View from Pakistan: New formations

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s declaration that the global terrorist group has established its subcontinental branch is the realisation of the Islamist militants’ long-standing dream. On the other hand, the formation of Al Qaeda in South Asia is also reflective of other developments taking place among militant circles, particularly with regard to ongoing internal rifts and confrontations.
Islamist militant organisations across the world are undergoing a transformation, which can cause changes in their chemistry and lead to the emergence of a new militant character. Militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan are also passing through a similar phase, leading to new formations among them.
At present, Al Qaeda faces some critical challenges to its survival. The Islamic State, previously the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has exposed Al Qaeda’s political and operational vulnerabilities which may hurt the latter’s ideological appeal to its affiliates. The IS has come up with a new approach and model for building an Islamic state. The central and other chapters of Al Qaeda have not been able thus far to capture and hold a territory for the same purpose. Their previous attempts at gaining territorial control only achieved partial and short-lived success as in 2011 and 2012 when Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a coalition of North African militants succeeded in capturing some territories for a short time. The Al Qaeda strategy to support local militant organisations for bringing about change has failed and in some cases proved counterproductive.
However, the IS is inviting Al Qaeda affiliates to become part of a central command which can help them consolidate their gains in their respective regions.
Of course, this will make it more difficult for counterinsurgents to tackle terrorists using conventional frameworks. For instance, if terrorists launch a massive campaign on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, it will become very difficult for the security forces of the two countries to counter them without evolving joint operational strategies. The emergence of the IS in the Syrian and Iraqi border regions can provide some insights.
Al Qaeda, it appears, is trying to respond by using its contacts and links with its affiliates and with groups inspired by its ideology. At the same time, it is trying to reach out to those regions and conflict zones where it can extend its influence by appealing to the “oppressed” Muslim communities. South Asia, a region that is inhabited by 40 per cent of the global Muslim population, has attraction for both Al Qaeda and the IS.
Al Qaeda sees an opportunity in India-held Kashmir, where a separatist movement has been crushed and the religio-nationalist appeal of militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad has lost its lustre. Al Qaeda is calling radical elements towards “pure” jihad, which it believes cannot be confined within the boundaries of nationalism or of a state.
The IS, too, is emerging as an inspirational force for radical Muslim populations in India and India-held Kashmir. Though it remains to be seen what impact these two global jihadist groups have there, they will certainly add to the troubles of Muslim communities.
In Pakistan, the Jamat-ul Ahrar (JA), newly established by some breakaway factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, is ideologically and politically more ambitious than the TTP and largely inspired by the successes of the IS. Even if it completely breaks its links with the TTP and Al Qaeda, the JA will remain ideologically and politically strong. As far as operational capabilities are concerned, the new group has a strong nexus with sectarian terrorist networks and factions of the Punjabi Taliban and the various Jundallah groups in mainland Pakistan.
The phenomenon of Jundallah is important in this perspective. Many groups are operating with the name of Jundallah in Pakistan, similar to Punjabi Taliban groups. While the Punjabi Taliban emerged from the Deobandi and Salafi militant groups, Jundallah groups are breakaway factions of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and its subsidiary student and militant wings. With their Islamist background, they are naturally inclined towards the IS, and like a few commanders of the Hizb-i-Islami — a JI affiliate in Afghanistan — intend to announce their allegiance to the IS.
Seen from this perspective, the JA is likely to have a close operational alliance with Jundallah groups inside Pakistan. Conversely, the TTP’s operational concentration will increase inside Afghanistan. It appears as if a new formation or alliance of Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, TTP, the local Taliban led by Gul Bahadur and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan will emerge which will be challenged by an alliance of JA and its Pakistani affiliates, and breakaway factions of the Afghan Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami.
The Haqqanis have not yet indicated which side they will join. Maybe they believe they can play with and manoeuvre both pro- and anti-Pakistan groups. But as ideological alignments among militants become clearer, they will have to decide which way to go.

The writer is a security analyst

By arrangement with Dawn

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