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Terror Groups Thriving Amidst Security Void in Asia
Vacuum left by US departure as jihadis strengthen
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
While the US-led ‘war on terror’ that began in Afghanistan in late 2001 came to an end in August 2021, the menace of terrorism has not. In fact, it is intensifying, with terror groups resurfacing, reorganizing on their own and in coalitions with other groups, and re-establishing their tentacles across many Asian states. According to the 17th report of the United Nations Security Council monitoring terror activity of Da’esh (ISIS) across the world, the threat posed by this group remains “high” in conflict zones.
While the number of attacks may seem to have reduced post-2021, the actual reason, according to the said report, is not that the group has been defeated. Rather, most terror groups – ISIS and its regional manifestation called IS-K, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Al-Qaeda, etc. – have “adapted” their strategies, “embedded” far more deeply with the local population than was previously the case and have begun to choose their targets much more carefully to have a high impact yield. Whether it is IS-K’s attacks in Afghanistan’s northeast region – especially, the province of Badakhshan – or the deadly IS-K attack in Pakistan on an Islamist party belonging to a rival sect in July, they show an increasing level of sophistication and coordination.
One of the key factors contributing to the resurgence is the void created by the US withdrawal and the fact it has not been filled by any regional counter-terrorism mechanism. Although discussions related to the need to make joint efforts against terrorism continue to take place, nothing concrete has so far happened, as countries continue to tackle terrorism through intelligence-based operations within their countries without necessarily coordinating their activities across the states. Such coordination is vital as most of these groups have a cross-regional presence and they use these connections to survive and thrive.
For instance, as the UN report notes, how these cross-regional connections work is evident from the transfer of weapons from one state to another via these groups. According to the report, “weapons typically associated with the former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces were being transferred to ISIL-K by groups affiliated with the Taliban and Al-Qaida, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).”
The TTP is typically an anti-Pakistan group, ETIM is an anti-China entity, and Al-Qaeda and IS-K have global ambitions. But they are all working in very close proximity despite their apparent ideological differences, leading to a safe inference that the jihadi landscape can be, or is, much more dynamic than is usually believed.
Another way these transnational and cross-group mechanisms work has to do with the collection of finances. The UN report mentions that groups like Da’esh (ISIS) rely significantly on “Informal value transfer systems (hawala) and cash couriers” across Africa and Asia to fund their activities. ISIS also relies on “regional versions of cryptocurrency, including so-called stablecoins, and is increasingly relying on virtual assets for international funds transfers.” To facilitate its cross-regional application, special attention is paid to making these ‘services’ available, according to the report, in several regional languages.
Political and economic instability in parts of Africa (e.g., Sudan) and Asia (e.g., Pakistan) continue to offer these groups fresh recruits looking to earn money. The UN report mentions that the IS-K has been able to increase its overall strength to 6,000 individuals operating in South Asia only. It has targeted Russia (September 2022), China (mostly in Pakistan), Pakistan, and the Taliban regime itself in Afghanistan.
Yet there is a void when it comes to regional-level cooperation and establishing concrete mechanisms. For instance, even though the Taliban regime itself has come under attack from groups like IS-K – which is supported by TTP, another Taliban group – the regime continues to simply deny that terror groups have any presence in Afghanistan. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, called the UN claim “unfounded” that there are about 20 active terror groups present in Afghanistan, asserting instead that since the Taliban takeover, “activities of the Daesh group in Afghanistan have been reduced to zero.”
Similarly, even though the UN report proves the TTP’s presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime continues to ignore Pakistan’s demand for action, calling the TTP Pakistan’s internal problem instead and refusing to follow the stipulations of the Doha-pact demanding that the Taliban act against all terror groups.
For one thing, the Afghan Taliban are able to act with such impunity because most regional states, since the 2021 takeover, have been trying to cultivate good ties rather than developing a cross-regional setup that, while it could include the Afghanistan regime, could accelerate joint efforts to counter the terrorism threat. As the UN report notes, poor “border management, among other things, remains a key factor contributing to the easy flow of terrorists across the states. In addition, intelligence sharing is conspicuous by its absence.
For Russia, the most pressing issue at the moment is the Ukraine military conflict and ensuring its economic stability in the face of US/EU sanctions. The only form of ‘terrorism’ Moscow currently considers important is the one that it claims is conducted by Ukraine inside the Russian territories. For Beijing, ETIM has not been able to launch an attack inside China so far. Although China has been attacked several times inside Pakistan and the latter continues to beef up security for Chinese personnel and projects, Beijing’s own (highly questionable) anti-terror efforts are confined to the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang region.
For the Afghan Taliban, taking decisive action against terror groups carries a political risk insofar as it could lead pro-jihad Taliban factions, including the Haqqani network that has a history of coordination with IS-K against the US/NATO forces, to break away and weaken the regime. As far as Iran is concerned, a lot of the terrorist activity it faces is confined to the region bordering Pakistan, where both Tehran and Islamabad, despite various efforts, have not been able to develop a joint mechanism. A key reason remains the lack of trust.
But these are all the challenges that must be overcome before the threat these various groups pose becomes too dangerous and too big for any single state to handle without a major cost. The sooner the existing security and region-wide counter-terrorism void is filled, the better.