Assessing the Threat of Daesh in South Asia

As international coalitions pound Daesh-controlled territory in the Middle East, questions are emerging over the longevity of the threat posed by the group – both within its heartland and beyond the borders of its self-proclaimed caliphate. While some contend that Daesh will continue to hold considerable sway, others argue that the group’s extreme brutality, incoherent strategizing, and increasing internal factionalism, among other factors, will lead to its ultimate demise. However, as Daesh loses territory in the Middle East and its economic power dwindles, there has been heightened interest in the group’s future role in South Asia. Recent attacks in Bangladesh and Pakistan claimed by or attributed to Daesh hint at the terror group’s expanding presence in the region. Afghanistan also faces an increasing threat from Daesh, where the establishment’s presence seeks to expand its base by winning favor from fractured and disenfranchised schisms, particularly in the eastern provinces of the state. In India, the threat of Daesh is often portrayed as “manageable, but serious.”

While the number of apprehended individuals from the region linked to the terrorist outfit may be small compared to elsewhere, the increasing magnitude, scale, and intensity of attacks claimed by or attributed to Daesh in South Asia denote a “growing” threat. In addition to radicalizing vulnerable individuals through its ideological appeal, Daesh’s tendency to graft onto existing terrorist organizations and utilize their arterial linkages to further its designs may require the most immediate attention, rather than the threat of geographical expansion into the region.

Spreading Tentacles in South Asia

Daesh would face a bevy of tactical challenges should it focus on consolidating territory in South Asia, compared to the rapid strides it made in Syria and Iraq. Relative political stability, softer sectarian divisions, stronger state defense institutions, and markedly different politico-economic structures and socio-cultural contexts do not provide the most conducive environment for Daesh to successfully infiltrate the region.

But recent events indicate these efforts may not all be in vain. Since early 2015, there have been at least 14 attacks in Afghanistan and about half as many in Pakistan claimed by or attributed to Daesh, killing hundreds in total. These attacks have strengthened the fear of the terror group’s direct or affiliated presence in the region. The imprint of Daesh on the Holey Artisan bakery attack in Bangladesh in July of last year cannot be denied, despite the Bangladeshi leadership’s denial that the group has established a potent presence in the country.

In line with its slogan “baqiyawatatamaddad”– “lasting and expanding” – the terror group is attempting to expand and consolidate its base beyond its traditional strongholds. Suffocated in its Khilafa and faced with a presumably losing situation, Daesh may prefer to trade localized cohesiveness for a morphed, splintered model. Forging opportunistic partnerships or “marriages of convenience” with regional terrorist groups and local franchises and affiliates (prominently in South and Southeast Asia) has been a crucial part of these efforts. Concurrently, Daesh may succeed in appealing to renegade jihadist and militant factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are dissatisfied with their current masters, possibly co-opting them as part of its expansionist agenda. The cyber agenda is undoubtedly vital to this scheme. Daesh’s virtual soldiers, tasked with directing remote-controlled attacks, are set to make the challenge of countering the threat even more difficult.

Relevant stakeholders, including local governments, tend to either underestimate or exaggerate the threat of groups like the Wilayat Khorasan, which some suggest may seek to establish an Islamic caliphate as a sub-group of Daesh in South Asia. Even if it fails in establishing territorial control in the region, Daesh’s assertive presence in South Asia through local affiliates and ideological conglomerates could trigger a dangerous domino effect of bloodshed and terrorist one-upmanship, catapulting the region into the throes of a prolonged instability.

Countering the Challenge

It is imperative that South Asian governments work together to combat traditional terror structures and prevent Daesh’s expansion in the region without aggrieving or alienating vulnerable populations. Domestically, a balance between retributive strategies, which involve military, police, and legal action, and restorative approaches, or winning “hearts and minds,” is essential. While kinetic counter-terror measures are essential, exclusively relying on such an approach does little to address the cycles of grievance, aggression, and revenge among affected populations, which can ultimately lead to radicalization. More nuanced counter-terror strategies that focus on policies addressing the underlying “push” and “pull” factors behind radicalization are more likely to secure solutions that are lasting and transformative.

Thus, the necessity of generating and disseminating viable counter-narratives to extremist propaganda cannot be emphasized enough. Radicalization, being a process of socialization, must be countered through socialization. However, instead of imposing rigid, platitudinous, and often alien diktats, governments must involve credible, local messengers to communicate counter-narratives in order to enhance populations’ receptiveness. Counter-narrative campaigns and messages must be targeted to suit the social, cultural, economic, geographical, and demographic peculiarities of specific localities.

From a regional perspective, it is essential that states cooperate in anti-terrorism efforts through intelligence and information sharing, collaboration between law enforcement agencies, and “best practices.” States must look beyond bilateral bottlenecks in trying to take on a challenge which is truly global in its reach and agenda. Terrorism respects no territorial boundaries and is essentially indiscriminate when choosing its victims. The window of opportunity for South Asian countries to immunize their populations from the sway of extremist ideology seems to be closing, as military setbacks force Daesh to build a decentralized network of operations. It is vital that governments immediately and aggressively capitalize on all available counter-terror opportunities.

Daesh did not emerge out of thin air; a sustained process of geopolitical churning preceded its rise to diabolic power. A delicate situation seems to be unfolding in South Asia today, and warning bells are beginning to be sounded. While there may not be cause for panic just yet, living in denial would not be prudent either.

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Image 1: Asif Hassan via Getty

Image 2: Ahmad Al-Rubaye via Getty

Posted in , Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, ISIS, Pakistan, Terrorism

Navroz Singh

Navroz Singh

Navroz Singh is a researcher with the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi, focusing on radicalization and violent extremism. She graduated with honors in Political Science from Miranda House, University of Delhi, and also holds a post-graduate diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding from the Aung San Suu Kyi Centre for Peace, Lady Sri Ram College, University of Delhi. Her dissertation concentrated on analyzing individual vulnerabilities to radicalization, and counter-radicalization strategies, by drawing insight from the intersections between political, sociological and psychological theory.

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