ISIS caboodle – Headed which way?

February 5, 2018 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


Call it ISIS, ISIL or Islamic State, the organization continues to maintain the top spot as the most dangerous terrorist organization of the world. Over 40 militant groups alleged allegiance to ISIS. These include the Boko Haram of Nigeria and the Tehrik-i-Talban (TTP) of Pakistan ranked the 4 and 6 respectively in the global ranking of the most dangerous terrorist organizations. Other prominent ISIS affiliates include the Maute Group of Philippines, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In July 2017, the US Military had announced that "At least 75% of ISIS fighters have been killed since the US-led coalition launched airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. By last December, they estimate ISIS' ranks had winnowed to between 12,000 and 15,000." Subsequently, on December 15, 2017 a second announcement by the US Military said, "ISIS has lost 98% territory it once held -- with half of that terror group's so-called "caliphate" having been recaptured since President Trump took office less than a year ago", as reported in Washington Times of January 3, 2018. Last month Iraq announced complete victory over ISIS. However, post this announcement there have been two major terrorist attacks in Iraq claimed by ISIS. There are also reports of ISIS having re-captured some parts of Damascus in Syria, even captured a tank and are waving ISIS flags from buildings of the city. Prior to the Trump Administration's decision to go full force against the ISIS, the US Director FBI had stated on July 27, 2016, "Eventual victory against the Islamic State could well lead to an uptick of terrorist attacks in the West, not a reduction in them..... hundreds of really dangerous people, and they are going to flow primarily to Western Europe, but some could well end up in the United States".

But there has been no major uptick of terrorist acts in US and Western Europe, so where have the thousands of ISIS cadres gone? But before this it is important to understand that all global players are invariably using terrorist organizations as proxy forces in pursuit of political power, capturing energy and mineral resources and keeping territories considered strategic under influence in pursuance of individual national interests. After all how did 10,000 strong heavily armed ISIS cadres suddenly emerge to capture Mosul in July 2014, why was global action against them only after they had merged into seven million population, and how could they continue to sell $3 million worth oil daily with a 40-member coalition. Who trains, arms and finances these organizations – isn't it all part of geopolitical power play? There were also reports that when the major ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria was attacked, large number of ISIS fighters with families covertly allowed to escape under western supervision.

Presently, major Islamic State (IS) movement is being reported in Afghanistan, where some 10,000 IS cadres are reported. These include Algerian and French ISIS fighters from iraq-Syria, as also Uyghur fighters. Large presence is reported in Badakshan region of Northern Afghanistan. With respect to the Khorasan branch of ISI, the US intelligence had stated in February 2016 that it was "amalgamation of primarily disaffected and rebranded former Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members". But what remained unsiad was that their colescing was under aegis of Pakistan's ISI and probably had ISI and covert Pakistai regulars presence. Pakistan contimues to be a conduit for ISIS cadres. ISI-linked and Pakistan-based terrorist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-i-Mohammed (JeM) and Haqqani Network are attacking Afghanistan individualy and in conjunction other terrorist organizartions. On July 27, 2016, Voice of America reported Afghanistan officially telling Pakistan that Hafiz Saeed, former LeT chief is directing ISIS operations in Afghanistan. China and Pakistan are both back the Afghan Taliban as well, so do Russia and Iran to some extent – all aiming to oust US-NATO forces from Afghanistan. Rest of South Asia, is having more of of AQIS influence persently, albeit youth from Bangladesh (38), Sri Lanka (100), Maldives (200+) and India (100) have joined ISIS over the years. Some of them have been killied and some even returned home. There are differing views of ISIS presence in J&K but the Press Trust of India (PTI) report of November 19, 2018 stating the Centre has taken note of ISIS claiming first attack in Kashmir could be one indication. Besides there have been ISIS recruiters in India like their twitter handler in Bengaluru and other radicalized individuals like Zakir Naik and the Jihadi John; Abdul Subhan Qureshi aka Tauqeer – all pointing to the need for greater caution.

In Southeast Asia, ISIS-affiliated Maute Group and linked Abu Sayyaf are active. Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines are facing terrorist attacks. Philippines is the worst affected; in September 2017, 50 government troops were killed in Marawi. ISIS may have been defeated in Iraq-Syria but history shows it has always survived, same as Al Qaeda. There have been also some reports of Al Qaeda and ISIS cooperating in specific situations. There is no confirmation of Al Baghdadi, ISIS chief being dead. ISIS has large number of affiliates, has had access to Uranium, old CW shells and Sarin gas from Iraq, and apparently still has support from some global players without which it could not have built it strength in Afghanistan with the type of weaponry and transport it has. On balance ISIS remains a potent international threat, is not dead and likely to metamorphose in many forms. Their cyber activity has not reduced and recruitment and radicalization continues. Caution and international cooperation is the need of the hour.