The sad truth is that governments, law enforcement, security forces, intellectuals and journalists do not have an ideological response to political violence’s latest reiteration, jihadism. Moreover, the struggle against political violence, is not one that is predominantly ideological.
To add to this, mistakes are being repeated. Al Qaeda produced the counterterrorism industry in the context of a response that was focussed on law enforcement, security and military engagement. To be sure, that has produced significant results. It has enhanced security across the globe, stopped plots before they could be executed, driven Al Qaeda into caves, and deprived the Islamic State of its territorial base.
All of that, however has not solved the problem, nor has it fundamentally reduced the attraction of religiously-cloaked extremism. No doubt, social media has provided militants with a megaphone. But let’s be clear: social media are vehicles, media channels, they are not drivers. Yet, much like the terrorism industry, the call for a counter-narrative has produced an industry of its own. Like the terrorism industry, it has vested interests of its own: its sustainability is dependent on the continued existence of perceived real threats.
Further troubling the waters is the fact that the public and private anti-terrorism and counternarrative industries see human rights as second to ensuring security and safety; have little interest in addressing the problem through notions of alienation, marginalization, socio-economic disenfranchisement, youth aspirations and basic rights in which counterterrorism and counter-narratives would be embedded. Aiding and abetting the problem are the ever more evident campaigns by non-egalitarian and non-inclusive democratic societies as well as autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes that either have reduced interest in independent analysis and reporting, seek to restrict freedoms of expression and the press, or define any form of dissent as terrorism.
The notion that one can eradicate political violence is illusionary. Political violence has been a fixture of human history since day one and is likely to remain a fact of life. Its ebbs and flows often co-relate to economic, social and political up and down turns. In other words, counterterrorism and counternarratives will only be effective if they are embedded in far broader policies that tackle root causes.
And that is where the shoe pinches. To develop policies that tackle root causes, that are inclusive and aim to ensure that at least the vast majority, if not everyone, has a stake in society, the economy and the political system involves painful decisions, revising often long-standing policies and tackling vested interests. Few politicians and bureaucrats are inclined to do so.
Starting with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, militants have benefitted from the fact that the world was entering a cyclical period in which populations lose confidence in political systems and leaderships. The single largest success of Osama bin Laden and subsequent militants is the fact that they were able to disrupt efforts to forge inclusive, multicultural societies, nowhere more so than first in Europe, then the United States with the rise of Donald Trump, and exploit ripple effects in Asia.
The result is the rise of secular and religious nationalism, populism, greater acceptance of autocratic or illiberal rule, and the erosion of democratic values and institutions. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious prejudice that no doubt existed but lived under a cloud of primarily social taboos and have become socially acceptable and often politically convenient. Of course, the refugee crisis put oil on the fire.
Nonetheless, what makes this cycle of lack of confidence more worrisome and goes directly to the question of the ideological challenge is how it differs from the late 1960s, the last time that we witnessed a breakdown in confidence and leadership on a global scale.
The difference between then and now is that then there were all kinds of worldviews on offer: anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, socialism, communism, concepts of extra-parliamentary opposition, and in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Today, the only thing on offer are militant interpretations of Islam and jihadism.
Human rights activist and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki was asked in a Wall Street Journal interview why it was not only those who lacked opportunity and felt that they had no prospects and no hopes but also educated Tunisians with jobs who were joining the Islamic State. His answer was: “It’s not simply a matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream—and we don’t. We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate.”
Its hard to build an ideological challenge or develop counternarratives without a dream. With democracy on the defense, free market enterprise having failed significant segments of the public, and newly found legitimacy for prejudice, bias and bigotry, democratic governments are incapable of credibly projecting a dream, one that is backed up by policies that hold out realistic hope of producing results.
Autocrats are in a no better situation. The mayhem in the Middle East and North Africa is not exclusively, but in many ways, due to their inability and failure to deliver public goods and services. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared to be holding out a dream for his kingdom. But that dream increasingly is being shattered both in Yemen and at home. Autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa are about upgrading and modernizing their regimes to ensure their survival, not about real sustainable change. Elsewhere, populists and nationalists advocating racial, ethnic and religious purity and protectionist economic policies are unlikely to fare any better.
