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Baghdadi Dead : What it means for Terrorism in West and South Asia?

Gen. Shashi Asthana

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President Trump’s announcement  that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State(IS) commander, died during a US military operation in Syria, later confirmed by ISIS itself, was a welcome news for all fighting terrorism or suffering from it in any part of the world.  This was followed by death of their spokesperson and arrest of his sister and wife by Turkey. After the decimation of IS caliphate, IS continues to exist in small modules in many parts of the world, mainly in West Asia, but the loss of its undisputed leader who inspired many youth globally towards radicalisation as never before, during his peak performance days will not be easy to fulfil. He revolutionised the art of extending terror network through internet, made IS the richest terror group in the world, with a caliphate to govern through sharia laws and revived sex slavery. It’s a major setback to IS & affiliated terror groups but long overdue good news for those suffered its brutality like Yezidi women. The idea of IS does not end with leader, who stands replaced by Ibrahim al Hashemi al Qurayshi from Prophet Mohammad lineage (qualified to become caliph) with a vow to avenge Baghdadi’s death. There being no change in the overall aim and ideology of IS, it will manage to regroup with lesser fund flow and area of influence and wait for opportunity to re-emerge; hence the global fight against IS has to continue.

What does it mean for Regional Terror Groups?

The US has given a strong message to terrorists but its declared withdrawal from Syria is untimely; hence the Middle-East needs a fresh look from strategic perspective. Turkey cross-border offensive on October 9 against the Kurdish YPG militia, whose fighters made up the bulk of the SDF controlling IS is a game spoiler in fight against IS. Turkeys double game with terrorists is marred with helping IS and treating Kurds as terrorists as they demand a homeland. Its desire to invade Syria and destroy Assad’s supporters made it an ally of US, but US is not keen on decimation of Kurds, who will be left with no choice but to commence terrorist activities against Turkey. The temporary five days truce, sanctions against Turkey could buy some time, but is unlikely to change Erdogan’s intent who seems to have decided to go Wahhabi way. It does give some extra lifeline to IS, which is going to get dispersed to other areas, in addition to some existing ones like Afghanistan. US withdrawal also cedes this strategic space in Syria to the forces loyal to Assad and Russia, something which US was not very keen to concede till short while ago as it was not in the best interest of Israel. This strategic equation does not change the terror potential of Hamas appreciably.

The internal political disturbance Lebanon puts Hezbollah in tight spot. The current internal political turbulence in Iraq is helpful for reorganisation of IS as it dampens the Shia spirit which indirectly helps Sunni terror groups. The recent strategic clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia triggered by a drone attack on Saudi’s oil establishment followed by attack on Iran oil tanker is also a recipe for refuelling of Shia – Sunni terror competition in West Asia. After US walked out of JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) renewed and clamped additional sanctions on Iran which European Union could not prevent, Iran has also climbed the escalation ladder by announcing to fill gas in over 1000 centrifuges to enrich uranium further, which it was holding out due to the deal. This is another dangerous spiral in the region to increase the insecurity of Saudi Arabia and may result in further push to Sunni cause.  These developments have blurred the definition of victim and oppressor. The internal turbulence of West Asia therefore is creating an environment for breeding terrorists.

After IS suffered these reverses it has opened opportunities and ignited some competition for other terror groups like Taliban and al Qaeda, to strive to gain the influence they lost to ISIS earlier. This has increased their quest to grab more power and money, a bulk of which comes from coercion globally, prove their terror potential to the target population and governments to get more attention, followers, logistics and other resources. It is however noteworthy a number of terror organizations having allegiance to IS have still not changed their allegiance, indicating that demise of IS may not be on the card so soon and the group is still not out of competition.

What does it mean for Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) Region?

Afghanistan continues to face aggressive and coordinated attacks by ISIS’s branch in the region, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and the Afghan Taliban, including the affiliated Haqqani Network (HQN). Afghan Taliban seems to have grown much stronger for the fact that it controls more territory in Afghanistan than what it controlled when US forces marched in 19 years back. The fact that all world powers talked to them for peace (to fulfil their respective interests) indicate the blackmailing potential of Taliban.  Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and remaining US forces have not been able to control their terror strikes despite their best efforts, which are likely to increase if US choses to withdraw completely. I do visualise some more efforts of global powers for talks to Taliban in near future.  Although al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan was degraded earlier by multinational forces, remnants of al-Qa’ida’s global leadership, as well as its regional affiliate – al Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), continue to operate from remote locations in the region have a reason to cheer Baghdadi’s death.

