Analysis: Rise of the black banners?

Published May 15, 2015
The letter in question is the second to accept responsibility for an attack in Pakistan.—INP/File
The letter in question is the second to accept responsibility for an attack in Pakistan.—INP/File

IN the aftermath of the massacre of members of the Shia Ismaili community in Karachi, it would appear that the black banners of the Daulat-i-Islamia (self-styled Islamic State or IS) have finally arrived in the region. Pamphlets left behind at the scene of the attack were backed hours later by a press release on one of the official sites maintained by IS on Twitter.

The brief letter in Arabic bearing the emblem of IS said its “Wilayat-i-Khurasan” had carried out the attack and went on to boast about the atrocity. But despite the circulation of this letter, question marks about its legitimacy and of any actual connection with IS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remain in the minds of many experts and security officials. There is also the possibility that local sectarian outfits may have carried out the attack to raise their international profile.

Also read: IS flags in Taxila?

The letter in question is the second to accept responsibility for an attack in Pakistan, which has later been confirmed by the main IS Arabic social media accounts. Coming soon after the attack in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, also reportedly claimed by IS, security officials in Pakistan are certainly not discounting the outfit’s possible efforts to make inroads in this region.

But the letter claiming responsibility is not the only literature to state IS has ‘established’ itself in this region. Recent propaganda material sent out by the outfit’s ‘central’ branch (such as its magazine Dabiq) also states that an ‘official’ arm of Daesh, as IS is also known, now exists in Pakistan. Moreover, in recent weeks the group has sent out letters and propaganda material to a number of local media outlets, professing to explain its stance in the region and the world. That literature clearly shows the contempt it has for all those it considers non-Muslims, especially the various Shia sects.

Among the material is a five-page letter in Urdu, addressed principally to media personnel, but also to persons in power or authority in the country (members of the security forces, government ministers etc) that claims to inform Pakistanis about the ‘right’ Islamic way of life, promoting which, it is claimed, is the main aim of IS.

In general the Urdu letter appears to be a juvenile attempt at propaganda by local militants, especially when it is compared to the slick 31-page booklet that accompanies the letter.

Roots of the schism

This is a translation of an original document in Arabic which contains, along with the history of IS, a statement by the outfit’s official spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani al-Shami. The statement explains, apart from ideological stances, how it split from Al Qaeda and specifically Ayman al-Zawahiri, who Adnani accuses of diverging from the ‘correct’ path of ‘jihad’ against the ‘crusaders’.

Adnani further explains how differences over the matter of the appointment of Abu Mohammad al-Julani and the Jabhat al-Nusra were used ‘by some elements’, particularly Zawahiri, to accuse IS of straying from the path of the “reformer of the age” Osama bin Laden.

After the battlefield successes of what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/as-Shaam) in Syria and Iraq, Baghdadi dissolved al-Nusra and merged the group into ISIS for ‘operational reasons’. Julani disputed this, and was backed by Zawahiri, who many insiders believed saw himself being replaced by the more charismatic Baghdadi.

This was reinforced when Baghdadi announced the rebirth of what he said was the Islamic Caliphate as Daulat al-Islamia on June 29, 2014. This, again, was disputed by Zawahiri and his supporters, whose main contention was that IS had deviated from the manhaj (way) of ‘jihad’ as outlined by Bin Laden. Since then a back-and-forth debate has continued between Al Qaeda and IS over the matter.

Hearts and minds

It is through the use of such zealous polemics that IS has captured the attention of many Islamist radicals in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In one write-up, Adnani explains how ‘Caliph’ Ibrahim (as Baghdadi is now referred to by his followers) has accepted the bayah (pledge of allegiance) of the ‘mujahideen’ from Khurasan, and appointed former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Orakzai chief Hafiz Saeed Khan as emir, and former Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Khadim as naib (deputy) emir.

The original announcement in this regard came in a video message from the aforesaid local commanders, but was not given much credence by experts here. It followed the announcement by Zawahiri of the setting up of a new Al Qaeda cell called Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, in an apparent bid to revive the flagging fortunes of the group. Militant leaders say this has apparently been to no avail.

