This paper defines the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) Caliphate, including its distinctive features as a Salafi-jihadist group. It also highlights ISIS’ challenge to al-Qaeda’s longstanding leadership of the global jihad, and its impact on jihad in South Asia. It develops conclusions based on classic literature pertaining to the inception and sustainment of terrorist groups, as well as from media sources and outlets throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
The paper offers several conclusions about ISIS. First, ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate has caused a significant rupture in the global Salafi jihadist constellation, directly challenging al-Qaeda’s longstanding dominance. Second, ISIS will remain a dangerous security problem for the Middle East as long as it retains a critical mass of support from Sunni tribal leaders and the former Baathist military personnel in Iraq who have played a leading role in its ascent. Third, ISIS’ support is fragile; the persistent brutalization of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis by its many foreign fighters is certain to erode its viability. Fourth, ISIS’ rapid rise has sparked a major backlash, both from the surrounding states and from within the Salafi jihadist community. Finally, ISIS’ appeal has generated an uneven response: it has resonated more with individuals than with groups, more with newly evolving Salafi jihadist outfits than with longstanding ones, and far more in Europe, North Africa and Central Asia than in South Asia. The reasons associated with ISIS’ relative underperformance in South Asia tell us a lot about ISIS’ innate weakness as a serious challenger to al-Qaeda.
ISIS as a phenomenon of Salafi jihadist fragmentation
Beginning in 2011, the Syrian civil war became a lawless, ungoverned incubator for radicals and revolutionaries. By late 2011, ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was sending hundreds of Iraqi jihadists into Syria to advise and assist the many Sunni groups joining the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad.1 Many of these fighters were veterans of al-Qaeda in Iraq and had fought under the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As a result, they knew the dynamics of insurgency and attracted foreign fighters who traveled to Syria to fight against Assad. This force grew alongside other Sunni jihadist anti-Assad revolutionary groups—including ones strongly aligned with al-Qaeda’s core leadership in South Asia—while maintaining its independence.
As ISIS expanded in Syria, it began to dominate the scene; before long, scores of western Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and former Iraqi Baathists who had grown disdainful of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarianism took up with ISIS. The seeds were sown for a resurgence of Salafi jihadism in Iraq and Syria with aspirations that went beyond the al-Qaeda vision for global Salafi jihad.
Open competition soon broke out between Baghdadi’s ISIS and al-Qaeda’s groups in Syria. In particular, tensions between ISIS and the al-Qaeda endorsed al-Nusra Front turned into a full-blown feud.2 Although there are many important dimensions to the rupture between al-Qaeda and ISIS, they all hinge on four major disagreements.3 First, al-Qaeda contends that the West must first be driven from Muslim lands to enable a vanguard of expert jihadists to plot and plan catastrophic attacks in the West. ISIS does not share this view and instead focuses first on attacks against local foes and opposition groups.4 Second, ISIS believes in indiscriminate, unbridled, and graphic violence as an imperative for jihad and is unwilling to temper that violence in order to achieve other goals.5 By contrast, al-Qaeda believes in selective violence, since indiscriminate killings might cause the Sunni Muslim Umma to reject it.6 Third, and relatedly, al-Qaeda sees risk in battling its many enemies simultaneously and so prefers instead to focus on driving off foreign infidels and then toppling apostate Sunni Muslim governments before moving on to other objectives. By contrast, ISIS indiscriminately challenges a multitude of enemies, taking on all adversaries at once, irrespective the risk.7 Fourth, al-Qaeda has talked of a wider Muslim caliphate stretching from Spain to the Philippines evolving over generations and built upon the fusion of al-Qaeda supported regional Salafi jihadist affiliates that have already fought and won Islamist emirates. ISIS explicitly rejects a bottom-up, lengthy process of caliphate formation. Instead, less than two months after it captured Mosul in Iraq, ISIS declared itself on June 29, 2014 to be the Islamic State Caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its caliph. The leadership then announced its aims to expand and extend the Caliphate through a wider network of wayilats (regions) across the Muslim world; and, declared that it would pursue a 5-year plan to topple standing governments and unify these locations under one, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led caliphate.8
So while ISIS poses a serious security and sovereignty challenge to Iraq and Syria, it also raises existential questions relating to global jihad and al-Qaeda. Baghdadi’s June 2014 declaration of a Salafist caliphate elevated a dormant schism into an open rupture in the Salafi jihadist community.9 ISIS has established an alternate vision for the future of Salafi jihadism and introduced a formal competition into the jihadist space that is being played out across several important dimensions. ISIS formalized the competition with an appeal to all jihadist groups to declare loyalty to ISIS instead of al-Qaeda.10 The question is whether the al-Qaeda vision of strategic violence tied to major operations will remain ascendant, or if the approach of ISIS will displace that of al-Qaeda.