What this means is that identifying the root causes of political violence demands self-inspection on the part of governments and societies across the globe. It is those governments and societies that are both part of the problem and part of the solution. It is those governments and elites that are at the root of loss of confidence.
Translating the need to tackle root causes into policy is proving difficult, primarily because it is based on a truth that has far-reaching consequences for every member of the international community. It involves governments putting their money where their mouth is and changing long-standing, ingrained policies at home that marginalize, exclude, stereotype and stigmatize significant segments of society; emphasize security at the expense of freedoms that encourage healthy debate; and in more autocratic states that are abetted by the West, seek to reduce citizens to obedient subjects through harsh repression and adaptations of religious and political beliefs to suit the interests of rulers.
The result is a vicious circle: government policies often clash with the state or regime’s professed values. As a result, dividing lines sharpen as already marginalized, disenfranchised or discriminated segments of society see the contradiction between policies and values as hypocritical and re-confirmation of the basis of their discontent.
Creating a policy framework that is conducive to an environment in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia that would favour pluralism and respect of human rights and counter the appeal of jihadism and emerging sectarian-based nationalism is not simply a question of encouraging and supporting voices in the region, first and foremost those of youth, or of revisiting assumptions of Western foreign policies and definitions of national security. It involves fostering inclusive national identities that can accommodate ethnic, sectarian and tribal sub-identities as legitimate and fully accepted sub-identities in Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian, as well as in Western countries. It involves changing domestic policies towards minorities, refugees and migrants.
Inclusiveness means, that victory has to be secured as much in militant strongholds in a swath of land that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean as in the dismal banlieues, run-down, primarily minority-populated, suburbs of French cities that furnished the Islamic State with its largest contingent of European foreign fighters; in the popular neighbourhoods in Tunisia that accounted for the single largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq; in Riyadh, seat of a government whose citizens accounted for the second largest number of foreign fighters and whose well-funded, decades-long effort to propagate a puritan, intolerant, interpretation of Islam has been a far more important feeding ground for jihadist thinking than the writings of militant Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb; and in Western capitals with Washington in the lead who view retrograde, repressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
In territorial terms, the Islamic States has been defeated but the problem remains unresolved. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. In the process, it weakened a jihadist force that increasingly had advocated a gradual approach to the establishment of its harsh interpretation of Islamic law in a bid to ensure public support. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, the largely military effort to defeat Al Qaeda produced ever more virulent forms of jihadism as embodied by the Islamic State. It may be hard to imagine anything more brutal than the group, but it is a fair assumption that defeating the Islamic State without tackling root causes could lead to something that is even more violent and more vicious.
Defining repressive, autocratic rule and the Islamic State as the greatest threat to stability and security and the furthering of more liberal notions is problematic. In the case of the Islamic State, that definition elevates jihadism – the violent establishment of Pan-Islamic rule based on narrow interpretations of Islamic law and scripture — to the status of a root cause rather than a symptom and expression of a greater and more complex problem. It is an approach that focuses on the immediate nature of the threat and ways to neutralize it rather than on what sparked it. It also neglects the fact that the ideological debate in the Muslim world is to a large extent dominated by schools of thought that do not advocate more open, liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam.
That is where one real challenge lies. It is a challenge first and foremost to Muslims, but also to an international community that would give more liberal Muslim voices significant credibility if it put its money where its mouth is. Support for self-serving regimes and their religious supporters, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reduces the international community’s choices to one between bad and worse, rather than to a palate of policy options that take a stab at rooting out the problem and its underlying causes.
There are no quick solutions or short cuts and the value of partial solutions is questionable. The key is the articulation of policies that over the medium term can help generate an environment more conducive to change rather than the continuous opting for knee-jerk reactions to events and facts on the ground.
One place to look for alternative approaches is Norway. In contrast to most reactions to political violence and expression of pro-jihadist sentiment, Norway’s response to right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s traumatic attacks in 2011 that killed 77 people stands as a model for how societies can and should uphold concepts of pluralism and human rights. Norway refrained from declaring war on terror, treated Breivik as a common criminal, and refused to compromise on its democratic values. In doing so, Norway offered a successful example of refusing to stigmatise any one group in society by adopting inclusiveness rather than profiling and upholding the very values that autocrats and jihadists challenge.
