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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

Spurious Assertions May Cause Diplomatic Failure

Jahangir Irshad

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America has once again disregarded the enduring efforts of Pakistan in war on terror. The latest US state department’s report on terrorism 2019, published on 24th June 2020, states that the country took meager actions to counter the menace of terrorism and continued to provide safe heavens to militant groups in 2019. However, Pakistan has contributed financially as well as in the flesh for regional peace. Further, the country has strengthened its institutes to halt the financial support of militant groups and restricted the terrorist movements into its territory. Meanwhile, It has also remained a true ally of America, as the former has played crucial role in soviet war and Afghan-Peace process. Despite the efforts, such recurring pessimistic remarks from US may derail the peace process in the region. It would also impair the strategic and economic interests of the two states. As, both relations are one of the dependency based one. US need Pakistan as a strategic ally in south Asia to negotiate with Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan need US support to finance its economy.

Considering that, in 1954 Pakistan due to strategic compulsion joined US backed military alliances of SEATO and CENTO. It provided a power equation to Pakistan to contain its regional adversary India. In return, Pakistan allowed US military to use its land against the advancements of Soviet Union. Later, Pak-US relation crumbled when America left Pakistan alone without any financial and military assistance during 1971 war with India. From this time onward, relation between two countries failed to prolong ahead. Each of them started to suspect, and disillusioned one another. US proved not helpful, and it brought realization in Pakistan’s foreign policy corridor about US betrayal in hour of need. Thus, Pakistan adopted policy of aloofness with US, and started to look toward Muslim world for financial and diplomatic assistance. In this regard, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto then prime minster of Pakistan played a vital role to establish subtle relations with Muslim countries as well as Republic of China.

But again, strategic dependence from US and Pakistan’s compulsion to get financial assistance brought two countries closer to each other. And, after episode of 9/11 both countries jointly fought war against terror in Afghanistan. Pakistan stood shoulder to shoulder in this war with US. As a result, the former has lost some 75 thousand precious lives and billions of rupees in economic terms so far. Ironically, US under the influence of India and their widening strategic cooperation, started to put screws on Pakistan about its role in war on terror. Consequently, time after time US asked, to do more in countering terrorism, to Pakistan. It has Never, acknowledged the sacrifices Pakistan bore in this war. Similarly, the recent report by US state department echoes same rhetoric of doing more to Pakistan. However, Pakistan helped US to bring Taliban on negotiations table, even though Pakistan’s role is considered moderate.  

While, in last few years Pakistan has brought various institutional reforms through technological and human capital advancements pertaining to counter terrorism in the country and region. The establishment of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), formulation of National Action Plan (NAP) and strengthening its institutional capacity to halt financial assistance of militants are the cases in point. Additionally, the country has increased its border security to halt the terrorist movements across its borders. For instance it receives biometric information at land crossings through its International Border Management Security System. Moreover, the military operations against terrorists like, Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2002), Rah-e-Haq and Rah-e-Rast (2007-2009), Operation Rah Nijat (2009-2010) and Zarb Azb (2014), are also crucial strides taken by Pakistan to eliminate the radical elements from its soil.

Regardless of all above cooperative efforts US has taken no notice of Pakistan’s role in war on terror. Instead, the former repeatedly blamed the country for financial assistance and providing its territory as safe heaven to militant groups. It also breached Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty on various instances.  Drone strikes on Pakistani soil, Salala incident and killing of Osama bin laden without informing Pakistani forces divulges the belligerence of US towards Pakistan. Since then the diplomatic ties between the two countries worsened drastically. As, later Pakistan ordered US military to evacuate Salala Air Base as well as Pakistan stopped NATO supplies for US. Likewise, various instances happened in later years. Despite of America’s skeptical attitude, Pakistan is still playing a paramount role in Afghan peace process and helping US military to exit Afghanistan for the sake of regional peace.

Therefore, US should not forget the sacrifices that Pakistan has rendered since it participated with US in Afghan war and its role while exterminating Soviet Union from the region. The country is yet bearing the repercussions of its partaking with US in its South Asian interests. Due to that various radical groups turned to Pakistan and plotted various terrorist attacks on the country. One of the most devastating attacks was on Army Public School Peshawar where the militants killed hundreds of innocent children. Besides that numerous attempts were made and are still being carried out on various points of time by militias in Pakistan. For instance the recent terrorist attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange on 29th June 2020 in Karachi reveals that the country is still under threat of terrorism. Additionally, due to its allegiance with US, Pakistan lost its bilateral ties with Russia for a long time in past. As, in early years of Pakistan, the country had the choice of building allegiance with Soviet Union or United States; however, it opted for the latter.

Thus, US must recognize the enduring efforts of Pakistan to sustain stability in the region. Such, accusations by US would just disrupt the bilateral diplomatic ties between both countries. Resultantly, both sides would have to bear the consequences. Since, Pakistan needs financial aid from US to strengthen its economy while, strategically Pakistan is significant ally of US in the region. Furthermore, the attitude of denunciation by any side would drastically disturb the peace process. Therefore, it is necessary for the two to make joint efforts to fight against the terrorism and keep the peace process on track to pave the way for regional peace and prosperity.

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Terrorism

Attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange: A Fuel-to-fire in Southeast Asia

Nauman Ahmad Bhatti

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On June 29th, four armed men opened fire in the premises of Pakistan Stock Exchange, Karachi. All four terrorists were successfully gunned down on the spot by the police, whereas one policeman and three guards were shot fighting. A representative account of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a US-designated terrorist organization, on Twitter claimed responsibility for the attack. Prime Minister Imran Khan pinned this attack on India the very next day. This incident could further escalate the already high tensions between Pakistan and India. Apparently, the shootout lasted for only eight minutes but the context of it has been developing for ages.

