If ISIS once again becomes a specter that haunts the world, it will be territories like the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan that will be of crucial importance.
London: ISIS is down, but not necessarily. Last month, the United Nations World Food Program expressed concern over the spread of malnutrition in Cabo Delgado territory in Mozambique, where the Islamic State of Central Africa Province (IS-CAP) has been located. involved in sustained fighting against government soldiers and mercenaries. Some 300,000 civilians fled. However, if the Islamic State is to once again become a specter that haunts the world, it is the territories at the heart of Islam, rather than its peripheries, that will be of crucial importance. It means the Middle East, and for reasons of history and religious intensity, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
To understand its failure, it is necessary to return to the scale of the ambitions of the Islamic State. In 2014, he envisioned a future caliphate covering North Africa, the entire Middle East and parts of southern Europe. Its proposed territory of Khorasan would cover the Indian subcontinent, as well as parts of China and Central Asia. While these ambitions are shared in part or in whole by gradualist manifestations of political Islam such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and quietly owned by more Muslims than is sometimes recognized, the Islamic State has done something different. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s 2014 declaration of the restoration of the caliphate, with himself as caliph, began a process of building the caliphate rather than talking about it. And he called on Sunni Muslims around the world to come together with what was initially established in Syria and Iraq.
Few have heard this call for truly existing Sharia law. Many jihadist groups there preferred to continue their own armed struggles against “the enemy near”. In a crowded market, researcher Abdul Basit found only six jihadist groups in the Af-Pak region either to pledge allegiance to Al Baghdadi or to develop working relations with ISIS. About 1,000 Britons, out of a Muslim population of around 3 million, traveled to Syria, but not all of them joined IS. Others preferred to launch their jihad in the UK itself, committing atrocities, including the bombing of Ariana Grande’s 2017 concert at Manchester Arena. The journey of British jihadists to other conflict zones also continued, with prime destinations in Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In 2013, dual Anglo-Pakistani national, Muhammad Aftab Suleman joined an aid convoy from Britain to Syria, before leaving for Islamabad, where he set up an extremist propaganda production studio. Returning to the United Kingdom, he was subsequently arrested for possession of material which might be useful to a person preparing an act of terrorism. Shortly after her parents declared her innocence to the Manchester Evening News, Suleman pleaded guilty and was jailed for five years. Hamayun Tariq made a similar journey, but via different ends of the triangle. He left Dudley in the West Midlands to fight in Waziristan from 2012 to 2014, before traveling to Syria. There his social media claimed he was working for IS as a bomb maker. When then Home Secretary Theresa May revoked his British passport, he took to Twitter to thank her sarcastically. We do not know where he is currently.
In 2017, the United Kingdom revoked more than 150 dual nationality nationalities. In the wake of the fury against Shamima Begum, one of three schoolgirls in east London, who traveled to join a school friend in the Islamic State and to marry IS fighters, the government was asked to provide an updated figure. He hasn’t done it yet. It is likely that many of them have citizenship of countries on the Indian subcontinent, mainly Pakistan and Bangladesh. The next destination of the fighters and their families, who survived the collapse of the caliphate, is unclear. Britain as a country gains nothing from their return.
A similar lack of clarity surrounds a treadmill for British fighters – the group better known as Al-Muhajiroun, led by Anjem Choudary, a former lawyer jailed in 2016 for encouraging support for ISIS. Several of his best-known associates, such as Siddartha Dhar and Mohammed Reza Haque, were reportedly killed in Syria. Others in their orbit, such as Khurram Butt or Usman Khan, have died committing terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. Some have sought jihad in the Indian subcontinent – in 2013, Dr Mirza Tariq Ali left Al-Muhajiroun to return to his native Pakistan, where in 2014 he was recorded in a video of the Taliban calling on others to follow his path. The following year he was killed by the Pakistani army. Apart from the armed groups in Northern Ireland, Al-Muhajiroun has been the most important current of terrorism to emerge in the United Kingdom. But it is the group’s message and the tendency of those who come in contact with it to turn to violence, more than any strategic course of action, that has proved so appealing to some Islamists. Today, with many of his activists dead, and others well known to the security services and largely in middle age, his prospects appear dim. However, the history and nature of British jihadism should compel us to respond to such developments by asking ourselves “What next?” rather than disdainfully declaring “anything”. And we should be saying pretty much the same about ISIS, whether in distant Mozambique or in camps in Syria. We are unlikely to have heard the last of the triangle between ISIS, Britain and the Indian subcontinent.
Dr Paul Stott is a writer and commentator in the United Kingdom. This article is based on a presentation made at a side meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on September 29 for the European Foundation for South Asian Studies, www.efsas.org