The result of exclusively security-focussed approaches, coupled with the exploitation of economic opportunity by autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes and Western governments, is an increasingly insecure region in which the creation of pluralistic societies that honour human rights seems ever more distant. Said an Egyptian Islamist militant, whose non-violent anti-government activism is as much aimed at opposing the regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as it is designed to persuade increasingly frustrated youth that there are alternatives to nihilistic violence: “The strategy of brutality, repression and restricting freedom has failed to impose subservience. It hasn’t produced solutions. Governments need to give people space. They need to prove that they can address the problems of a youth that has lost hope. We have nothing to lose if they don’t.” The Egyptian’s inclinations pointed towards peaceful protest in favour of a more liberal society, albeit bound by Islamic morality codes; his options, however, left him little choice but to drift towards jihadism.
Edited remarks at India Foundation conference, Changing Contours of Global Terror, Gurugram, Haryana, 14-16 March 2018
Can the Taliban tame ETIM?
The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a Uyghur Islamic extremist organization founded in the Xinjiang province of China. TIP is the new name, although China still calls it by the name ETIM and refuses to acknowledge it as TIP. The ETIM was founded in 1997 by Hasan Mahsum before being killed by a Pakistani army in 2003. Its stated aim is to establish an independent state called ‘East Turkestan’ replacing Xinjiang. The United States removed it from its list of terrorist Organizations in 2020. The group and its ties to Muslim fundamentalism have compounded Chinese concerns about the rising threat of terrorism within the country.
In Tianjin, the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar again pledged to “never allow any force” to engage in acts detrimental to China. Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can’t be used to launch attacks against other countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had also asked the Taliban to crack down on the ETIM, which is based out of the Xinjiang province. In view of the Taliban’s pro-China stance on the ETIM, the article will assess the feasibility of the Taliban’s promises of not providing sanctuaries to the groups which are direct threat to the national security of China.
First, this statement surprises the experts in view of the Taliban’s historic relationship with the ETIM. According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, ETIM has approximately 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly located in Badakhshan province, which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Most of Badakhshan is now under Taliban control, but according to some reports, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen fighters comprise the bulk of the local Taliban rank and file, rather than Pashtun fighters. This scenario appears very challenging for the top leadership of the Taliban to deny sanctuaries to such loyalists.
Second, ETIM is operating in Afghanistan since 1990. It has strong links with the local Taliban commanders. The local Taliban commanders may put pressure on the top leadership or hinder the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.
Third, the Taliban’s capacity to tame the ETIM is limited because its all members and leadership have scattered across Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times, “In recent years, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but “its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years”.
Fourth, the ETIM has developed close ties with international militant organizations, including Al Qaeda. Moreover, Al Qaeda has significant influence over the Taliban. Al Qaeda has ability and resources to sabotage the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Some militant organizations including IS-K have developed the ideological differences with the Afghan Taliban. IS-K recently used a Uyghur fighter for suicide campaign in Afghanistan just to show fissure between the Taliban and ETIM. So, this trend can be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban’s new stance of not providing sanctuaries to the ETIM contradicts with some of its founding principles. The Taliban’s new version on ETIM is not easy to follow. Time will be the true judge of the feasibility of Taliban’s new stance.
The heartwarming story of Uighur jihadists
In the wake of 9/11, the US government scooped up all the terrorist networks and made an assessment of which ones were a threat to America. The prisoners held in Guantanamo were of the jihadist Islamic militant type. It’s not like the US government, in order to help other governments, filled Guantanamo with random, latent secessionist movements from around the world – Quebec, Catalonia, the IRA in Ireland, or the Tigray in Ethiopia. You wouldn’t find any of them in Guantanamo. The Guantanamo profile was clearly that of the Islamic militant jihadist that poses a threat to America.
Guantanamo was not a charity project where governments from around the world could dump and keep their separatists. There was a shared counter-terrorism interest between the United States and China, specifically in the area of combating Uighur jihadists, and that’s not a story that can be erased.
