The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a nation of 173 million people. It has a fine military tradition with the seventh largest standing armed forces in the world (the military accounts for 25% of Pakistan’s national budget) and is a declared nuclear weapons state.
Since Oct 21 2011 it is an elected member of the UN Security Council (for the next 2 years) and its soldiers have played key roles in UN peace keeping missions.
However, something has happened inside its body politick to cause the global community to have strong concerns that Pakistan may be deteriorating into a very unstable country racked by sectarianism and extremist ideology and that this has permeated into the government, military and intelligence services to such an extent that it threatens Western security.
To a Western observer, a very curious group has emerged in the Pakistani body politick called the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) /Pakistan Defense Council
In January 2012 they held a rally in which approximately 10,000 people attended. The event was pitched as a coalition of ‘right minded’ leaders and supporters supporting the military and security services. It was held ironically in Liaqat Bagh Park in Rawalpindi Northern Punjab. This was the site of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (leader of the PPP who represent in large measure the moderate Sunnis (Barelvis) in 2007 and where her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979.
Rawalpindi is also the headquarters of the Pakistani Army and where their officers are trained.
The DPC rally was sponsored by Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) and the Deobandi-Wahhabi-Salafist Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and included representatives of the political and religious right in Pakistan. It was meant to be a show of strength of the community’s resolve to support the military’s decision to force the government to stop road NATO road convoys resupplying into Pakistan through the Kyber Pass because of the November 2011 air strikes on a Pakistani military outpost killing 25 Pakistani soldiers.
Another rally of a similar nature happened on 12th of February this year, this time in Karachi.
Again. no one from the moderate Sunnis (Barelvis), Shias, or Christians were invited to participate, (as if they would be any less patriotic Pakistani’s than the Wahhabi-Deobandi in their condemnation of drone attacks killing civilians as well as terrorists). So this rally and the below picture of its leaders conveys not only a political solidarity of the right but moreover conveys the propaganda that it’s only the people at the rally who are true patriots.
The chairman of the Pakistani Defence Council is ironically not a military man but a clergyman, Maulana Sami ul Haq.
Ul Haq also heads his own political movement, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Sami (Assembly of Islamic Clergy, or JUI). More importantly however he is at the apex of the ideology of the elites that control Pakistan and also the insurgents in Afghanistan because he is also chair of Darul Uloom Haqqania, the preeminent Deobandi Islamic seminary for Pakistan and Afghanistan. This institution is the ‘font’ of current religious orthodoxy in Pakistan and Afghanistan of what it means to be a good Muslim. This same institution is the alma mater of several Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar. As many of the top jobs in government, military and Intelligence are products of or strongly influenced by Darul Uloom Haqqania and the ideologies it promotes, it would be impossible to understand Pakistani domestic or foreign policy or even the machinations of Afghan politics and insurgency without an understanding what Darul Uloom Haqqania or JUI stands for.
Ul Haq said at the DPC Rally: “All religious parties will guide the nation on national issues… US must refrain from attacking our sovereignty and recognize Pakistan as an atomic power just like India… (the current situation) was an Armageddon between good and evil.”
In late January the DPC held a rally in Multan ul Haq lead a mass public oath that the people would rise up to lead their lives for the defence of their country. Former ISI boss Hameed Gul told the enthusiastic crowd that India is a dagger in the back of Pakistan via Afghanistan.
At this year’s February, Karachi DPC rally, ul Haq called on the crowd to defend not only the geographical frontiers of the country but also its ‘ideological frontiers’. JuD spokesman, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed used the occasion to apologize to the Afghans that Pakistan’s soil was being used against them. He saw the DPC and the brave warriors in Afghanistan who once again had defeated a world power as the beginnings of a broader ‘Islamic revolution’ He warned the Government of Pakistan (now ruled by PPP’s Gilani) to disengage itself from the US war against terror and warned that if it did not, “the Pakistani people would come on the streets and oust the present rulers.” And declared a mass sit in outside the national Parliament on 20th of February 2012 ‘DPC vows to resist reopening of Nato supplies, drone attacks’ International The News Feb 13 2012
Another huge PDC rally is planned for Quetta at the end of February. Interestingly Quetta (which is in Pakistan) is the home base of the Afghan Taliban which is called the ‘Quetta Shura”.
The agenda of the religious political right that JUI represents includes not only supporting state and non-state use of force or other assertive action against enemies from without such as India (and now it seems the US and its allies who were once their allies but are now evil) but also safeguarding pure Islam from the infectious influence of moderate Sunnis (Barelvis), Shias, Ahmadis, Jews, Shias, Hindus, Christians and the West (including one presumes the vestiges of old British values and institutions still remaining in Pakistan) by the aggressive Islamization of the State especially the legal system and education where only what is ‘right’ in their eyes must be upheld and everything else that is ‘wrong’ outlawed.
Normative values in Pakistani society as well as foreign policy therefore increasingly reflect this world view which is very similar to extreme forms of Wahhabi-Salafi ideology in Saudi Arabia of the political kind (as opposed to the non-extreme purely religious, unobjectionable, self-purification Salafi teachings which ironically from a paradigm point of view is similar in its spiritual dimension to Christian fundamentalism of going back to the purity of the Book rather than be ‘distracted’ by religious tradition). This is not surprising as Darul Uloom Haqqania, like so many other such institutions in Pakistan and globally, are financed in large measure by Saudi money.
