“I was born in Somalia, in Mogadishu,” Ibn Adam tells me as we start his interview in a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prison reception area. Ibn Adam is a big black 29-year-old Somali man. He’s got a scar on his forehead and looks like he could reach out and strangle me quite easily, but his smile and his voice are warm as he begins to speak in English with me, answering my questions of how he decided to leave his home in Europe to go and join ISIS.
Ibn Adam came from Somalia to Europe as a war refugee at six years old. He’s one of the refugees that didn’t integrate well and eventually ended up falling into militant jihadist online seduction and traveling for jihad to Syria. Like many Somalis whose families fled war-torn Somalia, Ibn Adam doesn’t remember his father who went missing in the war and after his mother also died of illness, he was raised by a mix of relatives.
“We were pretty much a happy family,” Ibn Adam recalls of his aunt and grandmother who brought him with them to Europe, although they grew up in a poor immigrant neighborhood where Ibn Adam fell into a bad crowd. “She had benefits from the state,” he explains.
“Auntie loves me,” Ibn Adam says with a sweet smile crossing his face as he remembers her. “Last time I talked to her [while still in ISIS], she was telling me to come back, that she can’t sleep.”
“I was a bit of a trouble-maker,” Ibn Adam admits, telling how his aunt followed a common immigrant cure of trying to get him straightened out when he was showing signs of going down the criminal path as a preteen, by taking him back to the home country. In his case, she took Ibn Adam to live with his cousins in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, an area populated by so many Somalis that it is sometimes referred to as “Little Mogadishu.”
“She took me because I was in trouble. I was stealing from the teachers’ cigarettes and smoking [and stealing] candies.” The last straw was when Ibn Adam got caught stealing cookies from a kindergarten and was taken home by the police who decided not to press charges. “Gramma was home. She was angry.”
Ibn Adam spent two years in Kenya with extended family there, learning to follow the rules. “I became better and calm. I went to school [in Kenya,] but I always wanted to go back to Europe. [After two years,] they agreed for me to go back.”
At that point Ibn Adam was in the 9th grade and turning 16. “Teachers were saying I was smart,” Ibn Adam recalls. “It was easy, but I was lazy. I was studying media and liked to be on the computer.” Like many teen boys he recalls that he was more absorbed by computer games and sports than classwork. “I played games and did Free Running—stunts jumping from buildings.” Ibn Adam recalls one particular good influence in his life, “I liked English. I had the best teacher I had in all my life. Until today I still think about her. She was so kind. She cares about you. Everyone feels this, that she cares about you.”
Despite having a good mentor in high school and being smart, Ibn Adam didn’t attend university due to tragic events that occurred in his family. “My cousin got killed. He was on his way to the mosque, to do morning prayer, but there was a party in the parking lot, [a party] of Somalis. He told them it’s not good. He had a fight with one of them and he stabbed him. I got depressed, so I graduated from high school, but I didn’t go to uni. I started working instead.”
In regard to religion Ibn Adam recalls, “I was not practicing. My aunties and grandmother prayed, but I was never told to pray. I wanted to fast in winter [during Ramadan], but they didn’t let me. They said, ‘You fast at nighttime.’
“When I came back from Kenya, I was more religious,” Ibn Adam explains. “I had stages, on and off, up and down.” Ibn Adam was also not particularly interested in events in Syria either. “I was not a guy who watched the news.” Ibn Adam had other interests. “My life was all about Parkour [Free Running], training, watching animation and Play Station. I loved to watch Japanese animations. I want to hear about [Parkour], what they are doing, cartwheels and flips with buildings.” While he had many vulnerabilities to being interested in groups like ISIS, from his profile at the time, Ibn Adam should have never ended up going to join ISIS, given he had no exposure to ISIS propaganda or recruiters. No one was seducing Ibn Adam by telling him that ISIS could meet many of his unmet needs and frustrated aspirations.
However, things have a way of taking their own turns in people’s lives and Ibn Adam’s was no different in that regard. “The first time I heard about Syria was late 2013 and 2014,” Ibn Adam recalls. “I had a friend who was here [in Syria]. I heard he was here. We were not very close friends, but I knew him. We grew up in the same neighborhood.” In 2014, Ibn Adam’s friend returned from Syria, ostensibly to recruit others to join ISIS. “I saw him in mosque, at Eid. He bought me an I-Pad with lectures of Anwar al Awlaki.”
