Islamic State Poses Potent Threat to South Asia: Commentary

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
160725-SA-gunaratna-620.jpg Bangladeshi officials stand near some body bags containing remains of foreigners who were killed in an attack at an upscale café in Dhaka, July 2, 2016.

The ideology of Islamic State (IS) is spreading rapidly in South Asia.

Historically, the Indian sub-continent has been a playing field for al-Qaeda and groups influenced by it. But with the emergence of IS and its proclamation of a caliphate in June 2014, more than 2,000 South Asians have travelled to the newer group’s heartland in Syria and Iraq. IS has seduced Muslims from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives into joining its ranks.

South Asians who have been recruited, trained and indoctrinated by IS in its heartland, in turn, are recruiting family members, friends and associates to join them in the Middle East.

As reflected in a suicide attack that killed more than 80 members of Afghanistan’s Hazira minority on July 23, and an attack on a café in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter in which 20 hostages were killed on July 1-2, IS poses a real threat to South Asia. It claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Once rooted in the region’s soil, it will be very difficult to kill off IS ideology. Its ideology is growing in conflict zones such as in Kashmir, the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan, parts of Afghanistan and remote islands in the Maldives over which the government lacks control. Such bridgeheads will be used for launching attacks in the region.


South Asian governments are overconfident and not proactive enough in light of this threat.

Currently, groups that are IS- and al-Qaeda centric are discretely building their regional infrastructure. With time, they will launch more attacks in South Asia.

The region is not well prepared to defend itself from the threat because two major players – India and Pakistan – are preoccupied with their ongoing territorial dispute over Kashmir. Regional governments lack leadership, and need to work together in sharing intelligence and conducting joint operations to fend off a common threat from IS, which has not abated in the short term.

Until 2014, the rich and diverse Indian and Bangladeshi cultures served as natural antidotes against IS ideology. But this is no longer the case.

After a rightwing Hindu nationalist government took power in India, IS’s vision and ideology has increasingly grown with Muslim youths in the country. In the case of neighboring Bangladesh, extremists and terrorist have interpreted the government’s prosecution and conviction of criminals from the country’s war of independence in 1971 as being anti-Islamic.

IS has also recruited from a cross-section of South Asian society by attracting a mix of people – rich, poor, educated, uneducated – to its ranks of supporters.

For instance, all of the Sri Lankans who left to join IS were from middle-class families. Among the young men who carried out the attack in Dhaka, most of them were from upper middle-class families. The IS strategy is to recruit from all social strata. The threat is no longer along the periphery of Muslim society.

Broad approach needed

IS recruitment in South Asia has to be countered both by the religious authorities and political leadership. In India, although the government is right wing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the stature and charisma to promote moderation, tolerance and coexistence. Modi should do everything he can to work with Muslim leaders to counter the spread of IS ideology in his country.

Unless India takes the threat seriously, IS will spread and the ideology will crystalize in the form of attack cells. India should work closely with Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh to counter IS growing influence in Asia especially in South Asia.

In Bangladesh, the leadership is decisive in the fight against terrorism. But Bangladeshi officials are making a monumental mistake by denying the presence of IS in Bangladesh. A faction of the banned militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), has broken away and joined IS.

The counterterrorism community should call the breakaway faction neo JMB rather than refer to it as JMB. The Dhaka attackers were not JMB. They used classic IS tactics of killing. Because Bangladesh has been denying IS presence, the authorities and the public were not vigilant or ready to meet the IS threat on the day of the attack.

If the authorities had acknowledged the growing IS presence, this very attack could have been prevented. It is not too late for the Bangladesh prime minister, home minister and information ministers as well as their advisers to correct themselves and respond to the threat collectively as a nation.

Intra-group conflict within JMB is significant. In the last two to three years, Neo-JMB has killed 40 to 50 people belonging to the group’s main faction. Police frequently recover unidentified bodies from the northern region of Bangladesh.

The terrorist threat in Bangladesh is especially potent because terrorist cells are now using apartments in Dhaka as safe houses and for training. Such types of training facilities were found in a residential area call Mirpur.

Because of a lack of intelligence needed to intercept a plot, the Dhaka government failed to detect the IS cell in Dhaka that was working very closely with the cells in the northern region. The Dhaka cell is also pumping in money for the cells located in the north.

What is now essential is to expand the counterterrorism capabilities in Dhaka to the district police stations where they need capabilities to respond to terrorism. Terrorists seem to be well aware of this gap. As a result, they continue to carry out attacks in remote districts on a regular basis.

A significant portion of JMB’s members are from areas along the Indo-Bangladeshi border. Many have joined IS. They are engaged in smuggling weapons and gold across the border. Similarly, Indian IS cells are likely to transit through Sri Lanka and operate in the Maldives. These developments call for greater cooperation and collaboration between South Asian law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

New targets

The regional threat posed by IS is especially insidious because of the group’s mastery of social media. If IS keeps growing, it will not only attack government targets but both Western and Eastern targets.

Unlike al-Qaeda which concentrated on government and Western targets, IS will focus on Far Eastern targets as well. Japan, China and other East Asian nationals working, living and visiting in South Asia will be targeted. This may have a major impact on developing countries that depend on Chinese and Japanese aid money or the presence of Japanese NGOs.

Traditionally, South Asian terrorists have rarely attacked Japanese. Japan is considered a country that has helped South Asia.

However, with Japan joining the anti-IS coalition, Japan is considered a target country and its citizens need to exercise caution in operating in countries with an IS presence. The Bangladeshi IS operatives killed not only Westerners but Japanese.

South Asia should view the recent IS-claimed terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and Afghanistan  as signs of what else could come. South Asian governments, including India and Bangladesh, have always underestimated the international terrorist threat.

With the rise of IS in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, governments should strengthen their human intelligence and technical intelligence capacities to effectively monitor IS and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS). The international community should also support South Asian governments in their fight against a regional IS threat.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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