I sit writing this article when the situation in West Asia seems to be somewhat in control. The Islamic State or Daesh is reported to have fallen and lost its strongholds from much of Iraq and Syria. The question however is, “Does the Islamic State losing its territorial hold necessarily imply a complete elimination of the threat of Islamic terror, or is it merely a break before it metamorphoses into an organized power that is deadlier?”
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This article is part of what was originally the 'Poverties project' which we ran from 2011-2016. It aimed to make social and economic research on poverty accessible to everyone. It focused on presenting evidence-based causes and solutions as much as possible, although with a pinch of sarcasm, cynicism or dark humour at times. Hopefully, it helps make the description of certain (horrible) situations more bearable.

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If one studies the patterns of the ways in which battle wounded terror groups regroup to hit back again, it necessitates an assessment of the possible safe havens which could be utilized by the militants to organize themselves and prepare for further assaults. Conflict zones, civil war situations for instance, offer just the right incubation for potential monsters amongst promising outfits backed by conveniently mutable ideologies.

The Indian subcontinent, particularly the Afghanistan-Pakistan border( eastern Afghanistan , regions of southern Sindh province to name a few) becomes important in this context.

Known to have been the region where Al Qaeda had operated from before regrouping and expanding  in Iraq, the region and its terror apparatus, backed by the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan, demands attention from the world at large if only to encourage caution towards unwelcome possibilities.

Flashback: The Soviet–Afghan War

soviet afghan war practice fire
Afghan National Army Soldiers practice firing M-16 rifles - courtesy of ResoluteSupportMedia

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan saw the rise of a band of warriors flying in from the Arab kingdoms and recruited from local Afghan tribes, to wage a “holy war” against the invaders. It was “jihad”, funded by the United States and supported by Pakistan to push back the communists from the region and to save the Muslim kingdom from the invaders.

It was during this time in around 1979 that the training camps were initiated in the Afghanistan- Pakistan region to train the fighters. The Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan supported the growth of this apparatus that churned out lethal Islamic militants for the purpose of the war.

These very same training camps were to be used by Pakistan to train militants a decade later, to wreak havoc in India, a sustained strategy that has been used by the Pakistan Army since to destabilize its neighbor at much less cost.

Fast forward to 1990s…

Indian army in Kashmir
Indian army on the streets of Manipur - Courtesy of Akshay Mahajan

Interestingly, the initial target of the militants that were trained in the camps in Pakistan and the Afghanistan in the early 90s , were essentially the Armed forces of India stationed in Kashmir. Their motive was to arm locals in Kashmir and also at times to send in fighters from across the borders to make it expensive for India to hold on to Kashmir amidst an internal insurgency.

The use of terror was thus to suit the political and strategic aims of Pakistan. It was only a matter of time though, before the outfits like the Laskar-e-Taeba, Hiz-ul Mujahideen, Harkat-e Mujahideen, Jaish-e Mohammad expanded their networks and started orchestrating attacks across India.

Losing the grip on a shadow army

The motive had changed from essentially a Pakistan establishment guided, carefully calibrated and targeted attacks, to attacks which highlighted the ideological outlook of the outfits themselves and were suited to the individual terror campaigns of the groups.

Clearly, the  Pakistan Army was losing its grip on its unofficial soldiers. Pakistan’s decades old relationship with these outfits further made it almost inconceivable for the Army to dismantle the entire set up without first paying the cost of such action itself.

This is not to say that efforts have not been made to curb the activities of these groups by the civilian government. However, the ensuing chaos and anarchy after such action, leave alone the expected retaliation of the network of the terror agents keep the Pakistani establishment hostage to the cycle of violence to this day.

On Kashmir and Islamic terror in India

Indian solider in Kashmir - what resolution for the conflict?
Exchange of violence - photo courtesy of Akshay Mahajan

At any given point since the beginning of militancy in Kashmir in the early 90s, 35 or more terror outfits have been active throughout India. These are non state actors who are ideologically compatible to the terror outfits operating from Pakistani soil and provide the essential logistics and operation network for the Pakistani groups when they plan attacks in India.

