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A shift in militants’ strategy could shine a more positive light on failed US policy

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A paradigm shift in jihadist thinking suggests that the US invasion of Afghanistan may prove to have achieved more than many counterterrorism experts would want policymakers and military strategists to believe.

Similarly, the paradigm shift also hints at the possibility that the presence in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan of various militant Islamist and jihadist groups could turn out to be an advantage in efforts to prevent and contain political violence.

The evolution of tensions and unfolding of differences in the world of Afghan militancy will constitute a litmus test of the shift and how history will ultimately judge the United States’ 20-year forever war in Afghanistan in terms of counterterrorism.

The shift involves a move away from cross-border and transnational acts of violence towards local militancy and the garnering of popular support through good governance based on an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. It is a difference in strategy that constitutes one of the ideological and strategic differences between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“This is not because (the jihadists’) ideology has softened: It is because they have learned that inviting overwhelming reprisals from modern militaries is the fastest way to forfeit their conquests, squander their influence and be forced to start all over again,” said scholar and journalist, Hassan Hassan, in a lengthy piece of rare up-close reporting on jihadist militancy.

“Contrary to how some understand the US withdrawal in Afghanistan, the lesson extremists are taking from the Taliban’s success is not simply that jihad works but that diplomacy and engagement are a necessary part of the process, which includes reassuring the West about external threats emerging from their areas. What can be gained from parlays in Doha is more significant and lasting than any terror attack,” Mr. Hassan went on to say.

The shift amounts to a return to the pattern of Islamic militancy that historically is rooted in local grievances and conflicts. Mr. Hassan also describes the Islamic State’s transnational jihadism that targets the West,  long embraced by Al-Qaeda, as an aberration of that history.

Mr. Hassan’s analysis is supported by research published by The Soufan Group, a research organization established by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who played an important role in the interrogation of captured Al-Qaeda officials and was involved in related cases in the United States and elsewhere.

Analyst Abdul Sayed noted that Al Qaeda, in an effort to prevent the United States from driving it out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, has “shifted focus from global terrorist attacks and external operations to supporting local jihadist groups throughout South Asia, and fuelling the narratives that underpin their objectives. This shift helped build resilience, allowing Al-Qaeda to survive despite the massive blows inflicted by the United States and its allies.”

The Islamic State’s loss of its proto-state in Syria and Iraq, and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan appear to vindicate this paradigm shift.

CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward said she walked away from an interview in August with Abdu Munir, the name used by a commander of the Islamic State-Khorasan, two days before it attacked Kabul airport, with the impression that “ISIS-Khorasan is very different from ISIS… in Syria and Iraq. Ms. Ward was referring to the Afghan affiliate as well as the Islamic State itself using common Western abbreviations for them.

Ms. Ward said that “the conversation that I had with this commander did not lead me to believe that they had the same level of transnational ambitions… They’re much more focussed on the Taliban, honestly, than they are on trying to blow up a plane…and they’re much more simple, less sophisticated.”

The jihadist strategy shift would be further vindicated if the Taliban victory also reinforces ultraconservative religious trends in neighbouring Pakistan.

Ultraconservatives and jihadists may take heart from recent opposition by Muslim clerics, including Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for religious harmony, to draft legislation that would ban forced conversions.

As a result, the shift could become one more argument to justify a possible future decision by President Joe Biden to pull US troops out of Iraq and Syria originally dispatched to fight the Islamic State, as part of the emerging contours of a Biden doctrine.

“There is no question that the GWOT has not gone as planned… Yet it would still be wrong – and rash – simply to discard the GWOT as a strategic failure. The fact that consecutive presidents have found it so difficult to extricate the United States from ongoing operations in the greater Middle East reflects the reality of a persistent threat from extremist organisations and their allies… GWOT has been considerably more fruitful than it might first appear,” said analysts Hal  Brand and Michael O’Hanlon, referring to President George W. Bush’s global war on terror launched in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Messrs. Brand and O’Hanlon may be painting an overly optimistic picture. In the best of cases, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will only partially live up to their criteria of success laid out in a recent journal article. The Taliban’s policing of jihadists may prevent them from targeting the United States and others but will continue to offer them a safe haven, allowing them to recruit.