There were 22 Uighur jihadists held in Guantanamo, in total. Uighur jihadists were and still are the China-oriented spinoff of Al-Qaeda. Their organization, the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) was formally listed as a terrorist organization by the US Treasury Department and the US State Department during the war on terror. ETIM is still on the UN Security Council’s list of sanctioned for terrorism entities. The Uighur jihadists stayed on the Security Council’s list after a recent review of their status was completed in November, 2020. ETIM is also a part of the UN report on the status of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Very recently, in July 2021, the UN said that the Uighur jihadists group ETIM has several hundred fighters in Afghanistan on the border with China, and that they are affiliated with Al-Qaeda, even though the US government de-listed them from its terrorist organizations list in 2020 and has argued that they no longer exist. This was a purely political move by the US government that does not reflect the reality on the ground, and signifies a shift that the American public is expected to follow.
Just after 9/11, in 2002, Uighur jihadists plotted a terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. At the time, the Washington Post said: “The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said today there is evidence that an obscure Muslim organization fighting Chinese rule in the western province of Xinjiang has been planning a terrorist strike against the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan”. That marked the first time China and the US shared a common terrorist enemy. That same year, the same terrorist group (ETIM) shot dead a Chinese diplomat in the same city.
The Uighur jihadists threatened the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing; they are responsible for political assassinations, bombings and wide-spread, clear-cut terrorism of substantial scale. Uighur jihadists perpetrated a terrorist attack in Thailand in 2015, killing 20 people in a tourist resort. The same group of Uighur jihadists successfully carried out a suicide car-bomb attack on the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2016, 14 years after the US Embassy there shared the same risk. You didn’t hear about more plots against America by the Uighur jihadists because the US government went after them right away: some went to Guantanamo; others were scattered.
The US State Department reported in 2002 that ETIM was a terrorist organization with over 200 acts of terrorism committed in the 1990s. China did not start making things up only after 9/11, just to fit in the US counter-terrorism narratives and priorities in order to get rid of uncomfortable critics of the regime. China was already experiencing a big, very real terrorism threat of the same kind the US faced in the 2000s. It was the same enemy.
Something as big as a terrorism plot against a US Embassy would have definitely counted in a time when even borrowing the Quran from a library was followed. If put through the ordinary legal system, a foiled plot on a US embassy could give you 15-20 years in jail or less, and then you’d be out, or maybe you would just walk if the judge didn’t like the source of the evidence. If you were “only” training with Al Qaeda and Bin Laden without an actual plot, that would also give you only several years in jail, or no jail time at all, if the judge didn’t like the source of the evidence. That’s the kind of things Guantanamo was created to prevent: a place to keep “the worst of the worst” where the US government didn’t have to think about the regular legal system. Current Attorney General, Merrick Garland, in fact, was one of those judges back in the days of the Guantanamo court wars, who ruled to release Uighur jihadists on the basis of over-reliance on evidence from the Chinese government. If the Chinese are saying it, they can’t be terrorists, was the argument there, so they had to be released. With the parents-as-terrorists DOJ memo by Garland and the recent confirmation that the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit indeed puts red flags on parents as potential terrorists in 2021, one has to be reminded that Garland rarely gets it right in the area of terrorism. More often than not, it’s exactly the other way around. Jihadists can leave, parents can come in.
There is an attempt right now to reverse the narrative of the Uighur jihadists, and the audience is the American public. That push is relatively new and emerged in the US mainstream media only over the past 1-2 years, in parallel with the narrative of the Uighur genocide committed by China. The reason is simple: you can’t have it both ways. Americans can’t feel compassion for the Uighurs and hate China, if they are constantly reminded the uncomfortable facts that the Uighur jihadists were actually together with Bin Laden in Tora Bora, they lived in a village provided by Al Qaeda and trained in weapons and terrorism tactics for Bin Laden. It’s just that their direction was different: mostly against China. They ran away together from the American bombardments of Al Qaeda in Tora Bora. They were sought after by the Americans, the same way the Americans searched for Bin Laden for 10 years. There was bounty on their heads. 22 Uighurs were held in Guantanamo for many years and were released only after a decade. In Guantanamo, Uighurs confessed right away to their activities and their links to Al Qaeda. The ETIM was listed as a terrorist organization by the US government in 2002, after the US government reviewed several organizations proposed for terrorism listing by the Chinese government, and concluded there was evidence only for them, dismissing the other organizations proposed by the Chinese. The US government wasn’t indiscriminately accepting requests by countries to help them with their problematic groups. Just after 9/11, in 2002 the group organized the plot against the US Embassy. The plot was foiled.
