The Islamic State in Khorasan Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad

by Antonio Giustozzi.  Hurst & Co publication, Year of Publication; 2018, pp 296
Hurst & Company

When the news of the proclamation of the so-called Islamic state was made by self-styled Baghdadi, very few had thought that it would emerge as a force to reckon with in different parts of the Muslim world. Well beyond the Middle east, it had a special significance for Central and South Asia. With the help of modern mass media, its news spread like wild fire. In absence of it, however, the impact would have been of relatively limited consequence. While the impact of the social media was visible, its strength remained underground. Even once it started becoming visible through report of propaganda activities and recruitment first, the predominant attitude among media, policy makers and even analysts were in denial. How could it be, it was the argument, that the Islamic State, embattled as it is in Syria and Iraq, could afford to send cash and cadres around the world to launch implausible jihads in its every corner? And how could an organisation so rooted in the Iraqi context establish roots anywhere else?  What happened after the Caliph was proclaimed on 29 June 2014, if not earlier, is that the Islamic State moved quickly to capitalise on the wave of sympathy generated by its rapid expansion. Agents were sent around the world, establishing contact with radical Islamist and Islamic fundamentalist groups of various descriptions, previously linked to Al-Qaida.  Finally, relying in part on pre-existing personal and group relations dating back to the beginning of the century, a more sophisticated organisational network was set up in different regions to strengthen the connection, as well as in some cases to co-opt existing groups into the Islamic State.

The formal announcement by IS-Central of the establishment of a branch of the Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’ only came in January 2015. ‘Khorasan’ entailed Afghanistan, Pakistan, all of Central Asia, Iran, and parts of India and Russia. The US military argued, what was going on was ‘superficial rebranding’ of existing groups.  However, it was not on the mind of anyone that IS-K would split the insurgency, engender internecine conflict, and therefore weaken it. It appeared, more of a strategic asset to the counter-insurgency effort than a threat.  The unusual convergence of Afghan security forces, American air strikes and Taliban pushed IS-K back. The myth of invincibility was rapidly broken. Soon the media, policy makers and observers were downplaying IS-K again, presenting it as a failed organisation, already in decline.

 There is another reason why IS-K is important: as a benchmark of regional rivalries and conflicts, that is, proxy wars. Although, it may not achieve its original aims there is a reason to believe that it will play an important role in the region as a proxy of regional powers in these wars. Most accounts of the rise and expansion of IS focus on the pre-IS roots. The predominant view is that Al-Zarqawi left a strong imprint on what would become the IS. The extreme interpretation of takfir- who is a Muslim or is not rather it signifies excommunication of all Muslims who do not follow the right Salafi practices, justified considering almost everybody a legitimate target, well beyond the line followed by Al-Qaida. According to it, unjust regime supporters should be killed, Zarqawi claimed that anyone who fails to carry out any obligation of sharia is an infidel.

 Polarising violence has been a strategy used by IS to force large portions of society to take sides and turn to the organisation for self-defence, dragging the masses into the battle. Thus, one group of them will go to the side of the people of truth, another group will go to the side of the people of falsehood, and a third group will remain neutral, awaiting the outcome of the battle in order to join the victor.

 According to Zarqawi, his organisation could take advantage of the resulting chaos to cast itself as the defender of the Sunni community.  ISIS’s rebirth was facilitated by this geostrategic and geo-sectarian rivalry between Sunni-dominated states and Shia-led Iran.  Al-Baghdadi developed this further after he proclaimed himself as Caliph. In his first few pronouncements after his appointment as the newly anointed caliph in the summer of 2014, Baghdadi presented ISIS as the sole guardian of Sunni interests worldwide, not just in Iraq and Syria. He went on to accuse Saudi leaders of having lost their responsibility to defend Sunni Islam.

 Strategically, IS drew on Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwas to prioritise fighting the ‘near enemy’, not the ‘far enemy’ as in the case of Al-Qaida.  This meant Iran and the Shia governments of Muslim countries rather than the Americans. Engineering sectarian chaos in order to cast itself as the defender of Sunnism or failing that generate polarizing violence in order to force a large portion of society to take sides. Despite the focus on the ‘near enemy’, Al-Baghdadi decided to challenge the US and other world powers in order to drag them into the conflict, to strengthen his ideological discourse and consolidate the hegemony over the worldwide jihadist movement. Belief in military victory as the only solution and in permanent warfare as the existential condition of the Caliphate

The extreme and inflammatory rhetoric of Al-Baghdadi attracted youths socialized into a political culture of sacrifice and martyrdom. Also functional to the exceptional tactical capabilities of ISIS has been the extreme degree of discipline that it imposes on its members. Al-Qaeda’s core operated as a small, elite organization with a big-tent ideology. It aimed to work with a wide range of Islamist militants, even those with whom it disagreed on key issues.  Zarqawi and his successors by contrast objected to working with militants who did not meet that very high standard of what a good Muslim should be.

It has always been the priority of the Islamic State to impose Sharia. The use of violence and coercive implementation of the Sharia has been at the centre of its governance policies.  It was used to extracting loyalty and submission through fear and naked power. In fact, the governance model has been top-down, without hem and haw.

A related characteristic of ISIS has been its belief that there is only a military solution and no place for diplomacy, therefore ‘Islamic state’ must be always at war. It relied up on a divide-and-rule policy to ensure that social and tribal rivalry and hostility are more pronounced than any unified enmity to ISIS. According to one analyst, IS distributed government offices and departments, and even tasks like tax collection in Iraq among the different tribes. In this regard the Caliphate has been nothing more than a ‘shell state. Another major innovation of the IS was of course that idea that time was ripe for establishing first an Islamic State and almost at the same time the Caliphate, again in contrast to Al-Qaida, which was postponing that phase to an undetermined but very distant future.

The IS was described by most sources as wealthy with oil and other tax collections from the people as main source of revenue however what was overlooked has been the fact that the main source of funding has been private donation. New converts to ISIS were impressed by its military might, and financial solvency, in contrast, their own groups did not regularly pay their petty salaries, despite obtaining plenty of foreign assistance. 

The likelihood of IS-K  to draw large amounts of funding seems high at least in the short and even medium term, given that current funding is motivated by the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Clearly the financial resources made available by IS-Central—though much more importantly by Arab Gulf donors—were instrumental in making IS-K function. Such an ambitious operation could not have happened without those financial resources having been made available. The first condition that will have to be in place for IS-K to keep growing is, of course, continued funding from abroad. The average cost of keeping an IS-K fighter on the ground is significantly higher that for the Taliban, who are themselves dependent on external funding even if their internal revenue collection is much higher than IS-K’s. Therefore, even if IS-K were to greatly improve local revenue collection, its dependency on external funding would continue, especially if the organisation keeps expanding its ranks.

The book is an exhaustive and well researched one, shedding light on the rather obscure phenomenon. It is cogently argued and welcome addition to the literature that evolving and volatile situation.