What makes this scenario even more disconcerting is that Pakistan is a nuclear power and that extremist elements may be able to control or influence that ‘agenda’ too, (especially if they have influence over any future PM, given that a PM will now control not only the numbers in Parliament but also the nuclear button). That does not bode well for world peace given the fact that their mortal enemies the Jewish State of Israel and Shia Iran are (or soon will be) also nuclear capable.
Even though one can sympathize with ul Haq (or more moderate voices from the right in Pakistan such as Imran Khan’s party) demands for US drone attacks to stop because amongst other things they inflict tremendous casualties on innocent civilians, one hopes for Pakistan’s sake and for the sake of security in our homelands from global terrorism and the ideologies that fuel them, Pakistan can rejuvenate its democracy and justice system free from the fear of sectarian violence and limit the influence and power of radical leaders in matters of security and foreign affairs at least so as to ensure their territory or those that they or their ‘thought leaders’ control is not used as bases for the inculcation, training or export of terrorism.
The ‘revelations’/allegations about Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and or the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau (IB) allegedly hiding of Osama bin Laden (OBL) from their supposed American allies in Abbottabad, (a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, North West Pakistan) and the ensuing ‘Memogate Scandal’ are but the most recent examples of the controversies and instability rocking Pakistan, a nuclear state.
The revelations came from Pakistan’s former Army Chief General Ziaud Din Butt (aka) Ziaud Din Khawaja at a conference on Pakistani-U.S. relations in October 2011. Whilst the news was shocking to the West, and some have suggested the source had a grudge against the Pakistani regime and the full extent of the story may not be factual or entirely reliable, it was apparently no surprise within certain sections of the elite in Pakistan.
The ISI/IB, like many intelligence agencies (such as Iran) (have to) resort to shady characters to effect ‘under the radar’ missions against ‘enemies of the state’. The same official implicated in giving sanctuary to OBL in Abbottabad also was the alleged ‘handler’ for other renowned terrorists like the London born, LSE educated, Pakistani trained, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheik. Saeed Sheik and elements within the officially banned, Islamic militant groups variously labelled Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) or Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), were said to be the ones behind the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. Sheik’s group’s most infamous episode however was in the kidnapping and eventual murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Interestingly one has to ask, if it’s true and they had some knowledge, influence or control over someone like Saeed Shiek, what strategic interest ISI/IB or elements within their ranks may have had to allow this ‘asset’ loose to do this?
At the time of his murder in Karachi, Pearl (an Israeli citizen living as a permanent resident in America) was the the South Asia Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, and was based in Mumbai, India. Was he a spy? If so, for whom was he working? Or was he a nosy journalist that was writing stories that were too ‘close to home’ for some people? Was this all just about militants being lucky to kidnap such a high profile person useful for ransom and when demands were not met and they found out that he was Jewish the militants just executed him? During the 9 days Pearl was held his captors allegedly wrote a strange ransom note on the Internet demanding ‘freeing of all Pakistani terror detainees and releasing a halted U.S. shipment of F-16 fighter jets to the Pakistani government.’ (Time U.S. 21 Feb 2002).
In March 2003, only one year after Pearl was murdered, al-Qaeda’s Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, alleged master mind behind 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, was captured in Rawalpindi and handed over to the US. Whilst in custody in Guantanamo Bay detention camp he is alleged to have confessed to many things including the murder of Daniel Pearl by personally beheading him.
If that is true and if Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheik who was implicated in the kidnapping was an ISI/IB ‘asset’, what was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? Khalid Shaikh Mohammed also confessed/boasted that he was involved in many of the most significant terrorist plots over the last twenty years, including the World Trade Center 1993 bombings, the Operation Bojinka plot, an aborted 2002 attack on the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles, the Bali nightclub bombings, the failed bombing of American Airlines Flight 63 and the Millennium Plot. If Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his fellow jihadi’s like his nephew Ramiz Yousef were involved with the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman’s plans/conspiracies to blow up the World Trade Centres in 1993 and in 1995 with other associates such as his other nephew and Ammar al-Baluchi were planning on hijacking or blowing up planes over the US, then it is no little wonder that he planned and pulled off 9/11 as it was a plan whose various elements were seven years in the making.
Other matters of concern to the West are that many terrorists who committed or tried to commit terrorist acts against Western cities travelled to Pakistan either to be radicalized or trained as terrorists.
People like UK’s 2001 shoe bombers Richard Reid and his co-accused Saajid Badat or the London 7/7/2005 bombers Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer are reported to have been recruited by extremists such as JeM’s Osama Nazir and Amjad Farooqi (aka Amjad Hussain), radicalized by attending radicalization ‘finishing’ schools such as Jihad bi al-Saif and then put on the conveyor belt onto radical groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)/al-Furquan/ Khudam-ul-Islam and Harakat ul-Mujahideen who operate hands-on terrorist boot camps in known extremists strongholds not only in the Western tribal regions (FATA) such as Waziristan but also in Peshawar and other cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province or adjacent districts such as Malakand or Baluchistan.
Peshawar was also where OBL and his mentor and ‘professor’ Abdullah Azzam first collaborated to create Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK), the forerunner of Al Qaeda in the 1980’s. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood’s emphasis on Jihad/struggle via the political system to effect change, MAK was for violent and armed Jihad. Azzam’s trademark slogan was, “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues.” Abbottabad is in the same district and so OBL was in a sense ‘back home’ when the US Navy Seals raid happened in May last year.
