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Holding back al-Qaeda

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Will Israel be dragged into the Syrian conflict?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit this week to an IDF field hospital where wounded Syrians are receiving treatment served to showcase the Israeli humanitarian effort to respond to the crisis facing Syrian civilians caught up in the ongoing conflict. Recent reports suggest that the Israeli focus on events in southern Syria goes beyond purely humanitarian concerns.

Increasing attention is being paid by Israeli planners to the buildup of extreme Sunni Islamist forces close to the border with the Golan Heights. There are indications that Israel has already begun to implement a strategy intended to keep the jihadis from the border.

According to a report by prominent Israeli Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari published recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel is currently moving toward ‘assuming a modest role in the Syrian civil war.’

Ya’ari notes that the extent of Israel’s humanitarian operation inside Syria suggests that ‘a system of communications and frequent contacts have been established with the local rebel militias.’

The Israeli analyst reports that the background to such increased engagement is the loss by the Assad regime of control of most of the border area between southern Syria and the Golan Heights. Israeli contacts with the rebel militias in this area would serve to facilitate the latter acting as a de facto buffer against the jihadis.

This largely off-the-radar activity in the south forms part of a broader Israeli concern at the increasingly prominent role played by jihadi and Sunni Islamist elements in the Syrian rebellion.

An un-named senior IDF officer quoted in a recent article in Defense News noted that ‘Today, rebels control most of the area of the south Golan Heights…Among rebel forces, the moderates are increasingly exhausted while the radicals have become strengthened.’

He added that ‘For the moment, they are not fighting us, but we know their ideology. … It could be that, in the coming months, we could find ourselves dragged into confrontation with them.”

IDF Military Intelligence head Aviv Kochavi, meanwhile, in an address at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on January 29 estimated that around 30,000 jihadi fighters were active in Syria. Ya’ari, meanwhile, estimated the strength of Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as around 40,000 fighters.

These numbers are of particular interest in that they are considerably in excess of the estimates made by most analysts of Syria concerning the numbers of extreme jihadis present on the Syrian battlefield. While accurate estimates of combatant forces on the Syrian rebel side are notoriously hard to come by, the more usual estimate of the combined strength of al-Qaeda linked forces in Syria would be between 15-20,000.

This suggests that Israeli estimates may take a somewhat broader definition of what constitutes extreme salafi and al-Qaeda linked groups than those made by western analysts.

A third openly salafi force plays a prominent role mainly in northern Syria. This is the Ahrar al-Sham group, thought to number around 20,000 fighters. This group has no known links with the central leadership of al-Qaeda. Yet it adheres to an extreme salafi ideology. One of its leading members, Abu Khaled al-Suri, recently described himself as a member of al-Qaeda.

If it is indeed the case that Israeli analysts would include Ahrar al Sham and groups of this type under the rubric of potentially dangerous Sunni jihadi forces (and there are good reasons to do so), then this has interesting implications.

Ahrar al-Sham is a component part of the Islamic Front, which is the largest single rebel formation, numbering over 60,000 fighters, and which is the beneficiary of extensive aid from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So if Jerusalem regards this force as on a par with more obviously al-Qaeda aligned groups, this is a significant point of contention between the two main anti-Iran countries in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s concerns regarding the Sunni jihadis are certainly not limited to the border area. The al-Qaeda linked cell whose capture was announced on January 22nd was apprehended while preparing to enter northern Syria via Turkey for training purposes.

It has also not escaped Israel’s attention that a de facto sovereign jihadi -controlled zone now exists in eastern Syria’s Raqqa province, stretching into western Anbar province in Iraq.

Such an enclave has never existed in the Levant before. The jihadis are busy fighting Assad and his Iranian backers now. But they are open in their desire to engage also against Israel.

While close attention should be paid to Israel’s concerns re the Sunni jihadis and the consequent relationship with the rebels in the south, there are also factors likely to militate against any broader Israeli intervention into the Syrian war.

