A global threat

Published April 1, 2024
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst

THE horrific terrorist attack at a Moscow concert hall last month has refocused attention on global terrorism: the threat is resurfacing, and it largely emanates from Afghanistan. In our increasingly fragmented world, international counterterrorism (CT) offers an opportunity for ongoing engagement. This in turn puts Pakistan back in the spotlight as a regional counter-terror partner.

Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K) claimed the Moscow attack, the latest in a string of international attacks by the group in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The group even attempted attacks in Sweden. This is a material ramp-up from its previous strikes against international targets within Afghanistan (including the Russian and Pakistani embassies in 2022).

These attacks are enabled by the group’s successful recruitment throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. IS-K’s cross-border recruitment will also be spurred over the coming months by Gaza-related grievances, which are beginning to manifest as increasing radicalisation.

By launching international attacks, IS-K is both boosting its ideological heft and threatening its arch-rival, the Afghan Taliban. Great powers such as China and Russia, and Afghanistan’s neighbours Pakistan and Iran, increasingly reconciling with the Afghan Taliban, are resuming diplomatic, trade and investment ties with Afghanistan. China accepted a Taliban ambassador to Beijing last December. What better way to throw off this momentum than provoke a counter-terror crackdown against the regime in Kabul?

The Taliban’s failures have implications for Pakistan.

The Moscow attack highlights the Tali­b­an’s inability to control the global terror thr­eat emanating from its soil, reflecting both a lack of capacity and appetite. On the former, the Taliban have consistently sou­g­­ht to clamp down on IS-K, targeting its leaders, punishing local communities aligned with it, and conducting counterintelligence campaigns within their own ranks to root out IS-K sympathisers. This is not working.

The Taliban’s failures have implications for Pakistan, which is bearing the brunt of rising terrorism: as of last week, Pakistan had experienced 236 attacks in 2024. More than 1,500 Pakistanis were killed in terrorist attacks last year, triple the number in 2020, before the Taliban took power. Attacks such as the one in Bisham threaten Pakistan’s bilateral ties and economic prospects.

While some of these attacks are orchestrated by IS-K, the majority are being attributed to the TTP. Unfortunately, the Taliban’s reluctance to target the TTP is an extension of its IS-K problem: the Taliban do not want to distract resources from the fight against IS-K, and cannot risk an antagonistic TTP joining forces with IS-K.

This is a worrying situation for Afghanistan, Pakistan, the region and the world. But it also presents an opportunity, potentially one with global benefits. There is one topic that rival states agree on, ie, the threat of global terrorism. CT cooperation will enable channels of communication — and associated drips of goodwill — to continue between powers such as the US, China and Russia, supporting global stability. For example, the US shared intelligence about possible IS-K activity with both Russia and Iran before they fell victim to recent attacks.

Expect increasing global activity with regard to Afghanistan. Despite prioritising the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts, the US will strongly take up the resurgence of terrorism: President Joe Biden will have to show that the hasty US departure from Afghan­istan did not set the stage for to­­day’s crisis, while Republicans will be increasingly hawkish on terror as part of broader

dog-whistle politi­­cs. China, meanwhile, in a white paper, set out its intent for a strong, global CT strategy. The UN Security Council in Dece­m­ber also cal­led for terrorism monitors to return to Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban took over.

Pakistan must be ready for this renewed focus. Any clampdown on terror financing, recruitment and activity in Afghanistan will benefit Pakistan because it would also stifle the TTP. But we must not repeat past mistakes.

A civil war along Afghan Taliban-IS-K lines, or international counter-terror strikes in Afghanistan, would produce a migrant and humanitarian crisis in which Pakistan would be on the front line. Ensuring proportionality will be a priority for Pakistan.

But the challenge is greater than that. In a post-Gaza world, ideological narratives will spur recruitment, and crackdowns on groups that have positioned themselves as defending Muslim interests against Western hegemony will again prompt conflicted, existential debates and muddled policymaking in Pakistan. To get it right, we need to start with a fresh, likely secular, narrative about Pakistan’s interests and its productive place in a safe, cooperative world.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2024

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