Islamic State Threat Grows in South Asia at Pakistani Taliban's Expense
Several senior leaders from the main Pakistani Taliban umbrella group known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) defected and pledged bayat, or allegiance, to Islamic State (IS) leader and self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The defection is remarkable because, in pledging allegiance to Baghdadi, the defectors took the unprecedented step of withdrawing their allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Most South Asian militant groups and all of al Qaeda’s branches uphold Mullah Omar as the Emir al Mumineen—the commander of the faithful—and the leader of the international jihadist movement. Many jihadist groups regard breaking an oath of allegiance to Omar as a serious act akin to treason.
Al Qaeda not only sees IS as a threat to its leadership of the international jihadist movement, it rejects Baghdadi’s claim to be caliph on ideological and doctrinal grounds.
While al Qaeda is thriving in several theaters, in Pakistan al Qaeda’s fortunes are more closely tied in with those of the TTP, a group with which it maintains a symbiotic relationship. The TTP has come under severe strain over the last several months and begun to splinter.
The splits in the TTP are symptomatic of deep discord within the group resulting from increased pressure from Pakistani military operations targeting the TTP and the ineffectual and contentious leadership of its current chief, Mullah Fazlullah.
The fact that disaffected senior TTP leaders, who have traditionally maintained close links with al Qaeda, chose to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi is indicative of the strong inspirational effect IS’s success has had on groups in faraway theaters with little direct connection to the fight in Syria and Iraq.
The defections are one sign among several that IS has room to grow in South Asia. Some reports indicate that IS may be looking to formally expand into a region that has traditionally been al Qaeda’s home territory.
Al Qaeda has tried to stymie some of IS’s appeal by establishing a new regional branch, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). AQIS has demonstrated an ability to conduct sophisticated spectacular attacks.
The structure and leadership of militant groups in South Asia are undergoing great change, precipitated in part by the weakening of the TTP. The landscape of the militant Islamist threat in South Asia that will emerge from the flux has yet to be determined.
Several senior members of the premier al Qaeda-allied Pakistani Taliban umbrella group declared on October 10 that they were defecting and proclaiming allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The move was remarkable because it implied a renunciation of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is widely recognized by the Taliban and al Qaeda as the leader of the so-called international jihad. The move is unprecedented in the history of South Asian militancy and is illustrative not only of IS’s meteoric rise and increasing popularity in the region but also of the flagging fortunes of some of al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, even as the wider network continues to enjoy successes elsewhere. The discussion below lays out why the mechanics of the defection are important and what the flux in the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership means for the longer term fortunes of the struggle between IS and al Qaeda for the leadership of the international jihad in South Asia and beyond.
Bayat, the “Caliphate” and the Emir Al Mumineen in Context
Baghdadi declared in June 2014 that his organization, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, would now be known only as the Islamic State. He also declared the existence of an Islamic caliphate, of which he was now caliph, and that all Muslims now owed him their allegiance.
Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate puts IS and al Qaeda directly at odds because al Qaeda and its constituents recognize Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar as their leader, the Emir al Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful). Al Qaeda’s version of Islamic jurisprudence holds that there can only be one caliph at a time. Al Qaeda’s leadership also holds that the caliphate can only be declared once certain conditions are met, such as the liberation of particular “Muslim lands,” and only following “consultation,” presumably with major leaders and stakeholders in the international jihad. Al Qaeda’s leadership maintains that those conditions have not yet been met and sees Baghdadi’s declaration as running counter to the network’s long-standing oath of fealty to Mullah Omar.
Mullah Omar first assumed the title of Emir al Mumineen in 1996 shortly before the Taliban’s conquest of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Osama bin Laden pledged bayat (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar in 2001, if not earlier. Al Qaeda and its broader network has maintained that bayat to Mullah Omar ever since. Every major Taliban group in South Asia has also sworn fealty to Emir al Mumineen Mullah Omar. The breaking of that oath is a serious and portentous step because it necessarily introduces discord within the wider movement and can be considered akin to treason.
Al Qaeda disagrees with Baghdadi’s claim (and one affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has formally rejected Baghdadi as the caliph). However, al Qaeda’s central leadership has avoided explicitly rebuking Baghdadi because the group considers uniting the “Muslim community” in jihad and avoiding internal discord to be part of its core mission. To that extent, al Qaeda continues to praise the military successes of Sunni groups, even those of IS in Iraq and Syria, as steps “in the right direction,” even as it discounts Baghdadi’s claims of leadership.