When the facts are so damning, the US mainstream media certainly has a problem. These facts show that China was not just making it up, looking for ways to exploit the US counter-terrorism mania of the 2000s when everything was about the war on terror and, in the haste, the US government could have been easily misled. The Uighurs as jihadists presents a very clear challenge to the spin factory of the liberal media right now. The attempt to reverse the narrative of the Uighurs as jihadists over the past 1-2 years takes the nuanced analysis angle to the level of parody. I’ll walk you through some of it.
A recent CNN investigation claims that the Uighurs jihadists held in Guantanamo were mostly economic migrants who left China in a search of a better life and they had nowhere else to go but Bin Laden’s Tora Bora. They have no idea how they found themselves in the Al Qaeda village, they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. They were not aware of what Bin Laden was doing. Now, years after leaving Guantanamo, they are just men looking for love and family. The CNN story is that the Uighur jihadists were never really terrorists, just “dreamers” with guns. They used weapons only because that was the cultural tradition in the mountains – not as terrorists or something. The terrorist training camps in Tora Bora under the umbrella of Al Qaeda and bin Laden was not actually terrorism training, they were using weapons only casually, not in a determined way. The Uighur jihadists didn’t join Bin Laden as terrorists; it’s just that there was nowhere else to go. When the American bombardments of Tora Bora started, it was very scary for them. They ran around the caves looking for food like refugees. When they were captured by the Americans in Pakistan, they felt “cheated” and tricked. How could they do this to them? That wasn’t nice of the Pakistanis at all. Their dreams were shattered after all the suffering experienced in running away from the Americans bombardments. Actually, going to America and Guantanamo was better than going back to China for them. They were impressed with the level of cultural awareness demonstrated by the Americans in Guantanamo that surprised the Chinese that visited Guantanamo. To you and me, from the point of view of our standards, it could look like the American government was torturing in Guantanamo, but the Uighur jihadists really preferred the American prisons to ordinary life in China, despite “some mistakes” on the part of the Guantanamo management. The narrative is mind-boggling and you wonder how the American public can stomach that at all.
It gets better. At Atlantic story of the same kind claims that the fact that the Uighur jihadists told the US government right away what they were doing, stated their affiliation with Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, and explained their terrorism training activities, meant that they can’t really be terrorists, if they weren’t trying to hide it. If what they themselves confessed was so damning, then they couldn’t have been terrorists, and that had to be excluded from the evidence. It was sad that they were “incriminating” themselves by being so forthcoming. If they confessed to it, that was just a sign that they were honest people and they can’t be terrorists. The Guardian, recently in 2020, also joined The Atlantic line and claimed that if the men incriminated themselves, the interrogations had to be discredited. And anyways, right now it all has to be about the Chinese detainment camps in Xinjiang anyways, so you can’t have actual Uighur jihadists uncomfortably messing up the narrative. The Guardian presses that ETIM is an organization designated as a terrorist organization only by China, skipping that the designation was virtually uniform – the US government, the UN Security Council, the UN report on the status of Al Qaeda and ISIS, the Canadian government, and more. You can really tell that these facts are quite annoying to the liberal media, and it is really messing up their stories.
The CNN rather gullible narrative ends with a criticism of Canada, which is also repeated by The Guardian: Canada won’t let in three Uighur jihadists, former Guantanamo detainees. The liberal media narrative wants you to see them simply as men looking to be reunited with their families, but the Canadian government hypocritically stands in the way of love. Hypocritically – because, as CNN states, Canada is against the Chinese crackdown and detainment of people in Xinjiang but won’t let in Uighur jihadists, former Guantanamo detainees. That, in fact, is the most rational approach to the issue a government can have.
The Guardian pushed the same story with the title “It breaks my heart”, also blaming Canada for not letting them in, after their families moved to Canada.
