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Karl Kaltenthaler: Islamic State 'outbidding' al-Qaida in South Asia

The landscape of violent extremist Islamism is changing in Asia. Al-Qaida, once a growing and potent threat, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now a shadow of its former self.

     In the late 1990s, al-Qaida co-ran Afghanistan with the Taliban. It also had a strong presence in Pakistan and close ties with many of that country's myriad jihadi groups. Now al-Qaida's core group is down to a few dozen members. Security operations against the group in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have cut its numbers and operational capacity substantially. The organization is fighting for survival in Pakistan, its last real refuge in Asia.

     The same cannot be said of the Islamic State group. The militant group, which has had spectacular success in Syria and Iraq, is now making inroads in many parts of Asia, but particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

South Asian threat

It is in South Asia that Islamic State poses the greatest threat to stability and security outside the Middle East. Its flags and T-shirts have been displayed at rallies in Kashmir and other parts of India, and a small number of Indian Muslims have traveled to fight with the group in Syria and Iraq. The group also has a small presence in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which have never been fertile ground for al-Qaida. While the number of Islamic State recruits from these countries is counted only in the dozens, it is much higher than al-Qaida was able to manage.

     Islamic State is establishing ever-stronger footholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it is winning the allegiance of some jihadi groups. The Pakistani Taliban, a formidable coalition of jihadi groups that was closely allied with al-Qaida until recently, has splintered.

     Several member organizations have joined with Islamic State and are recruiting thousands of new members. One of the most fearsome and powerful Pakistani groups, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has been waging a vicious sectarian campaign against Shiite Muslims in Pakistan, is now reported to be in discussions with Islamic State to form an alliance in Pakistan.

     The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, one of the most dangerous jihadi groups based in Pakistan, was once so close to al-Qaida that some thought of it as a wing of that group. It has also switched allegiance to Islamic State.

     Al-Qaida is losing its base of jihadi support in Pakistan as Islamic State makes gain after gain. Even parts of the Afghan Taliban are affiliating with the group. A recent attack on civilians and security forces in Ghazni Province included Afghan militants flying the flag of the Islamic State group. The attack resulted in more than 100 deaths.

Three questions

Several mid-level Taliban commanders have declared their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State. This means they have abandoned their allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan and of al-Qaida.

     The appearance of Islamic State fighters among the Taliban ranks represents a sea change in the jihadi landscape in Afghanistan and Pakistan and raises important questions. First, why is Islamic State trying so hard to recruit and build coalitions in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Second, why has it been so successful in these countries? Third, what does the relative decline of al-Qaida and the ascendancy of the militant group mean for security in South Asia?

     Islamic State is trying so hard in South Asia because it needs to acquire manpower and support for its efforts to spread its caliphate. Its strategy has been to conquer Syria and Iraq in order to build an Islamic state, re-establish the caliphate, and expand it to comprise the entire Islamic world.

     The group is focusing on fighting on the ground in a primarily conventional fashion, unlike al-Qaida, whose strategy has been to hit the West with terrorist attacks to get it to withdraw from the Muslim world; the Islamic State group hopes this will cause established regimes to fall and usher in the Islamic States.

     Islamic State's strategy thus depends on a large fighting force. It has focused on building its brand and organizational infrastructure in Afghanistan and Pakistan because these areas are already rich in jihadi groups that have the capacity to supply fighters and challenge existing state authority. Afghanistan and the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, in particular, are home to a high degree of Islamist radicalization, with tens of thousands of young men under arms. If the militant group can bring these fighters under its sway, it will have taken an important step toward gaining control of another significant chunk of territory.

     Recruiting efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been successful because Islamic State is a winning brand. It has done what al-Qaida tried and failed to achieve. It has routed its Islamist enemies in Syria and Iraq. It has established an Islamic state based on the precepts of al-Qaida's ideology and declared a caliphate.

     For many fundamentalist Muslims, this is the realization of a dream. But Islamic State is also much better at recruiting than al-Qaida has ever been. It masterfully employs many means of getting its message out, including social media, print media and face-to-face recruiting. All this is done in local languages, most often with Pakistanis and Afghans doing the messaging.

Bleak "bidding"

This is dangerous for countries across Asia because the competition between Islamic State and al-Qaida for recruits, funds, support and attention in Pakistan and Afghanistan is leading to a phenomenon known as "outbidding," in which terrorist groups seek to prove they are more lethal, committed and successful than their competitors.

     One sign of this happening in South Asia is the formation of a new branch of al-Qaida in September this year called al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent. This is an attempt by al-Qaida's leadership to outbid Islamic State in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan, by taking up causes that are popular with jihadist Muslims, such as attacking Indian and U.S. targets.

     AQIS has already launched attacks in Pakistan, one of which was an attempt to hijack a Pakistani warship and use it to attack U.S. vessels. Al-Qaida attacks in India have the potential to draw India and Pakistan into a conflict, but outbidding is also dangerous because it drives up the frequency, scale and audacity of terrorist attacks.

     As U.S. and coalition forces complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan and the security vacuum in that country increases, violence from al-Qaida and Islamic State will increase. The latter's success in Syria and Iraq is energizing Afghan and Pakistani jihadis. With weak state legitimacy and capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, jihadi groups in those countries believe that victory is within reach. That means more violence for an already troubled region.

Karl Kaltenthaler is a professor of political science at the University of Akron and adjunct professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University.

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