Pakistan continues to be the epicenter of global terrorism playing host to maximum UN designated terrorist organisations and terrorists in the world, a large No of them have indicated allegiance to IS. Pakistani military counter-terrorism operations are more of ethnic cleansing acts against Pashtuns and Baluchis directed against groups which conducted attacks within Pakistan, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan Army and ISI supports externally focused groups such as Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which continue to train, organize, and fundraise in Pakistan with a narrative of pseudo Islamic Jihad. The Pakistani Army does not restrict the Afghan Taliban and HQN from operating in Pakistan and threatening US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, despite being placed on the “grey list” continuously till date, since June, 2018.The support of Pakistan to Sunni terror groups is well known and IS is no exception. The increasing radicalisation of establishments in Pakistan, conglomeration of terrorist groups in Af-Pak Region is a dangerous sign as it indicates a caliphate in making, far more dangerous than ISIS caliphate.

What does it mean for South Asia?

After the declaration of the caliphate, the newly named Caliph, Baghdadi while addressing the jihadists the world over explicitly mentioned China and India as one of the prime targets of the ISIS amongst many others and there are no signs of change in that narrative. ISIS and other militant groups are attempting to spread their ideology to countries that have Muslim population, and where there is a chance to reach out to dis-satisfied youth. al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and ISIS have together claimed responsibility for over 40 attacks in Bangladesh since 2015. The Government in Bangladesh continues to battle terrorism with strict Anti- terrorism Act in place, however terrorists do manage to operate there with backing from ISI, Pakistan. Terrorist organizations are using internet, social media to spread their ideologies and solicit followers globally including South Asia and many terrorists have been featured in multiple publications, videos, and websites associated with ISIS and AQIS. Terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and rapid radicalisation in Maldives are some more examples of IS mastered methodologies to spread terror, which is likely to continue. 

India having the second largest Muslim population in the world is an obvious target for IS. India is a tolerant and pluralist society with a mix of Shias and Sunnis, which has absorbed all religious faiths, hence the rate of penetration of radicalisation has been extremely low, although some individuals have been attracted to it. Many Lone Wolf Attacks in Europe, like the suicidal car crash attack in Westminster in London on 22 March 2017, are a possibility in India as well, in future, for which it needs to be prepared. The Incidents like the train explosion in Bhopal-Ujjain express by a terror suspect, Mohammad Saifurullah alias Ali, allegedly a member of the ISIS(K) module, on 07 March 07, 2017 injuring 10 passengers, occasional display of IS flags in Kashmir Valley, bursting of few IS modules in South India by National Investigative Agency, announce the arrival of IS in India. These incidents need to be viewed in consonance with the global scene, wherein Daesh is looking for new hosts after decimation of their caliphate.

Recent Trends in Terrorism

The peaceful coexistence of IS, Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and so many terror groups in Pakistan indicates that they are also collaborating and economising on certain activities and efforts like intelligence sharing, training camps, arms transfers, irregular trade and related activities on mutual benefit basis, hence it is increasingly difficult to use one against the other, despite intense competition amongst some of them. They are generally keen to expand their terror industry under pseudo religious cause of avenging perceived atrocities to muslims and continue to fight security forces trying to disturb their design. Their fight against each other is rarely seen in recent times. The other interesting trend especially in Pakistan is that whenever a terrorist organisation is banned globally, it changes its name, registers as social welfare organisation, and continues terrorist activities as usual.

A very well organized media and cyber campaign by the IS by incorporating technologically savvy cadres from western countries affecting some Indian youth is still on. Some media news that it had gained access to fissile material and suspected access to chemical weapons like Sarin gas, indicates that its potential for global nuisance is far from being over. The same is being tried by other terror groups as well. To fight the global war on terror the world community will have to shun double gaming, individual country interest over global safety, the concept of good and bad terrorist and strict sanctions on terror sponsoring countries because terrorism cannot flourish without financial and logistics support.

The author is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.

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New strategy of U.S. counter-intelligence: Real and unreal threats

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The newly published US Counter-Intelligence Strategy for 2020-2022 puts Russia and China at the top of the list of countries that pose a threat to the USA. “Russia and China are operating throughout the world, using all power instruments at their disposal against the United States, resorting to a wide variety of modern intelligence methods”, – the document says.

The strategy formulates five objectives for the counter-intelligence service: to protect the critically important infrastructure, cut the number of threats to basic supply chains, counteract the exploitation of American economy, defend the American democracy against foreign influence, and repulse cyberattacks and technological disruptions that could come from foreign intelligence.

