Resurgent Jihadis Brace For New Transnational War
South and Central Asia the new focus
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Shadows of a new war are looming over the region stretching across Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia and beyond, including China. This time, however, the war, with its roots in the global ‘war on terror’ that started after the fateful events of 9/11, is being imposed not by an outside power such as the US and NATO forces, but by violent Islamist groups seeking to extend the ultimate project of a global Caliphate, especially, the Islamic State-Khorasan, known by its acronym IS-K.
ISIS, which caused so much carnage across the Middle East when it burst across Iraq and Syria in 2014, is very much back as IS-K in south and central Asia. It has got many allies as well, including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and hardline factions of the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network, which has a history of coordinating with the IS-K against the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan.
In a recent issue of its official magazine, the Voice of Khorasan, IS-K said following its successful September attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul in which two staff were killed and numerous others were injured, that it is igniting new “flames of war” that would transcend the “nationalistic border” of Afghanistan. The 11th edition of the magazine describes the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine as a “blessed war” for the group, as it would help it grow even further in size and resources. The group wants to create its own “camp” in what it calls a polarized world between Russia/China and the US and its allies.
This is nothing short of an announcement of a transnational war, but who might be the target here? Certainly, it is not the US and Europe. Although ISIS may continue to sporadically target the US and EU as in the past, it is ultimately this region – South and Central Asia – that is on the IS-K’s hit-list. In addition to the attack on Russia’s embassy, Chinese facilities and workers have been attacked many times in Pakistan. For this reason, Chinese forces are vulnerable in Afghanistan as well. Reports issued by the United Nations Security Council have shown a growing convergence between the IS-K and groups like ETIM.
Besides the ETIM and the support that the IS-K receives from hardline Taliban factions, the TTP, too, supports the IS-K. Its leader, Noor Wali Mehsud, has repeatedly told media about his intentions to join the IS-K if need be to achieve their key objective i.e., establishing an ‘Islamic Emirates’ in Pakistan – specifically, in those parts of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province that share a border with Afghanistan.
With the hardline Sunni IS-K growing in strength in Afghanistan, the Shia-majority state of Iran becomes a logical target. Not only is Tehran an ideological rival of IS-K, Iran, alongside Russia, played a key role in eliminating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Now that the IS-K is based very close to both Iran and Russia in Afghanistan, the two countries are especially vulnerable.
As far as China is concerned, its treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang is a major flash point that the IS-K is using to create the narrative of transnational war. With most Central Asian states being allies of Russia and China, they become targets too. Even though they are Muslim-majority states, the fact that they are allied with Russia and China makes them “heretics” in the eyes of the IS-K.
Apart from the support the group is receiving from its allies – the TTP and ETIM, etc., - its ideological conflict with the wider Taliban movement in Afghanistan (excluding the Haqqani network) – is facilitating its growth.
Taliban leaders such as Mullah Baradar who oppose the IS-K are behind the regime’s (half-hearted) crackdown. But while this crackdown has not really targeted or damaged the IS-K, the Taliban’s relentless targeting of the Salafists, a minority Sunni sect that preaches a form of Islam different from the Deobandi form of Islam that the Taliban preach, is alienating a core group of the population.
The IS-K’s rivalry with the Taliban is ideological, with the root of the rivalry the ideological differences between Deobandi and Salafi Islam, with the latter being an ideology that promotes a ‘return’ to the ‘pure’ form of Islam practiced by the first four Caliphs: hence, the IS-K’s ultimate objective of creating a Caliphate (at the global level by using Afghanistan as a launching pad). The Taliban in Afghanistan, therefore, regard Salafis with suspicion, as many analysts have pointed out. In this context, indiscriminate targeting of Salafists in Afghanistan is akin to creating a fertile ground for the IS-K to find fresh recruits, helping it to expand both numerically and territorially and adding to its ability to achieve its objectives.
As the July 2022 report of UNSC noted, “ISIL-K has increased its presence in northern and eastern Afghanistan. It also includes fighters from Central Asia, who have increased activities in the north. In April 2022, ISIL-K claimed it had fired rockets into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Although both countries denied that rockets had reached their territory, the risk of similar attacks remains.”
What are the options for the states standing directly in the line of fire?
This might be an appropriate time for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to assume a leading role and even develop a region-wide security network to jointly tackle a group that seeks to attack almost all members of the SCO. But even if the SCO cannot be activated as a security organization, it remains that these countries will have to develop some sort of a joint mechanism among themselves.
The US/NATO are unlikely to get involved – not only because the IS-K does not pose a direct threat to them, at least in the short term, but also because the emergence of the IS-K and/or the start of a new war in this region could seriously disrupt China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other regional/Eurasian connectivity projects that Moscow has been contemplating for some time now. Ultimately, the West will gain from such a situation insofar as its rivals will be preoccupied with Afghanistan/IS-K for a long time, allowing the former to pay more attention to their conflict with Russia in Europe and possible conflict with China in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific.