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National

February 7, 2015

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The inevitability of Daesh, Al-Qaeda merger

The recent arrest of Yousaf al Salafi, a Pakistani Syrian, allegedly the commander of the Islamic State (IS) group in Pakistan, has opened a new front in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism and security quarters, worried that the Middle Eastern terrorist group, which today holds large swathes of territory both in Iraq and Syria, may soon be joining the plethora of organizations that have already made Pakistan their home.
IS, or Daesh, as it is locally known, has already found some partners. In October 2014, six commanders of the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. In the following month, Jundullah, one of the many terror organizations operating under the TTP banner, followed suit.
In November, members of the Jamia Hafsa seminary, based in the capital, Islamabad, released a video in support of not only the IS, but also the Afghan Taliban. And just last month, dozens of disgruntled mid tier commanders from the TTP have also thrown their weight behind the Baghdadi led IS.
One big bowl of Jihad ‘The IS doesn’t have roots here in our region, it will have to lay these roots, rein in people from outside like the Taliban and breakaways from the Lashkar e Jhangvi and others, set an agenda and then launch their campaign’, says Ahmed Rashid, internationally acclaimed terrorism expert and author. ‘If you look at Al Qaeda (AQ), they’ve been here for a quarter of a century, and it’s a player here because it’s run by Pakistanis; it will take the IS a long time to settle down here, especially with the ongoing military campaign. On their prospects in Afghanistan, Rashid believes the Afghans aren’t interested: ‘The Afghan Taliban are nationalist Jihadists, they have no interest in conquering the Middle East or anything else that IS aspires to’
For the past eight months, the Pakistani Military has been conducting a military operation against militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), however,

a secret information report released by the Home and Tribal Affairs Department of the Provincial Government of Baluchistan, suggests that the IS has not only reached out to the AQ affiliate, Lashkar e Jhangvi, but also claims to have already recruited between 10 and 12 thousand members from the Hangu and Kurram agencies.
‘Fighting for Daesh is a lucrative opportunity not only for would-be Jihadists, but also disgruntled militants from other organizations which have either been disbanded, are on the run because of the military operations, or are upset with being told to lay low’ says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military scientist and author of the book, Military Inc. ‘The entire network of militancy is ideologically and operationally connected; while there are competing organizations, somewhere down the line, the individual members have many commonalities, including time spent together’
Ayesha cites the birth of IS from within the AQ ranks as an example. And according to Rashid, both Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Abu Bark al Baghdadi, two important personalities in the great Jihadi puzzle, were not only originally members of AQ but also spent time together in Herat, Afghanistan.
Today, it is alleged that the Head of Daesh in Baluchistan, Hafs-al-Baluchi, is a relative of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks. Post Zwahiri: An inevitable eventuality
‘There is an incredible amount of ferment in the whole Jihadi movement right now because of ISIS, both the groups are being careful not to step on each other’s toes’ says Rashid. But for the first time in AQ’s history, it is facing dissent from within. On an online Al Qaeda forum, that has been the house of AQ for a decade, users are calling for Ayman al-Zwahiri’s replacement: ‘Let us gather in this topic signatures that demand allegiance to Sheikh Abu Baseer al-Wuhayshi, emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.., and isolate Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri...’
The other demand is to transfer the command center of AQ from Khorasan to the Arabian Peninsula. ‘Ayman al-Zwahiri and his cohorts, are not prepared to concede any ground that easily, the formation of AQ in the subcontinent is a case in point’, believes Luca La Bella, Professor of Asian Geopolitics at Universita’ Roma-Tre in Italy. ‘The moment Zwahiri dies, or is replaced, and the AQ central command moves to the Arabian Peninsula, the threat that IS poses to AQ, as a brand and beacon of Global Jihad becomes the most challenging’.
Ayesha, on the other hand, believes that it will eventually boil down to race:’ the Arab bias, for Arabs, is very strong; Mullah Omar calls himself the amir-ul-momineen, but Baghdadi proclaims himself the Khalifa; this has never happened before, and the latter has much more religious significance’.
Indeed, AQ and the Afghan Taliban have had an uneasy relationship at best, with AQ’s presence in Afghanistan one of the major roadblocks for the Taliban’s legitimacy. Experts believe that as the Taliban vie for political inclusion, they will have to clamp down on the spaces currently provided to AQ, creating not only more pressure for the command’s return to the Arabian Peninsula, but also increasing the comfort level between IS and AQ.
Both the Arabian Peninsula and the Khorasan (Afghanistan and Pakistan) are, in the words of Bella, ‘Prime Jihadi real estate’ with great ‘ideological and propaganda value’. While the materialization of the Caliphate dream has been a boon for the IS, AQ has also received a much need shot in the arm by the Paris attacks. But it’s AQ in Yemen. And not Khorasan. For now, both AQ and the IS, are treading lightly, in unchartered waters. But as they territorially grow closer, it looks increasingly likely, that in a post Zwahiri scenario, the two will institutionally merge.In the words of Ayesha Siddiqa, ‘Al Qaeda and IS have only institutional differences, not ideological’.

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