The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. Albert Einstein
Tuesday, 23 September 2014
ONE WORLD, MANY CALIPHS: AN ASSESSMENT OF STRUGGLE BETWEEN AL QAEDA AND ISIS FOR SOUTH ASIA
By Aakash Tolan, via Eurasia Review
The concept of an Islamic caliphate undoubtedly has religious resonance across the Muslim world. However, much like any other religious society, different schools of thoughts exist within the Islamic fold as well. There are scholars who uphold the view of every Muslim to strive for the supremacy of Islam in his country by all means over “all other religions”, and there are others, such as the Pakistani Islamic scholar— Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, who argue that such concepts and actions were carried out in a particular context and time, not compulsively or religiously applicable today. However shall the concept of ‘Caliphate’ be assessed, it goes without saying that the idea to safeguard or establish one continues to inspire many impressionable young minds in the Muslim world till today.
If History tells us anything, as early as 1919, the Khilafat Movement, a pan-Islamic campaign launched to protect the erstwhile Caliph and the Ottoman Empire during the aftermath of World War I, saw many Muslims; particularly from South Asia participate in the cause against the British empire. Although, the then Turkish Caliphate and the ones that ISIS and Al Qaeda promise and uphold today may have little in common; nevertheless, South Asia still appears to be a fertile ground for radical Islamist organizations to fan sentiments and garner support.
The June 29, 2014 statement from ISIS, declaring Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as the Caliph of Islam, known also as Emir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful Muslims), received both support and disavowal from the Muslim world. In terms of support, in South Asia the following groups or individuals are reported to have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State:
In terms of disavowment, reports suggest that the general secretary of the All India Sunni Jameyathul Ulema— Shaikh Abu Bakr Ahmad, a Kerala based Islamic Cleric, said favouring the extremist organisations was antithetical to the Islamic Shariah. Furthermore, it has also been reported that renowned organizations such as Jamat-i-Islami (Hind) have also asked the Indian Muslim community to ensure that the younger generation are not lured into Jihad by possible sleeper cells of Jihadi organizations across the country.
However, one of most striking retaliatory, or rather competitive move comes from none other than the veteran global Jihadi organization— Al Qaeda.
To briefly put this into context, the title of Emir-ul-Momineen, or the Caliph, had so far been retained by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of Afghan Taliban. Al-Qaeda’s slain leader Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda affiliates in several countries offered their bai’yah (oath of fealty) to him. With Al Qaeda weakened by Osama Bin Laden’s death, US operations and affiliates such as Al Shabab also taking a back seat, the loosely networked organization was bound to receive a reality check from an expelled faction of Al-Baghdadi in Syria, that not only has brutally and successfully established a so called ‘Caliphate’ under a new emir, but also appears to have trumped in Jihadi propaganda and recruitment via Social Media.
Before proceeding further into South Asian Jihadi groups and their possible moves in the wake of the ‘Caliphate’ era, it is crucial to firstly outline a few prominent differences between Al Qaeda and ISIS so far.
The concept of ‘Caliphate’ never materialized, only seems to be utilized to receive support from distant organizations in the Jihadi world
The Caliphate is an existential reality achieved, calling for Muslims to make Hijra, or a holy trip to the holy land for the final apocalyptic war between believers and non-beleivers
Jihadists are summoned to active Jihadi fronts, never as much to the centre of gravity. Even the newly established South Asian wing holds regional goals
Doctors, jurists and engineers to build the institutions of the caliphate are summoned. Invitations to Caliphate extend to the global Muslim community
Al-Qaeda kinetic operations target the “far enemy,” the West, relying on organizations within its umbrella to execute something grand
ISIS fights a more localized battle instead to deter competitors, ruling regimes and the west alike
Does not have resources, relies primarily on terrorist financing networks and donations
Conducts operations, such as bank-robbery, ransoms, installs institutionalized taxing to fund itself
Relies mostly on ‘West Vs Islam’ notion
Formation itself was based on Shia Vs Sunni sectarian clashes in Syria and Iraq
In the cyberspace, sermons of Zawahiri are formal in nature, primarily showcased against a simple background. It appears Al Qaeda’s online magazines such as- ‘Inspire’ and other special editions promote lone-wolf attacks in the west. Videos of US personnel bombarded or beheading on westerners are carried out by affiliates
ISIS is much more tech savvy. Use of Twitter, Facebook, including broadcast of real life video dairies of Jihadi recruits, training videos, beheading and mass killing videos are just some of the examples of their multi-pronged use of the cyberspace. The online audience is encouraged to move to the ‘Caliphate’ over grass root level activism, as mentioned in the ISIS online magazine- ‘Dabiq’
Female participation not emphasized as much
Al-Khanssaa Brigade, a female police force to enforce Shariah amongst the women has been set up by the ISIS
Given the above differences as a backdrop, the timing of Zawahiri’s call for a south Asian branch of the organization, like most commentators have already discussed, seems to be borne out of desperation. The question now is— what has this or will this desperation manifest into?