BLA is a Baloch separatist militia which aims for an independent Balochistan due to ‘economic exploitation by the rest of Pakistan’. Its ultimate goal is to form an independent state of Balochistan where all the regional resources are used for the development of the Baloch nation.

Both India and BLA see Pakistan as their mutual enemy. India seems to never let go of any opportunity that leads to instability in Pakistan. RAW, leading Indian intelligence agency, has been accused of sponsoring this banned outfit on multiple occasions. In an interview in 2009, Hairbiar Marri, founder of Free Balochistan Movement (FBM), said, “We appreciate any kind of aid for BLA, be it moral or any other kind.” An alleged Indian spy, named Kulbhushan Jadhav, was arrested in 2016 on the charges of terrorist activities in Balochistan. In a video confession, Jadhav said, “These activities have been of anti-national or terrorist nature which resulted in the killing and wounding of Pakistani citizens.”

Since the formation of Narendra Modi’s far-right wing government in India, the relations between the two bitter neighbours have continued to soar. Military stand-off on the Line of Control among the two nuclear-armed states has become habitual. Lockdown in Kashmir, 2016 ‘surgical strike’ and 2019 Balakot Dogfight were some of the significant incidents occurred over the recent years. Ajit Doval, PM Modi’s current advisor on National Security, has allegedly devised what is called the ‘Doval Doctrine’ for carrying out covert operations in Pakistan, especially Balochistan. And now, the attack on the economic hub of Pakistan, claimed by BLA, exhibits a similar pattern. “We have no doubt that it [PSX attack] was planned in India”, said PM Khan while addressing the Parliament.

Earlier in June, New Delhi directed Pakistan High Commission to reduce its staff by half. India blamed Pakistani envoys of espionage. Dismissing it as a false claim, Pakistan did the same for Indian High Commission staff.

The Chinese element

With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the BLA considers its ‘national’ identity in danger. It is repeatedly found to threaten and carry out activities against Chinese-backed projects. Chinese Engineers working in Balochistan were targeted in a suicide attack in August, 2018. In 2018, BLA also took responsibility for the attack on Chinese Consulate in Karachi.

The separatists consider CPEC an underhand exploitation of the resources belonging to the Baloch. In an email to AFP, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed that the PSX attack was not only on “Pakistan’s economy” but also on “China’s exploitative plans for Balochistan”.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a Pakistani columnist, has analyzed that RAW is trying to market BLA’s perspective as ‘Anti-China’ militant outfit. He further draws that RAW is attempting to gain sympathy of western powers for Balochistan cause by exposing the neo-imperial mindset of China. The west is already wary of China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ for the poor, developing nations in Asia and Africa. If they get the ear of the west, things might take a new turn.

The hostility between India and China increased over the past months regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The claims of 135,000 square kilometer area along the border is a dispute between India and China, processing via negotiations and dialogues. Years of negotiations between New Delhi and Beijing failed on June 15th when troops of either sides clashed, resulting in death of 20 Indian and several Chinese soldiers.

If the alleged BLA links with India are officially proved, the ongoing Sino-India tensions could take a new hike. This would create grave repercussions for the entire region. The  state of affairs in Southeast Asia has alarmed the international society as the malice revolving around three nuclear-powered nations is catastrophic to much bigger geography.

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Terrorist groups exploiting COVID-19 in Sahel

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In fighting the coronavirus in Mali, the UN is partnering with authorities to raise awareness. MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

COVID-19 is complicating an already complex security situation in the Sahel, with terrorist groups exploiting the pandemic as they step up attacks on national and international forces, the UN’s peacekeeping chief said on Friday.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix told the Security Council that the last six months have been particularly challenging as the G5 Sahel group of nations – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – deploys a joint force to restore stability to the vast African sub-region.

“We are seeing attempts by terrorists and other groups in the region to capitalize on the pandemic to undermine State authority and destabilize Governments”, with innocent lives being lost daily, schools shuttered and many people denied access to basic social services, he said.

Years to rebuild

“It will take years to rebuild affected communities in the Sahel even under the best of circumstances (as well as) sustained efforts to ensure that nobody is left behind”, added the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations.

“In the face of such loss and devastation, we cannot be passive.”

Mr. Lacroix was briefing a videoconference meeting of the Council as the United Nations considers options for beefing up its support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, including through its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.

He said that the Joint Force is making “tangible and encouraging progress” in building up its ranks and establishing a command structure based in Niamey that will cooperate with other international forces in the Sahel.

Military operation ‘progressing well’

Those efforts have led to an ongoing major military operation, code-named Sama, that is “progressing well”, he reported.

With financial support from the European Union, MINUSMA – the French acronym for the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali – is providing “life support consumables” (food, water and fuel) within its mandate.

Mr. Lacroix warned, however, that the Mission is running at maximum capacity and cannot do more for the Joint Force within its current Council-defined mandate and resources.

Comprehensive support package needed Expanding on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Joint Force, he called for a comprehensive support package, funded by Member States through their assessed contributions to the UN.

“This would not only allow for predictable and sustainable support, it would also make it easier to pursue a long-term strategy to phase out this support and to render the Joint Force autonomous,” he explained.

It would also free up MINUSMA to focus exclusively on supporting the peace process and stabilization of central Mali, he added.

“The G5 Sahel Joint force is on the right track, but there is still a long way to go”, he said, adding that a stronger Joint Force is only part of a comprehensive international approach for the Sahel that includes improving governance, eradicating poverty and protecting human rights for all.

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