ISIS, Taliban, Al Qaeda etc are not just military groups. They are rather lifelong commitments to a struggle. We must not think for a moment that groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Taliban are not good at what they are doing. They have serious ideology, replete with intense passions, beliefs and fears and they mean to dominate the world. They have built a fearsome movement, based on deep religious conviction all over the world under different names whether they are Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram or anything else. They think they are winning, so do intelligence agencies around the world, and so do I.
Today ISIS seems defeated in Iraq. But only few know that ISIS has long worked from a detailed written time table for global victory. It is a Radical Mein Kampf which was discovered by a courageous young American journalist in Pakistan in 2015. Details of that manual could be discovered on the internet in bits and pieces. In this article I will discuss what future look like for ISIS on the basis of what I have seen, studied, witnessed, researched and experienced firsthand.
In order to understand ISIS and its ideology, we require a “Pattern Analysis”. It is a very detailed form of intelligence work that requires the complex breakdown of an enemy’s cell structure, much like a doctor would break down a disease to find a cure.
IS ISIS A SEQUEL TO AL QAEDA TRAGEDY
It was a cold evening of 15th December 2017 when I met with Sir Jonathan Evans, ex Chief of the MI5 – the UK’s domestic security and intelligence agency at an award ceremony. Responding to one of the questions regarding war on terror and terror groups he said,” Touseef do you know why 9/11 happened. It happened due to the lack of imagination of security agencies. If we were to succeed against ISIS or other terrorist organizations, we have to think with their brains. We have to prepare ourselves for worst incidents and out of the box planning from their side.” He said it all. After 9/11 took place, CIA and FBI invited Hollywood directors and producers to consult them with what worse could happen or could be planned that may be more devastating than fall of World Trade Center. By doing so, CIA was able to neutralise many future plots of terrorism on US soil. Similar type of thinking and imagination is required to study the rise and down fall of ISIS – the so called Caliphate.
The UK conducted its first massive-scale cyber attack against ISIS, systematically degrading its online infrastructure, GCHQ’s new director has revealed. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is an intelligence and security organisation responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance to the government and armed forces of the United Kingdom.
These operations, conducted in 2017, significantly contributed towards suppressing online terrorist propaganda and hindered ISIS’ ability to coordinate attacks, Jeremy Fleming confirmed while making his first public speech as GCHQ director.
In his talk in Manchester, the former MI5 agent outlined how GCHQ has been growing its online counterterrorism capabilities for more than a decade, with action taken leading to significant shifts in the fight on the ground.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson recently has requested British PM to double the number of British Boots in Afghanistan. Existing 650 British soldiers in Afghanistan work closely with Kabul Security Force. He claims that keeping Afghanistan secure would ensure safety of United Kingdom. On the other hand Britain has terribly failed to prove this rationale in front of their own people, whose very protection they are talking about.
I met Ali Soufan, the ex FBI agent turned author and analyst in December 2017 in London at RUSI. He traces the evolution of terror organisations, from Bin Laden and 9/11 through the ill-advised “war on terror” to the destabilisation of the Middle East and the emergence of Islamic State and other jihadi groups – and the foreign fighters attracted to fighting for them. The missing link in the west’s counter-terrorism strategies, he says, is “not looking into what these folks believe in. Ideology is the cornerstone of these organisations. That’s why we should not [be distracted] by different names, different groups – this is al-Qaida, this is Daesh – I think we have to go into the glue that pulls these things together. It is ideology and we have to deal with that. If we don’t, we will continue to suffer for years to come.” I can’t agree with him more. He also presented his latest book to me.
Terrorism thrives in chaos. Stage one of al-Qaida’s strategy, laid out in the jihadi handbook Management of Savagery, is to create, or take advantage of, regions of chaos or “savagery” and move in to fill the vacuum. Al-Qaida is playing the long game. Isis was too quick to create its caliphate and it could not hang on to it. Before we only had one vacuum, in Afghanistan, they were operating from there and spreading their message. Now we have so many vacuums – Syria, Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, Tunisia, the Philippines – and it’s expanding. That’s very dangerous. We have to pay attention to these kind of things.