Firstly, the Iran-led regional bloc remains by far the most potent and dangerous alliance challenging Israel at the present time. As Kohavi said in his address: ‘The new phenomenon of Global Jihad at our borders is disturbing, but we shouldn’t be confused. Our mortal enemy remains the ever-strengthening axis of evil formed by Hezbollah, Syria and the Iranian regime.’

This point, and the Iranian responsibility for events in Syria was underlined by Netanyahu in his remarks made at the field hospital. The Iran-led bloc includes paramilitary clients but is led by a powerful state with nuclear ambitions. There is no parallel structure to this on the Sunni jihadi side.

Secondly, unseen but unmistakable, the trauma of Israel’s long involvement in Lebanon remains written into the DNA of Israeli commanders and planners and of the Israeli system as a whole. There is a very deep aversion to anything that might look like interference in the internal processes of neighboring states – particularly where this could involve Israeli boots on the ground and hence loss of Israeli life.

This salient institutional memory will probably ensure that despite its very real concerns, Israel’s engagement against the Sunni jihadi threat in southern Syria will remain as far as possible invisible, and on a limited, deniable scale.

Yet this engagement is taking place. On a daily basis, a few kilometers north-east of Tiberias, Israeli forces are involved in the complex task of keeping al Qaeda at a safe distance from the Golan Heights and the northern Galilee.

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Terrorism

Political Scientist: Taliban Rule will lead to terrorism activation in Pakistan

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image source: India Today

The strengthening of terrorist activity in the northwest of Pakistan and the country as a whole is linked with reinforcing the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan. Since they have established absolute power in Afghanistan, implicitly or not, they support the Pakistani Taliban. Although these are different organizations, they definitely have a common genesis, ties and contacts, but they deny this. However, we understand that the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are at least allies. This is how a political scientist, Ph.D., associate professor Georgi Asatryan commented on the latest developments around the situation in Afghanistan and the activity of the Taliban.

“There was another explosion in Peshawar; unfortunately, this can be predicted to occur again. Now we witness a particular conflict between the Pakistani and Afghan authorities represented by the Taliban. Pakistan, represented by the Minister of Defense and other high-ranking officials, blames the Afghan authorities for these attacks, arguing that the Taliban Kabul is supporting the Pakistani Taliban, and the Taliban, in turn, deny this. Therefore, this conflict between the two South Asian countries will boost and worsen”, said political scientist Georgi Asatryan.

The administration of the Pakistani Taliban has announced that it is lost the armistice. It happened in November. The Pakistani Taliban announced that they were withdrawing from the armistice with Pakistan and called on their supporters to launch attacks on targets in Pakistan. It should be mentioned that the situation will worsen and destabilize as long as the Taliban run in Afghanistan and supports its Pakistani allies.

To a certain extent, we witness how the method of the Pakistani military to support the Afghan Taliban leads to harmful and dangerous outcomes for them. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan would be impossible, or quite complicated, without the total assistance, consultations and, to a certain extent, the participation of the Pakistani military. Now we see a growth of terrorist networks in the region. The policy of strategic depth leads to troubles and threats for Pakistan itself.

The country’s ruling parties received a warning from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that “concrete actions” aimed at their leadership would be carried out in reaction to the statement of war against them. In this statement, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari were named in the TPP message. In addition, the statement contains a warning to the religious political parties of Pakistan. They are urged not to participate in activities directed against the TPP. “TTP’s policy does not include targeting your parties, but we ask you to avoid engaging in any activity against us,” it says. The TPP danger came two days after the National Security Committee of Pakistan announced its decision to combat organizations related to violence and terrorism.

According to Al Jazeera, Pakistan is confronting an attack again. Analysts express that as the country enters into an election year, the leadership of Pakistan should develop a strategy to counter the threat to internal security. At least nine attacks occurred in the southwestern province of Balochistan last Sunday, killing six employees of security services. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), known as the Pakistani Taliban due to its close ideology to the Afghan Taliban, has claimed responsibility for these attacks.