“Being a safe haven for global jihadists and acting as a launchpad for attacks against the West are not the same thing. Under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban have committed to preventing attacks being launched from Afghanistan, but they have not pledged to cut off relations with foreign jihadist groups altogether, nor to expel them from Afghanistan,” said Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi.

Even so, on balance that could turn out to be less of a problem provided the Taliban can keep in check the Islamic State, the one jihadist group that refuses to accept its takeover of Afghanistan or make Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, adopt the shift in strategy. The fata morgana of a Taliban 2.0 could be shattered if large numbers of Taliban fighters defect to the Islamic State in protest against the group’s policing of militants on Afghan soil and/or embracing degrees of social liberalization, particularly regarding women’s rights.

That could prove to be a big if. Question marks about the Taliban’s ability to police those groups that have welcomed its victory and/or pledged allegiance to it have already begun to emerge. Mr. Giustozzi reports that in contrast to Pakistani militants Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; the TTP and Al-Qaeda have refused to negotiate agreements that would tighten Taliban control by moving them to different parts of the country. Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar-e Janghvi are groups seen as having close ties to Pakistani intelligence.

The proposed agreements reportedly stroked with demands put forward by China that the Taliban ensure that militants on Afghan soil are prevented from training, raising funds and recruiting.

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson in Qatar, appeared to acknowledge the demands in an interview with the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper. “First, we will not allow any training on our territory. Second, we will not allow any fundraising for those who intend to carry out a foreign agenda. Third, we will not allow the establishment of any recruitment centre in Afghanistan. These are the main things,” Mr. Shaheen said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesperson in Kabul, however, last month left the door open on the Taliban’s relationship with the TTP.

“The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani Islamic scholars and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response,” Mr. Mujahid told a Pakistani television program. The spokesman stopped short of saying whether the Taliban would abide by a decision of the scholars.

The TTP is believed to be responsible for a recent spike in attacks on Pakistani security forces, including a suicide attack in Pakistan that killed three paramilitary soldiers and wounded 20 other people. The stepped-up attacks prompted the New Zealand cricket team to last week abandon its first tour of Pakistan in 18 years and abruptly leave the country while England cancelled its visit that had been scheduled for next month.

Similarly, behind the facades, cracks had already emerged between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, prompting the group, like the TTP, according to Mr. Giustozzi, to refuse to negotiate a deal with the Afghans and build support among factions of the Taliban that are more sympathetic to the jihadists.

Al-Qaeda was wary of what the Taliban’s agreement with the United States would mean for the group and suspected the Afghans of having a hand in the killing of several of its senior members in recent years. Al-Qaeda worries, moreover, that Taliban understandings with China and Russia could put its freedom of movement and/or existence into further jeopardy.

Apparently anticipating a Taliban failure to control all jihadists on Afghan soil and/or adoption of the paradigm strategy shift by some major jihadist groups, US intelligence officials predicted that Al-Qaeda would be able to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan and be capable of orchestrating attacks inside the U.S. in one to two years.

Their predictions were bolstered by the return to Afghanistan of Anwar ul Haq Mujahid, a leader of Osama bin Laden’s former “Black Guard,” who allegedly helped plan and orchestrate the jihadist leader’s escape in 2001 as the United States bombed his Tora Bora hideout. Mr. Mujahid, no family of the Taliban spokesman, reportedly returned to Jalalabad to command Taliban forces and foreign fighters in eastern Afghanistan. Several of his associates are said to also be back.

However, Mr. Mujahid’s return does not by definition deny the potential shift in Al-Qaeda strategy that is supported by the Taliban. It could be the Taliban’s way of placating the group as well as the more militant within its own ranks.