The Iraq invasion was a colossal mistake. Prime focus must have been on Afghanistan, on al-Qaida and the Taliban. These groups should have swiftly brought them to justice. By 2003, al-Qaida was a dead breed; it was the invasion of Iraq that gave them new oxygen. Imagine if all these trillions of dollars wasted were focused on rebuilding Afghanistan, creating better education, better economic opportunities in areas where al-Qaida and Isis are recruiting. I think the world could have been a better place.
ISIS IN AFGHANISTAN – OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLE
It’s hard to say that how long ISIS have been in Afghanistan but officials started to hear rumors about the group operating in Afghanistan around 2014. James Cunningham, who was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan at the time, told Frontline that the group was using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a recruiting ground, trying to find fighters who would travel to Syria and Iraq.
But the Islamic State’s high profile attracted dissatisfied members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups who were eager for a rebrand. They were drawn to the Islamic State, because of the attention it was getting in the media there’s been increased dissatisfaction among certain elements of the Taliban, and with the media talking about ISIS all the time and the Afghan government playing up the idea of ISIS as a way of keeping the United States interested, all of that sort of set the ground for the groups to rebrand themselves.
When the Islamic State group first appeared in Afghanistan its ranks were mostly culled from among the most ferocious of Pakistani Taliban from Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region, driven out by a military offensive, as well as from among disgruntled Taliban, who were frustrated with a leadership reigning in its violence and considering negotiations to end fighting.
At its outset, the Islamic State was mostly confined to eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, but in recent years it has gained ground in the north and northeast of Afghanistan. Their ranks quickly swelled with Uzbek fighters, mostly from Central Asia’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, many of whom were driven out of Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region by a military offensive.
Analysts say the movement brutality’s was unmatched and, as outsiders to Afghanistan, the Uzbek fighters show no compunction about carrying out mass killings. ISIS, with the aid of Uzbeks, has made inroads into northern Afghanistan where Afghan Uzbeks mostly live. There have been several reports of open recruitment by IMU members. The size of ISIS in Afghanistan is unknown, but estimates generally run between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters.
The latest wave of terror attacks carried out in Afghanistan by ISIS demonstrates that, for all the recent setbacks it has suffered, the organisation has lost none of its ability to wreak carnage around the world. ISIS was quick to claim responsibility for the bombings last year which killed 25 people, including nine reporters, saying that they were directed at Afghanistan’s intelligence headquarters.
Its defeat in Iraq and Syria has certainly had a negative impact on the morale of ISIS recruits. Having seen thousands of their co-fighters perish under the coalition’s merciless military assault, many of the survivors have simply decided that jihad is not for them, and returned to their home countries.
At its height, the so-called caliphate was said to comprise an estimated 25,000 foreign fighters originating from more than 100 countries. At least 5,600 of them have returned home, including 20-30 per cent of fighters who came from Europe. Thousands more have been detained by local opposition groups and government forces working with the coalition.
Afghanistan, where the country’s security forces are struggling to cope with the continued threat posed by the Taliban, presents a perfect location for ISIS remnants to regroup and mount fresh terror attacks.
A report issued this week by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar) made for depressing reading, reporting that the Afghan security forces had registered a significant decline in their numbers, while the Taliban and other militants groups had increased their control or influence to around 14.5 per cent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts – the highest level since the group started recording such data in late 2015. The lawlessness affecting large chunks of Afghanistan therefore provides fertile territory for ISIS, which has seen its numbers rise significantly in recent months, with coalition officials estimating its strength in Afghanistan at between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters. Like the Taliban, ISIS is committed to driving the remnants of the 15,000-strong Nato mission out of the country and establishing a harsh form of Islamic rule throughout the country.
ISIS’ arrival in Afghanistan has not gone unchallenged by the Taliban, which resents the introduction of a rival Islamist group that has large numbers of foreign fighters, unlike the Taliban, which is mainly drawn from the indigenous Pashtun community. This has resulted in a number of clashes between the two groups, particularly in Nangarhar province.
The emergence of a rival Islamist terror group to the Taliban is certainly bad news for attempts by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to revive peace talks with the Taliban leadership. ISIS is opposed to any form of deal and has managed to attract a number of Taliban fighters to its ranks who take the same view. The increasingly complex and fraught situation that is developing on the ground in Afghanistan is certainly something that the West and its regional allies cannot ignore.
