against the American forces in Iraq.
According to a website run by the group, two TTP members were sent by Qari Hussain to carry out the suicide bombing against the occupation forces in Iraq. A frontline TTP commander and a trainer for suicide bombing, Qari Hussain was killed in a US drone strike some time ago.
“The Mujahideen from Pakistan to Iraq are united, and there are no differences between them, and names like Tehreek-i-Taliban or ISIS are nothing but a strategy of war with no difference in belief. We are one,” declared a message on the website”.
That close ideological links between the Pakistani militant movement and IS exist was further substantiated by the recent demand for the release of Aafia Siddiqui in exchange for the release of Western hostages in the custody of IS. Recently, the group beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, after the demand for her release was rejected.
A Pakistani neurologist, Siddiqui, who was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 and is now serving a 86-year jail sentence in the United States, has been declared by IS as a “daughter of the ummah”. She fled the United States in 2002 after coming under FBI surveillance for her alleged connections with Al Qaeda. The circumstances of her arrest have, however, remained highly controversial. But the campaign launched by the Islamic State to get her released gives credence to the reports of her global jihadi connections. The move may also help the IS mobilise support among the Pakistani militants.
Substantially weakened by the loss of Osama bin Laden and many of its other senior leaders killed in CIA drone strikes or currently in US custody, Al Qaeda finds it extremely tough to compete with the impressive and highly effective propaganda machinery of IS.
After sweeping through Iraq and Syria, IS appears to have far greater capacity to lure Muslim militants across the world than Al Qaeda whose leaders are mostly operating underground and who do not have control over any territory. Thousands of foreign jihadists including those from Europe and the United States have helped IS develop into a fierce fighting force.
Over the years, Al Qaeda in Pakistan has been transformed, with local militant commanders replacing the dead and arrested members of the original leadership nucleus. The new generation of Al Qaeda commanders mostly comes from the ranks of outlawed Pakistani militant groups and from mainstream Islamic political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami. The capacity of Al Qaeda to operate has been further crippled by the latest offensive by the Pakistani Army in North Waziristan Agency that had become its main base.
In this situation, the Islamic State, pursuing a more violent form of jihad, is most likely to find greater appeal among the militant cadres as evident from the large number of foreign fighters joining its ranks. Unsurprisingly, IS has overshadowed Al Qaeda whose increasingly fragmented and tired leadership is hardly a match for the well-oiled fighting machinery of the new global jihadi outfit.
The political imbroglio in Islamabad and the shrinking authority of the state have only opened up new opportunities for global terrorist networks. What is most troubling, however, is that the rise of the IS with its fiercely anti-Shia stance could further fuel sectarian violence in the country creating more problems for Pakistan’s struggle against militant violence.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2014