No state with an active democracy is really a monolith, and so for Pakistan too, it would be wrong to ‘tar’ (everyone in ISI/IB) ‘with the same brush’ and say they are an extremist ‘state within a state’ (as some high ranking diplomats have suggested).
Certainly it would be wrong to suggest that the Pakistani Army is not professional because it is susceptible to the demands and expectations of the religious right or finds it useful to have their support. Just recently for example Pakistan Army has decided to court martial Brigadier Ali Khan for his alleged links with Hizb-ul-Tehrir which political group it is reported, in the aftermath of the raid that killed OBL in Abbottabad, produced pamphlets urging soldiers to turn against their commanders. It also comes on the heels of Pakistani Taliban insurgents storming the Naval Air Station in Karachi, apparently armed with inside information on its layout and security. They destroyed two U.S. supplied surveillance aircraft.
Disturbingly however, the Pakistani Journalist Saleem Shahzad was killed in Karachi two days after writing about links between ‘rogue elements’ in the Pakistani Navy and Al Qaeda.
Further it would be wrong to say that every leader in the religious right in Pakistan supported or inspired terrorists (many would probably suggest they were only supporting freedom fighters against Indian aggression in Kashmir and that they have no control over how impassioned ‘idealists’ then ‘self-propel’ themselves against the West).
Also these parties/groups, whilst influential, do not represent the thinking of the majority of people in Pakistan on all issues.
However, since the days of General Zia’s earlier Nizam-e-Mustafa (Islamisation) programs since the late 1970’s, the radical right parties have been given “a strong legal and political apparatus that enables them to influence policy far beyond their numerical strength” (International Crisis Group Asia Report No 216 Dec, 12, 2011 p (i) and (1), and particularly footnote 1).
The notorious Blasphemy Laws introduced by General Zia in the 1980’s which carries the death penalty in Pakistan have been criticized as being contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought conscience and religion. In Pakistan the Blasphemy Laws have been sometimes abused by villagers as personal vendettas and sometimes by others to silence and intimidate minorities and free speech as un-Islamic. Many attempts over the years have been made to amend or ameliorate the harsh application of this law. However in October 1997, His Honour Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti a Pakistani High Court judge who acquitted two people on blasphemy charges was shot in his chambers in Lahore by radical militants unhappy about the judge’s findings.
After what appears to be a contrived case was launched against a Christian lady Aasia Noreen Bibi resulting in her being the first woman in Pakistan sentenced to death for defending her Christian faith , Sherry Rehman (PPP) politician introduced a private member bill into Pakistan’s parliament in late 2010 to amend the law so it couldn’t be abused like this. She was supported by governor of Punjab, Salmaan Tasser and special Minister for Minorities Shahabaz Bhatti. Since then both Tasser and Bhatti have been assassinated. Tasser’s killer, his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadi, was treated like a hero by the radical right. In fact the judge Pervz Ali Shah who sentenced Qadi to execution for his murder of the former governor has had to flee Pakistan because his Rawalpindi offices were ransacked and he received numerous death threats. Also Sherry Rehaman received so many death threats that she has since withdrawn her bill. Aasia Noreen Bibi remains on death row.
This series of recent events is very disturbing for the Rule of Law and the independence of the judiciary in Pakistan which for decades has had a fine tradition inherited from the British of judicial administration. It also is symptomatic of a structural disintegration of the Pakistani’s state seemingly unable to protect its institutions and officials. Unless it is addressed, the road to further radicalization and destabilization of the Pakistani State seems inevitable.
Have the politicians in Pakistan the will to resist this attack on the State? Politics in Pakistan is complex with many players and leaders of the Army and intelligence agencies change with the passing of the political winds. For many years the army was a faithful partner with the West and also of the UN and they have often collaborated with Allied commanders in operations against militants and terrorists in the War on Terror.
Support for certain rallies that the religious right may organize in defence of Pakistani sovereignty such as the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) (discussed in Part 1) does not mean that the Military and Security Services agree with everything the religious right stand for but it is a worrying development for democracy and stability given the broader agendas of the groups represented on the DPC.
We shall need to see how the relationship between current Army chief General Kiyani and ISI chief Lt. General Pasha and embattled PM Gilani develops in light of the ‘Memogate Scandal’. The fact that President Zardari (widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto) has felt the need to flee the country with his staff to operate his office from Dubai is symptomatic of growing dysfunctionality of the Pakistani body politic.
With the Parliament of Pakistan in such a state, the army is really the key to the immediate future of the health of democracy and the Rule of Law in Pakistan.
Address the army’s concerns and much of what happens in politics will no doubt be more stable and vice versa.
The army wields a lot of power and influence in Pakistan. The relationship between it and the ISI/IB or with government and non-government players is not easy to understand. It is not unlikely that the military and ISI/IB are not always ‘on the same page’ with each other let alone the government of the day. Also they may act independently of each other in seeking to do what they think is best for Pakistan and their own sectional interests. Also there may be people in these organizations who quite independent of the organization itself run their own agendas relying from time to time on their connections with all political and financial brokers and ‘assets’ in and outside Pakistan including non-state militia associated with some radical groups. Nevertheless they are command structures and in theory ultimately should be responsible to the government.
If you were ‘in the shoes’ of an impassioned ISI/IB official who was brought up to see good and evil a certain way, with wars raging around and subversives real or imagined from neighbouring countries like Iran or India trying to destabilize your country, would you utilize ‘assets’ available to secure your country’s security interests; especially if a political party was in power who you knew would not act decisively the way that you deem is in the best interests of national security?