ISIS may have been roundly defeated in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the US-led coalition, but that does not mean the war is over. This time around, the West and its allies must make sure not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and maintain their vigilance to make sure ISIS is never again in a position to re-establish its so-called caliphate.
FUNDING FOR ISIS IN AFGHANISTAN
I met with Mr. Hamid Karzai – ex President of Afghanistan in London last year during a function in Afghan Embassy. The ex American Ambassador in Afghanistan Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad was also present alongwith Christina Lamb. President Hamid Karzai pointed out that millions of dollars are spread from helicopters in the Afghan skies on areas with stronghold of ISIS. Those helicopters have no marks on them to avoid identification. How are they and why are they funding insurgents? He further added that since 2001, Afghanistan is under strict surveillance of CIA, NATO, ISAF etc. How on earth ISIS escaped this surveillance and established its hold in Afghanistan. I am sure my readers are getting an ideas of where he was coming from.
Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from illegal mining of talc, much of which ends up in the United States and Europe. About 500,000 tons of talc, used in products ranging from paint to baby powder, were exported from Afghanistan in March 2018, according to Afghan mining ministry figures cited in the group’s report.
Almost all went to Pakistan, where much of it is re-exported. Pakistan provides more than a third of US imports of talc and much also ends up in the European Union. Unwitting American and European consumers are inadvertently helping fund extremist groups in Afghanistan.
Illegal mining of gemstones and minerals such as lapis lazuli is a major source of revenue for Taliban insurgents, and the report said Islamic State was fighting for control of mines in Nangarhar, the province where it has its stronghold. Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, has large deposits of talc as well as minerals such as chromite and marble, and sits on major smuggling routes used for drugs and other contraband.
Most of the times in the past decade or so, Saudi Arabia has been accused of indirectly funding ISIS and other terrorist groups. Since the Sept 11 attacks, staged mainly by Saudi-born hijackers, and a series of attacks by Al Qaeda and ISIS against the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has become more serious about extremism; some experts regard it as the top counterterrorism partner in the region. It has taken a zero-tolerance approach to ISIS and joined the American-led coalition fighting the group. Even so, American government reports say financial support for terrorism from Saudis “remains a threat to the kingdom and the international community.” And while this has been ignored by Mr. Trump, Saudi Arabia undermines whatever good work it does by continuing to spend billions of dollars spreading Wahhabism, its ultraconservative brand of Islam — which in turn inspires ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists — through a network of imams and mosques in countries like Kosovo, Indonesia and Pakistan.
PUTTING THE RIGHT TACTICS N PLACE
- Tackle ideology – not terrorists
In traditional warfare armies determine the winner and loser of battlefield conflict. One side wins and the other side surrenders. No so in a guerrilla war where , the more enemies you capture and kill, the worse things can get. Just like Soviets who killed countless afghans and foreign jihadists but when war was over, there were more enemy fighters than before. The reason is very simple. If you kill one of them, ten new fighters rush to fill the gap. Capturing and killing terrorists can make allies feel good but it is a failed strategy. Unless we find a solution to tackle ideologies and doctrines of ISIS and related groups, this war cannot be won.
- Intelligence based war
On most of the instances, a military war has been launched against the militant groups and insurgents. The relative weight of military and intelligence operations must be inverted, i.e by treating this war as an intelligence war. ISIS must be outworked and outwit and that is not possible unless we get to know these groups better than they know themselves. There is a need for collaborative transparent intelligence sharing in a more rapid fashion than warfare had ever seen. Human Intelligence must work at highest levels of hierarchy in ISIS. Unless agencies succeed in penetrating higher hierarchies of ISIS and related groups, stopping incidents like 9/11 would remain difficult.
- Deradicalisation programmes
Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, recently revealed that 60 foreign fighters who joined ISIS and other terror groups in Syria and Iraq are now back and living in Canada. Home Office in UK funded many Deradicalisation programmes before 2017 and when it stopped doing so, the terrorists incidents started happening. Related programmes in Indonesia have worked quite good and have reduced the number of people joining ISIS considerably. Same applied for Saudi and Pakistan.
