By Prof D Suba Chandran
Recent terrorist attacks in Kabul, Sehwan
and Dhaka have been claimed by Daesh or more commonly known as the Islamic
State (IS). The region cannot be a mute witness to the emergence of the IS in
South Asia, for it would lead to its further consolidation and subsequent
expansion. An early counter strategy is imperative with the region coming
together and chalking out a strategy.
Three issues are pertinent in this context:
is the IS, with its base in Syria and Iraq looking for new recruits and
regions, or the individuals and groups in South Asia looking at it as an
opportunity for franchisee? Second, what circumstances in South Asia enable our
youth to get influenced by the IS? Third, is the region helpless in addressing
the IS threat, or, are there certain inherent strengths in the society to fight
such radical groups?
IS and us: The franchise and franchisees:
In terms of structure and outreach, there is a substantial difference between
al Qaeda and the IS. While al Qaeda attracted individuals and groups from
different countries to a particular location/region, for example Afghanistan,
the IS phenomenon is doing the opposite. Individuals and groups from the Middle
East, North Africa and Central Asia flocked to al Qaeda and fought its battles
— in Afghanistan, and then later on in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
(FATA) of Pakistan. In a sense, al Qaeda acted as a black hole, absorbing
militants from multiple regions. On the other hand, instead of (or, along with)
attracting individuals and groups to Iraq and Syria, the IS is using them to
organise terror attacks in their home countries.
It also appears that individuals and groups
are looking at IS as a credible banner for three specific reasons. First, al
Qaeda is losing its prominence in the terror pantheon, especially after the
killing of Osama bin Laden. It has been unable to regroup due to lack of
credible leadership with constant pressure from the US forcing it to descend
down the road.
Second, the IS is a relatively new group in
the terror pantheon, with a larger image. Though in recent weeks, there have
been serious reverses for the IS in Syria resulting in loss of territories, the
group did make remarkable advances during 2016, creating an illusion of
invincibility to those who want to pursue its path.
Third, for reasons that are yet to be
properly researched and documented, the IS succeeded in creating a domino
effect, in terms of foreign fighters. From the UK to Indonesia, it managed to
recruit fighters; a process that wasn’t planned. Had it not been for the social
media, the IS would have never succeeded in getting the desired publicity and
Enabling factors: Why is the IS alluring?:
Unlike al Qaeda, the IS is largely alien to South Asia. More importantly,
certain intelligence agencies used these groups for political and strategic
calculations including the CIA.
IS does not enjoy such support, that al
Qaeda had. Yet, it allures youths and groups from South Asia. How?
Strategists emphasise building a 'counter
narrative' to the IS. Yet we should aim to build the mainstream narrative — not
a counter one. For it is the failure of the mainstream that has provided the
space to the periphery to move and create a narrative
First, the phenomenon of online
radicalisation. Undoubtedly, this is one of the evil effects of technology. All
one needs is a decent phone with basic internet connection. Gone are the days
of accessing computers in libraries and internet cafes. Each individual is a
walking internet café, with access to information on real time basis, making it
difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace.
Second, the inability of the state to
understand, address and prepare counter measures further accentuates the
process of online radicalisation. While one makes use of digital technologies,
our agencies are still bound by 19th century British laws, and following
policing protocols of the previous eras. Both the law and the enforcers are in
a time warp. South Asia needs better legislations to govern the internet, and
importantly, also need enforcing officials who would understand the magnitude
of the problem. The era of policing with a stick is awfully outdated today to
address such issues.
Third, in light of the latest trends in
offline radicalisation at social levels, our society is increasingly becoming
sectarian; in this context, the IS looks more appealing for those people buoyed
by sectarian ideology. It is not that South Asia did not have sectarian fault
lines earlier; it is much more pronounced now.
Fourth, the group dynamics within South
Asia are more conducive to the IS, especially in the AfPak region. Post-Osama
al Qaeda and post- Omar Taliban are unable to keep local groups cohesive;
repeated military offensives by states such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and the
United States have also been successful in breaking the coherence of these
entities. The creation of smaller factions suited IS both on operational and
Finally, the growth of IS cannot be seen in
isolation. It finds support in an environment already infused with radical
ideologies. The region is shy to address, at times to even accept that there is
a serious problem with an influx of radical ideology stemming from West Asia.
The entire region is witnessing this; while we as a region appreciate the
inflow of remittances from West Asia, we have to make cold calculations on the
nature and extent of radical ideology stemming into South Asia.
A counter IS strategy: A counter IS
strategy has to start with addressing the above five issues — from online
radicalisation to street level sectarian violence.
Second, strategists would emphasis on
building a ‘counter narrative’ to the IS. We should aim to build the mainstream
narrative, and not a counter one. In fact, it is the failure of the mainstream
that has provided the space to the periphery to move and create a narrative.
The best way to counter the IS to make the main narrative stronger.
The above would bring us to the third point
— playing on our strengths. The Sufi nature of our society in South Asia is the
biggest asset for the region to build any counter narrative. In fact, if we
succeed in strengthening our Sufi nature, the other will automatically subside.
From Sehwan in Sindh to Baba Ghulam Shah in
Rajouri to Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan, our strength remains in the Sufi nature
of our society. Perhaps, the IS and other militants understand the strength of
Sufism, hence they are targeting it in the recent years. From Data Darbar to
Lal Shabaz Qalandar, our enemy seems to be aware of our strength. Do we?
Prof D Suba Chandran is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced
Studies (NIAS) Bangalore, India. He edits an annual paper titled Armed
Conflicts in South Asia and runs a portal on Pakistan — www.pakistanreader.org