ISIS’ Caliphate and the Challenge of Durability
ISIS’ prospects for becoming a durable leader of a global Salafi jihadist terrorist movement remain dubious. In fact, the very successes that have marked ISIS’ rapid ascent also make it highly vulnerable to an equally rapid fall.
For one, ISIS has enemies on all of its borders. As of late November 2014, the U.S.-organized anti-ISIS coalition included 62 member countries, with the U.S. carrying the bulk of the military burden.11 Additional states have joined the anti-ISIS coalition since then, including Sweden in April 2015, pushing the coalition to an estimated 64 member countries.12 Although not a member of the coalition, Iran has also made substantial contributions of material and manpower toward defeating ISIS, reportedly including two brigades of volunteer Revolutionary Guards units and a large number of Guards officer leadership cadre. No major jihadist outfit has inspired such a comprehensive set of encircling adversaries in such a short period of time.
Coordinated anti-ISIS coalition military and political activities have taken a measurable physical toll on ISIS. Despite some limited turf gains in parts of Iraq and Syria in early 2015, independent assessments confirm that ISIS lost almost 10 percent of its territory in the first six months of 2015.13 Beginning in late 2014, ISIS was pushed out of the Syrian town of Kobane by Kurdish fighters and American airpower; run out of the Iraqi Sunni stronghold of Tikrit by a combination of Iraqi army units, Shia militias and Iranian military units and senior generals; and, put under the gun by rival Salafist units within Syria conducting guerilla attacks and assassinations against ISIS foreign fighters. Compared to its peak in the early fall of 2014, ISIS-held territory had shrunk by at least 25 percent.14 As Dan Byman and Jennifer Williams, two top terrorism experts, summarize:
The Islamic State's fate is tied to Iraq and Syria, and reversals on the battlefield—more likely now that the United States and its allies are more engaged—could erode its appeal. Like its predecessor organization in Iraq, the Islamic State may also find that its brutality repels more than it attracts, diminishing its luster among potential supporters and making it vulnerable when the people suddenly turn against it.15
Moreover, ISIS’ feud with al-Qaeda has made it a pariah among global jihadists, sparking a number of direct clashes over manpower, financing and other resources, including overt confrontations pertaining to jihadist affiliates, individual recruits, jihadist financing, and jihadist multi-media and social media. Each of these areas of confrontation merits evaluation.
ISIS’ appeals for other jihadist groups to pledge allegiance to it has received splashy media attention. The response from the jihadist groups, however, has been uneven. As of August 2015, ISIS claimed a relationship with forty-two separate jihadist groups. However, only thirty of these groups have pledged formal affiliation while twelve others have made a lesser pledge of support. With the recent exceptions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbedistan (IMU) and Hezbi-e-Islami (HiG)—the Afghan Taliban group led by the erratic Gulbiddin Hekmatyar—those Salafi jihadist outfits pledging mere “support” for ISIS tend to be far more established and with ongoing or past affiliations with al-Qaeda. Moreover, the jihadist outfits pledging affiliation are generally those with little to no pedigree and are experiencing severe organizational problems. Still others have been shunned by al-Qaeda for showing too little discipline to be included in the al-Qaeda network. In contrast, those pledging mere support for ISIS tend to be more established jihadist outfits with ongoing or past affiliations with al-Qaeda. These include Saudi Arabia’s Islamic State in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, Libya’s Islamic Youth Shura, Pakistan’s Jundullah, and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines. In an apparent attempt to hedge their bets, these groups are unwilling to formally sever ties with the al-Qaeda network.
