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Everything You Wanted to Know About ISIS but Were Afraid to Ask

Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and UAE and a leading expert on political Islam and the geopolitics of West Asia, in conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the founding editors of The Wireon the Islamic State: Origin, Threat, Solution.

Siddharth Varadarajan: Today, we will be discussing the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State/ISIS/Daesh. It goes by many names but what it has come to symbolise for many people around the world is the blatant disregard for civilian life, the use of extreme methods, the ability to control territory – something which a terrorist organisation in the Middle East has not done for a long period of time – and to use that territory to pose a threat to countries all across the world.

Joining me to discuss ISIS –  what it is, what its origins are and how the world should deal with it – is Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, former senior diplomat in the Ministry of External Affairs and someone who has written with a great deal of expertise on not just ISIS but the problem of terrorism, the problem of geopolitics in West Asia and also the theological dimensions to many of the problems that confront the Islamic world. Let’s separate out our discussion on ISIS into the security dimension, the geopolitical dimension and the theological dimension and try to pick through these subjects one by one.

It used to be said that what marked ISIS apart from Al Qaeda, which was the most deadly terrorist organisation that the West was confronting prior to the rise of ISIS, was that ISIS had managed to control territory and actually held physical space that they were they using to build a Caliphate, as they defined it. Today, however, it is obvious that even if that space or territory of theirs has come under threat or under pressure from not only Iraq or Syria but Western bombing, ISIS has begun to pose a de-territorialised or extraterritorial threat to countries all across the world. We’ve seen recent attacks in Dhaka, Nice and Germany, where people are claiming allegiance to ISIS and ISIS is owning up to these attacks. To what extent do you believe that ISIS is responsible for the five or six attacks we’ve seen across the world? Are they only boasting or actually making a serious claim? Are there any connections and what does this tell us about the kind of security threat that ISIS poses?

Talmiz Ahmad: ISIS represents the third stage of global jihad. The first stage began with the global jihad in Afghanistan, culminating in the setting up of the first Caliphate in the shape of the Emirate of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and ending with the events of 9/11.

SV: So you say roughly 1979 up until 9/11?

TA: Yes. This was the first stage. The second stage began when the Emirate was destroyed. The Al Qaeda did not cease to exist; it deterritorialised and remained a lethal presence for the next 10 years. Separately, you see the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq. I call it the third stage because in 2011, when this State began, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. It is true that he has taken advantage of the political situation at home in Iraq – the sectarian divide, the extremely foolish and narrow policies of Nouri al-Maliki and his dependence on the Shia militia rather than the building of a national army. He was able to put together a very powerful force of disgruntled Sunni elements in Iraq, including Jihadis and Saddam loyalists, remnants of the old armed forces and security forces, the Naqshabandiya Sufi community led by Izzat Ibrahim, and tribal chiefs who were deeply dissatisfied with the empowerment of the Shia, which was the basis for the American political order in Iraq from 2003 onwards. They spread themselves very slowly and clandestinely, and then, taking advantage of the emasculation of the Iraqi army, they were able to vey dramatically capture Mosul.

From Mosul, they spread across and have today become a proto-state. This is the second Jihadi State after the Emirate of Afghanistan. They are obviously under tremendous pressure, but it is important to recall how ISIS works. There is a core ISIS, very similar to Al Qaeda, which scholars have referred to as the proto-state based in Raqqa and Mosul. This is the core ISIS. It has top leadership, it has people who are the basis for their theological thinking, military strategists, top economists and those who manage information. They constitute the top leadership of the IS, and then of course you have provincial leaders and the rank and file, and at the bottom of the rung, the suicide bombers. This is the first lot.

The second lot are those who are affiliates. These are decentralised entities in different parties of the region. For example, in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has splintered and certain elements have announced their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Similarly, the Afghan Taliban have done so, Al Shabaab in Somalia has done, as has Boko Haram. In this way, even if for the sake of argument it would have been obliterated in Mosul and Raqqa, it has spread its tentacles right across West Asia, from Pakistan to the Mediterranean, and to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. A third thing has happened which is its unique contribution to Jihad operations and this is the proliferation of lone wolf or lone warrior attacks because most of its activities and its messages have gone across social media. I called the Islamic State the third stage or the third generation of jihad because its membership is much younger, its leadership is much younger, it appeals to its people through social media of the most sophisticated type in the world.

SV: We saw Al Qaeda also use graphic, horrible videos, their so-called execution videos, some amount of use of the internet, but ISIS has taken it to a new level.

TA: Yes. Al Qaeda cannot match this. Their efforts were at best extremely crude and carried very little conviction. The kind of videos and messages that they are putting across today through social media, taking advantage of frontier technology in this regard and some of the most talented people in the business, their messages appeal to different kinds of people. The message to the underclass in the United States is quite different to those to the underclass in France. Their messages to women are uniquely addressing women. Those that go to the Arab world are different and those that go to South Asia are different. They are extremely attractive. This is what most of us have today to be concerned about – that they appeal to a lone wolf or a lone warrior, isolated in some corner for reasons which are not comprehensible by you and me. They, at some stage, are attracted to jihadi violence and then perpetrate an extraordinary terror.