Whatever the answers to that question may be in our eyes, when the volatility and violence within Pakistan and Afghanistan spill over to affect our homelands (such as the indoctrination and training in Pakistan of terrorists for suicide missions in the West), the West surely has every right to do what is necessary to protect its own people including asking the power brokers in Pakistan to do more to get their house/region in order.
How does one diplomatically talk to the military and intelligence agencies directly in any case? If the Pakistani democracy is too weak politically and economically to govern independently of fear or favouritism and cannot control its military and intelligence agencies, how can another country commence dialogue with the government about such things and how can they approach military and Intelligence agencies? If the military and security agencies in Pakistan do not want to co-operate with a proper diplomatic approach from the West, however it comes, will other ‘suitors’ such as China then just step in to fill the political, military and economic void?
These are not easy questions to answer whether you are in the Europe or the US. These are probably difficult issues within Pakistan which itself has more than the West had its people suffer the consequence of lawlessness, corruption and extremist violence and threats of violence.
Perhaps part of the answer may be for the West to put more diplomatic effort into resolving Kashmir with India and Pakistan so that the Pakistani Army has an incentive to reinforce democratic principles and institutions in Pakistan and distance themselves from the excess of the extreme right who are otherwise useful ‘assets’ in their border wars and instruments of leverage geo-politically.
The other part of the solution may be to pull out of Afghanistan and stop the drone attacks in Pakistan because the roots of the problem probably cannot be fixed that way in the medium to long term. Indeed these measures at the moment, no matter how seemingly effective they are in the short term are fuelling the narrative of the extreme right in Pakistan from whence new recruits and devotees will surely come to replace their ranks. Whatever negotiations happen in Afghanistan there must be just as much diplomatic effort go into discussions with Pakistan. Any lasting peace in region and in the West from trans-national jihadi terrorism will need their endorsement and active support. To be able to give assistance to Pakistan in these ways and to put away the military option of troops on the ground and drone strikes, what the West needs from Pakistan’s political, military and intelligence leaders is a sustainable and verifiable assurance they will not allow that region or its own territory to be used as a base for terrorism against the West either ideologically, financially or materially.
After a New Massacre, Charges That ISIS Is Operating With Assad and the Russians
Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci
On July 25 in the Syrian province of Sweida a massacre began in the early morning. Ten jihadists from the so-called Islamic State entered Sweida town. They wore the traditional baggy trousers and loose-fitting overgarments of Druze men, but beneath the clothes they had hidden explosive vests. Three detonated in the main vegetable market, then one of them accompanied the many injured to the hospital and set off his explosive charge there. The other six suicide bombers were overcome before they could detonate, according to senior officials in the Druze community.
At the same time, hundreds of ISIS fighters entered three nearby villages, moving house-by-house slitting throats and shooting to death men, women and children. Some reported that the killers left a witness from each family alive to tell their hideous story. In all, 273 Druze were killed and 220 injured, Druze officials told us.
They strongly suspect that the attack by ISIS was carried out in cooperation with the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and this is corroborated to some extent by ISIS prisoners we have interviewed who are being held by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces here in northern Syria. The Druse politicians and officials came here to try to forge an alliance with like-minded Kurds for mutual self-protection, which is when they told us the details of the massacre.
News of the atrocity has been reported internationally, but the story behind it still is not well understood.
The Druze are one of the smaller minorities in Syria, perhaps three percent of the population. But their reputation as fighters in the wars of the Levant goes back centuries. Altogether, they number about a million adherents of a monotheistic, Abrahamic faith mingling elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but also beliefs in reincarnation. Long persecuted for their beliefs, they keep their scriptures secret.
Their lands and their strongholds traditionally have been in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, although some Druze are in Jordan and a large contingent are in Israel. Many live outside the region as well, and fit easily into the secular West. (Amal Clooney, for instance, is from an influential Druze family in Lebanon.) In Syria, the hills east and south of Damascus officially are known as Jabal al-Druze, the Druze mountain, and the communities that live there are very close-knit.
To this day, Druze fighters are well represented in the militaries of Lebanon and Israel, and until recently of Syria as well. But when the Syrian uprising of 2011 turned violent, Druze leaders decided to stay neutral in the conflict. They called those serving in the Syrian army to desert and return home. Druze officials we spoke to, who did not want to be quoted by name, claim to have their own militia of 53,000 – reservists, military deserters and young men whom they have trained – ready to defend their Syrian heartland.
As the ISIS massacres in the Sweida region began just after dawn, mysteriously, telephone land lines and electricity in the area had been cut off. But the news spread by cell phone, and well-armed Druze men came out in droves to defend their population. “The big battle started around noon and lasted until 8 p.m,” said one Druze official who joined the fight.
According to the Druze politicians we talked to, there were approximately 400 combatants from ISIS, or Daesh as they are called here, facing thousands of individually armed Druze who rose to fight — and who did not take prisoners.
“Currently 250 Daesh are dead,” one Druze official told us. “There are no injured [ISIS fighters]. We killed them all and more are killed every day in ongoing skirmishes in which the Daesh attackers continue to come from the desert to attack. Every day we discover the bodies of injured Daesh who died trying to withdraw. Due to the rugged terrain, Daesh could not retrieve them with their four-wheel-drives. We have no interest to bury them.”