“Despite the persistence of the relationship…the Taliban have a strong interest in holding Al-Qaeda in check… It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Taliban provide space and financial support for Al-Qaeda to operate while also restricting the activities of the group to plot and stage attacks,” said scholar Cole Bunzel.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Terrorism

Countering Terrorism: 2023 and Beyond

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(file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Pakistan has carried three significant issues from 2022 into 2023. These include political instability, a dwindling economy and resurging terrorism. With respect to terrorism, Afghanistan has assumed centre stage. Following the withdrawal of US forces on 15 Aug 2021, there was initial jubilation in Pakistan over Taliban’s triumph. It stemmed from the perception that US military presence in the region and drone strikes were the leading sources of regional instability.

2022 ended for Pakistan with an upsurge in terrorist activities and accordingly the New Year started with a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC). The press release following the meeting reiterated NSC’s resolve to ‘have zero tolerance for terrorism in Pakistan and reaffirmed its determination to take ‘on any and all entities that resort to violence.’ This is a welcome decision by the government and state organs.

Pakistan’s counterterrorism (CT) efforts gained momentum following the unprecedented Army Public School (APS) massacre of 2014. Some have compared it to Pakistan’s 9/11. The tragedy was relatable to all of Pakistan regardless of the so-called ethnic, regional or sectarian divides. The inhumane attacks brought the civil and military leadership together in assigning this scourge of terrorism the priority that it deserved. The most prominent outcome was a National Action Plan on countering terrorism that enjoyed broadest possible political support.

Subsequently, the united stance against terrorism enabled unprecedented successes in rooting out terrorism. However, it appears that the reduction in terrorist activities led to a sense of complacency which was further aided by growing political polarisation that had more to do with differences on domestic, economic and foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred at a time when Pakistan was struggling with internal politics. Apparently, the eventual prevalence of Afghan Taliban against a super power that they had been resisting for two decades, emboldened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to think that it could similarly attrite the Pakistani nation and its state organs.

TTP’s motivation seems to be misplaced for primarily three reasons. First and foremost, the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) of Pakistan are fighting this war to provide a safe and secure environment to the future generations of the country – including their own children; unlike the US and coalition forces that neither had a clear objective nor a consistent policy to follow. Second, much of Afghan Taliban’s acceptance at the domestic level was based on the fact that they were fighting a foreign occupant – which is not the case for TTP. Thirdly, the Afghan Taliban assumed power by virtue of force rather than the will of the public and that is why they struggle to gain legitimacy at home and abroad.

Pakistani political leadership might differ on the possible approaches to dealing with this issue, but there certainly is no appetite for letting the TTP and associated factions consolidate power to a degree that they are able to challenge state’s writ at a level comparable to yesteryears. However, display of a united front by the various ruling parties at the Centre and provinces will help demonstrate that there will be no tolerance for terrorist activities no matter which political party assumes power.

TTP’s threat against the leadership of two ruling parties is an attempt to exploit the current domestic political divide. Political mudslinging on this issue only helps the enemy’s cause. The ongoing struggle for power between the political parties should not enable TTP to consolidate power in the interim period. Otherwise, it will become a greater threat for the next government to deal with. During the previous election years, terrorist outfits were successful in targeting the leadership of various political parties during their election campaigns and arguably changing the election outcomes by terrorising the electorate. It is in shared interest of all the political parties to avoid a repeat of such a scenario.

While the politico-military leadership establishes a united front at home, it will be important to deny external actors the ability to exploit Pakistan’s internal situation. Pakistan has been at the receiving end of accusations even as it presents irrefutable evidence of external involvement in terrorist activities inside the country. As Pakistan continues to expose foreign involvement, it ought to simultaneously deny foreign actors fertile ground to exploit at home. Previously, the foreign threat was limited to the Eastern front but now it has expanded at an unprecedented level to the Western front where the Taliban government is either complicit or unable to check use of its territory to launch terrorist attacks against Pakistan.

2023 is likely going to be the year of General Elections in Pakistan. Whichever party assumes power, it is important that it looks at counterterrorism as a long-term operation that will require broader political support, less in-fighting and an ability to stay the course impervious of temporary gains and setbacks which will inevitably be a part of the process.

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Terrorism

A Rift Getting Deeper: TTP and IEA parting their ways?