The US has made public only a brief 11-page version of the strategy, whereas its full, classified variant will be submitted to members of intelligence committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate, to White House officials, heads of corresponding agencies and other officials with access to classified information. The mere list of goals for counter-intelligence gives rise to questions such as whether they are fully grounded or whether they are all but tribute to the current political trends in the USA.

As we read «protect the American democracy against foreign influence» we understand what they mean by ‘foreign’ – both Democrats and Republicans keep talking about Russian interference in American elections. Although this talk has long been dismissed by many as inconsistent with reality, it nevertheless, continues unabated.

The strategy, published on the website of the US National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, is a renewed version of the 2015 document. The Center’s Director, William Ivanina, said as he presented the report that modern technology – artificial intelligence, encryption technology, internet of things – make the work of counter-intelligence more complicated. According to CBS, W. Ivanina has been saying since 2014 that China poses the most serious long-term threat to US security. In his words, the theft of American intellectual property, allegedly committed by the Chinese, cost the US 400 billion dollars annually.

Statements about stealing intellectual property are not new and are being exploited by the Americans to justify a trade war they are waging against China. It is not for the first time that the Trump administration is resorting to “banned methods” adding the country’s economic problems to the list of national security threats, which makes it possible to introduce restrictive measures against China.

The strategy in question is seeing light just as the debates on a new American budget are getting under way. This is not accidental given that documents of this kind can justify budgetary spending. In 2021 the US government is planning to spend $1.5 billion to counter “China’s influence” and another $596 million to establish “diplomatic cooperation for securing the strategy in regions of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A statement to this effect is part of the press release circulated by the US State Department and published after the White House submitted to the Congress a draft budget for the next fiscal year.

However, proposals on the budget, though reflecting the position of the US administration, do not always become law. In most cases, the US Congress approves the budget depending on the political situation at home. Now that they have sustained defeat on Trump’s impeachment, the Democrats have a good chance to take it out on the budget. Democratic minority leader in the Senate Chuck Schumer has described the draft budget submitted by the incumbent administration for the next year as “a plan to destroy America”.

Considering that these are all but domestic political games, it is not immediately clear what Russia and China have to do with them.

From our partner International Affairs

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Modi’s extremism: Implications for South Asia

Sonia Naz

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Hindutva is a main form of Hindu nationalism in India this term was popularized by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in the 20th century. It is reinforced by the Hindu extremist volunteer organization Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and Hindu Sena. Hindutva movement has been expressed today as almost fascist in the classical sense (sticking to a disputed idea of homogenized majority and dominance of culture).  The Hindutva moment has gained enormous momentum under the government of Modi (Zaman A. , 2019). Under the Modi’s government dozens of Muslims have been killed for the protection of cows. Most of them are those who allegedly slaughtering cows. These attacks indicate that Hindu extremism has increased. Even, lower caste Hindus also faced violence from hardliner Hindu extremists. (Zaman A. , 2019) .

The prevailing extremism in India is no longer a national issue, but is spilling over to become a regional flashpoint and has worldwide implications. The regional stability is endangered due to the current situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK) (Qureshi, 2019). Since the Modi’s extremist policies revoked article 370 of the constitution of India in which special and independent status had been given to the Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK). This kind of extreme move of a fanatical ruler was expected, whereas, such kind of unconstitutional effort of a democratic government was not expected. Moreover, it is not only a violation of India’s constitution, but it is also a breach of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, which confirmed Kashmir as a disputed territory.

Furthermore, Article 370 and 35-A cancellation changed the demographic structure of IoK. Article 35A prevented the outsiders from staying, buying properties, getting local government jobs or scholarships in IoK than it annulment permitted outsiders to buy properties there.  Hindutva forces are trying to conquer the IoK territory with its 800000 military crowd, which is making the situation more instable there. It would not have lasting consequences for India, but for the whole region (Jaspal, 2019). The Kashmir imbroglio should be the concern of the entire world because it is a perilous flashpoint that could lead to a catastrophic war between two nuclear powers. If this happens, it would not engulf the region, but the entire world. The International community is insensitive towards the recent brutal developments have taken place in IoK. The brutalities boldly committed by the more than 500,000 Indian troops in the occupied valley. There should be a strong response of big powers and the international community towards the atrocious changes in India (Elahi, 2019). 

