Owning Isis

April 09,2016

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Terror, they say, is a thinking man’s game. It is a macabre chess match between those perpetrating it and those fighting it. But even within those two sides, the players are constantly changing. These individual players, on both sides, either adapt or die. The guiding book for terrorist organisations is not some holy scripture but the works of Darwin: adapt or die.

Darwinian natural selection seems to have made Al-Qaeda nearly irrelevant. If the original Afghan Taliban seemed tame in comparison to Al-Qaeda, the latter seems tame in comparison to Isis. It takes a lot for an organisation that films beheadings to disapprovingly call another organisation extremist. But Isis has picked up the gauntlet and beaten the older organisation at its own game.

Central to Isis’ strategy is its media blitz. Compared to the slickly produced, professionally edited videos of ISIS, the content of As-Sahab (Al-Qaeda’s media wing) looks like the earlier PTV2’s tractor repair videos. And the videos of Umar Media (the TTP’s media wing) look like the work of the downmarket wedding videographers of the 1990s.

Documents made available by refugees from Syria reveal that the organisation spends a disproportionate amount of money on media production. Whatever is left over from this media blitz, and military/policing costs, is spent on the municipal expenditures of the areas that the organisation currently governs.

This focus on the media has certainly paid off. Its content has ensured that the organisation has a steady stream of new volunteers from both the Arab world and the West. The Western youth who join what they think is a holy war are well-educated, media savvy and, in a positive feedback loop, ensure that the media offensive becomes even sharper, hence becoming an even more effective recruitment tool.

This is a pattern that is evident amongst the organisation’s recruits in Pakistan. According to studies, the majority of Isis’ supporters belong to urban areas and are educated. A stark contrast from the home-grown militant organisations, in which the well-educated members used to stand out from the rest.

The government had been playing ostrich to the Isis threat initially. But the Punjab government finally admitted to the threat, when the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) busted an Isis cell in Daska, Sialkot. They had been recruiting for the war in Syria. The department recovered laptops, CDs and other publicity material. Almost all of these individuals within Pakistan were influenced by ISIS propaganda on social media. They also used to communicate with each other on social media to avoid being detected.

In Pakistan, there are two low-hanging fruits, ripe for the organisation to pick with ease. One is the well-educated urban youth, who – despite their modern outlook and general approach – are confused about the place of faith in the world. The second, of course, is the footprint already left by sectarian or Wahabi jihadi organisations like the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, some of whose foot-soldiers are becoming more and more attracted to where the real action is.

Matters are further complicated by the concerted efforts of Isis, in stark contrast to the other organisations, to actively seek out women recruits. Yes, Mullah Fazlullah had tried to reach out to women, but only to fund and convince their husbands. In this case, however, they are looking for recruits to actually go to the war zones as jihadi wives. Last year, in December, the CTD came to know of a Lahore-based married woman, who had left for Syria to join Isis, with her three young children – the eldest was 15 years old and the youngest was but nine years old. One shudders to think of those poor minors’ fate.

Isis is different from other militant groups because it already wants to develop the state it has envisaged in the geographic space that it currently occupies. It actively seeks hijrat to this Dar-ul-Islam. Stern and Berger, in their book ‘ISIS: The State of Terror’, write, “ISIS does not take the masses for granted; it’s chain of influence extends beyond the elite, beyond its strategies and loyal fighting force, out into the world. Its propaganda is not simply a call to arms, it is also a call for non-combatants, men and women alike, to build a nation-state alongside the warriors, with a role for engineers, doctors, filmmakers, sysadmins, and even traffic cops.” We don’t want to be complacent about the matter just because, currently, the news of Isis comes under the international section of our newspapers. We need to nip this menace in the bud.

The cyber-crime division of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) needs to develop a new cadre of operatives to not just intercept these attempts by Isis recruiters but actively seek them out. They need to plan sting operations and lure them in. They need to ensure that all parties involved know that recruitment from Pakistan is a dangerous affair and that the recruiters know that they need to second-guess every single person they meet online.

To this end, the government should develop a consensus on the Cyber Crimes Bill. The lower house has already passed the bill but the Senate, in which the ruling party does not have the requisite numbers, has not passed it. The concerns of the opposition need to be incorporated in the legislation, so that the bill becomes an act and the law enforcement agencies can use it to good effect.

In the long run, the government should bring different religious parties to one platform and strongly denounce Isis’ interpretation of Islam. We need to stop getting defensive about the fact that the militants do, in fact, use Islam as a rhetorical tool. As Jordan’s King Abdullah, who courageously challenged the monster, said: “This is a Muslim problem. We need to take ownership of this. We need to stand up and say what is right and what is wrong.”

The writer is former federal minister.

Twitter: sheikhwaqqas


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