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Countering Terrorism: 2023 and Beyond

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(file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Pakistan has carried three significant issues from 2022 into 2023. These include political instability, a dwindling economy and resurging terrorism. With respect to terrorism, Afghanistan has assumed centre stage. Following the withdrawal of US forces on 15 Aug 2021, there was initial jubilation in Pakistan over Taliban’s triumph. It stemmed from the perception that US military presence in the region and drone strikes were the leading sources of regional instability.

2022 ended for Pakistan with an upsurge in terrorist activities and accordingly the New Year started with a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC). The press release following the meeting reiterated NSC’s resolve to ‘have zero tolerance for terrorism in Pakistan and reaffirmed its determination to take ‘on any and all entities that resort to violence.’ This is a welcome decision by the government and state organs.

Pakistan’s counterterrorism (CT) efforts gained momentum following the unprecedented Army Public School (APS) massacre of 2014. Some have compared it to Pakistan’s 9/11. The tragedy was relatable to all of Pakistan regardless of the so-called ethnic, regional or sectarian divides. The inhumane attacks brought the civil and military leadership together in assigning this scourge of terrorism the priority that it deserved. The most prominent outcome was a National Action Plan on countering terrorism that enjoyed broadest possible political support.

Subsequently, the united stance against terrorism enabled unprecedented successes in rooting out terrorism. However, it appears that the reduction in terrorist activities led to a sense of complacency which was further aided by growing political polarisation that had more to do with differences on domestic, economic and foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred at a time when Pakistan was struggling with internal politics. Apparently, the eventual prevalence of Afghan Taliban against a super power that they had been resisting for two decades, emboldened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to think that it could similarly attrite the Pakistani nation and its state organs.

TTP’s motivation seems to be misplaced for primarily three reasons. First and foremost, the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) of Pakistan are fighting this war to provide a safe and secure environment to the future generations of the country – including their own children; unlike the US and coalition forces that neither had a clear objective nor a consistent policy to follow. Second, much of Afghan Taliban’s acceptance at the domestic level was based on the fact that they were fighting a foreign occupant – which is not the case for TTP. Thirdly, the Afghan Taliban assumed power by virtue of force rather than the will of the public and that is why they struggle to gain legitimacy at home and abroad.

Pakistani political leadership might differ on the possible approaches to dealing with this issue, but there certainly is no appetite for letting the TTP and associated factions consolidate power to a degree that they are able to challenge state’s writ at a level comparable to yesteryears. However, display of a united front by the various ruling parties at the Centre and provinces will help demonstrate that there will be no tolerance for terrorist activities no matter which political party assumes power.

TTP’s threat against the leadership of two ruling parties is an attempt to exploit the current domestic political divide. Political mudslinging on this issue only helps the enemy’s cause. The ongoing struggle for power between the political parties should not enable TTP to consolidate power in the interim period. Otherwise, it will become a greater threat for the next government to deal with. During the previous election years, terrorist outfits were successful in targeting the leadership of various political parties during their election campaigns and arguably changing the election outcomes by terrorising the electorate. It is in shared interest of all the political parties to avoid a repeat of such a scenario.

While the politico-military leadership establishes a united front at home, it will be important to deny external actors the ability to exploit Pakistan’s internal situation. Pakistan has been at the receiving end of accusations even as it presents irrefutable evidence of external involvement in terrorist activities inside the country. As Pakistan continues to expose foreign involvement, it ought to simultaneously deny foreign actors fertile ground to exploit at home. Previously, the foreign threat was limited to the Eastern front but now it has expanded at an unprecedented level to the Western front where the Taliban government is either complicit or unable to check use of its territory to launch terrorist attacks against Pakistan.

2023 is likely going to be the year of General Elections in Pakistan. Whichever party assumes power, it is important that it looks at counterterrorism as a long-term operation that will require broader political support, less in-fighting and an ability to stay the course impervious of temporary gains and setbacks which will inevitably be a part of the process.

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A Rift Getting Deeper: TTP and IEA parting their ways?