Awlaki, an infamous Yemeni imam lecturing in English is credited with convincing thousands of Muslims all over the Western world that militant jihad was their individual obligation, as was hijra—that is, moving to lands ruled by shariah law—and that building an Islamic Caliphate should be their goal as they fought jihad tirelessly till the end times. When Ibn Adam was introduced to Awlaki’s virulent influence, Awlaki was already dead, drone killed in Yemen by the American forces. Yet Awlaki was still alive and well on the Internet, as he lectured from beyond the grave and continued to draw young and impressionable Muslims into groups like ISIS.
“He knows how to speak,” Ibn Adam recalls of Awlaki, who was indeed a gifted orator. “Every lecture is one hour to two hours. I was a bus driver. I was bored. Before I used to listen to Quran [while driving the bus], so I started to listen to his lectures.” Awlaki, although already dead, lost no time in drawing Ibn Adam into ISIS. “I was listening to the life of Abu Bakr and about the Caliphate after Abu Bakr, and then onward. After I listened to these two lectures I said, ‘I want to go [to Syria].’”
Ibn Adam told his ISIS friend, who replied, “Good.”
“At that time, I didn’t know there were Muslims against going to Syria. I thought all the Muslims were for it and all non-Muslims against,” Ibn Adam explains.
Life events intervened again, however, preventing Ibn Adam from throwing his life away in Syria. “My grandmother was getting old and she wanted to die in Somalia. I took my grandmother and left her there, [but] before I went back, I told my friend in Somalia, ‘I want to go to Syria.’ He said, ‘It’s not allowed to go to Syria and fight there. You have to ask your parents’ permission and these people, what they are doing is wrong.’ I was shocked, but he said he had asked his Islamic teacher. I went back to Europe and said [to my other friend] ‘I’m not going. I prefer to go to Egypt and study my religion.’”
The recruiter friend answered shrewdly, “You have to ask someone who has been there. You can’t ask someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t been there.” Ibn Adam, however, wasn’t convinced by this until he went back to listening to Anwar al Awlaki, this time about the constants of Jihad, which he admitted had a hypnotic effect upon him and renewed his desire to join the ISIS jihad in Syria.
Ibn Adam reached out again to his friend who had already returned to Syria and got the contacts for a smuggler to help him cross into Syria from Turkey. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he recalls. “I thought they will stop me.” Yet his family sensed something amiss. “I remember I was speaking to my cousin at my auntie’s house. She was telling me in a joking way, ‘If you would go to Syria, would you tell us?’ I was shocked. I said, ‘What? Why would I tell you? Why would I tell someone that would try to prevent me?’”
“I don’t know how they found out,” Ibn Adam explains, “but they found out when I was in Turkey and she wrote to me on Facebook [Messenger]. ‘Why did you do this? Why you leave us?’ [I answered,] ‘What are you talking about?’ I was trying to act normal because she might call the cops and they catch me. I was in Urfa [southern Turkey].” Indeed, some of the ISIS cadres I have interviewed had friends, or were themselves stopped in Turkey, when their home country police learned in enough time to prevent them, with the help of Turkish security officials, from crossing into Syria. Ibn Adam didn’t want that to happen to him.
“We met in Urfa,” Ibn Adam explains about the ISIS smuggler. “He took me to a safehouse. I stayed for about a day, [then I entered Syria. I] jumped over a fence.” Making use of his Parkour training, Ibn Adam recalls, “I made like a flip, otherwise I’d be stuck. We were 14 guys, men from Libya, Yemen, Palestine. First we threw our bags [over the fence] and then jumped over it. A lot of guys got stuck. It was daytime. I didn’t see Turkish soldiers, but I heard bullets. I don’t think they were shooting at us, but shooting to scare us. One guy said he saw the bullets in front of him hitting the ground.”
Upon his arrival into ISIS, Ibn Adam was first drafted into driving a minibus for newcomers coming through the Turkish/Syrian border. Next he was taken for military training in Iraq. Ibn Adam was not aware that being sent to the Iraqi battleground was essentially a death sentence but he soon understood when he was about to be deployed to Fallujah. Wising up, Ibn Adam refused to go, and was sent to Haditha instead from where he made his way back into Syria, to Raqqa. “In Raqqa the emir tells me I have to go back to Iraq,” Ibn Adam recalls, but he managed to evade it by finding Somali friends who came and took him into their ranks.
