Islamic State spreads its tentacles over South Asia

With shocking violence in the Philippines, what is the state of Jihadism in the subcontinent?
Islamic State spreads its tentacles over South Asia

A Pakistani policeman stands guard as devotees arrive at The Tomb of 13th century Sufi saint Shah Rukn-e-Alam in Multan on Feb. 17, following bomb attack on a shrine of 13th century Muslim Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan in Sindh province. (Photo by S.S. Miraza/AFP)

The Manchester terror bombing and the Philippines situation where the government in  Mindanao province is fighting the Maute Islamist group, have again put the spotlight on the growing threat of the so-called Islamic State in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

 

Pakistan 

In this Muslim-majority country, a 2014 military offensive near the Afghan border and operations in the region's cities saw the number of terrorist attacks reduced.

However, Islamic militants continue to demonstrate their ability to carry out deadly attacks with the most recent being a suicide bombing at the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar that killed 90 people on Feb. 16. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that terror attack via Amaq News.

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Security agencies conducted a raid in Karachi and took five suspected IS-linked militants, including a university professor and his niece on May 29. The suspects, according to reports, were planning to carry out targeted attacks in the city using explosives fitted to aerial drones.

"The Islamic State doesn't have an organized set up inside Pakistan. There are some like-minded militant groups and an ideological support base for them due to the jihadi narrative the state has built and propagated over the last three decades," said Brigadier Saad Muhammad, a security analyst who served as Pakistan's defense attache to Kabul between 2003 and 2006.

"Unfortunately, we, as a state, intentionally built a narrative that made our land fertile for the likes of the Taliban, IS and other jihadists. I am afraid they [IS militants] are going to increase their influence if the government doesn't take their threat more seriously," he said.

"When you promote a jihadi culture in the way we run our education system it is highly likely that militants will continue to surface."

Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad said Islamic State influence is spreading in Pakistan. "The government denies an organized presence in the country but the group poses a real threat. They have been successful in recruiting young jihadists using social media," Bishop Shukardin said. 

"A female medical student from our city was told in April to attack Easter worshipers," he said, referring to Naureen Leghari of Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, who was captured in a military raid on an IS cell in Lahore. She confessed to planning a suicide attack in a video released by army.

"Some sections of our society do agree with the religious ideology of IS but most of our nation is moderate and want things to get better," said the bishop.

Lutheran Bishop Jimmy Mathew of Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which has witnessed some of the worst attacks, said IS has inspired the Pakistani Taliban.

"They are using the cloak of religion for personal interests. Local militants change their names to spread fear but they are part of the same network. They carry out the same activities as IS and spare no one," Mathew said.

"Religious minorities, especially Christians and their places of worship, are usually attacked because they are soft targets and make international headlines."

 

Bangladeshi police secure a street in front of the building during a raid in Dhaka, on Sept. 2, 2016. Bangladesh police raided a militant hideout in the capital, killing a suspected top Islamist extremist who helped plan the deadly attack on a cafe in Dhaka that left 22 people dead in July. (Photo by Rajib Dhar/AFP)

 

Bangladesh

The violent attacks carried out in Mindanao province of Philippines by the Maute group and the subsequent martial law imposition by Duterte has shocked Bangladeshi activists.

Violence in the Philippines is strongly influenced by Islamic State philosophy despite counter-terrorism experts claiming that IS is on the brink of collapse.

"It is thought that IS is losing ground and its soldiers are defecting and returning home but they are still capable of causing massive damage in various countries through their extremist philosophy and ideology. The case of Maute group in the Philippines is just an example," said retired Major General Abdur Rashid, a Dhaka-based security analyst.

Despite a weakened Islamic State, its propaganda apparatus is still strong and they can influence young Muslims in various countries with a sizeable Muslim population, he said. However, Rashid said there was little chance of IS-inspired attacks in Bangladesh.

"IS has grown and survived in places where there are followers of radical Islam but in Bangladesh it has failed to garner support from people who largely believe in religious harmony and reject extremism," Rashid said.

"So, it will be tough for a militant outfit to carry out large-scale violence as people have developed anti-militant sentiments and law enforcers are cracking down on militancy," he added.

Even so, Bangladesh, the world's fourth-largest Muslim-majority nation, has seen a series of deadly attacks in recent years, leaving 46 people dead including atheist bloggers, writers, publishers, liberal academics, LGBTQ activists, religious minorities and foreigners.

In the worst attack on July 1, 2016, five terrorists pledging allegiance to IS massacred 20 hostages, most of them foreigners, at a cafe in a Dhaka diplomatic zone.

The Bangladesh government has repeatedly denied the presence of transnational terror in the country and instead blamed the violence on two home-grown militant outfits. Since the July 1 massacre, the groups have suffered a heavy crackdown by law enforcers, leaving over 50 militants killed and hundreds in jail or facing trial.

"Despite successful anti-militancy drives, our law enforcers have not succeeded in determining the exact number of Bangladeshis who left the country and joined IS. They to be vigilant and stop them entering the country," he added.  

Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi Diocese, chairman of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission expressed shock over the violence in the Philippines and noted that extremist ideology propagated by IS has the potential to cause havoc.

"Bangladesh government's position on IS, Al-Qaeda, or any other religious fundamentalist and extremist groups, is very clear and it has taken steps towards eradicating these groups but government measures have many limitations, loopholes and weak sides, so attacks in Bangladesh would not be a surprise," the prelate said.

While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed is sincere about tackling militancy, questions remain over the sincerity of other functionaries, posing a danger for minorities as well as liberal Muslims, Bishop Rozario said.

"There may not be IS or Al Qaeda in Bangladesh but there are many followers who are ready to give lives for their cause. Minorities are their main target," the prelate said.

"Everyone including Christians should take extra measures for safety because IS might be destroyed soon but its ideology has already been spread all over the world," he added. 

 

Indian officials from Gujarat's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) pose with Naem Ramodia (third left) and Wasim Ramodia (center) at ATS Headquarters on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on Feb. 26, after they were arrested for their alleged links to Islamic State. (Photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP)

 

India

The growing influence of Islamic State ideology in India's restive Jammu and Kashmir is emerging as a major worry for Indian security agencies.

On May 12, Islamic militant leader, Zakir Musa, threatened leaders from Kashmir's secular separatist movements with death because they stand in the way of establishing a state based on Shariah.

Musa's statement came after several separatist leaders distanced themselves from IS and Taliban ideology which they said have nothing to do with Kashmir's "indigenous" struggle.

In April, militants at a rally in south Kashmir told people to follow the rules laid down by the Taliban and IS and not support or raise slogans in favor of merging with Pakistan.

Kashmir has also seen a surge of people waving IS flags during protests. Graffiti hailing IS has also appeared in the last 12 months in the region.

So far, Islamic State has not claimed responsibility for any violent incident in India but media began reporting "suspected IS activities" in the states of Kerala and Uttar Pradesh in 2016.

In that same year, media quoted intelligence reports citing IS recruiting young people in Kerala and at least 11 going to IS camps in Syria

But despite India having the third largest Muslim population in the world, it has only contributed a paltry 90-100 members to the terror group say Indian officials.

This is the second of a two-part series looking at the so-called Islamic State's threat across South and Southeast Asian countries.  

 
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