A Remarkable Defection: Dissonance in the TTP
The central spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Shahidullah Shahid, released a video on October 10 in which he declared that he, along with five other regional commanders of the TTP, had pledged allegiance to IS leader Baghdadi. The language he used in his pledge is noteworthy. Shahid stated: “I pledge allegiance to the [Emir al Mumineen] and Caliph of the Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussein al-Qurashi, to listen and obey, in enthusiasm and reluctance, and in ease and hardship.” He furthermore named the following TTP leaders as having joined him in his pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi: Hafiz Saeed Khan (TTP Orakzai), Daulat Khan (TTP Kurram), Fateh Gul Zaman (TTP Khyber), Mufti Hasan Swati (TTP Peshawar district) and Khalid Mansoor (TTP Hangu).
Shahid stated in his message that this was the fourth time he had made a pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi, the previous three pledges having been made in private and through intermediaries. He said explicitly that he did not speak for the TTP as a whole or for its leader, Mullah Fazlullah, only for himself and the five named commanders.
The statement comes in sharp contrast to previous statements from the TTP regarding the group’s relationship with IS. On October 4, a special Eid message from TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah, which Shahid emailed to several journalists, carried strong statements of sympathy and support for IS and urged it to resolve its differences with rival Islamist groups in order to fight their common enemies. The message was misconstrued by several news agencies as being an official pledge of allegiance to IS from the TTP. It was, in fact, little different from earlier statements of support for IS issued by other al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which praised Sunni victories in the region and expressed solidarity with “Muslim brothers” now facing attacks from the common enemy, i.e. the West.
On October 7, the TTP issued a clarification that it had not, in fact, pledged allegiance to IS and Baghdadi, but had merely expressed its support for all Islamist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq against Western interests. The clarifying statement maintained that the TTP still considered Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar to be the Emir al Mumineen and overall leader of its movement.
The TTP, which had remained silent for a whole week following Shahid’s remarkable about face, finally responded to his October 10 statement on October 18 by denying that “Shahidullah Shahid” had issued the statement at all. A TTP statement posted online claimed that “Shahidullah Shahid” was not a real person but a nom de guerre used by whomever occupied the position of TTP central spokesperson at the time. The statement asserted that the man who claimed to speak as Shahidullah Shahid, and who also goes by the alias Abu Omar Maqbul al Khorasani, or Sheikh Maqbul, was no longer a part of the TTP and had been replaced by another person “long ago.” It reiterated that the TTP and Mullah Fazlullah maintained their allegiance to Mullah Omar.
The TTP is claiming, in essence, that “Sheikh Maqbul” made unauthorized use of the TTP spokesman’s office by making a statement under the name of Shahidullah Shahid after Maqbul no longer occupied the office allegedly attached to the name. The TTP’s account of events is plausible, but certain factors raise suspicions that the latest TTP statement is more likely an obfuscation intended to exert damage control over an embarrassing situation. For example, the TTP, in its rebuttal to Shahid’s statement, did not mention or address the issue of the defection of the five other TTP regional commanders named in Shahid’s statement, perhaps in the hope that by discrediting Shahid’s bona fides, audiences would altogether ignore the matter of the other commanders.
Moreover, while the practice of using a nom de guerre for the position of central spokesman is common among some terrorist and insurgent groups—for example, the Afghan Taliban maintains two separate aliases, Zabiullah Mujahid and Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, for statements released by its “spokesmen,”—the TTP has not traditionally followed this modus operandi. Previous TTP central spokesmen have always used a real or unique name in issuing statements to the media; they have also never been camera shy and, thus, have always been identifiable by visage. When TTP spokesmen have been captured or replaced, such as in July 2013 when ex-spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan was sacked, the new spokesman has never assumed his predecessor’s name or nom de guerre. Shahid is a known entity who has appeared on camera multiple times. The TTP has not given any explanation for why it would have suddenly changed methods with respect to how its spokesmen operate. In fact, the group announced on November 7 that a man going by the name Muhammad Khurasani would be its new central spokesman. No new face has yet emerged using the name, Shaihdullah Shahid.
Assuming that the TTP is not telling the truth in its latest clarification, the explanation it offers may reveal the extent to which Shahid’s unprecedented declaration has caused it embarrassment.