Reflecting back on the vision he held that had fueled his travel from Europe to Syria to join ISIS, Ibn Adam recalls, “When I thought about this place I thought everyone is angels, everyone is perfect. They will they will give me a car and a house, everything I need. I thought it would be like the days of the Companions. I thought everything was perfect. It was not.”
Ibn Adam admits, “I didn’t watch their videos, but as an Islamic State, I thought everyone will be acting according to Islam one hundred percent.” He recalls, “I was not disappointed in the beginning, but it was not exactly what I thought. He recalls the way his trainers in Iraq lied about the training schedule always claiming things would begin the next day, “In Islam it’s not allowed to lie, but when I see these guys say tomorrow, tomorrow…” Ironically, many of the European ISIS members were exasperated by this trait among the Arab ISIS leaders of failing to state things directly. And German ISIS joiners were even more infuriated by their Arab leaders’ total lack of punctuality.
Back in Syria, Ibn Adam realized he needed to join some fighting group. “I saw some guy asking people to go and fight, so I went with him. They didn’t give me weapon or grenade and battle vest. They were saying, ‘You’ll get it later. Jump on the truck. When you reach that place…’ I was scared, thinking why did I come? I was not in the front. I was in ribat [at the borders]. It was the first time I hear airstrikes and bullets and stuff like that. We went in. One guy was showing us the way. They try to hide from the drones, walking and hiding. Then, he was sitting and when he got up he got shot by a sniper.”
“No one else knew the way. We don’t know how to go back. We don’t know where to go. Then some other guys from Dawlah [ISIS] came. They took us to their place. We stayed for a day or two, then the room I was sleeping in they made a flash bang. I felt like I was in a tunnel. Everything is white after a flash bang. We retreated a bit. After a day or two, I wanted to go back. I couldn’t understand the structure. I can’t speak Arabic. They said you have to speak to the emir, he’s a French guy.”
Ibn Adam went to the emir saying “‘I want to go back.’ That’s the last thing I remember. Airstrike. I woke up in hospital. I was not one hundred percent. The guys took out cartilage in my knee, [put a] metal plate in my forehead. One guy said, ‘When you get shot, the bullet will go back.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ It was the metal plate he was talking about. My finger was broken also.”
Ibn Adam recalls staying in hospital for two months and getting his regular pay alongside a payment for being injured, although his money was all stolen while he drifted in and out of consciousness. Upon his release from hospital, Ibn Adam was signed up to one of the brigades of foreign fighters. Its name was the Anwar al Awlaki katiba after the man who had incited him to join ISIS in the first place.
Ibn Adam was too injured to join the fighting again. But he was well enough to have ISIS help him to arrange to marry a Somali also coming from Europe. They had three children together although only one survived childbirth.
When he recovered, Ibn Adam changed to another katiba and drove a truck mounted with a heavy weapon. “I stayed through the siege in Raqqa,” Ibn Adam recalls. “[I got] mortared, small injury, shrapnel in my body. [There were] bombs close by. One time my house got bombed.” Ibn Adam recalls being so numb at that point that he wasn’t very scared. “There were a lot of people afraid. [There were] phantom drones. You know something is coming. If I see those in the area I go to another area. It comes to see everything, and I know mortar is coming. The other drones I didn’t think they will hit me. I was not in a high position.”
Like so many of the ISIS cadres I’ve interviewed who lived in Raqqa, Ibn Adam liked it at first, finding Raqqa a hospitable place that he and his family could enjoy. “Before the siege I liked it. It was pretty nice.” When asked about the punishments going on and the ISIS brutality Ibn Adam shrugs it off saying, “You hear sometimes people doing wrong, but you can live with it. I heard about if people leave they punish them. If someone wants to leave, why keep him here? He’s extra luggage. He will start to hate you even more, become a spy. If they want to leave, let him leave.”
