ISIS Will Not Get Far in Asia
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s stated end goal is to establish a Caliphate (Dar-al-Islam) where Sharia laws apply, across Africa, Asia and Europe. In a map released in July 2014, ISIS identified countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia where it aims to establish its rule in the next five years (by 2019). The establishment of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria was announced by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014 from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq. ISIS chief spokesperson, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani stated that the goal of ISIS is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize international borders. ISIS aims to revert its Caliphate back to the 7th century, the times of the Prophet, and asserts that the Koran, distorted by years of technical interpretations, should be instead literally read. This argument is similar to the Salafis (Wahhabis) of Saudi Arabia, who also encourage a literal reading of the Holy Koran. ISIS’s headquarters is situated in the Syrian city of al-Raqqa, and it controls important Iraqi cities like Mosul, and is able to move freely in cities like Irbil, Tikrit, Ramadi, and Falluja, close to Baghdad. While it recently lost control of Palmyra in Syria to Russian and Assad forces, it still has the ability to move freely between Raqqa and Aleppo, as well as in areas close to Palmyra.
This means nearly 10 million people (the size of Sweden) live in ISIS controlled areas, where Sharia law is being applied. According to ISIS, Sharia law has been severely misunderstood due to its faulty application by regimes like Saudi Arabia, who while beheading murderers and cutting off hands of thieves, does little to implement its social programs like free housing, food and clothing for all. Astute in propaganda, ISIS constantly releases videos on the internet that provides snapshots of life under its regime, while at the same time, targeting the West for mistreating fellow Muslims. The use of violence in its videos with graphic details of its beheadings have shocked the world. These videos have the intended effect that ISIS wants: to make it look lethal and inflexible with regard to religious theology. Muslims, who do not fall within ISIS’s interpretation of Islam, are termed kafir (infidel) and to be killed. Thus, Shiites, Alawites, Yezidis, Kurds, are targets as they are not Sunnis. ISIS runs an online magazine titled Dabiq, in which it documents the lives of its members and explains future plans for expansion.
Goals of ISIS Propaganda
The goals of ISIS propaganda are as follows:
First, advertise its power, reach and hold. Second, justify violence by locating it within a religious narrative. Third, broadcast ISIS as a global representative for Muslims. Fourth, attract recruits and resources for its fight. Given that the world of terrorism is highly competitive with several groups vying for similar funding sources, ISIS wants to prove that it is the most capable at violence and terror acts in order to procure funds from terror financiers. Already, its successes have brought it into conflict with al Qaeda and al Nusra. Significantly, ISIS is not without challenge in the Middle East (West Asia). In areas where it has established presence, it has to fight off al Nusra, al Qaeda, Free Syrian Army rebels, the Assad regime forces, Iranian militias, Hezbollah, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Russia as well as the US-led alliance. Thereby, the field is challenging, and drawing recruits demands effective propaganda.
The Foreign Fighter Phenomenon
Most ISIS propaganda is disproportionately aimed at drawing foreign recruits. Till date, around 27, 000 foreign fighters have travelled to the Caliphate, attracted by both religious aspirations as well as the draw of money. ISIS is one of the well-resourced terrorist groups, with an annual budget of USD 2 billion. Its soldiers draw a salary and are compensated with housing and other benefits. In July 2014, ISIS’s Al-Hayat media centre released a video titled “The Chosen Few of Different Lands”, in which a Canadian ISIS fighter was seen describing his life under ISIS. Women online recruiting is organized under platforms like al Khansa’a , named after a devout poetess who lived in the Prophet’s times, who after losing her four sons in battle against Persia, stated that she was proud to be the mother of martyrs. Till date, Tunisia has sent the largest number of foreign fighters (6000), followed by Saudi Arabia (2, 500), Russia (2, 400), Turkey (2, 100), Jordan (2,000), France (1,700), U.K (700), Germany (500). Curiously, countries like Indonesia, India, and Malaysia identified by ISIS as areas where the Caliphate will be established, has seen the least number of ISIS foreign fighters. This is remarkable given Indonesia and India have the largest and second largest Muslim population in the world.