Peace can be achieved through programs that are geared towards moving people smoothly and peacefully from violent extremism. These programs can take different shapes, subjects, aims and sizes. De-radicalization is a major component of counter-terrorism, and should be holistic and comprehensive. Governments and civil society should employ multiple preventive mechanisms instead of focusing on military and security approaches.
- Win Ideological War
A full scale ideological war must be waged against radicalization and its supporters. If we can’t tackle ISIS doctrines that call for domination, this would support ISIS and other related forces.
- Don’t overlook the political and socioeconomic roots of ISIS
True, of the many components that comprise ISIS, some are religious and pursue theologically inspired goals. And true, decades of Gulf-sponsored religious messaging, via schools or satellite television, helped shape a climate receptive to this message. But in the Middle East, where ISIS and other jihadist groups have won the support or acquiescence of communities under their control, that is not so much because of their ideology and more because of the things they provide, particularly for people living in conflict zones or failed states. ISIS has won support thanks largely to the violence Sunni Muslims suffered at the hands of regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, and by appealing to the disenfranchised and alienated within the Sunni community. And in Europe, the new generation of radicalized youth are lured to ISIS online, rather than through mosques, often with little reference to religion and more to violence or fraternity. To paraphrase the French scholar Olivier Roy: we are witnessing the Islamization of radicalism rather than the radicalization of Islam.
- Understand the multi-dimensional nature of the problem
ISIS and other extremist groups are symptoms of the dramatic upheaval in the Middle East. The Sunni/Shia divide and a deep sense of Sunni victimization are, of course, prime factors in its rise. Less known, but perhaps no less important, are parallel changes within Sunni communities themselves, particularly in Iraq, where ISIS has been able to play on a series of social fault lines – urban, rural, tribal, generational, and so forth – to give others, not only extremists, a significant stake in their continued rule.
- Don’t listen to what Americans usually say
Those people who have heard President Trump’s speech at Fort Meyer last year where he disclosed his Afghanistan Strategy would understand what I want to say. In April 2017 Americans claimed that only 700 ISIS fighters remained in Afghanistan and then they dropped “mother of all bombs” against an ISIS facility. In June 2017, Americans claimed to have killed Abu Sayed, the leader of ISIS in Afghanistan, a move which would destabilize ISIS, according to them. But in less than 8 months after their claims were made, ISIS not only managed to survive but had managed to launch attacks in Afghanistan quite successfully. United States continues to topple Governments but has failed terribly to bring stabilization in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria. Changing Governments is not the solution but economic and political stability is. Trump clearly stated that their job is not nation building but killing terrorists. I seriously doubt what is more fast – the rate at which Americans are throwing bombs on ISIS in Afghanistan or the rate at which ISIS is growing.
BEGINNING OF THE END
Richard Barrett, a former director of global counterterrorism at Britain’s MI6 said the fall of the caliphate would damage the group’s appeal to potential recruits because they can no longer sell the idea of a “perfect Islamic state. Many people went to join something that existed, not something that is hypothetical,” he said. As ISIS leaders spend time “scurrying around” trying to survive, they have less time to plan and coordinate attacks, he said.
But Shiraz Maher, deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London, believes the military campaign only addressed the territorial aspect of ISIS and warned that the terror group was “reverting to type.”
Despite the collapse of the “so-called ‘Caliphate’” in Iraq and Syria, extremist movements are continuing to gain momentum. ISIS remains formidable. The group retains a significant physical presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia and continues to direct or inspire acts of terrorism in the West. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the international community’s focus on ISIS to strengthen its own hand. Ongoing turmoil in the Middle East has allowed al-Qaeda to embed itself among Sunni opposition forces in Syria and Yemen. Radical ideology continues to attract new followers. Governments are facing an unrelenting flow of recruits to extremism and struggling to create an effective policy response. In the West, ongoing debates over pathways to radicalization, the effectiveness of de-radicalization and the efficacy of “countering violent extremism” programs epitomizes this struggle. The threat posed by this ideology remains alarming and will continue to pose a significant challenge for years to come.