ISIS in South Asia: Dealing With a Regional Threat

Map of South Asia
Map of South Asia

This Easter Sunday was witness to a series of bloody terror attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka which killed more than 300 civilians and wounded more than 500 people, making it one of the deadliest terror attacks in recent decades.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attacks. It has also claimed that these attacks were launched in retaliation to the recent attacks on mosques by White supremacists in New Zealand. Such a large scale attack carried out by ISIS that has brought a country to a state of emergency is an alarming development for the entire South Asian region. Nonetheless, this should not come as a surprise when we consider the possibility that after its defeat in Syria and Iraq, South Asia makes a fertile ground for ISIS to establish its presence, for the following reasons.

First, South Asia is home to major terrorist organizations, networks and groups such as the Taliban, Lashkar-e Jangavi, Jaish-e Mohammad, etc. that are already well-established in the region. The advent of ISIS into the region would be mutually beneficial for both the aforementioned established terrorist networks as well as ISIS. These groups could host the newcomers and make alliances with them, while the ISIS with better sources of funding could bring a whole new momentum to their activity.

Second, South Asia proves to be a region that could provide ISIS with more recruits. It could tap into the level of disenchantment with the states among the Muslim minorities in India and Sri Lanka. There have been rising incidents of Islamophobic attacks on the Muslim minorities in both India and Sri Lanka by majoritarian extremists, which have been orchestrated with impunity. This feeling of helplessness among the Muslim minorities could provide ISIS a convenient ground to recruit ‘fighters’. Furthermore, in the Muslim majority countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, religious fundamentalist groups seem to competing with each other on their levels of extremism in an attempt to win more zealous followers. So the rise of religious extremism in these countries also proves to be fodder for the rise of ISIS in the region.

The need for a pan-South Asian strategy to counter the ISIS

The shocking inaction of the Sri Lankan government despite receiving warnings from India and the US about the impending attacks, highlights the need for a more systematic and coordinated interstate counter terrorist framework in South Asia. Terrorism cannot be dealt with as a mere domestic national concern of respective states. It should rather be approached as a pan-South Asian concern where every state’s security is at stake.

It is well known that certain states in South Asia continue to have state-sponsored terrorism as a national policy. States have used organizations such as the Taliban, Jaish-e-Mohammad, etc. to orchestrate attacks on other states. However, unlike the above groups that have nationalistic agendas, ISIS cannot serve the nationalistic agenda of the states to use them as proxies against other states. ISIS has transnational territorial claims which could endanger the very existence of nation states in the region. Though it’s highly unlikely to succeed in establishing a transnational caliphate, ISIS could operate and inflict heavy damages to the countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka through terrorist attacks. Thus states that support terror networks should realize that their policies will ultimately prove to be self-destructive. All the states in the region should realize that they have a common ground to develop a unified strategy against terrorism at the regional level. This common strategy should include the following three components.

First, states should consider imposing restrictions on cross-border movements of Tablighi Jamaats, networks for spreading faith, and other extremist religious organizations. There is evidence that members of these groups are traveling back and forth across the region with official visas. While Tablighis’ activities at the local level could be innocuous, their cross-border contacts make them susceptible to infiltration by the ISIS. Travel restrictions could minimize their inter and intra network contacts and prevent them from being recruited by the ISIS. 

Second, states should boldly acknowledge the links between terrorist networks related to ISIS and their linkages with the networks that are led from the Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Emirates. Furthermore, the states in the region should make sure to sever these groups’ economic ties with rich Sheikhs in the Gulf who are major funders of extremist and terrorist networks. This policy could however be complicated because millions of South Asian workers work in the Gulf countries and send home significant remittances. The challenge would be to differentiate between remittances and terrorist funding.

Third, intelligence sharing between states of South Asia (and beyond) is fundamental. Interstate rivalries within South Asia and the lack of trust between the states should not jeopardize sharing of crucial counter-terror intelligence and establishing systems to coordinate counterterrorism measures. It is pertinent to note that the Indian intelligence had warned the Sri Lankan government based on information from a Tamil Nadu (India) based extremist group. This highlights the cross-border South Asian connections of terror networks even in the latest Sri Lankan bombings. Several Jihadi terrorist groups in South Asia have been proved to have connections with terrorist groups in neighboring states. Several groups active in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh have links to each other and the Sri Lankan bombings also seem to prove the same. Therefore, this ‘South Asian’ Jihadi terrorist network comes in handy for global players such as ISIS, providing it with a transnational base in the region. Thus states should keep their interstate misgivings aside and work with each other to establish joint counter-terrorist measures to counter the rise of ISIS and Jihadi terror in the region.

The Pitfalls of Counterterrorism and Dangers of co-option by the Right

Such counter-terrorist policies should however be implemented with great caution in the South Asian context. The current government in India has been infamous for its treatment of Muslim minorities, with several leaders in the government openly advocating violence against the community or allowing perpetrators of violence against Muslims to escape with total impunity. Sri Lanka has also witnessed several anti-Muslim attacks and riots, orchestrated by Buddhist Majoritarian organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena. Counter-terror laws have also proved to give a free hand for police and security personnel in India to harass Muslim youth and many have been languishing in prisons as undertrials. It also should be noted that the discourse on terrorism has often been hijacked by the majoritarian right in both India and Sri Lanka to target the minorities. The bombings in Sri Lanka have been used by the ruling party in India as an electoral issue, targeting Muslim minorities, in the Indian general elections happening now. Instances of violence from extremist groups belonging to the minority communities have historically been used as reasons to orchestrate large scale ethnic pogroms against minorities in both India and Sri Lanka. The anti-Tamil riots of 1983 in Sri Lanka and the Gujarat riots of 2002 in India against Tamils and Muslims respectively, are examples. Thus, states should act with extreme restraint and caution when dealing with such issues and refrain from securitizing entire communities as threats, to fulfill their own majoritarian agenda.

Thus any counter-terrorist measure should not dehumanize the majority of Muslims in South Asia and the states should not implement illegal surveillance measures that may disrupt the dignity of the community. The humanitarian concerns of Muslim communities should be taken seriously not only for the sake of human rights but also for the sake of dismantling the terror organizations, because working with the Muslim communities could ensure the success of this policy. It is important to note that leaders from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka had, in fact, warned the Sri Lankan government about possible attacks by radical elements within the community. Thus, close coordination with the community and its leadership is crucial in tackling the growing presence of Jihadi networks in the region. It is time the governments and leaders from India and Sri Lanka realized that anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence against Muslims with tacit state support would only give credence for groups like the ISIS in their quest for legitimacy among new recruits.

Image: Bernard Gagnon [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.