Indonesia with a Muslim population of 250 million has seen just 400 ISIS fighters. India with a Muslim population of 176 million has witnessed only 23 ISIS fighters. Bangladesh with a Muslim population of 148 million saw 30 ISIS fighters despite internal extremist groups’ propensity to support ISIS or offer allegiance (bay’ah) to ISIS. Malaysia with a Muslim population of 19 million witnessed 250 ISIS fighters. The U.S. and Canada, with a Muslim population of 3.3 million and 1,053,945 respectively, have collectively seen 150 ISIS fighters, more than Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia if we record one ISIS fighter per million of the population.
So, the critical question is: why has ISIS failed to spread its extremist ideology or draw more recruits from areas in Asia with large Muslim populations, with a majority of them living in impoverished conditions.
Resistance to ISIS Ideology and Physical Spread
Indonesia offers the best answer. Civil society groups have played a dynamic role in questioning ISIS religious ideology. For instance, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a Sunni Muslim organization with nearly 50 million members preaches an Islam of compassion, kindness, tolerance of other faiths and inclusivity; a direct challenge to the Salafi inspired fundamentalist theology of ISIS. Another organization called the Brotherhood Forum of the Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars have rejected ISIS. Indonesia based terrorist group, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), has given its allegiance to al Qaeda and is anti-ISIS. Moreover, the JI has been in existence since 1993, and it is rather unthinkable that it will suddenly give up all agency to ISIS and its leader Baghdadi simply because he self-styled himself the Caliph. Moreover, Muslims in Indonesia are well represented in a functioning state and hence do not feel the need to express themselves through the folds of ISIS.
India, with the second largest Muslim population, predicted to be the largest in the world by 2050 (311 million) by the Pew Research Center, has very few of its citizens take part in ISIS. Despite a bloody partition in 1947, Hindu-Muslim riots as recently as 2002, ISIS has been incapable of drawing upon the Indian Muslim imagination. The answer, like Indonesia, lies in Indian Muslims themselves as well as their civil society organizations. The lead in questioning ISIS theology has been taken up by Indian Muslim clerics. In December 2015, 70, 000 Muslim clerics of the Sunni based Barelvi movement issued a fatwa (religious communication) against ISIS during the famous festival of Urs-e-Razvi of Dargah Aala Hazrat. On Eid in 2015, Indian Muslim clerics declared that any Indian Muslim taking part in terrorist activities will not have the ‘namaz-e-janaza’ read during his funeral services. All India Muslim Personal Board (AIMPB), member and a noted scholar, Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani stated that “There is no space for ISIS ideology in our religion. The inhuman activities of the ISIS go against the teachings of Islam.” The founder of Islamic Educational Welfare Society, Mohammad Abdul Rahoof Khan, stated that “We are Indians and as per the teachings of Islam we should live harmoniously with people from other religions. Hurting others is not permissible in Islam.” Statements from influential clerics rejecting ISIS has had a deep impact on Indian Muslim youth. In fact, Indian clerics and Muslims Citizens have so succeeded in rejecting ISIS that they drew the group’s anger. In a recent video aimed at Indian Muslim clerics and citizens, ISIS threatened to attack India and urged Indian Muslims to reject false calls by its clerics; the video was rejected by Indian clerics and political parties representing the Indian Muslims. The President of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a political party that represents Muslims in Assam, Badruddin Ajmal, after having his image shown with dead bodies in the ISIS video, stated:
“An unislamic organization like ISIS shouldn't lecture us on our role as leader of the community. It's better you bunch of killers stop showing concern about Indian Muslims, they don't need it. Indian Muslims never supported terrorism in the past, and never will in the future”.
Moreover, some of the areas that ISIS has identified as their future zone of operations already houses insurgencies like the Maoists or Naxalites, who would have little time to spare for fundamentalist groups like ISIS. In Northeast India, decades old insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagalim or NSCN-IM, the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA) or the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), are ethnic insurgencies much older than ISIS and grounded on local ethnic issues. They exhibit zero-tolerance for the ISIS kind of religious theology. Both ISIS and al Qaeda for South Asia led by Maulana Asim Umar identified Assam with its tensions between illegal Bangladeshi migrants and the indigenous communities as their future operational zone; yet, there is no data to show that Muslims of Assam are drawn to ISIS. In fact, the Muslim community voted in large numbers in the April 2016 Assam assembly elections, as well as enjoyed candidates of their choice to vote from. Moreover, the Indian leader of ISIS, Muhammad Shafi Umar was killed in US air strikes in Syria in April and his outfit, Jund ul Khilafae-Hind has been deterred by Indian intelligence. Umar was a former Indian Mujahideen (IM) member, the homegrown terror group that took responsibility for multiple terror attacks in India in 2008. Its leader, Yasin Bhatkal is now in police custody and the IM has perished as an outfit. India’s 1.3 million strong military will be no easy match for ISIS either.