Recruiting in India

The Indian Mujahideen, affiliated to the Students Islamic Movement of India, offer the most fertile network for Indian recruits to the militant cadres of Lashkar and other global Islamist organizations. The Indian Mujahideen had also been trained by the Lashkar and had carried out attacks in tandem with Lashkar.

The triple bombing of crowded markets in Delhi in 2005, blasts in Varanasi in 2006 and serial bomb blasts in commuter trains in Mumbai are cases in point though the extent of joint operation is a matter that is not quite clear on paper in the given cases.

After the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 which shook the city and much of the world, there was severe clampdown on Lashkar’s cells in Kashmir and other places in India. The attack was planned and executed by handlers of Laskar, based in Pakistan.

how to break the cycle of violence and terrorism in India
How to break the cycle of violence and terrorism? Courtesy of Yogesh Kumar Jaiswal

International exchange of violence

Pakistan naturally suffered public embarrassment and diplomatic pressure at the discovery of the use of its territory for causing the attacks in India. This in turn, led to Lashkar retreating into a shell for some time with respect to its operations in India. It concentrated its efforts instead to expand its motive and got involved in fighting NATO and the United States in Afghanistan.

When the United States began its crackdown on the outfit in response to the provocations, Lashkar again looked towards India. After a few years of silence, the attack at Gurdaspur in Punjab in 2015 bears testimony to the shift in focus again with reasons to suspect more such attacks in the future.

Opportunistic approaches

A common observation from the trajectory of the terror landscape mapped out so far, seems to be the flexibility with which the outfits happen to assimilate more targets as per convenience and also sometimes in response to evolving competition from rival groups. This brings the discussion to a possible integration of outfits like the Lashkar and Indian Mujahideen with the Islamic State, should the outfit seek to regroup in Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Though there has not been any report of Lashkar seeking a merger with the West Asian group, a faction of Indian Mujahideen cadres have been reportedly interested in collaboration with the Islamic State. Out of seven Indians who have been known to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Indian Mujahideen had sent 3 fighters for the cause.

This is a cause for concern as the Indian Mujahideen could serve as a recruitment base for radicalized youth from India to join the ranks of the Islamic State should they open shop in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  The capture of Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan by the Islamic State militants in June 2017 seems to highlight the realistic possibility of such designs.

Though the threat has been seemingly averted for the time being, due to the US bombing campaign targeting the new bases, it remains to be seen how far the threat has been actually eliminated.

Hoping against a resurgence

The declaration of the Islamic State in 2014 of the recognized space of “Khurasan”( the region including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran) as a targeted space for expansion of the movement still looms large and casts a special limelight on the region as political commentators and strategic experts look on anxiously at the political turmoil unfolding in Afghanistan with the steady rise of a resurgent Taliban.

All eyes are now on the little mountain kingdom with its not so reliable neighbor Pakistan, while the world powers struggle to find the best strategy to keep the country from succumbing to a full fledged civil war, the gateway for an easy entry of the Islamic State and its affiliates.  Here’s hoping that history does not repeat itself again.

A Taliban - Islamic State collaboration?

The apprehensions are after all justified by the conditions of the meteoric rise to power of the Islamic state in 2014, from the ruins of a civil strife torn Iraq and Syria. And the Taliban are also gaining grounds in Afghanistan, destabilizing the political and societal hierarchy for its claim on governance according to strict Islamic tenets in its vision of a “pure Islamic state”.

This creates ideological grounds of concern too, in terms of collaboration of the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State for their common goals in establishing the rule of Islamic laws of governance in the region.

Sectarian strife and weak institutions of governance has always been the platform for radical fundamentalists to redefine political space and influence to suit their own ends. One can see examples of the same in the rise to political power in state structure in Lebanon of the Hezbollah for instance.

Such similar designs cannot be ruled out if the political solution with the Taliban is reached as the case is under consideration by the Afghan government and its international allies.

With Pakistan supporting the “good Taliban” and the Islamic state converging with the group on ideological fronts as an ideological partner, there is good reason to anticipate more conduits of renewed strength that can serve to resuscitate the group in due course of time. Needless to say in conclusion, this sure does not bode well for the Indian subcontinent in the near future.