Within the Middle East and North Africa, ISIS has established loose links with multiple Salafi jihadist groups that ISIS’ leadership identifies as “governates” or “wilayats.”16 A majority of these declarations have been from relatively new jihadist groups without prior allegiance to al-Qaeda, and only those in North Africa can claim responsibility for a high level of violence to date. ISIS’ declared North African affiliates—from Algeria to Egypt to Sudan—number a dozen and include several very active groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, the Okba Ibn Nafaa Battalion in Tunisia, and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Egyptian Sinai.17 By affiliating with ISIS, these groups have received a certain amount of prestige. In return, they have facilitated the flow of jihadist fighters into Syria, revitalizing the lines of infiltration that plagued Iraq last decade.18 In a nod to these affiliates, ISIS has claimed responsibility for several terrorist strikes in the Maghreb, including the March 2015 armed assault on the Bardo Museum and the June 2015 attack against international tourists at the Imperial Marhaba beach hotel, both in Tunisia.19 Tunisian officials, however, remain uncertain of the link between ISIS and either attack, noting that the Algerian who orchestrated the attack was with the Okba Ibn Nafaa Group, which had previously only declared support for, but not an affiliation with, ISIS.20
ISIS also has signaled its goal to cultivate groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.21 Two groups in Yemen and one in Saudi Arabia have pledged themselves to ISIS. However, there is little evidence that meaningful ISIS group formation has taken place in either country, let alone that such a group has overtaken al-Qaeda’s affiliates there. For example, the March 20, 2015 suicide attack that killed 137 worshipers at a Shi’ite mosque in Sanaa, Yemen was claimed by ISIS, but American and Western officials stated that there was no clear operational link between the bombers and ISIS’ leadership in Iraq and Syria.22 Despite a vigorous counter-intelligence campaign by authorities in Saudi Arabia, early 2015 witnessed claims of a growing ISIS presence capitalizing on wider Wahhabi sympathies for Salafists in Syria and Iraq.23 ISIS claimed to be the inspiration for a May bombing at a Shiite mosque that killed 21 people and wounded another 120; and, to be behind suicide bombing plots against a large mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia thwarted by Interior Ministry troops in July.24 ISIS also claimed responsibility for a June 2015 suicide bomber attack on a Shiite mosque in Kuwait that killed 27 bystanders, an attack that Kuwaiti authorities attributed to a single individual inspired by a small cell of ISIS adherents.25 In each case of ISIS-claimed violence in the Gulf, Shiite groups were the targets and the sectarian focus of the attackers. Although worrisome, the low quality of these attacks, coupled with the stern government responses against them, stands in stark contrast to the other major Salafi jihadist outfits across the Gulf States and North Africa. When compared to the Salafi jihadist groups in the Middle East and the Gulf that remain affiliated with al-Qaeda, including al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Shabaab, it is hard to argue that al-Qaeda has lost significant ground to ISIS in the region.
ISIS’ year long quest for serious jihadist affiliates outside of North Africa and the Middle East has fared little better, and arguably even worse. In Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, ISIS has attracted a hodge-podge of minor splinter groups, including: Mujahideen of Yemen; Tehreek-e-Khilafat, consisting of ten disgruntled Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) affiliates re-branded as Leaders of the Mujahid in Khorasan and Jundallah; and, the al-Tawheed Brigade in Khorasan and Heroes of Islam Brigade in Khorasan (ISK).26 In July 2015, Hezb-e-Islami’s mercurial leader, Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, called for his group to support ISIS in battles against the Afghan Taliban; however, Hekmatyar’s history of allegiance reversals during the many wars in Afghanistan makes this pledge less than solid.27 These groups have supported the flow of some fighters to Syria and Iraq, but relatively few compared to other Muslim regions. Small in number, with inspiration but no direct material support from ISIS in Iraq or Syria, and with grievances and agendas matching Pashtun sub-tribal interests that are consistent over decades, these self-proclaimed Afghanistan-Pakistan affiliates of ISIS have engaged in territorial battles with traditional Afghan Taliban outfits in Nangarhar, Kunar and Farah provinces without any clear pathway to victory.28 To date, these re-made terrorist entities have not generated any viable counter-weight to dozens of Salafi jihadist outfits in the region with solid ties to al-Qaeda, including Harakat-al-Mujihadeen, the Pakistan Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Jaish-e-Muhammed, and Jamaat-e-Mukharat. In fact, the top U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, recently testified before Congress that the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan represented the rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban.29
In Central Asia and Russia, ISIS began acquiring affiliates and support far earlier than in other regions. At least four minor jihadist groups and group fragments based in Dagestan, Russia and the Caucasus declared themselves supporters of, or in allegiance with, ISIS from late 2013 through March 2014, before even the declaration of the ISIS Caliphate. Then, in September 2014, ISIS garnered a major declaration of support that conveyed immediate operational impact. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), with leadership lodged in Afghanistan and Pakistan, declared itself in support of ISIS. After the July 2015 announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, IMU formally upgraded its affiliation to that of “allegiance” toward ISIS. These sequential declarations came after several years of increasing duress for this Central Asian jihadist movement in its longtime safe-haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border. A serious target of ongoing Pakistani counter-terrorism operations as well as NATO-ISAF and Afghan military forces, IMU was eager to build new partnerships abroad. IMU’s pledge of support was followed by increased flows of skilled fighters into Syria and Iraq from IMU recruiting nodes in Central Asia and its training bases in South Asia. These IMU cadres added to a steady stream of fighters from a half-dozen other smaller jihadist groups already joining ISIS, thereby thickening the Central Asian ISIS contingent. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) estimates that over 2,500 jihadist fighters from IMU and other jihadist outfits from Central Asia and Russia traveled to Syria during 2014 and early 2015.
