US President Donald Trump’s announcement that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a US military operation in Syria, later confirmed by ISIS itself, was welcome news.
This was followed by the death of their spokesperson and the arrest of his sister and wife by Turkey. After the decimation of IS caliphate, IS continues to exist in small modules in many parts of the world, mainly in West Asia, but the loss of its undisputed leader who inspired youth globally towards radicalisation as never before, during his peak performance days will not be easy to fulfil.
He revolutionised the art of extending terror network through the internet, made IS the richest terror group in the world, with a caliphate to govern through sharia laws and revived sex slavery.
It’s a major setback to IS and affiliated terror groups but long overdue good news for those suffered its brutality, like Yezidi women. The idea of IS does not end with the death of Baghdadi who stands replaced by Ibrahim al Hashimi al Quraishi from Prophet Mohammad lineage (qualified to become caliph) with a vow to avenge Baghdadi’s death. There being no change in the overall aim and ideology of IS, it will manage to regroup with lesser fund flow and area of influence and wait for the opportunity to reemerge; hence the global fight against IS has to continue.
What does it mean for regional terror groups?
The US has given a strong message to terrorists but its declared withdrawal from Syria is untimely; hence the Middle-East needs a fresh look from a strategic perspective. Turkey cross-border offensive on October 9 against the Kurdish YPG militia, whose fighters made up the bulk of the SDF controlling IS is a game spoiler in the fight against IS.
Turkeys double game with terrorists is marred with helping IS and treating Kurds as terrorists as they demand a homeland. Its desire to invade Syria and destroy Assad's supporters made it an ally of US, but the US is not keen on the decimation of Kurds, who will be left with no choice but to commence terrorist activities against Turkey.
The temporary five days truce, sanctions against Turkey could buy some time, but is unlikely to change Erdogan’s intent who seems to have decided to go Wahhabi way. It does give some extra lifeline to IS, which is going to get dispersed to other areas, in addition to some existing ones like Afghanistan. US withdrawal also cedes this strategic space in Syria to the forces loyal to Assad and Russia, something which the US was not very keen to concede till a short while ago as it was not in the best interest of Israel. This strategic equation does not change the terror potential of Hamas appreciably.
The internal political disturbance Lebanon puts Hezbollah in a tight spot. The current internal political turbulence in Iraq is helpful for the reorganisation of IS as it dampens the Shia spirit which indirectly helps Sunni terror groups. The recent strategic clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia triggered by a drone attack on Saudi’s oil establishment followed by an attack on Iran oil tanker is also a recipe for refuelling of Shia – Sunni terror competition in West Asia. After US walked out of JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) renewed and clamped additional sanctions on Iran which European Union could not prevent, Iran has also climbed the escalation ladder by announcing to fill gas in over 1000 centrifuges to enrich uranium further, which it was holding out due to the deal.
This is another dangerous spiral in the region to increase the insecurity of Saudi Arabia and may result in a further push to the Sunni cause. These developments have blurred the definition of victim and oppressor. The internal turbulence of West Asia, therefore, is creating an environment for breeding terrorists.
After IS suffered these reverses it has opened opportunities and ignited some competition for other terror groups like Taliban and al Qaeda, to strive to gain the influence they lost to ISIS earlier. This has increased their quest to grab more power and money, a bulk of which comes from coercion globally, prove their terror potential to the target population and governments to get more attention, followers, logistics and other resources. It is, however, noteworthy a number of terror organisations having allegiance to IS have still not changed their allegiance, indicating that demise of IS may not be on the card so soon and the group is still not out of the competition.
What does it mean for AfPak region?
Afghanistan continues to face aggressive and coordinated attacks by ISIS’s branch in the region, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and the Afghan Taliban, including the affiliated Haqqani Network (HQN). Afghan Taliban seems to have grown much stronger for the fact that it controls more territory in Afghanistan than what it controlled when US forces marched in 19 years back. The fact that all world powers talked to them for peace (to fulfil their respective interests) indicate the blackmailing potential of Taliban. Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and remaining US forces have not been able to control their terror strikes despite their best efforts, which are likely to increase if the US chooses to withdraw completely. I do visualise some more efforts by global powers for talks to Taliban in the near future. Although al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan was degraded earlier by multinational forces, remnants of al-Qaida’s global leadership, as well as its regional affiliate - al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), continue to operate from remote locations in the region have a reason to cheer Baghdadi’s death.
Pakistan continues to be the epicentre of global terrorism playing host to maximum UN-designated terrorist organisations and terrorists in the world, a large No of them have indicated allegiance to IS. Pakistani military counter-terrorism operations are more of ethnic cleansing acts against Pashtuns and Baluchis directed against groups which conducted attacks within Pakistan, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan Army and ISI support externally focused groups such as Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which continue to train, organise, and fundraise in Pakistan with a narrative of pseudo Islamic Jihad. The Pakistani Army does not restrict the Afghan Taliban and HQN from operating in Pakistan and threatening the US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, despite being placed on the “grey list” continuously till date, since June 2018. The support of Pakistan to terror groups is well known and IS is no exception. The increasing radicalisation of establishments in Pakistan, a conglomeration of terrorist groups in AfPak region is a dangerous sign as it indicates a caliphate in making, far more dangerous than ISIS caliphate.
What does it mean for South Asia?
After the declaration of the caliphate, the newly named Caliph, Baghdadi while addressing the jihadists the world over explicitly mentioned China and India as one of the prime targets of the ISIS amongst many others and there are no signs of change in that narrative. ISIS and other militant groups are attempting to spread their ideology to countries that have a Muslim population, and where there is a chance to reach out to dissatisfied youth. al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and ISIS have together claimed responsibility for over 40 attacks in Bangladesh since 2015. The government in Bangladesh continues to battle terrorism with strict Anti-Terrorism Act in place, however, terrorists do manage to operate there with backing from ISI, Pakistan. Terrorist organisations are using the internet, social media to spread their ideologies and solicit followers globally including South Asia and many terrorists have been featured in multiple publications, videos, and websites associated with ISIS and AQIS. Terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and rapid radicalisation in the Maldives are some more examples of IS mastered methodologies to spread terror, which is likely to continue.
India having the second-largest Muslim population in the world is an obvious target for IS. Many lone wolf attacks in Europe, like the 2017 suicidal car crash attack in Westminster in London, is a possibility in India as well. The Incidents like the train explosion in Bhopal-Ujjain express allegedly by a member of the ISIS(K) module, occasional display of IS flags in Kashmir Valley, bursting of few IS modules in South India by National Investigative Agency, announce the arrival of IS in India. These incidents need to be viewed in consonance with the global scene, wherein Daesh is looking for new hosts after the decimation of their caliphate.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)