Islamic State and South Asia: How Real is the Threat?

27 Aug, 2014    ·   4625

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy looks at why the IS’s threat is very real, if not immediate

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Deputy Director

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria is a game-changer in international affairs today. Their unprecedented rise and ability to fight in two countries simultaneously without suffering serious losses - while attracting more recruits - is disquieting. Today, approximately 50,000 men (and boys as young as 11) from several countries fight under the IS banner, and more are pouring in. West Asia and South Asia share strong linkages; any turbulence in West Asia has immediate direct and/or indirect repercussions in South Asia. Employing brutality that puts the al Qaeda to shame, what does the rise of the IS mean for South Asia?

Sectarian Schism: Susceptibility to Misuse
South Asia has a culturally diverse yet close-knit character with a complex political geography and history. While there are several common historical experiences, the divides are also many. The foremost, apart from inter-religious differences, is that of sectarian issues. The IS will find exploiting this schism in Pakistan to be the most potent and ‘foolproof’ way to get a foothold in the region. South Asia is rife with ethno-religious and sectarian differences, especially among the region’s Muslim community. A significant number of people in the region belong to the Islamic faith, and the Shia-Sunni divide, although primarily historical and ideological, has taken on a sinister form - especially in Pakistan. The key to evading and/or even delaying the spread of the IS into South Asia would be to address these religious and sectarian divides. 

Pakistan’s leadership continues to comply and/or turn a blind eye towards the forced Sunni-sation of the country and radical Sunni jihadists continue their pogrom against religious minorities, especially the Shias, Ahmadiyyas and the Barelvis. The IS’ self-portrayal as the saviours of Sunnis in a Shia-dominated land could have grave implications for Pakistan - the sectarian divide will only get worse if the IS co-opts even one Pakistan-based Wahabi jihadist group. Further, Shia-Sunni clashes will only intensify the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war in Western and South-western Pakistan.

While other regional countries have significant Muslim populations with common religious divides, sectarian divides are not as strong. For instance, Muslims are the largest minority in India, and despite the considerable numbers belonging to various sects and sub-sects, the divide is mostly limited only to ideological differences. Violent clashes between rival sects seldom take place. In fact, although a couple of Indian citizens have joined the IS, for the most part, Indian society does not face a direct threat from the IS. Almost all Indian Muslims - including activists, intellectuals and religious leaders - have denounced the IS. Adversity will befall only if Pakistan’s terrorist groups are co-opted by the IS, and it will not be societal in nature; and whenever the IS moves forward with its South Asian agenda, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas is where they will begin.

Fuel for Religious Radicalism
Already, many have taken a hard-line stance against the rising religious intolerance against Muslims in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Myanmar. The House of Saud feels threatened by the IS, and is likely to fund more madrassas and radical Islamist factions in order to rev up its defences against al-Baghdadi’s advance. The several Saudi-funded madrassas in western Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are already trouble-makers. Additionally, the treatment of Muslims (such as that of Myanmar’s Rohingyas by both the clergy and the government, and the intolerance practised by Buddhist radicals in Sri Lanka) pushes impressionable youth to seek solutions via al-Baghdadi’s means - that might reflect in the rising numbers of the Arakan Mujahideen in Myanmar, and other radicals in Sri Lanka. Although the recruits’ original motivations have localised origins, they get institutionalised in the idea of a global Muslim identity to fight for, after their ‘training’. 

Turf War between al Qaeda and the Islamic State
The South Asian region could become the battleground for the turf war for influence and control between erstwhile allies, the IS and al Qaeda. The region is the epicentre of jihadist activities and the idea of reclaiming the historical ‘Greater Khurasan’ (that includes parts of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan) is picking up pace. Both al-Baghdadi and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazullah have set their eyes on the region.

Until now, many disillusioned youth joined the al Qaeda as a means to achieve their goals - that were usually retribution and/or radical change. However, after Osama bin Laden’s death, the group’s core leadership shrunk in size and the organisation became more franchisee-like. While bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen as a weak leader who has failed to maintain the al Qaeda’s footing, the IS has managed to gain control and administer territories like a government.

In South Asia, Mullah Fazlullah, the relatively unknown Jaish-e-Khurasan group, and other factions snubbed by Rawalpindi’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, are ripe for harvesting by the IS. The IS believes that all territories historically ruled by Muslims and later conquered by non-Muslims and/or non-Islamic forms of governance were wrongfully taken from them; and intend to reclaim it. Given how South Asia was under Muslim rulers for a significant portion of history, the IS’s threat is very real, if not immediate.