The Atlantic article pushed the same narrative, claiming that the Chinese government somehow tricked and deceived the American government that these Al-Qaeda affiliated, Tora Bora residing, Guantanamo-held terrorists were terrorists. This was only Chinese propaganda by an authoritarian regime. The article admits that the Chinese experienced over 200 terrorist attacks by that group, but here the nuanced analysis kicks in. These events were separate and isolated, instead of arising from one place of coordination, so this wide-spread terrorism wave can’t be terrorism. That pattern is exactly what terrorism of this kind looks like, in fact: loose, ideologically-driven networks without a direct chain of command. You don’t need one place of coordination to prove that terrorists are terrorists. The article also submits that a lot of terrorist attacks that China experienced were actually falsely branded as terrorism, citing small-scale incidents and attacks that would right away fall under the mainstream terrorism narrative, if the same happened in Western Europe. The Atlantic narrative also pushes the argument that terrorism is used only as an excuse by the Chinese, that’s not the real reason why they are after these networks, as if it could get more serious than that. And most importantly for the American audience, the Atlantic analysis claims that the Uighur jihadists were never anti-American “enemy combatants”, even though the author cites an article by the Council on Foreign Relations that mentions the foiled terrorist plot on the American Embassy in 2002, which was a central event for the US government. But that doesn’t count because it didn’t happen, the plot was foiled. The group was rather local, The Atlantic argues now, and was not a part of the international jihad. They were, however. ETIM’s objective was the creation of a fundamentalist Muslim state called “East Turkistan”, which was supposed to cover many countries in the region – something like ISIS’s idea for a caliphate, but for the Turk ethnicity across the region. In terms of operations, Uighur operations definitely had an international reach – whether across countries in the region, by threatening the international Olympic Games, and even as a terrorist attack on a tourist resort going as far as Thailand.
So, these are the narratives that various liberal corners are trying to push: the version of the warm, fuzzy, innocent terrorists who were just misunderstood. If there is one area where US mainstream media can’t sell their narratives about “demonizing”, “scapegoating” and “dog whistling” to the American public, that’s with Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. But they will still try. Reading these articles, you have to wonder: what’s the agenda there.
After their release from Guantanamo, Uighur jihadists were dispatched to Albania, Switzerland and Slovakia and some Latin American countries. The question is whether the American government has leverage over these former Guantanamo detainees, and whether they will join the terrorist networks operating against China. We don’t know what the terms of release of these jihadists were and whether they are not sleeping cells that could be unleashed upon China at some point. The radicalization of Xinjiang by the US government with the aim to create trouble for the Chinese government is one of the reasons the US government invaded Afghanistan, as I argued previously.
You have to love the way the US government interprets US support for terrorism around the world: we are not funding and supporting terrorism, we are just creating strategic groups to fight authoritarian regimes. In the 1980s, the US government created and funded the mujahidin, right there, in the same region. Then they pushed ISIS on the world as the good terrorists in Syria, only to have to fight them later, and God knows how many more terrorist groups that we have no idea about.
The fact that over the last 1-2 years the big US mainstream media spends resources on stories to basically white-wash clear-cut terrorists should signal something. These stories appear only now, almost 10 years after most of the Uighur jihadists were released from Guantanamo. These stories about the innocence of Guantanamo detainees scapegoated by the bad Chinese government didn’t appear right away. You’d think that the time for these stories would have been around the time when the Uighur jihadists got released from Guantanamo, not now.
The white-washing efforts by the US mainstream media who have to somehow explain the inconvenient past, show a sad fact about American public discourse right now: you can be vilified as a monster for saying things to women, while US mainstream media will break their backs to explain why actual terrorists are not that bad after all, and are really the victims here. They were not really terrorists, they just became victims of their terrorist activities. Watch this white-washing space. It will become even more pronounced, as we move forward into more hardened narratives of the Cold War against China.
Islamic State Khorasan’s Threat and the Taliban
As the Islamic State loses territory, it has increasingly turned to Afghanistan as a base for its global caliphate. Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) is the Islamic State’s Central Asian province and remains active in the region since 2015. Khorasan region historically encompasses parts of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. IS-K mainly consists of some members of TTP, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud- Dawa, Lashkar-e-Islam, Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Afghan Taliban.
IS-K has received support from the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria. Like the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria, IS-K seeks to establish a caliphate beginning in South and Central Asia, governed by sharia law. IS-K disregards international borders and envisions its territory transcending nation-states like Pakistan and Afghanistan. IS-K aims at delegitimizing existing states, degrading trust in democracy, exploiting sectarianism.