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Image source: hindustantimes.com

A few days ago, an alleged audio of Tahreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief, Noor Wali Mehsud has caught the attention of those who keep a close eye on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, especially Tahreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Through this audio, Noor Wali has sent a message, to TTP fighters to pick up arms against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) after its search operation in provinces along the Pak-Afghan border. Since the takeover of Kabul, some security analysts had predicted the possible collaboration of IEA with TTP. Still, the evolution of TTP strategies and its ideological shift from being a branch of IEA to being an opponent of IEA was observed. Only those who have kept a sharp eye on TTP activities know that TTP is now a threat to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The reason behind the shift in TTP’s strategies:

 What compelled TTP to give such a big statement? This question comes to everyone’s mind, the below discussion is made in context to this question. The ideological standing of both TTP and IEA is far different. Afghan Taliban are ethnic nationals. They have only fought a war against foreign forces for Afghan territory and have never claimed any region beyond the borders of Afghanistan. However, TTP has long taken inspiration from Al-Qaeda, which has expansionist objectives and deadly takfiri ideology to create a falsified identity of believers and non-believers, only to legitimize its terror activities in the name of Islam. Hence, following the footprints of such a radical organization, there is a significant possibility that TTP will join hands with ISKP against IEA.

Question of natural and forced alliance:

Since the Kabul takeover, TTP has tried to align with IEA, thus, giving it the camouflage of a natural alliance. TTP’s leadership also manifested this narrative in its statements and activities. But the ideological drift and conflicting objectives show that TTP’s so-called alignment with IEA was one-sided and enforced. After the Kabul takeover, TTP tried its well to be a part of IEA but by rigid stance, IEA always cleared in their statement that TTP and IEA are two different groups, having different inspirations and goals.

Pakistan’s role that TTP in using Afghan soil:

Pakistan has been fighting TTP since 2003. In April 2022, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) struck the hideouts of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan along the Durand Line. This strike highlighted that a group within IEA was keen on providing safe havens to TTP. Hence, diplomatic pressure was mounted on IEA to eradicate TTP from the strategic provinces of Kunar and Khost.

 Chance of Mutual tussle between TTP and IEA:

Is there another conflict going to happen in the region? Now, the battle is the same, but the opponents are different. The so-called narrative that claims IEA and TTP were on the same table is wrecking after TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and IEA spoke’s person Zabiullah Mujahid’s statements.” They are not, as an organization, part of IEA, and we don’t share the same objectives,” Zabiullah Mujahid said in reaction to TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud’s claims of being a part of the IEA. Now, the TTP chief has alerted his fighters for war. It would create complexities in the region. IEA acted as a mediator between the government of Pakistan and TTP to make peace in the region.  Additionally, Zabiullah mujahid also mentioned that We advise TTP to focus on peace and stability in their country. This is very important so, they can prevent any chance for enemies to interfere in the region, and we request Pakistan to investigate their demands for the better of the region and Pakistan.

Mujahid added that the TTP was Pakistan’s internal matter “The IEA stance is that we do not interfere in other countries affairs. We do not interfere in Pakistan’s affairs.”  

After this emerging rift, would it be possible for IEA to counter TTP? IEA is struggling to stabilize the state after Kabul take over. Nowadays, Afghanistan’s security and economy are on the verge of chaos. It would not be able to engage in other conflicts nor do they have the power to do so. And if they engaged in battle with TTP, an alliance of ISKP and TTP can hurt Afghanistan. But if they counter them, there is a chance to get international sympathy and maybe recognition because it will endorse the Doha agreement, as Recognition has become a dire need in Afghanistan.

Conclusion:

In a nutshell, it won’t be inappropriate to assume that another war will break out, and it is likely more drastic than the last ones. Despite all the hurdles, it is an opportunity for IEA to gain global sympathy for its recognition and to legitimize its regime. If the IEA becomes successful in convincing the world by taking action against terrorist outfits and extremism in its ranks, it will not only pave the way for its recognition but also meet with the minutes of the DOHA Accord to not allow any violent non-state actor to operate within Afghan territory.

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Terrorism

Pakistan in a quagmire: Resurgence of terrorism along with its relations with Afghanistan

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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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