Terror in South Asia and Mother of all Bombs: The birth and rebirth of the Islamic State of Khorasan

The dropping of the never-before-used "Mother of all Bombs" in Afghanistan by US forces is likely to lead to another shuffling of the jihadi pack that operates under the banner of the Islamic State in the country. The motto of this group could well be "Now you see me, now you don't" given the permutations and combinations it has undergone and is likely to again in the future.

The story of the Islamic State in the region reads like nothing less than a 'spy versus spy' thriller. In 2014, the Pakistan Army was bombing tribal villages from the air and with artillery, in an operation to wipe out the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had long operated from these areas. Unlike India, Pakistan's counter-terrorism strategy paid little attention to collateral damage. Entire villages were flattened as an air campaign using F-16s was unleashed on the hapless tribals. Many fled to Afghanistan, while others moved inwards into urban areas.

In late 2014, a group headed by Khan Saeed, a former commander of the TTP, together with some rather lacklustre commanders of the TTP pledged bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the then Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Some theologians like was Abdul Rahim Muslimdost were also part of the group. An ex-Guantanamo detainee, he was originally from Nangarhar in Afghanistan, but resident in Peshawar, where he was known more as a poet and author, than for any jihadi prowess.

As news of the declaration of allegiance spread, other TTP commanders from Peshawar, Kunar, Lakki Marwat and adjoining areas hastened to declare their loyalty. Another member was a representative of the Lal Masjid of Islamabad, which had once challenged General Pervez Musharraf. A few days later, the declaration of bay’ah was accepted in an audio by the spokesman of the Islamic State in Syria who announced the formation of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK).

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The Islamic State had arrived in South Asia.

A domino effect followed as more disparate groups in Pakistan joined up. This included the Jundullah, a group that had claimed responsibility for some horrific attacks against Shias, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which had emerged from the splintering Tehrik-e-Taliban, and a relatively unknown group, the Ansar ul Khilafat wal Jihad. Some of these were rank opportunists, who were probably lured by the Islamic State "seal of approval" and the promise of a financial windfall. Others were united in their hatred of the Pakistan Army. Whatever their motivations, Pakistan was soon witness to a series of attacks in urban areas like Karachi, Peshawar, and Lahore.

Every second attack was against Pakistani security forces including the Frontier Corps, the police, the army, and in the worst attack of all, against the cadets of a police training centre. The attacks confirmed the fears of the Pakistani intelligence, which more than a year ago, had warned of the emergence of the IS in the country, and that it had the army in its sights. Oddly though, despite continuing attacks that climbed in 2017, Pakistan continued to publicly deny the existence of IS on Pakistani soil, even while it privately expressed alarm.

Meanwhile, matters followed quite a different course in Afghanistan.

By early 2014, fleeing fighters had already moved across the border into Nangarhar along with their families. Apart from considerable amounts of weaponry, these groups were reportedly flush with funds, and did not prey on the local population. In many parts they were welcomed as saviours from the brutality of the Taliban. Schools were reopened and only the sale of narcotics was stopped. In a very short time, they were able to push outwards to dominate at least three districts, and even parts of Logar. To Islamabad, one part of the border with Afghanistan, was now in the hands of elements hostile to the Taliban and to the Pakistan Army.

Retaliation was swift. The Taliban and affiliated groups launched attack after attack on IS bastions, even while it denounced the Islamic State as false. In 2016, an entire level of ISK leaders were declared as killed. Unknown leaders replaced them. More surprisingly, ISK suddenly showed a surprising capability to strike deep into Afghanistan, attacking the Hazaras, hospitals and courts. Some attacks were claimed by IS, others were only attributed to the group. The brutality of these attacks left the Taliban looking like saints.

In July 2016, Muslim Dost left the group, declaring that the IS had become another stooge of Pakistani intelligence. By the end of 2016, some analysts were openly charging Pakistan with supporting the ISK.

In the aftermath of the US bombings, reports indicate that of more than 84 killed, around 15 to 22 were Indians. Local news has reported that Lashkar-e-Taiba militants had also been present. Clearly, the area was becoming another prime spot for the training of jihadis of all hues that threatened not only Kabul, but also India, and other democracies. The fact that the ISK radio station is still operating indicates that this may have been located across the border into Pakistan.

What are the likely outcomes of the US strike?

First, the statements by US NSA HR McMaster during his recent visit to Afghanistan indicated that the Donald Trump Administration will no longer tolerate safe havens for terrorists. Since the biggest safe havens are in Pakistan, this is at best, a warning to Islamabad. A little to the West, and it would have been Pakistani sanctuaries that would have been flattened.

Second, the bombing will do little to reduce instability in the region. The Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani Network continue with their depredations, with assistance from the Pakistan military.

Third, fleeing ISK cadres are likely to drift towards other groups with more financial muscle. This could be the LeT that is already present in the area, or even the TTP, if it has the funds. Another shifting and process of "rebranding" can be expected. The irony would be if the ISK drifts into Pakistan itself, and revives its original anti-Pakistan Army charter.

Fourth, the biggest beneficiary of the ISK in Nangarhar was the Taliban. Russia, apparently spooked by the ISK (or so it says), is virtually in support of the Taliban, and is also back in its "Near abroad" ostensibly for defence against terrorism. Other actors like China and Iran have also drifted to the Taliban as a panacea for Afghan instability, relative to the IS. The US, whose fears that fleeing IS fighters from Syria may resettle in Afghanistan, has been recently seeing the Taliban with a mild eye. From a group that supported Osama Bin Laden, and continues to shelter foreign fighters of the Al-Qaeda, the ISK phenomenon has transformed that Taliban into a "moderate" force. If ISK disappears completely in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s value as an alternative force may reduce, particularly if it continues with its bombing and killing sprees.

Finally, Pakistan’s brutal counter-terrorism efforts are bearing some fruit. A leading light of the TTP/Jamaat ul Ahrar is said to have surrendered to the Pakistan Army. More may follow. However, attacks against the Pakistan Army and security forces are unlikely to reduce any time soon.

There are just too many within Pakistan itself who hate their guts.

The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat

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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2017 13:21:20 IST

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