When asked about the oppressive ISIS hisbah, or morality police, or their intelligence arm, the emni, Ibn Adam recalls having no dealings with them. “Nobody would come and speak to my wife.” Although he does admit, “Some people were very harsh. For example I saw one guy tell a woman to cover her eyes. She didn’t. I saw him stomp on the ground and scare her. ‘Cover your eyes!’ I got scared. If she doesn’t want to, leave her.”
Ibn Adam recalls happening upon the corpses of an ISIS execution carried out in Naim Square in Raqqa. “I felt sorry for them, depending on what these guys did. There was a lot of harshness in the State,” he adds, explaining that in the beginning he believed it was the fault of individuals, but not systematic brutality within ISIS governance itself. Ibn Adam was still naïve in the beginning recalling, “I came for a true Islamic State like in the days of the Companions. I thought everyone will be perfect.”
Ibn Adam and his small family escaped from the siege of Raqqa during a truce with the SDF. “There were busses and trailers,” he recalls. “They took us to Deir ez Zor area, to an area near Hajin.”
Recalling leaving Raqqa, Ibn Adam explains, “I didn’t quit at that time. When we came out from Raqqa, there was no paperwork. It was chaos, especially for those coming from Raqqa. The traffic police were stopping people, telling them they have to go sign up. After a month or two I joined [a katiba] again. You had to join to get pay, help, even to go to the hospital. If you don’t have their ID card, if you do things on your own, it’s difficult, apartment on your own, treatment in hospital.”
Ibn Adam and his wife settled in a small village with very welcoming Syrian neighbors, but it “didn’t last for long. Bashar coming across the river. I went to Bookimal for two, three weeks, then retreat after retreat.”
At this point Ibn Adam realized, “It is not what I thought. I thought I’d like to be in a real Islamic State. I wasn’t thinking I have to get out, but things were bothering me, especially the emni intelligence of the State, stories about them. It makes rage—the injustice. You hear about people going in prison, how they treat people, the very bad treatment, but you cannot speak about injustice openly. I was in Friday prayers and one guy lectured on injustice. I saw him later and he said, ‘I’m not allowed to preach anymore.’ He was in prison. Then the prison was bombed.”
“In Kishma it was like war, everyone was retreating. I borrowed some money and I bought 25 kg of rice. [When] it got finished, food got very expensive. I remember buying food for $1000—a half kilo of rice, 10 kilos of flour, ten packs of tuna, powdered milk and five 6-packs of lentils. That was cheap compared to Baghouz.”
“[I got injured] in Shafaa. [I was at that time] sleeping in the mosque. My wife was in a small school. I went to her and she asked me to buy food. Something exploded in the school. I got shrapnel in my leg. I went to hospital. They put a bandage and told me to go. They gave me a stick go to Sousa.” In Sousa, Ibn Adam found an abandoned pair of crutches in the mosque. He is, however, bitter to this day that ISIS didn’t help him when he was crippled by his injury, “Afterward I heard there were lot of crutches, but they didn’t give them out.”
At that point in the retreat, many foreign fighters were feeling that ISIS didn’t care about them and many feared being accused of being spies and executed. Others were angry that the Iraqis appeared to have everything needed—food, Kia trucks, money to rent nice housing, etc. while many foreign fighters dug trenches in the ground and lived under plastic sheeting overhead. “I heard that Iraqis had it very good. I see them selling stuff, so I know they had food. But where did it come from? They were selling it very expensive, which leads to another thing. If they are selling it, it means they have more, or what would they eat?” Ibn Adam asks.
At that point in retreating from ISIS’s crumbling statehood many were also deeply disappointed in the failure of the ISIS leaders to take charge to inspire the ranks. “There were a lot of people disappointed that Baghdadi did not make a speech,” Ibn Adam recalls.
Rumors were also flying about, many of them purposely started by ISIS to discourage fighters from abandoning the State. Ibn Adam recalls rumors about, “People will go out and stay [detained] for two months and then go to camps. They will send the women out, but it doesn’t make sense to me. How are you going to send your wife and kids to people you are fighting? We have been fighting them for years. They are going to suddenly take you and only take you for two months?”
Like many foreign fighters who couldn’t find housing in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls, “I lived in a trench. I found one that was ready. I tried to dig one, one time but I didn’t have energy. I was very tired. For two or three days we were in the trench.” Unlike most who recalled the trenches as pure hell, Ibn Adam recalls the trench being much better than the overcrowded home he had just abandoned. “It had a carpet. They made it very nice. It had a small wall in it. In the house we lived in first there were maybe 70 people, women and children in one side and men on the other side. There was no privacy. There was arguing with his wife to go get water. In the tent [trench] we had privacy.”