Fitna in South Asia: Ditching the Commander of the Faithful
There is an important reason why the statement of Shahid et al. should be considered remarkable: no other militant group (or senior leader of a militant group) in South Asia has ever formally switched allegiance from Mullah Omar to another leader.
Mullah Omar has held the title of Emir al Mumineen uncontested since he first assumed it in 1996. His overall leadership of the broader Taliban movement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a pillar of faith for Taliban groups of varying hues and orientations. Whether or not they have followed Omar’s dictat in practice, all the leaders of Pakistani Taliban factions to date, and even the leaders of the powerful and independent Haqqani Network, have acknowledged that Omar is the undisputed leader of the mujahideen movement in the region and of the Islamic faithful more broadly.
Mullah Omar’s exalted position is acknowledged by al Qaeda’s leaders as well. Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, as mentioned previously, publicized his oath of bayat to Mullah Omar as Emir al Mumineen in 2001. Ayman al Zawahiri, who took command of al Qaeda following bin Laden’s death in 2011, has also re-pledged bayat to Omar. An al Qaeda publication from July 2014 renewed that pledge and further reiterated that “al Qaeda and its branches everywhere are soldiers among [Omar’s] soldiers.” That statement is significant because it lays out fairly explicitly that all of the various al Qaeda affiliates across the globe, from Yemen’s AQAP to Somalia’s al Shabaab, are subordinate members of Omar’s forces.
Al Qaeda affiliates outside of South Asia attach great importance to al Qaeda’s allied movements in the region. When the chief of the TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in November 2013, almost all of the main al Qaeda affiliates issued official public statements mourning his death. The broader network will no doubt take notice if major chunks of the TTP, which is not a declared affiliate of al Qaeda but which maintains a symbiotic relationship with the group, started defecting to IS.
The issue of defections to IS is particularly poignant because al Qaeda has made a point of trying to prevent the development of fitna within the global jihadist movement. Fitna is a concept in Islamic jurisprudence that refers to sedition, strife or discord among believers, and is considered in Islam to be extremely reprehensible. The issue of fitna in this context stems from the conflict that developed between IS and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra (JN) in Syria in April 2013. The split between JN and what is now IS culminated in IS’s June 2014 declaration of a caliphate with Baghdadi at its apex. As explained earlier, al Qaeda considers the move to be illegitimate because, among other reasons, the declaration was made without consulting Zawahiri or Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda sees Baghdadi as a usurper and his actions as constituting fitna. While al Qaeda continues to support the victories of Sunni militants against the West and governments the West backs, stemming the momentum of the schism is vital for al Qaeda to maintain its prized position as the leader of the international jihad.
The spread of fitna outside of Syria and Iraq and into al Qaeda’s backyard in Pakistan will no doubt be deeply troubling to al Qaeda’s leadership. Not only is the TTP, a group with extremely close ties to al Qaeda and which has served as a foundation for al Qaeda’s survival in the region, experiencing severe internal stresses, some of its splinters are now turning toward a group that seeks to supplant al Qaeda’s position in the world. Shahid broke a taboo by withdrawing allegiance specifically pledged to Mullah Omar and pledging it to Baghdadi. The precedence such a move has established, especially if the defectors face no consequences, will surely make pledging allegiance to IS that much easier for other South Asian groups that are disaffected with the TTP, al Qaeda or the state of the jihad in the region, and who are increasingly enthralled by IS’s spectacular successes in Iraq and Syria. Al Qaeda’s previously unchallenged claim to lead the international jihad is now under threat in its home territory.
