Despite dismissals by officials, so-called Islamic State’s proclamation last month of the establishment of its first ‘province’ in India, closely followed by the declaration of a parallel offshoot in Pakistan, serves to illustrate the broadening horizons of the militant group in the post-caliphate era – a shift which holds the potential for profound repercussions for the security environment across the subcontinent.
The announcement by the militant group’s Amaq news agency on May 10, 2019 of the creation of a ‘Wilayah al-Hind’ centered on the disputed region of Kashmir came following clashes with Indian security forces in the Shopian district of the province during which ISIS-linked militant Ishfaq Ahmed Sofi was killed. This pronouncement came just five days prior to the announcement of a parallel ‘Wilayah Pakistan’ after a spate of attacks near Quetta on May 15. In spite of dismissals by senior police officials that such claims were ‘pure propaganda’ on the part of ISIS as the group struggles to maintain its relevance following the implosion of its ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, recent flurries of activity across the subcontinent indicate that such moves should not be so easily dismissed as mere rhetoric. South Asia, a region with a long and complex history of religious extremism in which political rifts often correspond with communal fault lines, is likely to present an attractive proposition for those seeking the resurrection of the group as a globalized insurgency.
ISIS’s Post-Caliphate Strategy
ISIS has always seen itself as far greater than the territorial entity centered on Iraq and Syria. Rather, the group’s identity is predicated on its self-perception as the vanguard of an Islamic revival, seeking to unite the Islamic ummah under one banner. As such, ISIS has long sought to exploit regional power vacuums, from Libya to the Philippines, to export its model abroad where local conditions permit, though such goals have, until now, been secondary to the imperative of expanding territorially across the group’s Middle Eastern heartland.
Rather than representing a fatal blow to the organization, the collapse of the jihadist proto-caliphate has merely served to precipitate a broader strategic pivot on the part of ISIS with a return to its insurgent roots – though this time on a global scale. Such a strategic blueprint seeks to exploit the continued attraction of the ISIS ‘brand’ across the Islamic world, exploiting localized grievances and outsourcing operations to local militant groups in a bid to construct a network of affiliates across the globe.
In a recent video, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi appeared to confirm the group’s continuing global ambitions in his first appearance in almost five years, declaring the existence of new wilayat in Central Africa and Turkey whilst reaffirming the continued capabilities of the group within established enclaves of Islamist militancy in Yemen, Somalia, and the Caucasus. Such expansive claims have not gone unsubstantiated. In recent weeks, ISIS has launched a spate of attacks from Sinai to Mozambique to Indonesia. However, nowhere has the group pursued its post-caliphate strategy more vociferously, or aggressively, than in modern Islamism’s historic heartland – South Asia.
Target: South Asia
Islamic State’s presence in South Asia is nothing new. Since 2014, when the organization announced the establishment of its Khorasan Province – centered on the historic region encompassing what is modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia – ISIS has firmly embedded itself in the ecosystem of militancy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, using the lawless region as a launchpad for operations across the subcontinent. Nor are these latest attacks the first to be attributed to ISIS in either India or Pakistan proper.
However, events of recent months suggest that rather than representing a peripheral theatre of operations, South Asia is now taking center stage in ISIS’s global insurgency. The announcement of provinces in India and Pakistan comes following a burst in ISIS activity across the subcontinent. In early May, the group announced a new ‘emirate’ in Bengal under Bangladeshi militant Abu Muhammad Al-Bengali whilst claiming responsibility for a spate of attacks in Afghanistan on behalf of ISIS-Khorasan, which Russian officials allege has over 5,000 fighters stationed in northern Afghanistan, poised to strike into Central Asia. Most significantly, the devastating Easter Sunday bombings against high-profile targets across Sri Lanka, resulting in over 253 fatalities, serves to illustrate the continued capacity of the group to conduct mass-casualty operations far beyond its usual zone of operations. All this points to a fundamental strategic reorientation on the part of the terror group towards South Asia, eyeing the subcontinent’s myriad communal fault lines as providing fertile ground for the propagation of ISIS’s extreme ideology.
Of course, the seemingly rapid proliferation of ISIS affiliates across the subcontinent must be understood in the context of the group’s implosion in its Middle Eastern heartland, and the imperative this provides to demonstrate the organization’s continued relevance in the post-caliphate era. Indeed, the recent spate of isolated attacks, though notable, should not be taken as evidence of a permanent and broad-based insurgency across the subcontinent. Moreover, despite the group’s expansive claims, ISIS has so far given no indication as to the claimed geographical extent of its India and Pakistan provinces, suggesting that there may be more style than substance to the organization’s apparent South Asia pivot.
However, neither should such a move be written off as mere propaganda. Whilst experts attest that the group has so far experienced considerable difficulty establishing itself in South Asia’s militant ecosystem, given the nationalist inclinations of Islamist insurgencies across the subcontinent, Kashmir being a case in point, the Easter Sunday attacks illustrate that the ISIS ‘brand’ does not require a physical base of operations to launch such devastating mass-casualty attacks. In its decentralized, post-caliphate form all ISIS requires is both the will and skills to carry out such an attack, neither of which, given the region’s decades-long struggle with religious militancy, are in short supply across South Asia.
For now, ISIS’s South Asia pivot may be more rhetoric than reality – though for how much longer remains to be seen.