All the same, Ibn Adam had to crawl out of his trench to go get water and food. “I saw death.” Although he recalls witnessing the worst in that regard in Raqqa, “The most [death I saw was] in the siege of Raqqa, bodies.” In Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls seeing a man shot dead in front of him, “He was walking with his wife. He got shot in the heart. He fell down from a sniper from the Syrian army.”
In Baghouz there was no longer food and many of the foreign fighters started eating the grain husks used for animal feed. Others boiled grass to feed their families. “[We used the husks of] grains for the animals. We made bread from it, dark bread, from the parts you usually throw away. It was harsh on the stomach.” While ISIS had previously fed its members, in Baghouz they fought only the fighters, ignoring even the injured ones. “If you were not fighting they gave one sardine for two guys, or one teacup of lentils.”
Remembering that Ibn Adam’s former friend and recruiter had told him he should only trust an ISIS insider, someone who had been there, to know whether to join or not, I ask him now from his experiences with ISIS if he has advice for others about joining the group. “With all this experience I would tell them live your life,” Ibn Adam answers without hesitation. “Think before you act. Problem is, I learn after I act. Smart ones learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s good. Good you learn. But to learn from others’ mistakes is better.”
Before Baghdadi was killed, his last video rallied ISIS supporters to revenge against Western powers for destroying the ISIS territorial Caliphate and for Baghouz. I ask Ibn Adam what he thinks about Baghdadi’s plea for revenge attacks at home in Europe. “That is not something I personally would do. Jack, or John, or Ahmed did this act and got caught and went to prison. What is the benefit? What did he get out of it? If you are injured laying on floor, or killed, he didn’t get benefit from it and it doesn’t bring back the dead to life. Why do it? What is the benefit?”
Since I was waiting for my taxi to the airport on the day in March 2016 that ISIS blew up the Brussels airport, I often ask ISIS members how they feel about that attack, curious to know what they’ll say. Some endorse it, making me angry inside, others strongly decry it. Ibn Adam is neutral on the subject. “I didn’t feel good, nor did I feel bad. I didn’t really feel anything. Something happened somewhere else, it didn’t affect you too much.” Similar to how he was earlier in his life, he recalls, “I didn’t follow the news too much.”
“I should care for others, but it’s not happening in front me of me, so I don’t feel too much,” he explains. But then he goes on to qualify his statement, “I don’t know anything in Islam that tells you can attack civilians. If I am a Muslim, I should talk to them in a good way, try to make people convert. Our Prophet said you have a package. It’s the way you deliver. You can knock on the door or throw it at him, or make it beautiful and say, ‘This is for you.’ Either way you delivered the message. I don’t know anything in Islam that says you are allowed to attack civilians, and that you should. Our Prophet said, ‘Don’t kill an old man who is not fighting, nor a woman who is not fighting. Don’t break the branches of trees, or burn them. Don’t fight those who are not doing anything.” Indeed, Ibn Adam paraphrases the scriptures of Islam, but he forgets how Awlaki and ISIS twisted other scriptures to convince people like him to come support their heinous acts against innocents.
While still debating his future in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls his father-in-law advising him to surrender after sending his wife out to the camps. Ibn Adam replied, “If I go out, only bad news will happen. You won’t hear about me. We heard the women reached the camps, but men no.” Yet when Ibn Adam finally surrendered himself to the SDF he recalls how good they were to him. “They gave me chicken and potatoes. I ate like a mad man. It was up on the mountain. They did a body search, then brought bread, eggs, chicken and potatoes. I loved the food. I didn’t have bread for a long time.” Most of the ISIS prisoners I’ve interviewed in SDF territory tell a similar story of relatively good treatment given the constraints of the overcrowded prisons and limited funds for staffing and food.
Ibn Adam will likely remain imprisoned in SDF territory for a long time given his country does not have any plans for repatriating citizens and weak laws for prosecuting returnees. Yet he seems like a good candidate for repatriation, to be brought to justice at home. He appears battle fatigued and claims he wouldn’t be interested to rejoin ISIS if it made a comeback. “After all I went through, go again? No! After all of this oppression and injustice?”