IS-K’s relations with the Afghan Taliban are tense due to sectarian and some policy differences. The Taliban follows the Hanfi school of Sunni Islam. While IS-K has derived its teachings from Wahabi or Salfi school of Islam. IS-K propounds the agenda of borderless jihad to establish one political power. IS-K directs the fighters to “have no mercy or compassion” against the Taliban for refusing to “join the caliphate”. The Taliban agenda has been limited to Afghanistan. In 2015, a video by IS-K had denounced the Taliban for having an amir. Both emerged from the same madrassas. Five of the six IS-K leaders were Pakistani. Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadem, a Taliban defector, also pledged allegiance to the ISIL in 2015. Shahab al Muhajir as IS-K new emir following the capture of his predecessor Aslam Farooqi. He was once a mid-level commander in the Haqqani Network.
IS-K condemned the Taliban’s peace negotiations with the United States in its March 2020 newsletter Al Naba, stating that the Taliban and the crusaders are allies. In 2021, IS-K vowed to retaliate against the Taliban for their peace deal with the United States. IS-K blames Taliban as nationalists with parochial interests in Afghanistan.
In an open letter to IS leader Abu Bakar al Baghdadi the Taliban warned they would be compelled to “defend our achievements”. IS-K has been exploiting the internal power struggle within the Taliban. In 2015, then Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour urged IS-K fighters to coalesce “under one banner”, alongside the Taliban. Leaders in the Taliban’s Quetta Shura authorized additional offensives and deployed elite Red Unit to fight IS-K. In Jowzjan province, IS-K surrendered to the Taliban.
The IS-K has launched multiple attacks since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan particularly at Kabul airport. According to the report, the group has strengthened its position in and around Kabul, where it conducts most of its attacks, targeting minorities, activists, government employees and personnel of Afghan security forces. Taliban has taken districts from IS-K in the past and reportedly killed Omar Khorasani, Farooq Bengalzai and Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil—the former leaders of ISKP. The Taliban had also closed more than three dozen Salafist mosques across 16 different provinces.
Zabiullah Mujahid said, “IS-K has no physical presence here, but it is possible some people who may be our own Afghan have adopted Daesh ideology, which is a phenomenon that is neither popular nor is supported by Afghan”.
Taliban has also international support in dealing with IS-K. The Iranian military has also collaborated with the Taliban to secure Iran’s land border with Afghanistan and deny IS-K fighters’ freedom of movement. The Taliban leaders have already opened dialogue with several regional countries, assuming that they would not allow IS-K to gain a foothold in Afghanistan and threaten their stability. States such as Iran, China, and Russia are reviewing their engagement with the Taliban. The chief of US Central Command Gen. Frank Mckenzie also admitted that the US is also providing very limited support to the Taliban to counter the IS-K.
IS-K is an external and weak terrorist outfit, which cannot manage massive inclusion. The IS-K is a potential terrorist threat, but not beyond being controlled. In the present day, however, there is little incentives for groups like the TTP to align with severely weakened IS-K at the expense of the Taliban. The TTP in fact put out a detailed statement saying that they are against ISKP in July 2020. The TTP and the Afghan Taliban both have deep connections with Al Qaeda, which has a deep rivalry with IS. There are few chances that the TTP will join hands with IS-K as it is an ally of Al Qaeda with allegiance to Mullah Haibatulllah, the Taliban supreme leader. There are more chances that East Turkistan Movement ETIM, a long-standing battlefield ally of the Taliban, will manage the Uyghur jihadist network in Afghanistan.
International pressure is also mounting on Taliban to take action against IS-K. According to the Morgan, if Taliban is not able to gain the international recognition it needs to be able to run the country. It will also hinder Taliban access to the global financial institutions, rendering the Taliban incapable of paying for the imports that feed the country. In peace deal, it was with the assurance that the Taliban would severe ties with other armed groups. However, Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen refused to become the part of US-led efforts to counter IS-k.
UN report estimates that there are 1500 to 2200 personnel of IS-K in Afghanistan. Moreover, IS-K has less influence in the militant ecosystem of Afghanistan. So, it is likely less chances that IS-K becomes the threat to the regional stability. Taliban has muscle to effectively eliminate the IS-K threat from Afghanistan.
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