ISIS – DOWN and OUT?

US have declared that it has beaten ISIS out of its last bastions in Syria. However given the deadly nature of its leadership & close associations with other terror outfits, it may just be premature writing ISIS obituary.

By Mridu Kumari

The US-led coalition has claimed that it has defeated ISIS in the last area it held in Syria in the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border. But this claim may be acceptable to some of constituents, but large part of the world is not in agreement with what the US and its coalition partners claim.

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS may have weakened, but they have not been completely wiped out of the globe. In Afghanistan and the Central Asian region, ISIS has started enlarging its foot print. This has become a cause of concern for these countries as well as that of India and international community members. Islamic State terrorists’ continued killing spree in Afghanistan since last June and suicide bombing and hostage-taking incident in Jalalabad have generated a sense of fear among countries which want early return of peace and stability in the landlocked nation.

On 19 September 2018, Afghanistan deported an Indian national from Kerala who had entered the war-torn nation illegally with intention to join in 21 friends who were part of Afghanistan-based ISIS since 2016. Concerned by such developments, India is ready to help Afghanistan in its fight against ISIS. But it is dead against holding any talks with the Taliban without the group accepting to surrender arms, showing faith in the country’s constitution and democracy as preconditions.

However, fact is that besides ISIS, outfits like Al Qaeda have also made inroads into South Africa, which has otherwise remained peaceful since the 1990s. For India, what is worrisome is the presence of radical Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh in South Africa. Though these Pakistani or Bangladeshi community members in South Africa have so far not committed any act of terrorism, but there is a fear among security experts in India that their frequent visits to the Middle-East or back in Pakistan or Bangladesh could lead to their coming in the contacts of jihadi elements from these countries.

Also, there is fear that radical Muslim youths from Kerala, Karnataka or metro cities like Hyderabad, who have travelled to Syria to join ISIS, could be in touch with Muslim youths of South Africa of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin.

Talking to reporters on July 11, 2018, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs KiranRijiju said twenty-three Indians have so far joined ISIS, six of whom were reportedly killed. Earlier on December 20, 2017, India’s another Minster of State for Home Affairs, HansrajGangaramAhir told the Upper House of Parliament that 103 people accused of being ISIS sympathizers have been arrested across 14 states by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the central counter terrorism law enforcement agency and other security agencies. While India has put in use robust mechanism to tackle with radicalization of youth, its cooperation with several Middle-East, European, Eurasian countries and much expected signing of agreement on counter-terrorism with South Africa, will boost New Delhi’s capacity to deal with counter-terrorism.

However, with no experience in counter-terrorism operation, South Africa is said to be facing stiff challenge on intelligence gathering front. It has less intelligence sleuths at the ground level than at the top. In this background, the US and its coalition partners’ claim that they have defeated ISIS in Syria is like negating the truth. Experts say the US may have weakened the ISIS, but the ideology that it has carried along for years has not been wiped out. Also its extremist link is still alive. Experts say that it is not ISIS is invincible, but so long as the causes that gave rise to the extremist group are permitted to persist the broken politics in the Arab and Islamic world, the fraying and delegitimization of state institutions, as well as ongoing geostrategic rivalries and foreign interventions, there will be opportunities for the ISIS and like-minded groups to rebound.

The recent history of the ISIS activity shows that it has proved resilient, adaptive and resourceful, tapping into the deep sense of outrage and injustice felt by Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria and beyond. The first factor that has helped in the emergence of ISIS is the organic crisis of governance, and ungovernable spaces that plagues Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, West Africa and Afghanistan. Areas where state and local authorities hold little to no sway, and provide little to no support, are fertile breeding grounds for extremist organizations.

The second factor is the fierce Cold War between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran. Although the Saudi-Iran clash is driven by geostrategic calculations, it has taken on local sectarian overtones that play out daily on streets in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. The ISIS has capitalized on this rivalry by portraying itself as the defender and protector of persecuted Sunnis.

Overlaying the geostrategic clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran are the machinations of other regional and foreign powers that are using local radical groups to achieve their self-interested political ends. For example, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are areas where other international powers like Turkey, Russia and the United States are battling for influence and control, a situation that the ISIS and Al Qaeda exploit to their advantage.

The third factor is the distribution of the ISIS combatants and the persistent threat they pose. As far back as 2016, when the ISIS began to lose control of major urban centers, its leaders began planning for this day. Thousands of fighters have reportedly dispersed with fleeing civilians in Iraq and Syria and gone into hiding.

It has also spread its tentacles near and wide, dispatching hundreds of veteran operatives to new fronts in Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, West Africa, Afghanistan and beyond. Not unlike Al Qaeda, though now on a greater and more lethal scale that the ISIS is a transnational network with bases and sleeping cells in more than a dozen countries.

Notwithstanding the catastrophic military blows the group has suffered and the loss of its territorial rule, the ISIS has made it unmistakably clear that it will carry on the fight even if the caliphate is militarily incapacitated. In early March, ISIS fighters released a video from the Syrian town of Baghouz that urged the group’s followers to maintain their faith in the caliphate, even as Kurdish forces advanced toward the last of its territory.