The wave of atrocities over the last two weeks — from the downing of a Russian passenger aircraft to a bloodbath in Beirut and now the massacre in Paris — reveals a new global terror war. The militant Islamic State group also known as IS has now taken its war outside the battlefronts of Iraq and Syria. The Paris carnage has altered the international security paradigm.
One may not agree with the Pope that the attacks are part of a third world war, but the Paris tragedy has certainly lent a global dimension to what has so far been seen mainly as a Middle Eastern civil war; a legacy of the US invasion of Iraq. As one analyst put it: “The contagion has broken out of its confinement.” Predictably, the French response to what it described as an “act of war” is unrelenting.
That is perhaps what IS had intended when it plotted these terrorist attacks: widen the warfront and sharpen the polarisation. Whether it’s the Paris carnage or the blowing up of the Russian airliner in midair it indicates the growing reach of IS and its organisational capacity to carry out such spectacular and coordinated militant attacks. The aerial bombing by the US-led coalition may have stalled the IS advance, but it has failed to drive out the group from the territories under its control.
The militant Islamic State group has much greater appeal for radical Muslims than other such outfits.
With a huge number of foreign fighters, many of them from European countries, joining IS militants, a terrorist attack in their country was predictable. But no one estimated the extent of the group’s capacity to carry out such large-scale mayhem. The identity of the attackers and the mastermind shows that almost all of them were home-grown radicals under the influence of the IS.
Surely most of the foreign fighters have linkages back home, even though they may never return. The cultural alienation and economic marginalisation of the Muslim population, mostly the second and third generation of immigrants, provides a favourable environment for the radical groups to enlist young recruits.
More than Al Qaeda or any other Islamic militant groups, IS with its sizable territorial control in Iraq and Syria and a highly sophisticated propaganda campaign, has much greater appeal for radical Muslims across the world. Its occupation of oil-rich regions provides the group with huge financial resources to continue its activities.
It has also benefited hugely by the ongoing proxy war in the Middle East between the Saudi-led Arab coalition and Iran.
The Saudi financial support for the Sunni militants fighting in Syria has indirectly helped the group. Most of the Saudi-backed groups have joined IS.
The growing tentacles of IS are not confined to the Middle East, but there are clear signs of the group making inroads in this region too. It already has a significant presence in parts of Afghanistan fighting not only the Afghan government forces, but also challenging the Taliban. The two insurgent groups have been engaged in a fierce turf war in eastern Afghanistan.
Most of the Pakistani Taliban and other militant factions fleeing the military operation in the tribal areas have joined IS.
The beheading of Hazara Shia men, women and children in Zabul province last month is another indication of the growing IS influence in the war-torn country.
Some reports suggest that IS fighters in Afghanistan are better armed and have no shortage of funds. A recently aired Al Jazeera TV documentary has shown an IS camp in eastern Afghanistan providing training to children as young as eight years old. The strong presence of the militant group close to our borders in Afghanistan mostly comprising Pakistani fighters must be serious cause of concern to Islamabad, but there is certainly no realisation of the threat.
Although the government as usual is in a state of denial, the footprint of IS is very much visible inside Pakistan too. It is not surprising that some Pakistani Taliban factions and outlawed Sunni sectarian groups like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi have pledged allegiance to or support for the group. The investigation of the bus carnage of Ismailis in Karachi early this year shows the attackers were young and highly educated militants with reported links to the IS.
What is most shocking is the return of Islamabad’s Red Mosque as the hub of militancy-linked activities. A year ago, the students of Jamia Hafsa, associated with the mosque, distributed a video appeal to the IS chief Abubakar Al Baghdadi asking for his help.
After a brief lull, Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head cleric, is back in action resuming his vitriolic sermons despite an apparent ban against him. He has lately held a rally in support of his demand for the enforcement of Sharia. But no action has been taken against him or his followers for openly supporting IS.
While the interior and foreign ministries keep denying the existence of IS in the country, the Balochistan government has expressed its concern over the reported recruitment by the militant group in the province. Pakistanis reportedly form a sizeable contingent of the foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria.
According to a top police officer, who earlier served in Balochistan, it was the Saudis who first started recruitment in the province to fight along with the Sunni groups in Syria. But most of them later joined IS, which they apparently found ideologically more appealing. One wonders why the federal government overlooked this recruitment. It would not even be surprising if this recruitment had the approval of the government or the intelligence agencies. It is a very dangerous game that threatens our own security.
What happened in Paris and Beirut must come as a wake-up call for our government and security agencies. A weak state in a perpetual state of denial provides ideal conditions for militant groups to operate in. The threat is much more serious with the rising influence of IS across the border in Afghanistan and its footprint appearing in the country’s capital too. We must act now before it is too late.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2015