“Al Qaeda is all but dead, with the only relevant branch now active in Yemen. Allied groups are increasingly breaking away on their own, and many are now pledging allegiance to [IS],” a senior Karachi-based cleric with ties to IS leaders in Iraq and the Arab states claims.

The cleric adds that the leaders of the ‘wilayah’ named by IS are likely to be replaced in the near future, as they do not command the requisite respect. A possible replacement is Mansoor Dadullah.

Dadullah is a former top Taliban commander now believed to have turned renegade from the movement. He is the brother of Mullah Dadullah, who popularised the use of beheadings and suicide bombings in the region, and was seen as the Afghan Taliban’s most effective battlefield commander till he was killed in a joint raid by US navy seals and the British SAS. Of course IS has taken the use of beheadings and suicide bombings to brutal new extremes.

Sectarian colours

Both brothers are said to have been instrumental in the raising of the army of local suicide bombers, in collaboration with certain Punjab-based militant groups. They are said to be particularly close to Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, and are known for their strong anti-Shia stance.

Thus the younger Dadullah’s name should not be a surprise, especially if one reads the booklet mentioned above, which traces the metamorphosis of Al Qaeda in Iraq into Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and finally into the Islamic State. Unsurprisingly, the roots stem from a close relationship formed between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Mohammad al-Muqadisi, regarded as a front-line jihadist thinker in the mould of Abdullah Azzam. The IS regards Zarqawi as its founding father, while Muqadisi was seen as the Iraqi militant’s spiritual guide till a falling out took place.

The document details how a long-term plan was actually put in place by Al Qaeda to break the military hold of Israel and the US over the Middle East, which was helped by the presence of ‘corrupt’ and ‘weak’ Arab monarchies and dictatorships in the region, which remained heavily dependent on the West.

According to the document, while the replacement of the Arab authoritarian regimes with a united Islamic state was the ultimate goal, Bin Laden believed this could only be accomplished by first targeting and weakening the US. Al Qaeda believed, according to the booklet, that this would leave the Arab states defenceless in the face of a popular uprising, and thus the goal of the restoration of the ‘caliphate’ would be accomplished.

IS says its founders agreed with this ultimate aim, but disagreed with the plan of attacking the US first; they felt that it was the Arab states that should be the primary targets. However, being in a minority they had to acquiesce. The literature says that after several years of ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, Zarqawi returned to Pakistan and was briefly jailed. Soon afterwards, he formed an organisation called the Al Tawhid wal Jihad, consisting of former Jordan-based militants, which laid the basis of Al Qaeda’s activities in Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

After 9/11, the booklet explains, Zarqawi returned to Iraq and formed Al Qaeda in Iraq, which became the US’s main enemy in that country. It was also around this time that his falling out with Zawahiri began, the basis of which is a letter he wrote to Bin Laden and the Egyptian doctor, which is not mentioned in the document.

In the letter, Zarqawi explained his reason for increased targeting of the Shias, especially attacks on their sacred shrines. While Bin Laden is said to have been ambivalent in his response, Zawahiri was much more vociferous in his opposition, and this is where the parting of ways between IS and Al Qaeda apparently began.

Eyes on Khurasan

As for IS’s interest in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, that’s something that the document in question and other recent literature seems to clarify. It says that the Khurasan region is of vital importance towards the path of establishing a ‘caliphate’, as it holds the key for the destruction of Iran. In this regard, it calls on militants of the region to unite and pledge allegiance to ‘Caliph’ Ibrahim as several fighters from Afghan and Pakistani jihadist groups already have done.

“Jihad against the [Rafida] is the need of the hour”, the document says, using a pejorative term for Shias and castigating Zawahiri for taking a back seat in this regard, and also declaring Mullah Omar as his stooge and unfit to be regarded as ‘Amirul Momineen’, as the former is known in this region. It professes to focus on carrying out more attacks on Shias and Iranian targets in the region.

Coming back to Mansoor Dadullah, local sources say he is a man to watch. “The senior Dadullah was said to be close to Zarqawi and corresponded with him on a regular basis,” a senior cleric at a Karachi madressah where Mansoor Dadullah used to spend time said. “His brother has all of the ability and twice the venom — and his credentials against the Shia and strong Pakistani connections are well-known.”

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2015

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