Of 10 known ISIS captives taken during the fighting, three were hanged immediately. Another was captured and hanged during skirmishes earlier this week. The Druze officials said that the Syrian authorities are demanding any surviving ISIS captives be turned over to them, but the Druze are refusing to do so.
The horror of the Sweida massacre in an area most considered safe—and in these last moments when ISIS rule in Syria appears to be all but over—was magnified when the Druze learned that some of their women and children had been taken captive by ISIS cadres. “Most of the Daesh attackers were killed,” a Druze official told us. “The only escapees were those who were kidnapped in the first village: 29 women, teenagers and babies.”
One 19-year-old student already has been beheaded by ISIS, which also quickly posted pictures of their Druze female captives and demanded that the Syrian regime stop attacking them and exchange ISIS prisoners held by the regime for these women and children.
In addition to the sensational pictures of the helpless women holding their hands above their heads in the desert, ISIS sent a video of one of their Druze captives, 35-year-old A Shalguinz, who delivered her baby in the desert.
“Daesh said they will make them sabaya [slaves] if the regime doesn’t’ give 100 prisoners to them and the regime refused,” one of our interlocutors told us.
People in the Middle East constantly speculate about the machinations of their governments and political parties, and rumors are taken seriously since verifiable facts often are hard or impossible to come by. But the Assad regime and ISIS at this moment have a coincidence of interests that is hard to mistake.
Assad currently is readying his troops and Russian- and Iranian-backed allies to attack the jihadist militants in Idlib, and the Druze leaders we talked to feel that their people were directly punished for not agreeing to join the Syrians in that operation.
Replaying the events that occurred prior to the slaughter and kidnapping, one Druze leader points out that about a week before the massacre, “Three Russian military officers came to the region to meet the political representatives of our area. They were meeting to create the 5th army in the region, exclusively for that region, so that all the young Druze who fled the Syrian Army and the Druze reservists are invited back.”
If the Druze have anything like as many as the 53,000 combatants they claim, obviously they could be hugely valuable to the regime’s army. But that was not going to happen.
“We don’t attack outside of our area. We only defend ourselves if necessary,” said the same official. “They came and said, ‘We’ll make the 5th battalion to protect the area. They can join the combat against al Nusra [al Qaeda linked jihadists] in Idlib,” he explained. “But the local representative answered them clearly, that they cannot join any Syrian Army to combat outside the mountain of the Druze, only defensive not offensive actions.”
Assad’s alleged complicity with ISIS is long, gruesome, and well documented. Recently he has had a policy of allowing armed militants to escape from cities in busses, ostensibly to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.
““It is known that Daesh militants in the suburbs of Damascus have been displaced to the east of Sweida in green buses by an agreement with the government: 1,400 Daesh were moved this way to the area east of Sweida and near the Tanf base of the Americans,” one of our Druze sources told us.
The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf sits on the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway, located in Syria on the Iraqi border and within miles of the Jordanian border. This outpost has served as a launching point since 2016 for counter-ISIS operations including training for Syrian opposition factions fighting ISIS, al-Nusra and other jihadists.
“Adding to that, 1,000 combatants of Daesh came in a discreet way from the Yarmouk area [a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus] to join the local Daesh, estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 combatants,” said one of the Druze officials who talked to us. “We know this by internal sources of the Syrian army. There are still some Druze of the army who leak this information to us.” In these transfers, ISIS fighters “have the right to take their individual Kalashnikov and three magazines. According to the government all of them came armed this way as the Syrian government gave them this safe passage to move to our area.”
“On the 24th of July most of the official checkpoints of the Syrian army around Sweida were withdrawn—all around the villages where the massacres occurred,” this Druze official told us. “They hit at 7 a.m., but at night something else was happening. Where the villages are—facing the Daesh area—the Syrian army withdrew the local weapons from the local protection militias. No one knew why. They also withdrew their checkpoint in the area and cut the electricity and local phone service. The regime was a spectator to the massacre.”
“We think there is complicity between Daesh and the regime,” another of the Druze leaders said. “It’s so obvious to us. The regime refused to send ambulances to assist the population. They cut the electricity as well and the local telephone service to make it difficult to communicate. They couldn’t cut the mobiles.”
One of the 10 captured ISIS attackers admits on an interrogation video shared by the Druze leaders that in the village massacres a man from the Syrian government guided them from house to house, knocking on the doors and calling the inhabitants by name so they would unwittingly open their doors to the ISIS attackers.
This is not the first time we have heard of such cynical and deadly complicity between the Assad regime and the ISIS terrorists it supposedly is fighting. We have interviewed, now, 91 men and women who defected from ISIS or were taken prisoner by the forces fighting it. They have told us that ISIS sold grain and oil to the Syrian government while in return they were supplied with electricity, and that the Syrians even sent in experts to help repair the oil facility in Deir ez Zour, a major city in southeast Syria, under ISIS protection. Early in the the revolution, Bashar al-Assad released al Qaeda operatives and other jihadists from his prison to make the case that he was fighting terrorists, not rebellious people hoping for democracy. One of those jihadists he released, known as Alabssi, was one of the ISIS leaders in the battle in Sweida.
In neighboring Iraq, ISIS has been declared militarily defeated since November 2017. President Donald Trump, in his state of the union speech in January this year, said, “I’m proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and in Syria.” But on the ground, U.S.-led coalition forces say that in the area patrolled by Americans and their close allies, around 1,000 ISIS militants are still at large. And an estimated 9,000 ISIS militants are still roaming free in Syria and Iraq. And in both places heinous attacks continue to occur.
