AFTER declaring a ‘caliphate’ in parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, the self-styled Islamic State group has unleashed a reign of terror in this region. The recent attack on the prison in Jalalabad shows how it has put its blood-soaked ideology into practice. Major gains had been made against the terrorist group in the Middle East towards the end of 2017, with both American- and Iranian-backed coalitions separately pounding the group’s positions in Syria and Iraq. While IS may not be completely eliminated from its erstwhile bastions in the Middle East, it is certainly a shadow of its former self, as the ‘caliphate’ at one time appeared poised to march on Baghdad, while it had established a ‘capital’ in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
There are lessons for the international community in the rise of IS and its hate-filled ideology, principally that such movements should not be taken lightly and that states need to stay ahead of such groups that use a mixture of religious symbols, charisma and acts of terrorism to brainwash potential recruits. Moreover, poorly governed spaces offer such groups a haven where they can train, rest and regroup. At the present time, ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan offer an ideal location for the Khorasan chapter of IS to establish itself and carry out terrorist attacks. The raid on the jail is proof that the deadly group is capable of wreaking plenty of havoc if left to its own devices. Around 30 people have been killed in the prison attack, which was ostensibly launched in reaction to the recent killing of a senior IS leader by Afghan forces near Jalalabad. Back in May, IS was involved in an attack targeting a police officer’s funeral — also in Nangarhar province — that killed over 30 people, while a chilling strike on a maternity hospital in a Shia-dominated area of Kabul, also in May, is widely believed to be the work of the group. As per a recent UN report, while IS in Afghanistan is in “territorial retreat”, the terrorist group “remains capable of carrying out high-profile attacks in various parts of the country”.
The fact is that unless there is durable peace between all Afghan factions — particularly the government and the Taliban — IS and those of its ilk will flourish in the chaos. Moreover, the ‘caliphate’ has many ideological fellow travellers in this region. These include thousands of TTP militants who are currently sheltering in Afghanistan, as well as other sectarian and extremist groups. If IS strengthens its foothold in Afghanistan, many of these militant groups will naturally gravitate towards it, creating a new security nightmare for the countries of South and Central Asia. The peace process between Kabul and the Taliban lumbers on, with a wobbly Eid truce largely holding. However, the longer the Afghan imbroglio drags on, the more strength IS will gain, threatening internal peace, as well as regional stability.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2020