A maelstrom of terror, and more to come - Hindustan Times
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A maelstrom of terror, and more to come

Mar 29, 2024 12:16 PM IST

Authored by - Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

Terrorists, extremists or insurgents, whatever they may be described as, are suddenly dangerously active. It’s not just the attack in Moscow, but violence in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Iran, most of them claimed by the now infamous Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). Added to that brew are deadly attacks by the Baloch, fighting to save themselves from the Pakistani army, and the predatory Chinese. There is the Tehrik-eTaliban, now more solidly entrenched than ever. Oddly, all groups, with widely different ideologies hate Beijing. After the horrendous Moscow attack, a suicide bomber killed five Chinese in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which in turn was a day after a Baloch attack on a Pakistani naval base. Meanwhile ISKP is busy trying to recruit from India, as seen just last week, making the whole an interesting terrorist cocktail.

In this pool photograph distributed by the Russian state agency Sputnik, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers his address in Moscow on March 23, 2024, the day after a gun attack on the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk. (AFP) PREMIUM
In this pool photograph distributed by the Russian state agency Sputnik, Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers his address in Moscow on March 23, 2024, the day after a gun attack on the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk. (AFP)

The Moscow attack has been apparently claimed by the ISKP. Apparently because anyone can make a claim on Telegram, and ISKP is not above claiming what someone else has done. Experts say the attack was typical of the group, but it was not. Accounts indicate the terrorists were loitering in the area for hours, used automatic weapons and knives, and were able to nearly make a get away. In other words, an efficient military style operation, with no ‘martyrs’ in suicide vests. Consider the entire series of ISKP attacks in three countries in recent years, which shows an overwhelming use of suicide bombers, including the lethal October 2021 attacks against Hamid Karzai airport, and March 2022 attack on a Shia mosque in Peshawar. The ISKP is a curious creature. Its Kabul group had for years been far more powerful than its poorer cousins along the Pakistan Afghanistan border (Nangarhar) and its even lesser known factions in the north along the Central Asian border. After debilitating Taliban attacks against them, they seem to have made a surprisingly strong recovery under the leadership of Sanaullah Ghafari. They did, however, fail in attempted attacks against Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mullah Yakub, and the governor of Nangarhar, their home base. All these attacks were interpreted by western analysts as arising from their Salafist ideology, But. there is little to show any ideology at all, despite a hail of propaganda. It’s very first attack outside Afghanistan was against Shiraz in Iran, in October 2022 thereafter gathering strength with follow on attack in Kerman during a memorial for slain Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani.

Significantly, Iran carried out counter strikes not against ISK, but against Jaish-ul-Adl camps in Pakistan, and United States (US) and Israeli targets in Syria and Iraq.

There are other curious points about the groups. Reports from the UN Monitoring committee note the inclusion of non-Salfists in the group and widely different nationalities ( and causes) of ISKP. In the north, ISKP elements are made up of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmens, while the Nangarhar group is more Afghans and Pakistanis. No one knows who makes up the Kabul group, while in the deep south, it is supported by the once (and perhaps still) Pakistan sponsored Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). In 2017, the then Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov accused the northern groups of being supported by ‘unmarked helicopters’ ferrying western weapons. In 2018, the Taliban accused the US of airstrikes against its forces fighting the ISKP. None of that is verifiable. But somewhere after 2022, ISKP moved from a local phenomenon to its present formidable strength. The US would have known this. After all it was Washington which provided ‘early warning’ to both Iran and Moscow about impending ‘extremist’ attacks.

Look further at their presence in Pakistan. Apparently, despite all their Salafist convictions, the group seems to have no problems coexisting with the Baloch insurgent groups, or the TTP, or even Jaish-ul-Adl. After all, the ISKP has former insurgents from TTP in various parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including Bajaur, Orakzai, Kohat, and South Waziristan. Another subset which includes LeJ ,operates along border areas like Mastung, Quetta, Nushki and Khuzdar regions, all of which also have Baloch insurgent operations. In Balochistan, SKP has taken on the Barelvis, but the crux of all this is this. First, that the ISKP depends on Pakistani territory for its existence, in terms of recruits, funding through smuggling, and its propaganda machinery. Second, as the TTP strengthens itself, with a clear command structure, shadow governors and the like. research indicates that its attacks into Pakistan have slowed down considerably. Third, while Pakistani military targets the TTP into Afghanistan in Paktika and Khost, no strikes have been noticed against ISKP in Nangarhar. No wonder then that the Taliban see the ISKP as a Pakistani creation meant to keep it in check. That is one part of ISKP certainly.

The other is that it is also rabidly anti-Chinese. In mid 2022 it had announced a ‘jihad’ into central Asia targeting Chinese infrastructure. It has yet to claim the latest attack, but the trouble is that all of these groups hate the Chinese. The Baloch hatred is well known, but the TTP also targeted the Chinese ambassador at a hotel in Quetta. Add to this brew the fact that the ISKP also operates against India, causing carnage against a Sikh gurudwara in Afghanistan and recruiting heavily from the southern states in particular. Its propaganda uses not just Arabic, or Pashto, but also Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali, and yes, Russian. Apparently, it hates the whole world. But here’s the thing. It’s beginning to seem that there are several ISKP ‘factions’. One operating against the Russians and Iran in the north and west, another against China in Kabul and Pakistan, and yet another with strong ambitions in India as apparent from the recent arrest of a student from Indian Institute of Technology from Guwahati. Once India didn’t have a single jihadi being recruited from anywhere in its territory. That’s now history.

There is a group that operates primarily in the Afghanistan Pakistan region, and has its tentacles across the subcontinent and beyond, with apparently even attempts against the US. They operate in a milieu with another 20 plus terror/insurgent groups (or what the Pakistanis now call ‘faith-based militants’) and depend on smuggling through Pakistan/Iran and recruits from Pakistan, and financial funders in Pakistan. To expect the Taliban to wipe all of these out on their own is laughable. No Afghan head of State in the last several decades has managed to ‘rule’ the whole country, particularly after Pakistan started its ‘jihad’ in the 1990’s. Until Pakistan does a wholesale shut down of its terrorist factories, nothing much can be done anywhere. And in all fairness, the mess is also a making of global geopolitical competition, with Islamabad being the terrorism supermarket. The danger lies in the fact that a spill over into India is entirely likely, especially in the run up to elections. That’s geopolitics too, and has the potential to devastate a growing nation.

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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