In Southeast Asia, ISIS has attracted jihadist groups with little capability and waning relevance, including Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Movement, and the Mujahideen Indonesia Timor. By the time of their declaration in late 2014, these groups were basically shells of themselves after a decade of decline and fragmentation under relentless pressure from government intelligence and paramilitary units. They have brought little in the way of true support for ISIS, and critics suggest that they made their declarations in the hope that ISIS’ aura of success might somehow infuse them with relevance once more.
In Nigeria, the early 2015 pledge of affiliation by Boko Haram is the exception that confirms the rule of this pattern of less-than-substantive jihadist groups affiliating with ISIS.30 A large and resoundingly ruthless jihadist group with control of territory in northern Nigeria and Cameroon, Boko Haram is a notoriously autonomous and erratic outfit. Al-Qaeda leaders declined Boko Haram’s pledges of affiliation for several years before acquiescing to Boko Haram’s public claim in late 2011 that it had joined al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden feared that al-Qaeda stood to gain little from Boko Haram, yet risked a great deal in formally associating with it.31
Recently, Boko Haram has suffered a precipitous decline in its fortunes: a multinational military offensive has retaken 80 percent of Boko Haram’s territory and cost the militant group almost 3,000 fighters.32 In response, Boko Haram has begun conducting desperate and unpopular high-profile tactics, such as suicide bombings using young children, kidnappings to gain recruits, livestock as shields when fighting authorities, and brutal public executions.33 The group lacks funding that could benefit ISIS, and its role in providing fighters to ISIS is unlikely to amount to much because the group’s ethnic profile is a conspicuous mismatch for the Arab states its fighters must transit en route to Syria, Iraq or the Levant. Moreover, even if Nigerians did make it to Syria or Iraq, they would struggle to fit in with the dominant Arab, Central Asian and Middle Eastern makeup of ISIS’ foreign fighters. Ultimately, therefore, Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS appears to be little more than symbolism, devoid of any meaningful exchange of fighters, funding or enhanced training. In fact, it may actually represent Boko Haram’s desperation as it copes with a large-scale military setback.34
Assessed closely, most of the international groups declaring support for, or outright affiliation with, ISIS have tended to be of low quality: either minor splinters from standing affiliates with al-Qaeda or downright problematic groups. These are jihadist outfits deemed by al-Qaeda to be too undisciplined or broken by counter-terrorism operations. With the exceptions of IMU, HiG and Boko Haram, none are really mainstream groups within the global Salafi jihadist movement. In contrast, al-Qaeda retains very tight affiliations with three dozen Salafi jihadist outfits possessing name brand cache and substantive capabilities in their regions of operation.
At the same time, ISIS has undertaken a broad, multi-media campaign to recruit and employ jihadist fighters from the Muslim diaspora of Western and non-Muslim states. These efforts have been substantive and produced measurable, worrisome results. ICSR estimates that ISIS’ massive and broadly aimed recruiting campaign at this target audience has induced some 20,000 foreign fighters to join in jihad and jihad support activities over the past two years. These jihadists hail most prominently from North Africa, Western Europe, the Gulf, and Australasia.