If we examine ISIS claims that it will take up the cause of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, one could fear the possibility of ISIS running amok in the country given Rohingya-Buddhist tensions. Yet, any field visit to Myanmar tells us a very different story. Areas that ISIS identified as its future base for operations have large insurgent armies present, namely; the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) with 10, 000 armed guerillas, the Karen National Army (KNA) with 7000 armed guerillas, the Shan State Army (SSA) with 8000 armed guerillas, and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) with 35, 000 armed guerillas. To advocate that ISIS will be able to establish a base for beheadings amidst these local, decades’ long ethnic insurgencies, is ridiculous, to say the least. ISIS will also have to contend with a well-armed Tatmadow (Myanmar military).
This is not to argue that the Rohingya issue is not serious. 1.5 million Rohingyas residing in Myanmar are not recognized amongst the 135 ethnic minorities, do not have citizenship, and cannot participate in elections. In the recent Myanmar elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) did not cast a single Muslim candidate. Rohingyas have their own organizations such as the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO), and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). The Myanmar military claims that 70 ARNO members had trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Libya, or that they had links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or ISIS, turned out to be merely speculative with no real data to prove such claims. Despite threats issued by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS, post 2012 Rohingya-Buddhist clashes in Rakhine state, no real presence has been established by these terrorists groups. And even if groups like ISIS tries to establish presence, ethnic armed groups like KIO or UWSA will make it hard.
This brings me to the country most in the news for violent attacks on its secular bloggers in recent years: Bangladesh. In a Dabiq article titled “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal”, ISIS identified Bangladesh as its next base for operations. Extremist groups within Bangladesh like Jamaat ul-Mujahideen (JuM) Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) are suspected to be behind the attacks on bloggers. While ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Bangladesh government denies ISIS presence arguing that attacks are by home grown groups, who like to demonstrate links to ISIS for global visibility. Significantly, the year the attacks started in 2013 was the same year when extremist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI)’s Vice President Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was sentenced to death for war crimes that included attacks on intellectuals in 1971. So, the Bangladesh government accuses the Islami Chattra Shibir, the student wing of the JeI for the attacks and not ISIS. While ISIS’s ability to spread to Bangladesh is of concern, its impact should not be exaggerated. The predisposition of Bangladesh’s Muslim population to the kind of brutality that ISIS represents is limited. Also, local groups have local agendas which may not tie itself easily to the Caliphate idea of ISIS. Similar is the case of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighting for Muslim rights for decades within Philippines, and who has condemned ISIS brutality.
Within Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are several competing terrorists groups that would not easily accept Baghdadi as their overall Caliph. For instance, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Maulana Fazlullah has not openly given allegiance to Baghdadi. TTP former spokesperson, Shahidullah Shahid, killed in US drone strikes in July 2015, was sacked from the Pakistan Taliban after he swore allegiance to ISIS in October 2014. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is allied to al Qaeda and is fighting against ISIS. Even the death of its leader, Mullah Mansour in U.S. air strikes this year, will not change this fact. Central Asia is an area of concern with a larger number of ISIS foreign fighters, and ISIS videos are targeted at recruitment from there. Yet, if governance mechanisms and employment guarantees are improved, there would be a significant dent in foreign fighter flows.
So, despite ISIS releasing a map identifying areas where the Caliphate will be established in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, its ability to do so is substantially limited by a combination of strong states and functioning regimes, civil society, fellow Muslims who reject it, as well as competing insurgent and terrorists groups with local ambitions, who care little for Baghdadi and his so-called grand vision.
In conclusion, I would identify three important ways in which ISIS ideology can be countered even in the Middle East. First, by recognizing Sunni fears (post Saddam Hussein Iraq) and addressing them. Second, by containing ISIS’s physical spread. Third, by questioning ISIS’s narrative and theology instead of simply combating or countering it.