Where did the fighters come from who carried out the massacre in Sweida? Ten ISIS fighters were captured and hundreds killed. According to our sources 83 ID cards were recovered. Most were Chechens, Palestinians from the Syrian camps, and some Saudis. There was a Moroccan and a Turkman among them, a Russian and a Libyan, as well as some Iraqis. Supposedly the brother of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, commanded the assault.
The Chechens who were slain were all wearing suicide vests—as usual, our source said. Those who attacked in the center of Sweida wore suicide vests, but so did the snipers using powerful rifles to shoot from distant rooftops. “That’s where most our casualties came from,” said one of the Druze officials. “It seems ISIS is alive and well despite international reports that they are defeated, or nearly defeated.”
One of the officials will only speak to us anonymously out of concern the attack can be repeated. “If they kidnap one, they will kidnap more,” he worries. Some 114 villages and small towns are around Sweida with half a million Druze living there.
The leaders of Druze mountain tell us that they are now also appealing to the international community to be protected by an international force, as the Kurdish area is protected by the Americans, and to assist them to bring back the kidnapped women to their families.
“To safeguard our community and to protect the diversity in the future of Syria, we need to create a crescent against aggressors,” said one of the politicians. Running from north to south, including parts of Iraq, it would protect the Kurds, the Yazidis, Christians, and Druze. “The minorities are looking to the Coalition as the only credible force in the area,” he said, adding, “The crescent strategically speaking would also cut the Iranians from access to the regime.”
The world must decide whether or not to respond, but the record thus far does not hold out much hope.
Author’s note: This piece first published at the Daily Beast
The armed conflict between ISIS and al Qaeda has reached its climax
How Central Asian jihadists kill each other in Syria?
Exactly one year ago, on July 10, 2017, the Islamic state citadel of Mosul city was liberated and, as a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi solemnly announced that the Caliphate in Iraq had finally and irrevocably fallen.More than three months later, on October 17, 2017, the Kurdish combat units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the support of the aviation of the international anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States, drove out the Islamic State from the Syrian city of Raqqa.
But, as the terrorist attacks carried out by the supporters of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2018 in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Canada showed, the Islamic state managed to regain its strength over the past year and further expanded the geography of its military operations. While victorious fanfares sounded, ISIS fighters successfully mastered the tactics of guerrilla warfare and deeply integrated into the Sunni population of the Middle East and Central Asia. Pinpoint terrorist strikes clearly indicate that the victory over the Islamic state is still far away and the jihadists are determined to take revenge. Today ISIS is conducting an intense offensive guerrilla war not only against Western countries and government regimes in the region but also against the Taliban and armed groups of alQaeda, who are its ideological rivals for leadership in the jihadist world.
In this brutal and intra-factional war between ISIS Islamist groups on the one hand, and al Qaeda and Taliban on the other hand, the jihadists of the Central Asia’s five countries, called the “Stans”, are actively participating.Islamists from the Fergana Valley, because of ideological confrontation, were divided into supporters of al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri and often commit terrorist acts against each other in Syria.
According to the Hayat Tahrir al Sham–affiliated information agency Ebaa, on July 9, 2018, an attack was carried out in Syria’s city Idlib against the amir’s house of the Central Asian terrorist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad Abu Saloh. As a result of the attack, his wife and four-year-old son were killed. The Uzbek jihadists’ leader himself was not injured. Security officer Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Anas al-Sheikh said that the house of Abu Saloh was attacked by an armed Khawarij (al Qaeda uses the term “Khawarij” as a synonym for ‘extremist’ to describe members of the ISIS), who was detained by the security forces of the city after hot pursuit.During the interrogation, a member of the Islamic state confessed to the crime. He was recruited by ISIS in Turkey. Later “Khawarij” was executed, Ebaa agency reported.
This is not the first victim among the Central Asian jihadists as a result of an armed confrontation between ISIS and al Qaeda. On April 27, 2017, during the evening prayer in the mosque of a Syrian city of Idlib, leader of the al Qaeda-backed Katibat Imam al Bukhari Sheikh Salahuddin was killed by an ISIS militant who was from Uzbekistan. The Islamic State distributed the following statement via Telegram messenger in this regard, “The emir of detachment of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Sheikh Salahuddin, was punished according to Sharia law for all the betrayals he committed.”Two ISIS terrorists from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who murdered the Sheikh Salahuddin were detained and executed.
Lately in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition, terrorist attacks of ISIS militants on military and religious sites al Qaeda-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sharply intensified.Lately in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition, terrorist attacks of ISIS militants on military and religious sites of al Qaeda-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sharply intensified.
Terrorist organizations from Central Asia such as Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, as well as Uyghur groups from Chinese Xinjiang, the Turkestan Islamic Party and Katibat al-Ghuraba are located in Idlib.All of them were affiliated with al Qaeda and were fighting within the largest jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Salafi-jihadi ideologues of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are making efforts to transform the Idlib province into an emirate ruled under Shariah.
According the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 229 jihadists of al Qaeda were assassinated by ISIS terrorist attacks. Of these, 153 fighters belong to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Izza, and other factions operating in Idlib. 25 jihadists of Uzbek, Uyghur and Caucasian nationalities have been assassinated in the same ways.