For the most part, recruits gained through ISIS’ individually-targeted social media messaging arrive as an undisciplined and largely untrained rabble that is addicted to multi-media activities.35 They are mostly suited for support activities and martyrdom operations, including suicide bombings. As this fate is reported on social media, the allure of ISIS for naïve young adventure seekers is sure to wane, and even more so as ISIS’ image as an invincible force is punctured.36 Confronted with reports that ISIS is losing, instead of gaining ground in Iraq and Syria, international recruits must now confront both personal dangers and a declining aura of invincibility as they contemplate joining the ISIS Caliphate.
In addition, the flow of foreign fighters has begun to produce antibodies in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, tensions between foreign fighters and local Iraqi Sunni militias began to show up in early 2015, with a growing incidence of guerilla attacks against foreign fighters.37 In Syria, ISIS lost significant ground in the north to Kurdish forces backed by coalition air strikes, reportedly losing control of 215 villages and over 1,000 militants killed in hard fighting with Kurdish and other Syrian rebel forces during January alone. Civil rights groups working in Syria began reporting in February that ISIS’ foreign fighters are being killed by rival groups and that ISIS had executed suspected defectors from their own ranks.38
ISIS also has encouraged violence against non-believers in secular Western countries. As an example, in September 2014, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.”39 This exhortation was proximate to a horrific attack on two members of the Canadian military and occurred during the planning stages of the Charlie Hebdo attack. These horrific and unscrupulous actions have mobilized Western governments, making it increasingly difficult for ISIS to sustain its messaging. In combination, these challenges point to a looming crisis for ISIS.
Another major issue is ISIS financing. ISIS constructed its financial position on regional and local sources of funding in Syria and, even more so, Iraq. Initially, ISIS’ ability to ruthlessly poach funds and material from rival Syrian jihadist groups, from collapsing Syrian Army units, and from other participants in the Syrian civil war proved critical to its finances. Then, ISIS’ collaboration with and subsequent cooption of Iraqi Sunni smuggling networks and the graft-riven activities of former Iraqi Baathists set up a short-term windfall. ISIS built-up its position by exploiting oil, ransoming foreign hostages, and toppling multiple financial institutions in western Iraq. Independent research establishes that ISIS built up some $2 billion in fixed assets seized during 2014 conquests in Iraq ($875 million in assets from the capture of Mosul, $500 million from state-owned Iraq banks and $600 million from extortion and taxation in western Iraq during late 2014).40
However, ISIS funding sources are not durable and will be insufficient to sustain the Caliphate in the future.41 Durable sources of funding from reliable smuggling networks, from diaspora contributions, and from other wide-ranging money-making activities are necessary to sustain terrorist activities.42 ISIS has not established itself in any of these areas, and is facing active resistance from al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda’s supporters.
Surrounded by enemy governments, ISIS’ hydrocarbon production facilities and smuggling operations are under serious duress. Anti-ISIS military operations by U.S. and coalition aircraft and on-the-ground actions in late 2014 and early 2015 have destroyed dozens of ISIS-held oil and gas production, refinery and transit facilities across western Iraq and northern Syria, severely constraining ISIS finances.43 Adding to ISIS struggles, coalition participants, along with other national governments, have agreed to end ransom payments for hostages.44 ISIS’ brutal treatment of minorities and infidels, which it actively publicizes, has turned off many sympathizers and contributors. Virtually all surrounding countries and bordering sub-state actors have condemned the Caliphate and refuse to do business with it. One-time sympathetic government and religious leaders in wealthy donor countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE have banned all transactions with ISIS, including charitable contributions, severely constraining the group.45
ISIS’ feud with al-Qaeda has placed it in a spot where it cannot compete for traditional sources of Salafi charitable and covert funding.1 Taken together, ISIS current finances will rapidly become a severe constraint on its abilities to govern or check counter-attacks. In March 2015, some analysts reported that ISIS may have already lost up to 75 percent of its revenues, causing it to begin an accelerated draw-down of its 2014 financial reserves and making it increasingly hard for the group to provide sufficient goods and services to the nearly eight million people living in the Caliphate.47
