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ISIS and al-Qaeda compete for supremacy in global jihad

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Much media attention has recently focused on a statement issued by al-Qaeda’s central command on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border under Ayman al-Zawahri’s leadership, declaring that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has no relationship with the central leadership of al-Qaeda.

On the basis of this development, one might think that ISIS, which has hitherto been described in the media as an “al-Qaeda affiliate,” may lose ground and standing in the eyes of jihadis and their supporters both inside and outside Syria. Indeed, in Jordan, the Salafist-jihadist movement has come firmly on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra against ISIS, maintaining strong links with Jabhat al-Nusra in the southern Syrian border province of Daraa, which lacks an ISIS presence.

One should also note the extent to which tensions on the ground have grown between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Beginning with infighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in the city of Raqqa, clashes have since spread further out east.

On Feb. 7, Jabhat al-Nusra released a statement criticizing ISIS in Deir Ezzor province and the wider east of Syria, pointing to long-standing grievances like ISIS’ besieging the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Hassakeh province locality of Ash Shaddadi, despite their cooperation against Kurdish and regime forces.

Indeed, now that al-Qaeda’s central command has officially disavowed ISIS, Jabhat l-Nusra’s leadership no longer has to consider ISIS a part of the same al-Qaeda family and therefore, it may side with ISIS’ enemies.

These issues notwithstanding, it is unlikely that ISIS’ role in Syria and among jihadis and their supporters across the world will be diminished. First, the media’s constant descriptions of ISIS as an “al-Qaeda affiliate” until this recent statement have been deeply misguided and reflect a misunderstanding of how ISIS has seen itself.

According to ISIS supporters and fighters I know, ISIS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), have been independent of al-Qaeda since the inception of ISI in October 2006. This line of narrative — articulated by them long before this statement — argues that when ISI was formed, it absorbed what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq (which was certainly the main component of the ISI umbrella coalition), as the pledge of allegiance was switched from al-Qaeda to the emir of ISI.

ISIS’ supporters and fighters further point to Zawahri’s statement in 2007 explicitly stating that there is no “al-Qaeda in Iraq” anymore, as it had joined other jihadist groups in the ISI.

Regardless of whether one wishes to accept this narrative of independence from al-Qaeda from the very beginning, there is no doubt that the ISI quickly became an organization capable of supporting itself financially and supplying its own manpower.

Today, as has been the case for years, ISIS’ vast financial resources are in large part being driven through the extensive networks of extortion and other crimes it runs in Mosul and wider northern Iraq, making at least $1 million a month from the city alone. Despite its setbacks during the US troop surge and the Sahwa tribal revolt, ISI was never quite dislodged from Mosul.

More recently, ISIS has been able to acquire additional funding through controlling oil and gas resources in eastern Syria, constituting what we call a major “crime family” in opposition to two other major groupings: Jabhat al-Nusra working with the Islamic Front, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

ISIS’ considerable financial clout — as well as the fact that members and supporters take offence to being described as a mere “group” or “faction” — has been a key factor behind the group’s vast territorial expansion, such that the group now has more strongholds than before the infighting.

Indeed, there has also been a misunderstanding of how ISIS organized itself prior to the large-scale conflict with other rebel groups. Rather than focusing on acquiring strongholds, ISIS previously tried to gain footholds in as many localities as possible, and as a result became too thinly spread and vulnerable to a multi-pronged attack.

Since then, ISIS has regrouped, allowing it to seize exclusive control of the important Aleppo provincial towns of al-Bab and Manbij. In Raqqa province, the gains have been even more impressive: exclusive control of the provincial capital, the key border town of Tel Abyad and all other localities apart from a PYD stronghold just west of Tel Abyad and a couple of regime air bases — the Tabqa military airport and Brigade 17.

Such territorial control, along with a heavy, open emphasis on proto-state building and the goals of re-establishing the caliphate and achieving eventual world domination (goals also supported by Jabhat al-Nusra, though hardly ever articulated openly except by foreign fighters in unofficial video footage), has meant that ISIS continues to be the No. 1 banner to which Sunni jihadist foreign fighters congregate.

On the wider international scene, al-Qaeda’s disavowal of ISIS has only hardened pre-existing divisions among the global jihad movement that have long been apparent.

For example, over the last summer and in subsequent months, I noted signs of support for ISIS from the Gaza/Sinai region. This trend has been reinforced by recent affirmations of support from two major jihadist groups in this area: Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which is behind attacks in Egypt beyond the Sinai Peninsula, and the Majlis Shura al-Mujahedeen, active in both the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip and at strong odds with Hamas. As for the Jordanian Salafist support for Jabhat al-Nusra noted above, this trend can be traced back to the very beginning of the dispute.

The question of whether ISIS’ influence can be reduced ultimately depends on how well other rebel groups can form a united front against it. So far, events on the ground still point to the obstacle of localization for such an effort to come about.

In short, the current situation suggests a cementing of current positions, similar to what happened in the wider rebel-PYD conflict that broke out in mid-summer 2013, rather than a decisive victory for ISIS or its rivals.

In real terms, it is ISIS and not al-Qaeda that is making headway in building a caliphate, with extensive advertising of its projects on social media. Combined with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi‘s projection of himself as a caliph (in calling himself Emir al-Mu’mineen), ISIS and al-Qaeda are effectively in direct competition with each other over who gets to set up and rule an envisioned caliphate, the greatest challenge yet to al-Qaeda’s status as the leading face of global jihad.

Despite sharing a virtually identical ideological program and being much younger than al-Qaeda, ISIS looks set to retain the upper hand for the time being, so long as it does not incur substantial territorial losses and can showcase its caliphate-building better than al-Qaeda and its official affiliates.

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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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