Given a multitude of views that have emerged in this regard already, the following is a discussion of possible likely avenues Al Qaeda has or would be exploring:
Possibility A: To mutually benefit the state that provides sanctuary
Claim: Analysts around the world have already laid the claim that Zawahiri’s video on 3 September where he outlines grievances of all regions in South Asia, but Pakistan, signifies a desperate Al Qaeda who may have struck a deal with ISI in fostering anti-India groups to ensure its safe haven on the Pakistani soil. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and head of President Barack Obama’s 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review, described the new group as focused exclusively on India, suggesting that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is hand in glove with hiding the Al Qaeda top man Ayman al- Zawahiri, much like how once Osama Bin Laden was.
Vikram Sood, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing of India, went a step further, arguing that Al Qaeda’s new branch provides Islamabad the deniability it needs to continue supporting terror attacks in India. The presence of AQIS, Sood says, “absolves Pakistan of the charge that there is an Al Qaeda in Pakistan.” Tufail Ahmad, the renowned South Asia Jihadi media analyst from MEMRI further opines that the Al-Zawahiri’s video has another timeline in its sight, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by end-2014, and is therefore aligned with the Pakistani military’s strategic objective aimed at reacquiring control over Afghanistan through the Taliban as the US leaves. There is also the fact that Umar Khorasani splinter faction of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan seems to be supporting AQIS, which would make many think as though the splintering of TTP would indirectly benefit the Pakistani counter-terrorism agencies.
Counter-argument: None other than Al Qaeda seems to have clarified as per a SITE report on 9th of September about “media-led misperceptions” about the group’s scope, explaining that it is not limited to India, but includes the entirety of the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, it seems as though the newly formed South Asian wing’s first target happens to be Pakistan, claiming two terrorist attacks in its first week of operations already. The official spokesman for AQIS, Usama Mahmoud, released statements and photos on his Twitter feed offering details for both attacks. The following is a press release for one of the attacks which killed an army personnel recently:
Al Qaeda in India Press Release
Apart from this, it is important to point out that, although Al Qaeda may appear desperate to reclaim its fame, it probably would not run the risk of losing its luster as a pro-Shariah hardline Salafist group by aligning itself with the Pakistani state, like Lashkar-e-Taiba; especially when the global Jihadi trend suggests, the more ‘takfiri’ or anti-state and pro-Caliphate the group sounds, the more authentic it appears in the Jihadi world. To this end, reports and magazine publications such as ‘Azan’, published by the Taliban in Pakistan, suggest that regardless of whichever Taliban faction it may be, they are anti- state and anti-democracy, and very much aligned with the Al Qaeda. If this is the premise, it is even more hard to conclude that Al Qaeda would be anything, but a puppet to the state agencies and anti TTP.
To this end, even the US State Department in 2010 established that the TTP and Al Qaeda have a symbiotic relationship; TTP draws ideological guidance from the latter, while the former relies on TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. “This mutual cooperation gives TTP access to both al-Qa’ida’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their relationship, TTP is a force multiplier for al- Qa’ida” (US State Dept. 2010).
Furthermore, the intent of addressing Muslims of India and Burma does not appear to be a recent phenomenon, as inferred by many analysts based on Zawahiri’s 3rd September announcement. If Issue 3 of Taliban’s ‘Azan’ magazine published in 2013 (i.e. a year before even ISIS came with the concept of Caliphate) is examined, it very much contains the message to Indian Muslims by Al Qaeda militant Maulana Asim Umar, now the AQIS ‘Emir’, urging jihad. In other words, an anti-Indian stance of a Jihadi group should not be automatically equated to a pro-Pakistan or Pakistani supported stance of the group. TTP is against the state of Pakistan. Al Qaeda and its affiliate the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have also been involved in carrying out attacks against the state of Pakistan. But in addition to this, India and Kashmir have also been on their agenda from an early stage, while they were still carrying out attacks against the state of Pakistan. Moreover, If ISIS is any inspiration to the South Asian Jihadi groups; it probably would have taught them to be self-reliant to the most, while opposing any regimes or state governments that are deemed to be anti-Islamic and in their way of establishing a ‘Caliphate’. For this purpose, Pakistan seems to be equally or more of a target along with other South Asian countries.
With regards to Bruce Riedel’s assertion that Zawahiri too may be hiding in Pakistan, as was Osama bin laden, Pakistani analyst Arif Rafiq from the Middle East Institute argues,
“Granted, elements within Pakistani intelligence did reportedly give advance warning to al-Zawahiri in 2006 of an impending U.S. drone strike, saving his life, and Osama bin Laden was hiding around a mile away from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. Still, there are no indications that the advanced notice given to al-Zawahiri or the refuge bin Laden enjoyed in Abbottabad were approved by senior Pakistani officials. And these associations should not overshadow the way al Qaeda has actively fueled the Pakistani Taliban’s war against Islamabad — a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and security personnel”
It is inadvisable to jump the gun just yet and point a finger in any particular direction. These are still the initial stages of the group. Only time would be able to tell whether the group can openly execute actions like ISIS, given the areas within which AQIS is supposedly operating or intends to conduct operations are not the least comparable to Syria or Iraq when it comes to security and stability. Moreover, times are such that Jihadi groups if they have to keep up their reputation would probably not be risking losing their name by associating with regimes or states deemed un-Islamic or apostate in nature.