ISIS’ clash with its neighboring states and its schism with al-Qaeda has made it a pariah to a degree never before witnessed in jihadist circles. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria, including the Nusra Front, have begun organizing military activities to target ISIS’ leadership and its territorial strongholds.48 In addition, appalled by ISIS’ barbaric tactics and recklessness, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have quietly encouraged, to the point of direct sponsorship, long-time Salafi jihadists who are willing to denounce ISIS and organize fighting groups against it. In the summer of 2014, Jordan cut a deal with two longtime enemies of the Hashemite dynasty: Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Zarqawi’s former spiritual mentor, and Mahamad Shalabi, the leader of Jordan’s banned Salafi jihadist movement.49 Maqdisi was freed from prison and Shalabi had his prosecution for terrorism stayed after each declared ISIS illegitimate. Later, they were reported to be organizing jihadist outfits to confront ISIS in Syria, doubtlessly under the watchful eye of Jordan’s intelligence service, the GID.50
For its part, Saudi Arabia has steadily increased support to a Syrian Sunni Salafist group, Jaish al-Islam, to counter ISIS from within. Heavily tied to Saudi Wahabbist mosques through its founder Sheikh Zahran Abdullah Alloush—and certainly penetrated by Saudi Mukhabarat Intelligence to guard against any jihadist blowback in the Kingdom—the group was badly mauled by ISIS in early 2014.51 Since late 2014, the Saudis, with some assistance from the Kuwaitis, have been steadily increasing support to reconstitute Jaish al-Islam as an entity to strike ISIS inside Syria.52
ISIS has also indiscriminately recruited and lacked discipline in its messaging on social media. This has allowed it to seem spectacularly successful in the short run, but also makes it susceptible to penetration by outside intelligence agencies and law enforcement. By carefully combing its social media, foreign governments have learned much about ISIS’ organization, structure and aims, enabling more precise and effective targeting. Indeed, social media is a double-edged sword for ISIS, especially as it discovers the counterintelligence challenges associated with it.53 Moreover, its reliance on radical violence in its messaging has left it with little empathy from the international diaspora, something which has proven vital to terrorist groups in the past.54
Perhaps most importantly, by its own temporal declarations, the ISIS Caliphate must grow and grow robustly across the Middle East and the wider Islamic world to fulfill its five year plan promise. However, it has stopped growing in Iraq and Syria, and its claims of group affiliate attacks have yet to produce demonstrable territorial gains elsewhere. Its most enthusiastic supporters are congenitally impatient, demanding that ISIS could only legitimize itself by holding and growing territory and threatening to turn against ISIS should it fail to meet ambitious territorial growth timelines.55
All of these factors indicate that the ISIS’ Caliphate is Icarus of Greek legend: it is burning brightly because it has flown too close to the sun, which in turn assures it of its own dramatic fall. For all of the attention ISIS has garnered, U.S. military and American intelligence activity suggests that Washington views it as a serious regional menace but not as a group capable of carrying out large-scale international terrorism. As evidence, American airstrikes into Syria have been at least as heavily focused on the al-Qaeda affiliated Khorasan Group, an organization known for its sophisticated bomb making.56 The Caliphate poses no such comparable global catastrophic terrorism threat.
ISIS’ Impact on South Asia
ISIS’ impact in South Asia has been most interesting and highly illustrative of the degree to which ISIS represents a rupture with al-Qaeda for leadership of the international jihadist space. Al-Qaeda’s response to the ISIS challenge in South Asia has been both vigorous and important. The limited appeal of ISIS for long established South Asian jihadist outfits is also indicative of the inherent strengths of al-Qaeda and the weakness of ISIS in the broader struggle for Salafi jihadist supremacy.
Al-Qaeda’s response to the ISIS challenge was most vigorous in South Asia. On September 4, 2014, al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri formally announced the formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).57 In his message, Zawahiri cleverly focused on the wide array of Salafi jihadist groups and radically-inclined Muslims on the subcontinent. Zawahiri reminded the jihadist faithful that al-Qaeda understood its issues in South Asia and was prioritizing jihad to resolve these issues. He appealed to the faithful to ignore distractions and focus their jihad against the infidels and apostates in Afghanistan, where they could exploit circumstances following the expected departure of Western military forces. He also criticized the civilian government of Pakistan as apostate and as a target for the mujahideen in the region. Finally, he emphasized al-Qaeda’s dedication to jihadist causes in Bangladesh, Muslim India, and the Royhinga Muslims in Burma. In each of these messaging components, Zawahiri made it clear that South Asia was al-Qaeda’s jihadist space, where ISIS was not welcome, and that al-Qaeda would vigorously pursue a hands off policy vis-à-vis ISIS in South Asia.