Interestingly, Ibn Adam states that of the men housed in his prison at least “90 percent are disappointed” in ISIS and feel the same way—that they would never go back. Whether or not he is telling the truth is impossible to say, but given his experiences of being repeatedly disappointed by ISIS, it seems likely.
“I want to go home,” Ibn Adam says. “I miss Europe. I miss even Somalia. I used to think it was harsh there, but after here I think I can go through anything.”
Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today
Countering Terrorism: 2023 and Beyond
Pakistan has carried three significant issues from 2022 into 2023. These include political instability, a dwindling economy and resurging terrorism. With respect to terrorism, Afghanistan has assumed centre stage. Following the withdrawal of US forces on 15 Aug 2021, there was initial jubilation in Pakistan over Taliban’s triumph. It stemmed from the perception that US military presence in the region and drone strikes were the leading sources of regional instability.
2022 ended for Pakistan with an upsurge in terrorist activities and accordingly the New Year started with a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC). The press release following the meeting reiterated NSC’s resolve to ‘have zero tolerance for terrorism in Pakistan and reaffirmed its determination to take ‘on any and all entities that resort to violence.’ This is a welcome decision by the government and state organs.
Pakistan’s counterterrorism (CT) efforts gained momentum following the unprecedented Army Public School (APS) massacre of 2014. Some have compared it to Pakistan’s 9/11. The tragedy was relatable to all of Pakistan regardless of the so-called ethnic, regional or sectarian divides. The inhumane attacks brought the civil and military leadership together in assigning this scourge of terrorism the priority that it deserved. The most prominent outcome was a National Action Plan on countering terrorism that enjoyed broadest possible political support.
Subsequently, the united stance against terrorism enabled unprecedented successes in rooting out terrorism. However, it appears that the reduction in terrorist activities led to a sense of complacency which was further aided by growing political polarisation that had more to do with differences on domestic, economic and foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred at a time when Pakistan was struggling with internal politics. Apparently, the eventual prevalence of Afghan Taliban against a super power that they had been resisting for two decades, emboldened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to think that it could similarly attrite the Pakistani nation and its state organs.
TTP’s motivation seems to be misplaced for primarily three reasons. First and foremost, the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) of Pakistan are fighting this war to provide a safe and secure environment to the future generations of the country – including their own children; unlike the US and coalition forces that neither had a clear objective nor a consistent policy to follow. Second, much of Afghan Taliban’s acceptance at the domestic level was based on the fact that they were fighting a foreign occupant – which is not the case for TTP. Thirdly, the Afghan Taliban assumed power by virtue of force rather than the will of the public and that is why they struggle to gain legitimacy at home and abroad.
Pakistani political leadership might differ on the possible approaches to dealing with this issue, but there certainly is no appetite for letting the TTP and associated factions consolidate power to a degree that they are able to challenge state’s writ at a level comparable to yesteryears. However, display of a united front by the various ruling parties at the Centre and provinces will help demonstrate that there will be no tolerance for terrorist activities no matter which political party assumes power.
TTP’s threat against the leadership of two ruling parties is an attempt to exploit the current domestic political divide. Political mudslinging on this issue only helps the enemy’s cause. The ongoing struggle for power between the political parties should not enable TTP to consolidate power in the interim period. Otherwise, it will become a greater threat for the next government to deal with. During the previous election years, terrorist outfits were successful in targeting the leadership of various political parties during their election campaigns and arguably changing the election outcomes by terrorising the electorate. It is in shared interest of all the political parties to avoid a repeat of such a scenario.
While the politico-military leadership establishes a united front at home, it will be important to deny external actors the ability to exploit Pakistan’s internal situation. Pakistan has been at the receiving end of accusations even as it presents irrefutable evidence of external involvement in terrorist activities inside the country. As Pakistan continues to expose foreign involvement, it ought to simultaneously deny foreign actors fertile ground to exploit at home. Previously, the foreign threat was limited to the Eastern front but now it has expanded at an unprecedented level to the Western front where the Taliban government is either complicit or unable to check use of its territory to launch terrorist attacks against Pakistan.