Caliphate rising from the ashes
On July 12, 2018, ISIS’ media center Amaq issued the message with three images from an improvised explosive device attack in Idlib city. The target was Sheikh Anas Ayrout, the President of the Court of Appeal in Idlib, a longtime opposition figure and senior Sharia official who played a key role in the formation of the Syrian Salvation Government. Based on Shariah rule the Syrian Salvation Government is a civil authority formed in Idlib province in early November 2017 and backed by the rebel coalition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
A pinpoint attempt on such a high ranking religious and political figure indicates that the explosion was not accidental or chaotic.The al-Baghdadi militants have studied the possible routes of Sheikh Anas Ayrout and easily identified his car. They received from the Syrian Salvation Government information about when he would travel on this route.From this, it can be concluded that the Islamic state succeeded in introducing its agents into the military and religious structures of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and created a complex network of underground cells throughout Syria, including the Idlib province.
On July 13, 2018, the Islamic State’s propaganda machine released the information with several photos about the assassination of the Turkey-backed Sultan Murad Division rebel group’s leader Abu Ahmed al-Sansawi in Idlib city.ISIS’ photos clearly showed that the killing was a targeted assassination, during which the terrorists confidently pursued the car of al-Sansawi. This once again testifies that the underground ISIS network is organized at a high level, and they have mastered the tactics of guerrilla warfare.
The Media Center Amaq almost daily reports about Islamic state’s successful armed attacks on the positions of the “enemies of Islam” Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the province of Idlib.Indeed, the guerrilla attacks and terrorist acts of the supporters of al-Baghdadi not only complicated the life of al-Qaeda-backed jihadists in Idlib, but they also caused a more serious threat to the security and defense of the entire armed Syrian opposition, than a possible attack by the Assad army and Iranian proxy Shiite militias with the support of Russian aviation.
On July 25, 2018, ISIS gunmen committed the bloodiest attack in Syria’s history in the southwestern Sweida province, killing 215 people and injuring 180 people.The sad reality is that the fighters of al Baghdadi survived the air strikes of the Western coalition and today continue to pour out streams of blood in Sham.They are trying to prove to the outside world and the entire Sunni jamaat that, despite the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the military, human and organizational potential of the ISIS remains high.
Today, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Central Asian Salafi-jihadi groups have to fight on three fronts: with the armed forces of the Assad regime, the Iranian controlled Shiite proxy units and ideological opponents of the Islamic state.If the war with the first two is outlined by a clear front line, then the fight against ISIS is conducted as an invisible guerrilla war.
Since 2017, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham regularly conducts a security campaign to identify ISIS clandestine cells and eliminate its agents in the province of Idlib.But it is very difficult to solve the problem of ensuring the security.To intimidate those who support the emir of the overthrown Caliphate al Baghdadi and those who sympathize with him, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham began to publicly execute the ISIS prisoners of war.
On July 14, Anas Sheikh, a security officer inIdlib, told Eba news agency that in the village of Sarmin,Hayat Tahrir al-Sham executed 8 ISIS members led by their commander Abu Barra Sahili. As evidence, the group’s propagandists published a photo of executed terrorists.
On July 24, Eba agency reported that HTS militants destroyed a large cell of the Islamic state in the village of Jisr Shugur in the west of Idlib.As a result, the deputy amir of ISIS in Idlib Abu Said al-Shishani was captured and immediately executed. His photo was published on the Eba website.
Abu Said al-Shishani was the brother of ISIS military minister, Abu Omar al-Shishani (real name Tarkhan Batirashvili), a well-known Chechen terrorist and the closest military adviser to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.The US Treasury Department added Batirashvili to its list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, and the US government announced a reward up to $5 million for information leading to his capture in 2015.
A sacrifice of the pure Islam
It should be noted that according to the direction of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,Hayat Tahrir al Sham and Central Asian jihadist groups avoided publicizing public executions of their enemies.But the difficult situation caused by the terrorist attacks of ISIS, apparently, forced the ideologists of al Qaeda to change the tactics of their propaganda.
In response, the jihadists of the Islamic state staged a wave of terror in the province of Idlib, as revenge for the murder of their members.They named their operation in honor of the murdered commander Abu Barra Sahili.Such a tradition was initiated by al Baghdadi himself.Earlier, ISIS carried out a military operation in honor of the lost military minister, Abu Omar al-Shishani, and in honor of the official spokesperson and senior leader of the Caliphate, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
The ideological rivalry and armed conflict between al Qaeda and ISIS for the leadership in the jihadist world has reached its peak.As is known, both terrorist groups are fighting for the purity of Islam.Both seek to establish Sharia laws, create an Islamic caliphate and to spread it around the world.ISIS ideologists consider the supporters of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham apostates and kaafirs (infidels).Al Qaeda described the supporters of the Islamic state as Khawarij (the early Islamic sect that was involved in the disruption of the unity of the Muslims and rebelled against the Khalifah).
From the analysis of ISIS activities over the last six months, it can be concluded that, firstly, the group leaders are trying to compensate for the loss of the Caliphate with abundant terrorist acts behind enemy lines and by expanding the geography of “the holy war.” Secondly, the supporters of the Islamic state managed to create at an advanced level an expanded underground network among Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen and Egypt. Thirdly, the publication of statements and press releases in the Amaq News Agency show that terrorist acts in different countries and regions are managed from a single ISIS center.