A Rising Star: Challenging Al Qaeda in its Backyard
The Islamic State’s swift rise in the Middle East has captured the imaginations of militant groups in South Asia. IS’s black flags, graffiti, and literature praising the group are proliferating in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Indian-administered Kashmir. The fact that several groups in the region, including the TTP and its powerful splinter group, the TTP Jamatul Ahrar, have issued statements of support for IS is illustrative of IS’s inspirational effect. The TTP and Jamatul Ahrar, however, are too close to al Qaeda to consider formally defecting, and are probably aware that the tangible benefits of doing so would be minimal. The groups likely recognize, nonetheless, the positive morale effects of associating themselves verbally with IS and its successes. The TTP and its associates have found themselves under increasing stress from internal leadership struggles, Pakistani security forces’ operations, and the resulting decrease in the scope and scale of their activities. They may have decided that paeans to IS are a cheap and easy way to raise their own profile, inspire their fighters, and possibly entice new members and donations, without falling afoul of their allies in al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
That such an “IS effect” exists in South Asia also demonstrates that IS may have room to grow in the region. Even though IS has not formally declared a desire to officially establish itself inside Pakistan, as the TTP continues to face internal pressures and splinter, many of its disaffected factions may look to IS for inspiration and leadership. There are already rumors that IS has been considering launching a formal wing inside Pakistan. An intelligence report presented to the paramilitary Sindh Rangers force and the Sindh Home Department on October 9 claimed that an Uzbek IS leader, Waleed al Ama, had offered Abid Kahut, a Pakistani from Kahuta, Rawalpindi District, the potential position of leader of IS in Pakistan. The report further claimed that IS is looking to recruit disaffected members of Pakistani militant groups and is also considering establishing a permanent headquarters, possibly in Raiwind, near Lahore. A separate intelligence report, dated October 31, sent to military and government officials in Balochistan warned that IS had established a “strategic planning wing” for Pakistan and was actively trying to recruit fighters from among the TTP-allied terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and a related extremist organization Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat. The report further claimed that IS intended to undertake sectarian attacks in Pakistan, target Pakistani military forces engaged in operations in North Waziristan, and attack security forces and government installations in northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. It said IS had already managed to gather 10,000-12,000 followers in Hangu district and Kurram agency, two areas that have a history of sectarian conflict.
Whether or not the intelligence reports turn out to be accurate, it is clear now that IS is part of the militant discourse in South Asia and, because of its exploits, its name has significant cachet. The pool of potential IS recruits is also much deeper now that the TTP has begun to splinter in earnest. Mullah Fazlullah’s ineffectual and contentious leadership of the TTP over the past year has caused many of the group’s most powerful factions, such as those from Mohmand, South Waziristan and Punjab, to part ways with the umbrella group. While most of those factions have not formally broken their allegiance to Mullah Omar, the weaker, looser confederation of the TTP will likely leave more factions, leaders and fighters open to being recruited away from the TTP, and potentially to IS, now that the benefits of membership in the TTP are fewer and the costs of splitting from it are lower.
Al Qaeda has not been completely silent. Its September announcement of a new formal affiliate called al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) may be an attempt to combat IS’s increasing global popularity. AQIS trumpeted its arrival by carrying out an audacious attack on a Pakistani naval base in Karachi in concert with the TTP. Many analysts initially dismissed al Qaeda’s establishment of AQIS as a tired group’s vain attempt to claim for itself new territory in which it had little influence and to try to restrain IS’s rising star. While the establishment of AQIS was indeed likely an attempt to raise al Qaeda’s profile and sap some of IS’s public relations momentum, AQIS should not be dismissed out of hand. It has demonstrated that it has the ability to carry out complex attacks on hardened targets and, through its sophisticated print publications, shows a keen awareness of its strategic objectives in the region vis-à-vis fighting the global jihad. It is well established that increasingly audacious and/or high-casualty attacks are a surefire way for militant groups to regain popularity among their supporters and to revitalize the flow of donations from their funders. If al Qaeda does feel seriously threatened by IS, it may begin turning towards carrying out deadlier, more spectacular attacks in an attempt to boost its popularity.
Al Qaeda’s broader network is not facing a slump in its fortunes; the network is active, and in some cases thriving, in more places across the world than ever. The group’s Pakistan-based core leadership has long relied on the TTP and its associates to be its action arm in the region, however. The health and capabilities of the TTP, therefore, necessarily reflect on al Qaeda’s foothold in Pakistan. The TTP’s apparent decline (and, by extension, that of al Qaeda in Pakistan) contrasts starkly with the apparent precipitous stardom of IS. It is that contrast that seems to be the impetus for al Qaeda’s formation of AQIS. Pakistan is al Qaeda’s traditional stronghold; it cares about the health of its movement there and is taking steps to challenge impressions of its decline.
Should the TTP continue to weaken and splinter while IS continues to achieve success, IS’s legend and narrative in South Asia will grow and disaffected militant groups will be more susceptible to seeking out the morale boost that comes from associating with IS. The TTP leaders’ defection from Mullah Omar to Baghdadi is remarkable because it is unprecedented. Now that the precedent has been set, there is more room for discord to grow within al Qaeda’s own backyard. Militant groups in Pakistan are experiencing an exceptional level of flux in their leadership, structure, and allegiances; how the dust settles will provide insight into the changed nature of the enemy in the region.
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