2023 is likely going to be the year of General Elections in Pakistan. Whichever party assumes power, it is important that it looks at counterterrorism as a long-term operation that will require broader political support, less in-fighting and an ability to stay the course impervious of temporary gains and setbacks which will inevitably be a part of the process.
A Rift Getting Deeper: TTP and IEA parting their ways?
A few days ago, an alleged audio of Tahreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief, Noor Wali Mehsud has caught the attention of those who keep a close eye on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, especially Tahreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Through this audio, Noor Wali has sent a message, to TTP fighters to pick up arms against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) after its search operation in provinces along the Pak-Afghan border. Since the takeover of Kabul, some security analysts had predicted the possible collaboration of IEA with TTP. Still, the evolution of TTP strategies and its ideological shift from being a branch of IEA to being an opponent of IEA was observed. Only those who have kept a sharp eye on TTP activities know that TTP is now a threat to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The reason behind the shift in TTP’s strategies:
What compelled TTP to give such a big statement? This question comes to everyone’s mind, the below discussion is made in context to this question. The ideological standing of both TTP and IEA is far different. Afghan Taliban are ethnic nationals. They have only fought a war against foreign forces for Afghan territory and have never claimed any region beyond the borders of Afghanistan. However, TTP has long taken inspiration from Al-Qaeda, which has expansionist objectives and deadly takfiri ideology to create a falsified identity of believers and non-believers, only to legitimize its terror activities in the name of Islam. Hence, following the footprints of such a radical organization, there is a significant possibility that TTP will join hands with ISKP against IEA.
Question of natural and forced alliance:
Since the Kabul takeover, TTP has tried to align with IEA, thus, giving it the camouflage of a natural alliance. TTP’s leadership also manifested this narrative in its statements and activities. But the ideological drift and conflicting objectives show that TTP’s so-called alignment with IEA was one-sided and enforced. After the Kabul takeover, TTP tried its well to be a part of IEA but by rigid stance, IEA always cleared in their statement that TTP and IEA are two different groups, having different inspirations and goals.
Pakistan’s role that TTP in using Afghan soil:
Pakistan has been fighting TTP since 2003. In April 2022, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) struck the hideouts of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan along the Durand Line. This strike highlighted that a group within IEA was keen on providing safe havens to TTP. Hence, diplomatic pressure was mounted on IEA to eradicate TTP from the strategic provinces of Kunar and Khost.
Chance of Mutual tussle between TTP and IEA:
Is there another conflict going to happen in the region? Now, the battle is the same, but the opponents are different. The so-called narrative that claims IEA and TTP were on the same table is wrecking after TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and IEA spoke’s person Zabiullah Mujahid’s statements.” They are not, as an organization, part of IEA, and we don’t share the same objectives,” Zabiullah Mujahid said in reaction to TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud’s claims of being a part of the IEA. Now, the TTP chief has alerted his fighters for war. It would create complexities in the region. IEA acted as a mediator between the government of Pakistan and TTP to make peace in the region. Additionally, Zabiullah mujahid also mentioned that We advise TTP to focus on peace and stability in their country. This is very important so, they can prevent any chance for enemies to interfere in the region, and we request Pakistan to investigate their demands for the better of the region and Pakistan.
Mujahid added that the TTP was Pakistan’s internal matter “The IEA stance is that we do not interfere in other countries affairs. We do not interfere in Pakistan’s affairs.”
After this emerging rift, would it be possible for IEA to counter TTP? IEA is struggling to stabilize the state after Kabul take over. Nowadays, Afghanistan’s security and economy are on the verge of chaos. It would not be able to engage in other conflicts nor do they have the power to do so. And if they engaged in battle with TTP, an alliance of ISKP and TTP can hurt Afghanistan. But if they counter them, there is a chance to get international sympathy and maybe recognition because it will endorse the Doha agreement, as Recognition has become a dire need in Afghanistan.
In a nutshell, it won’t be inappropriate to assume that another war will break out, and it is likely more drastic than the last ones. Despite all the hurdles, it is an opportunity for IEA to gain global sympathy for its recognition and to legitimize its regime. If the IEA becomes successful in convincing the world by taking action against terrorist outfits and extremism in its ranks, it will not only pave the way for its recognition but also meet with the minutes of the DOHA Accord to not allow any violent non-state actor to operate within Afghan territory.