Just over nine months later, Zawahiri’s message seems to have resonated, although not without some challenges in Afghanistan after the July 2015 announcement that longstanding Afghan Taliban leader and al-Qaeda supplicant, Mullah Omar, died in 2013 without any acknowledgement at the time. By reinforcing several other trends of Islamist exceptionalism in South Asia, the AQIS declaration seems to have blunted most of ISIS’ appeal. Although present in a loose way due to the labeling choices by some fragmentary jihadist groups in Afghanistan, ISIS’ impact in South Asia has been conspicuously less than in other regions in general and especially on a Muslim per-capita basis.
Even more than in other parts of the world, ISIS’ appeal for affiliate groups to join it in establishing what it calls “Khorasan” has not generated a response from quality regional jihadist outfits. Three splinter groups in Afghanistan along with the more established, yet very mercurial, Hekmatyar, and handfuls of disgruntled Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders and the Jundallah terrorist group in Pakistan have pledged allegiance, or in the case of Jundallah, support, to ISIS since mid-2014. Dozens of other longstanding jihadist outfits in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh remain firmly with al-Qaeda; in the case of Lashkar-e-Tayyiban in Pakistan, it remains tied to the nationalist-Islamist aims of the security and intelligence services. Disgruntled Pashtun tribal subgroups and affiliates on both sides of the border have loosely combined under the banner of ISIS-Khorasan (or ISIS-K) and engaged in battles against established Afghan Taliban elements in the northeast and south-central parts of Afghanistan.
Despite some noisy claims of territorial conquest, the rebranded Pashtun jihadists have yet to demonstrate staying power or broad appeal. As mentioned earlier, ISIS-K self-declared leaders were reportedly killed by Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces in the summer of 2015, and ISIS-K sub-tribal elements were reportedly wiped out in Afghanistan’s Farah province and pushed back in spring/summer 2015 battles in Nuristan and Nangarhar provinces.58 These inauspicious results suggest that ISIS affiliated groups in Afghanistan are in for a tough go, just like they would be if they were still understood as merely Taliban splinters or aggravated jihadist sub-tribes.
ISIS’ pull on individual fighters from South Asia has been equally lukewarm. The ICSR and the private Soufan Group estimate that no more than several dozen fighters from Afghanistan, 500 from Pakistan and at most a handful from India and Bangladesh have moved from South Asia to Syria in response to ISIS’ appeal. Given these estimates, the entirety of South Asia jihadists reported going to the ISIS fight is actually less than those from the UK, Germany, and dramatically less than those recruited from North Africa or Central Asia. On a per capita basis, even Australasia has a greater participation rate than all of South Asia.
This conspicuously underwhelming South Asian response to ISIS’ intense global appeal seems paradoxical. Precise reasons for this South Asian exceptionalism merit more detailed study. However, there are at least four important hypotheses that, when taken together, help explain why South Asia remains mostly unaffected by the ISIS appeal for leadership of the global jihad.
First, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership remains in the region and has vigorously defended its space against encroachment. Zawahiri’s September 2014 declaration of AQIS was keenly calibrated to brush back ISIS from an area al-Qaeda considers its own. The message spoke to the specific grievances of Muslims in South Asia, many of whom are frustrated by their local governments. The faithful were urged to join the fight in Afghanistan and told their regional grievances and issues would be those of AQIS, isolating ISIS as an outsider with no real understanding of Muslim aims in South Asia. Although Zawahiri’s credibility was challenged by the sudden July 2015 announcement that Mullah Omar had died in 2013, Zawahiri’s August 1, 2015 message swearing an oath to Afghan Taliban successor leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour appears to have re-established al-Qaeda’s bona fides and primacy in a fractious jihadist landscape where ISIS remains a distinct outsider.59
Second, South Asia already features a robust array of options for those prepared for jihad—options tolerated by certain regional states and ineffectively countered by others. Unlike jihadists in North Africa, Australasia, Central Asia, and Western Europe who are often alienated from their home societies, jihadist groups in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan offer places where radicalized Sunni Muslim groups or individuals can go to pursue jihad. Zawahiri’s message to jihadists reinforced this by providing a superstructure in AQIS.