It is not the first time, Narendra Modi’s administration has involved in many disputes with the regional countries which has put the regional security at risk. Like, the Modi government relationship is not just deteriorated with Pakistan, but other neighbouring states too. In 2015, Madhesi Crisis in Nepal and border issues tensed the India Nepal relations. However, India restricted the flow of trade at the check posts whereas; India did not accept this blame. India also has not good relation with Sri Lanka since 2014 as Sri Lanka has been more disposed towards China with the signing of the infrastructure projects of belt road and initiatives. Moreover, New Dehli was concerned about the harbouring of Chinese submarines in Colombo and ruler of Maldives Abdulla Yameen signed fee trade treaties with China, which was not digestible for India (Wong, 2017).

India’s offensive nuclear posture towards Pakistan and increased violation of the Line of Control (LoC) has made the situation more adverse. India holds Pakistan responsible for every attack on its territory and its attitude towards Pakistan is very hostile. The Pathankot attack in 2016 and Pulwama attack in 2019 increased the resentment as Modi government blamed the attack on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad. Pakistan asked India to provide evidence so that Pakistan can take action, but no evidence had been given. The Indian air force claimed launching air strikes on the camp of Jaish-e Mohammad mountainside in the Balakot region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa . While, following the attack international media and local media disgraced Indian claim of launching the attack and killing many militants. Next morning, Pakistan shot down an Indian MIG 21 fighter and captured the pilot who violated the Pakistan airspace. Still, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan showed peace gesture and released the captured pilot.  (Shoukat, 2019).

The Indian airstrike’s that were launched in response to Pulwama attack were clear a breach of Pakistan’s space sovereignty. It was a clear perspective of war, however; India has continued to justify its position by calling it non-military strike. It was extremely reckless behaviour of a nuclear state. Even, history shows that such events are very rare between nuclear weapons states while the US and Russia never engaged in direct airstrike’s (Jan, 2019). Afterward, an Indian submarine also detained by the Pakistani Navy, which tried to infringe Pakistani water.  India blames Pakistan for every attack and defies the Pakistan air, space and land territory itself. Besides, India is also responsible of sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan through its spies as one of them is Kulbushan Yadav (Shoukat, 2019).

 India’s nuclear doctrine also changed from No First Use (NFU) to First use. The false description of surgical strikes and attacks on non-state base points has demonstrated the uncertain security environment in South Asia.  The Indian nuclear doctrinal change increases the security risks in the region, particularly for Pakistan and China. At Pulwama, Pakistan clearly exposed India’s long-held fable of conventional superiority. At the same time, it is obvious that India would keep its behaviour hawkish towards Pakistan under the radical Hindutva mindset (Nawaz, 2019).

Additionally, India took another major step against the Muslims as it passed a bill on December 9, 2019 that would give the nationality to those migrants who want to become citizens of India except Muslims. This step of Prime Minster would increase the Modi Hindu-nationalist agenda. It would modify the India secular status, preserve by its founders in 1947. The Citizenship Amendment Bill passed by the lower house, the Lok Sabha with 311 votes. Now, it would be presented in the upper house and would become law soon. Hindu extremist agenda deeply unsettled the Muslims with this new law as they would make more than 200 million Muslims second class citizens and many of them stateless. It is not first extremist step of Modi, he also stripped away the autonomy of Kashmir, which was Muslim majority Indian occupied state.

 Furthermore, Hindu fundamentalist build a new temple over the remains of the demolished mosque in the Ayodhya. According to Modi this would protect the maltreated Hindus, Christians and Buddhists who want to migrate from Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, this brutal legislation would extradite innocent Muslim residents, even those whose families have been in India for generation, if they cannot provide evidence of citizenship. Under the Modi’s leadership, attacks and intimidation against Muslim community have augmented and anti Muslim sentiment has become deliberately more mainstream. The people of Assam are protesting in the streets and hoisting placards again the bill because it is against their rights and identity (Gettleman & Raj, 2019).

Besides, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen cancelled his visit for two days Indian Ocean Dialogue and Delhi Dialogue XI, to India. He also rejected a statement by Indian home minister Amit Shah that the new citizenship law will provide safety to “persecuted minorities” from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.  An official visit to India by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been delayed due to the unrest in Assam. Following the protests began in Assam, a curfew was forced in four of the main cities in the state and the internet was shut down. Two paramilitary battalions were deployed to contain the demonstrations. (News, 2019).

In a nutshell, as evident from the aforementioned  brutal developments, it seems that India aspires to increasingly showcase itself  hegemon and potential big power in the region. The Prime Minister Modi government is impressed by the Hindu extremist ideology and making IoK its integral part by forcefully. Its hawkish policies towards Muslims in India and IoK has once again put at stake the peace and stability of the entire region of South Asia. Indian government not only targeting Muslims everywhere, but it is also seizing their identities which is dismantling secularism foundations of India. Moreover, Indian hawkish nuclear posture increases arms race in the region and it is not only threat for Pakistan but the entire region.