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Image source: hindustantimes.com

A few days ago, an alleged audio of Tahreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief, Noor Wali Mehsud has caught the attention of those who keep a close eye on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, especially Tahreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Through this audio, Noor Wali has sent a message, to TTP fighters to pick up arms against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) after its search operation in provinces along the Pak-Afghan border. Since the takeover of Kabul, some security analysts had predicted the possible collaboration of IEA with TTP. Still, the evolution of TTP strategies and its ideological shift from being a branch of IEA to being an opponent of IEA was observed. Only those who have kept a sharp eye on TTP activities know that TTP is now a threat to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The reason behind the shift in TTP’s strategies:

 What compelled TTP to give such a big statement? This question comes to everyone’s mind, the below discussion is made in context to this question. The ideological standing of both TTP and IEA is far different. Afghan Taliban are ethnic nationals. They have only fought a war against foreign forces for Afghan territory and have never claimed any region beyond the borders of Afghanistan. However, TTP has long taken inspiration from Al-Qaeda, which has expansionist objectives and deadly takfiri ideology to create a falsified identity of believers and non-believers, only to legitimize its terror activities in the name of Islam. Hence, following the footprints of such a radical organization, there is a significant possibility that TTP will join hands with ISKP against IEA.

Question of natural and forced alliance:

Since the Kabul takeover, TTP has tried to align with IEA, thus, giving it the camouflage of a natural alliance. TTP’s leadership also manifested this narrative in its statements and activities. But the ideological drift and conflicting objectives show that TTP’s so-called alignment with IEA was one-sided and enforced. After the Kabul takeover, TTP tried its well to be a part of IEA but by rigid stance, IEA always cleared in their statement that TTP and IEA are two different groups, having different inspirations and goals.

Pakistan’s role that TTP in using Afghan soil:

Pakistan has been fighting TTP since 2003. In April 2022, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) struck the hideouts of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan along the Durand Line. This strike highlighted that a group within IEA was keen on providing safe havens to TTP. Hence, diplomatic pressure was mounted on IEA to eradicate TTP from the strategic provinces of Kunar and Khost.

 Chance of Mutual tussle between TTP and IEA:

Is there another conflict going to happen in the region? Now, the battle is the same, but the opponents are different. The so-called narrative that claims IEA and TTP were on the same table is wrecking after TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and IEA spoke’s person Zabiullah Mujahid’s statements.” They are not, as an organization, part of IEA, and we don’t share the same objectives,” Zabiullah Mujahid said in reaction to TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud’s claims of being a part of the IEA. Now, the TTP chief has alerted his fighters for war. It would create complexities in the region. IEA acted as a mediator between the government of Pakistan and TTP to make peace in the region.  Additionally, Zabiullah mujahid also mentioned that We advise TTP to focus on peace and stability in their country. This is very important so, they can prevent any chance for enemies to interfere in the region, and we request Pakistan to investigate their demands for the better of the region and Pakistan.

Mujahid added that the TTP was Pakistan’s internal matter “The IEA stance is that we do not interfere in other countries affairs. We do not interfere in Pakistan’s affairs.”  

After this emerging rift, would it be possible for IEA to counter TTP? IEA is struggling to stabilize the state after Kabul take over. Nowadays, Afghanistan’s security and economy are on the verge of chaos. It would not be able to engage in other conflicts nor do they have the power to do so. And if they engaged in battle with TTP, an alliance of ISKP and TTP can hurt Afghanistan. But if they counter them, there is a chance to get international sympathy and maybe recognition because it will endorse the Doha agreement, as Recognition has become a dire need in Afghanistan.

Conclusion:

In a nutshell, it won’t be inappropriate to assume that another war will break out, and it is likely more drastic than the last ones. Despite all the hurdles, it is an opportunity for IEA to gain global sympathy for its recognition and to legitimize its regime. If the IEA becomes successful in convincing the world by taking action against terrorist outfits and extremism in its ranks, it will not only pave the way for its recognition but also meet with the minutes of the DOHA Accord to not allow any violent non-state actor to operate within Afghan territory.

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