From a practical point of view, fighting between jihadists of the Islamic state and al Qaeda is beneficial to all countries that are fighting Islamist extremism and terrorism. A long and bloody confrontation will undoubtedly weaken the human, technical and financial potential of both Salafi-jihadi groups.
Total Catastrophe Demands Total Solution: Boko Haram and the Dilemma of Northeast Nigeria
The Boko Haram insurgency, far from being over and ravaging Northeastern Nigeria, has affected both the physical and social environment and led to displacing many residents of the Northeast from their homes. The Boko Haram insurgency, which can be traced back to the year 2009, has resulted in a grave humanitarian crisis with so many internally displaced persons in dire need of global intervention and assistance from donor agencies and states. The insurgency since 2013 has led to the displacement of 2.4 million people, including women and children making up the highest percentage most affected by the conflict. Food insecurity remains a major concern to the international community, with 5.2 million people in need of life-saving food assistance, especially those who are in IDP camps. Also, there is a growing health challenge being experienced by internally displaced persons. For instance, on 16 August 2017 a cholera outbreak was reported on the outskirts of Borno’s capital, Maiduguri, and later on in Dikwa and Monguno as well. Within just two weeks there were 125 suspected/confirmed cases as well as eight suspected cholera-related deaths. These health challenges facing IDPs won’t change in the foreseeable future due to the limited humanitarian aid from donor agencies. Thus, these entirely preventable diseases are becoming endemic throughout the northeast.
Also in August 2017 there were major attacks against civilians, including despicable suicide bombings inside of IDP camps. Over 10 suicide bombing attacks took place during the reported period in Borno alone. These attacks have understandably discouraged humanitarian agencies from deploying their aid workers to the theatre of the conflict. Considering the high risks posed by the Boko Haram insurgency, most aid workers are unwilling to work in the Northeast part of Nigeria entirely, which consequently means the fate of all the IDPs there, within camps and without, are at the mercy of Boko Haram.
In order to ensure that humanitarian actors can continue to address the most pressing needs, physical access must be improved in northeast Nigeria which will help reduce the dilemma confronting IDPs in the region. It was discovered that by August 2017 the lack of access in certain areas of northeast Nigeria prevented food security organizations from reaching over 337,000 affected persons. Furthermore, the unpredictable internal migration movements of IDPs continue to pose a grave challenge to humanitarian agencies’ ability to respond in a timely and targeted manner. There is a collective agreement by all the non-Boko Haram northeast stakeholders that a return to normalcy and comprehensive resettlement of all IDPs across the region is the penultimate goal, second only to ensuring stable economic growth for the region’s sustainable redevelopment as the ultimate fight against extremism. This collective agreement has led the federal government of President Muhammadu Buhari to intensify its efforts to bring normalcy to the region and resettlement of all IDPs by directly engaging selected Boko Haram-controlled areas. In the meantime, however, this engagement increases the instability (if also dynamism) of the IDP situation.
According to the UNHCR December 2016 Report, out of the estimated 176,000 Nigerians (a sub-set of the total 2.3 Million IDPs) who fled to neighboring countries (Cameroon, Chad, and Niger), only 17,000 have returned and under circumstances falling far short of international standards. In many of these cases, the returnees are being processed to join other IDPs in formal and informal camps. This above report shows a certain level of dynamism, as they indicate that the returns are beginning to happen spontaneously. For instance, 2016 governmental reports on return assessments indicated that an estimated total of 332,333 IDPs (47,476 IDP households) returned to northern Adamawa (Mubi North, Mubi South, Michika, Maiha, Hong and Gombi). IDPs in Yobe are also beginning to relocate to communities and camps close to their original communities and only Borno State currently has the slowest rates of IDP returns. This is on account of the intermittent progress being made by the Nigerian military to defeat Boko Haram and the fact that many IDPs indicated a strong willingness to return of their own accord to their home communities if safety and security was at least semi-guaranteed. However, the comprehensive and full resettlement and return of IDPs to their homes depends largely on the total defeat of Boko Haram insurgents. Despite progress by the Nigerian military, that total victory is far from achieved or guaranteed.
There is a dire need for infrastructural development in the region as the Boko Haram insurgency has resulted in the destruction of facilities and installations, especially healthcare and educational institutions throughout the northeast. This dearth of infrastructural development has generated immense concerns which led to the National Assembly putting forward a bill to begin engineering this essential development of the region. Most recently, there was the signing of the Northeast Development Commission Bill by President Buhari. This law provides for the establishment of the Northeast Development Commission (NEDC). How effective this will be in bringing meaningful development to the conflict-ravaged region depends largely on how much funding is diverted to it and how sincerely and honestly will the commission manage those funds?
Thus, the way forward to ensure lasting peace while overcoming the grave humanitarian crisis confronting the northeast part of Nigeria is for the federal government (through its military and executive branch) to intensify efforts and show a high level of commitment toward not only defeating Boko Haram insurgents but making the economic, social, and food security of all citizens there politically paramount. Humanitarian global actors should also increase their efforts by committing more personnel physically to the region, thus reinforcing the commitment of the Nigerian government. Finally, the management of the Northeast Development Commission (NEDC) should be free of corruption and manipulation when rebuilding the northeast, in order to avoid the pitfalls that bedeviled an earlier commission with similar mandate, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Until all parties involved, local and global, understand the holistic effort needed to not just overcome extremist elements but make Nigeria truly safe for all Nigerians, then the scourge of Boko Haram will continue.
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