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Emerging Cyber warfare threats to Pakistan

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The potential for the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber-attack.” -Leon Panetta

In the modern era, war has been revolutionized due to rapid advancements in technology. As a result, cyber security along with its pros and cons is contributing increasingly to modern warfare. Pakistan, however, is still in the developmental phase of cyber security. Although Pakistan has passed its first law related to cyber-crimes, in the form of the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, the overall legislation related to cyber security is still vague and not as strong to deal with the dynamic and broad-ranging nature of threats that emanate from the realms of cyber security.

In recent years, the government has taken some initiatives in order to build capacity amongst the general public such as through PAK-CERT, Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence & Computing (PIAIC), Skills for all Hunarmand Pakistan, Kamyab Jawan, and National Vocational & Technical Training (NAVTTC).Yet, as has been the case for quite some time, most of these initiatives are aimed simply at spreading greater awareness to help lay the foundations for a more robust cyber security architecture. Amidst such developments, the question that arises for Pakistani policymakers is thus where their country currently stands in the cyber domain and how cyber warfare is posing threats to its national security.

In this era of innovation and connectivity even major powers such as the U.S, Russia, China, Israel and the United Kingdom remain vulnerable to an evolving spectrum of cyber threats. Across the world, states are now increasingly dependent on cyber technology which has greatly increased their chances of vulnerability. The most known example is 2015 Stuxnet virus, whereby a devastating cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities wreaked havoc such as at the Nantaz Nuclear facility, significantly rolling back the Iranian nuclear program. Similarly, the WannaCry outbreak in 2017 caused mass disruption by shutting down vital computing systems in more than 80 NHS organizations in England alone. This resulted in almost 20,000 cancelled appointments, 600 GP surgeries having to return to pen and paper, and five hospitals simply diverting ambulances, unable to handle any more emergency cases. Widely attributed as being state sponsored, the attack set another devastating precedent testifying to the wide-ranging vulnerabilities that exist even in some of the world’s most advanced countries. 

Pakistan’s cyber space too is insecure for many reasons because Pakistan is dependent on others for technology. According to leading global cyber security firms such as Symantec, Pakistan is among the ten most targeted countries in the world. Main targets include Pakistan’s nuclear and other critical installations, with publicly revealed assaults on an assortment of media houses, as well as the communications networks, of key government departments including, transport and, basic utilities. Such threats for instance were further confirmed by the Snowden documents released between 2013-2014 that had showed how the NSA was keeping an eye on Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders, utilizing a malware called SECONDATE.

Recently in the year 2019, Rising Security Research Institute has captured the attack launched by the internationally renowned Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) organization “Rattlesnake” through the Rising Threat Intelligence System. This time, the organization had targeted the Pakistani Navy via Target collision hijacking method. Specifically targeting the Pakistan Naval Public Relations Bureau, the attempt was aimed at stealing vital information from secure military networks while planting misleading documents masquerading as official statements from the Pakistan Navy regarding its regional neighbors such as China and India.  Based on such threats, Pakistan must be readily prepared for any kind of cyber espionage and take steps towards establishing a strong national cyber policy to protect its civilian and military infrastructure.

Therefore, at this stage it is imperative that Pakistan seriously focus on the development of a robust cyber war apparatus. This would especially help mitigate the numerous threats being posed to its banking system, as well as major government networks such as its ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as other military networks that have been previously targeted such as in the case shown above. As such Pakistan can take a number of initial steps by developing strategies to prevent malwares and denial of service (DOS) attacks to reduce such threats at least to a certain level.

Yet, Pakistan has still not developed a cohesive Cyber Command or any National Cyber Policy to deal with the regional cyber threats being posed to Pakistan. Even though Pakistan has recently developed a cyber-security auditing and evaluation lab, it is still in its formative stages. There is still immense space to develop advanced tools and research technologies to protect Pakistan’s cyberspace, sensitive data, and local economy from cyber-attacks while restricting illegal penetrations in it. Especially such as the initiative taken by the newly setup National Centre for Cyber Security which aims increase the number of indigenously trained cyber security professionals within the public sector.

Keeping to this trajectory Pakistan should emphasize more on indigenously developing its own cyber security industry so that in the near future it could benefit both its civilian and military infrastructure in the long run. Hence, while Pakistan may be limited in its ability to wage a strong offensive campaign within the realm of cyber warfare at the moment, such steps would go a long way in helping lay the foundations to build something greater on.

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