Pakistan in a quagmire: Resurgence of terrorism along with its relations with Afghanistan
When Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, a large faction of the Pakistani society including mainstream politicians amused the fact that reins of Kabul had become in control of Taliban. One obvious reason for this felicitation was the much awaited perceived stability in neighboring Afghanistan which had direct impact on Pakistan. The other reason for jubilation in some factions was about the solidarity with regards to the identity of Afghan people. As brotherly nation, perseverance of Afghan people against the scourge of prolonged war, that too against the strongest military alliance, was a matter of inspiration for many in Pakistan. However, the formal response of the government was very much aligned with the global response. Islamabad did not officially recognize the interim government of Taliban. The eventful month of August, 2021 was followed by some key developments.
Considering the geo-political change in the neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan started to rethink its strategy at the western border. Through a backdoor channel, Islamabad approached the Taliban government to ensure the security of its western border from the hideouts of TTP living in Afghanistan. In short, Pakistan wanted the Taliban government to take strong action against TTP. However, in response to that, Kabul with TTP onboard, came up with a “quid pro quo plus” approach. It urged the Pakistan’s government to have a formal agreement with TTP which later on proceeded through a back door channels. In the agreement, TTP agreed for so called cease-fire along and inside Pakistan’s territory in exchange for cessation of Pakistan’s military operation against TTP. Moreover, the strangest of demands that Pakistan agreed to, was providing, the previously expelled TTP associates, with permission to come back and reside in districts of the tribal area. On the other hand, second critical development following the fall of Kabul, was Pakistan’s stance in the international community with respect to humanitarian concerns in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s foreign minister repeatedly urged the International community to establish a meaningful dialogue and engagement with the fragile state of Afghanistan to help the people of Afghanistan. He frequently argued that alienation of a rouge actor prompts even harsher human rights violation by that actor. Hence the world should not neglect Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan Rather, it should accept the reality and engage with Afghanistan.
However, it is extremely unfortunate to write that, both the aforementioned developments, gave rise to a Pro-Taliban sentiment vis-à-vis Pakistan. Nevertheless, the same sentiment has often been misrepresented in the western literature, and the same narrative has also been used to demonize Pakistan at the international forums. However, in reality Pakistan had been the most affected country by terrorism and it had been fighting against the scourge of terrorism since over a decade now. What is even more unfortunate is that in the recent past, TTP announced to resume its nefarious terrorist activities in Pakistan. As a result, a spike in terrorist events specifically in KPK province has been witnessed. The December 21st,2022 military operation is a testament to aggravating law and order situation in the country, in which a group of 25 TTP associated terrorists had been killed, while holding a CTD compound, hostage in Bannu.
Because there is a resurgence of terrorism coupled with the international criticism due to perceived relations with Afghanistan under Taliban. “Pakistan is appeared to be in a quagmire.”
Now, what Pakistan can pursue to undo this, is to redevise a comprehensive plan of action against terrorism in KPK and former FATA. It should also formulate a clear strategy at the western border not to tolerate any presence as well as influx of militants from Afghanistan. Moreover, for future, the state of Pakistan should also learn from the abysmal agreement that it went in with a Non-State Actor (NSA). For NSA’s an agreement is nothing more than a concealing tool for a limited survival. It is because of the three reasons. First, an agreement is always done between two responsible actors; terrorist group like TTP has no burden of responsibility neither in a domestic setting nor at the international level. Whereas, a sovereign state has immense responsibility at the domestic and international level. Second, an agreement between two states holds significance because of the perceived repute in the international system, Whereas, for a non-state actor like TTP, International reputation never comes into the equation as such groups are already infamous for their terrorist agenda. Third, States are mostly bound to stick fast to their bilateral or multilateral agreements, because of the fear of diplomatic and economic sanctions once they pull back from the agreement. Whereas in case of Non-state actors, there exist no such incentive to remain in the agreement.
Considering all the three reasons, it is quite evident that engaging with TTP for so called ceasefire agreement was neither viable nor will it ever be, particularly because, as a state, Pakistan would have to offer a lot in exchange to absolutely nothing. Moreover, because of such an agreement, Pakistan would itself invite criticism from the already skeptical international community. Hence for Pakistan, no tolerance policy against terrorism is the only option possible in order to lower domestic and international cost simultaneously.
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