Possibility B: The clash of Emirs
Claim: It appears that there is more than one ‘emir’ out there, especially in the South Asian Context.
The following are the widely-recognized title holders to whom many swear their ‘bai’yah’ to:
i. Mullah Omar from Afghan Taliban
ii. Shaykh Asim Umar from AQIS
iii. Caliph Ibrahim from ISIS, still receiving oath of allegiance from Jihadi groups across the world
There is a fourth ‘Emir’, which many haven’t acknowledged, who is Maulana Fazlullah, from TTP, and who apparently is also seeking ‘Bai’yah’ from Jihadi groups in Pakistan.
TTP’s Facebook page, “Umar Media- Malakand Division”, on 11th of September — that is a few days after AQIS was announced by Zawahiri — asked ‘Mujahideen’ to swear ‘Bai’yah’ to Maulana Fazlullah, the ‘Emir’ of TTP.
If there is any veracity to the reports that splintering of TTP would have benefited Al Qaeda in terms of receiving support from the Khorasani faction, then TTP’s up-staging of its own ‘Emir’ places its move a lot more into picture. If this is the case, then there are just about four ‘Emir’s in the region or perhaps eyeing for the region, some allied to one another, whilst others competing for recruits and territory.
For Pakistan, a divided TTP, as mentioned earlier, may seem to be positive news. However, creation of more than one group, all aimed at establishing an ‘Emirate’ or a ‘Caliphate’ only signals more trouble. Essentially, if ISIS is the example from which the ‘Emirs’ draw their inspiration, then one can expect the brutality and ruthless killing phenomenon, including amongst rival factions, to reach mainland South Asia as well.
Counter-argument: There is a possibility, although very low, that some ‘Caliphate’ seeking groups in South Asia, unite with unexpected Jihadi organization or organizations, for a singular cause initially to topple the common enemy- ‘democratic’ regimes. Recently, on 17th of September, SITE published news that the Afghan Taliban slammed the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, believing that America is dragging its allies into another war in the region, the only victims of which will be innocent Muslims. Was this a gesture indicative of support from the Afghan Taliban to ISIS? This possibility cannot be ruled out, as one must understand that although Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, may be in odds with ISIS in the Middle-East, it is not necessary that the sub-continent based Al Qaeda nucleus, or its Af-Pak affiliate groups, would never see eye to eye with the global ‘Caliphate’ champions of the decade— ISIS.
ISIS and Al Qaeda join forces in Lebanon.
Moreover, even in the Middle-East, not too far off from the Iraq-Syria flashpoint, from Lebanon as well reports seem to suggest that Al Qaeda and ISIS forces have unified under the Sunni-camp to achieve a common goal first—strike Hezbollah. If this cooperation can emerge in Lebanon, it is hard to rule out as to why it would not emerge in a region like South Asia where a commonality of causes amongst Jihadi groups is in abundance over their relative differences.
Transporting the logic of ‘Al Qaeda versus ISIS’ from the Middle-East to South Asia could be a “grave fallacy”. ‘Emirs’ may clash or may possibly for the time being cooperate with each other to achieve their common goals. Certainly, there could be bandwagoning of smaller groups to larger camps.
However, before hedging bets as to which groups would align with whom, it must be noted that in Syria and Iraq, the struggle was borne out of sectarian clashes from an already war-torn and troubled region. South Asia for one is relatively stable in that regard and the sectarian card can be used only to a certain extent. Neither Pakistan, India or Bangladesh have experienced a war recently, nor in the Muslim majority states such as Pakistan and Bangladesh have there been violent protests to topple respective governments, like the Arab Spring or mass-scale sectarian clashes in Syria. Even the recent struggle in Pakistan against the Nawaz government by Imran Khan and PTI supporters’ bares testimony to the relatively peaceful protests the people are engaged in over violent demonstrations. This implies that there are no strong crisis opportunities that the Jihadi groups as such can avail. Nonetheless, there certainly can be competitions between different Jihadi groups, much like the Middle-East; however, South Asia could also see cooperation between some of them to achieve a common purpose first— that is to topple democratic institutions in a majority Muslim context first, and to pave the way for an eventual ‘Caliphate’.
As a final word, it is true that Zawahiri’s desperation has led to the creation of AQIS. Nonetheless, it is just too early to conclude whether this desperation has led the group to seek support from Pakistani institutions or even to think that an “ISIS vs Al Qaeda” competition would be re-enacted on the South Asian stage as well.
From the very outset, the group is acting in a different terrain to the Middle-East, therefore whether or not it is powerful enough to initiate anything even partially similar to what ISIS could do in Iraq and Syria is doubtful, let alone to perceive that the threat is larger than what it essentially may be. That said, the influx of ideas from ISIS and its ‘Caliphate’, the emergence of new actors owing allegiance to ISIS, Al Qaeda or asserting their own version of a ‘Caliphate’ or ‘Emirate’, certainly implies more damage to be anticipated— either led by inter-group cooperation, competition or perhaps both.