Third, India, with the region’s largest Muslim population, uniquely benefits from a history of pluralism and tolerance toward its Muslim citizens. This is not to minimize the communal tensions and violence that have afflicted India over the years, including in the present. However, unlike Muslims in other settings who often feel ostracized, misunderstood or alienated by their own governments, Indian Muslims continue to be a group with a generally positive relationship with their government. India’s liberal democracy has reinforced a culture of social and political inclusion for individual Muslims and Muslim families.60 As a result, only a handful of Indian Muslim youth have made the trek to the Middle East to join ISIS.61 Many of those who have gone often return disillusioned, even admitting to shame in having dishonored their Indian Muslim heritage by succumbing to ISIS’ social media propaganda.62 India may have the most to fear from Muslim youth retweeting and forwarding ISIS’ propaganda as a form of coreligionist thrill seeking.63 Addressing that problem may be tricky, but it is not on the same scale of difficulty as confronting a swarm of ISIS recruits preparing to leave the subcontinent.
Finally, there may be a significant impact from the fact that the Gulf Arab states have sworn to destroy ISIS and prevent any blowback into their own countries. As part of their anti-ISIS campaign, these Arab governments have signaled that Muslim immigrant workers from places across South and Southeast Asia will be carefully scrutinized and banned from economic opportunities if they, or any members of their families, are determined to be ISIS-aligned jihadists.64 This threat could have a major impact, considering that over 20 million migrant workers and their families across South Asia send some $12 billion in remittances home annually.
Combined, these four hypotheses appear to explain a lot about the uniqueness of South Asia when it comes to the pursuit of jihad. They emphasize that longstanding patterns of Muslim inclusivity in India coupled with three decades of established jihadists place unique barriers on ISIS’ appeal within the region.
No state in South Asia should be comfortable that it may not suffer a greater penetration from ISIS in the coming few months—therefore mandating vigilance. Indeed, the convoluted July 2015 announcement of Mullah Omar’s 2013 death will certainly reverberate in the South Asian jihadist landscape for months to come—impacting some allegiances and affiliations—and might make ISIS’ largely alien brand of jihad more appealing for a time. Yet the most salient factors in play across South Asia suggest that this region will remain mostly dominated by al-Qaeda’s version of global jihad. In turn, the priorities established by Zawahiri for jihad in his September 2014 message should remain the primary concern for South Asia policymakers. These remain the jihad on behalf of the Taliban in Afghanistan, support for the Tehrik-e-Taliban campaign in Pakistan, and support for persecuted Muslims in Bangladesh and Burma.
ISIS’ use of social media for a broad array of purposes, from radicalization to recruiting to resourcing, is unique to South Asia over the past decade. ISIS has even promulgated a significant number of original messages in Hindi, a language seldom if ever used in al-Qaeda jihadist propaganda. Thus, it behooves regional governments to up their game in terms of social media monitoring of ISIS messages. It will also be especially important for India’s Home Ministry to work closely with the Gulf Arab States. New Delhi can best slow radicalized Indian youth from transiting to the Gulf States en route to jihad in Syria or Iraq by sharing intelligence and cooperating.
Since early 2014, the fight has been on in the Salafi jihadist global space. Like Icarus, ISIS has burned brightly in the early going by employing a brash and high risk strategy that has exposed it to existential dangers, including many new enemies.
It is still early, but the intra-jihadist struggle increasingly pits the long-established global entity of al-Qaeda with a clear and disciplined approach to terror against an incredibly active and seemingly reckless ISIS. Nowhere are ISIS’ issues more visible than in South Asia, where ISIS has made minimal inroads against al-Qaeda’s ascendance despite the fact that countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are hotbeds of Islamic radicalism ripe with recruits. A curious combination of pre-established pathways for those aspiring to jihad, a relatively unreceptive Muslim community in India, and cunning al-Qaeda messaging has combined to stifle ISIS.
Could this be a pattern that is repeated in other regions of the world as the novelty and the momentum of ISIS in Syria and Iraq slows? The struggle between ISIS and al-Qaeda will continue for a lot longer before the results become clear.
Dr. Lynch thanks research assistant Graham Vickowski for his expert canvassing of hundreds of international and regional monographs and newspapers, cataloguing the impact of ISIS on Salafi jihadist outfits and individuals over a year-long period. The opinions expressed in this commentary represent Dr. Lynch’s own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.