SV: The place of the lone wolf, at some stage do they form a link or a connection with ISIS or do they absorb all their messages and go about it by themselves?

TA: We don’t know because all of this is happening very rapidly. Do recall that ISIS stirred our conscious only two years ago. It may have proclaimed itself in 2011, but it really became a recognisable entity in 2014 when Mosul fell. It’s really only two years that have passed since all of this has happened. We are struggling to understand their appeal, their methodology, why certain people are susceptible to their message and certain others are not. My own feeling is that the lone warrior may not in fact have any link whatsoever with the headquarters at Raqqa or Mosul, it is just the message from social media so well prepared as to appeal to certain people. The interesting issue for all of us who are analysing these new developments is to attempt to understand what is it that reaches certain people and does not reach others. For example, I can understand based on what we have seen in the French writings, that there is a huge underclass in France who are very poorly educated and isolated culturally, economically and educationally. They either have the option of going in for crime or Jihad, and some of those are attracted on this basis. In the case of the UK, the struggle is even greater because these are second or third generation middle-class and upper middle-class people perhaps from Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin, who never showed in the part any interest in Islam.

SV: And who are actually quite well integrated in society.

TA: Yes, and then we are told that under the influence of some charismatic aalim, they were made jihadis, which begs the question of what was it that appealed to them so specially that they not only blew themselves up but also killed a very large number of people in July 2005. Then you have the message pertaining to the GCC countries. GCC countries is a little better to understand but can sometimes be very confusing. These are young people with everything going for them. They have extremely affluent backgrounds.

SV: There the marginalisation and deprivation does not apply.

TA: No it doesn’t. They come from cohesive families; they have the best of education; they have a benign welfare-based society. It is said that some sections of the GCC community – perhaps because they read certain kinds of literature in their schools and colleges or meet certain kind of people or there is a certain kind of cultural emptiness – are predisposed to accepting these ideas. Possibly, you know that in Afghanistan there was actual state encouragement to go for jihad, and this is the next generation, possibly two generations after that. It is simplistic to say that they are motivated by their education system because the education system has been thoroughly reformed after the events of 9/11, so it’s not easy to explain. In the case of Pakistan there is a pervasive sense of jihad. Jihad has become integral to the Pakistani polity and therefore they have local, home-based institutions that have encouraged people to go for jihad outside the state apparatus, though we know that there is some degree of state influence upon them as well.

Bangladesh has completely foxed me. I know that these boys did not have any direct link with the Islamic State. I am now told that possibly they had some link with the Bangladesh radical organisation, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, some of whose leaders have been arrested recently. They are said to be a jihadi affiliate. Now, are they a jihadi affiliate? When did they announce this affiliation? What is the level of their connectivity? I know about Al Shabaab, I know about Boko Haram and I know about various other entities, but did we have the basic literature with regard to JMB? This photograph which appeared is very curious but it is fake. It was taken in Bangladesh and there is just a flag in the background. I am told that the kalashnikov is a fake or certainly it is the same weapon in different hands. I am not interested in this so much as trying to find out what was it that motivated this upper middle class young men who had never shown any interest in Islam or jihad, who had very promising careers ahead of them, who came from well integrated families, to take this up.

SV: If I could use that as an entry point to shift to the theological dimension, the obvious argument many make is that radicalisation among some of these sections that are well to do – there are many questions coming in on Facebook and people are intrigued by the fact that the catchmnent is well beyond just the upper class – so is there a connection between ISIS’s ability to recruit and the kind of Sulifist Islam which is being spread through well financed mosques and madrasas?

AT: Jihad, in the days of the heyday of Al Qaeda, also recruited people form a wide variety of social backgrounds. The 9/11 attacks were upper middle class trained pilots, and in any country around the world a trained commercial pilot is at the ape of the social ladder. Therefore, the literature is not there. The study, the psychology of a terrorist or a suicide bomber is not yet developed; we are studying it. Every episode that takes place is one more anecdote helping us to study better, understand better. So there is a connection with the underclass in the case of Western Europe but not in the United Kingdom or in the Arab world or in South Asia. Many of the Indians whose names have come up from time to time indicated a background that was at least middle class, if not better. So, there is something in the message that appeals to some people with sufficient strength and robustness to encourage them to take up arms.

I think the general message is one of victimhood – that you are a victim, you have been victimised, that you have been badly treated and have not been given justice. The recurring theme is injustice. It’s not that the world is not an ideal place; nobody expects that. But if real harm has been done to an individual or a group and is attested as such, justice should prevail. Appeals to victimhood are based on the fact that many events have happened and people were not given justice. Even then, the overwhelming majority of the Indian and Bangladeshi communities do not respond with violence. They feel that even if justice has not been given, there are constitutional ways in which we can agitate our case. Hardly any one of us goes into jihad in the numbers that would be warranted given the size of our communities in Bangladesh and in India.

Pakistan is a very different scenario because there, jihad was introduced as state policy. All those years ago in 1980 when Zia-ul-Haq became president, he made Islam radical Islam. You are asking about Salafia. I want to clarify to you as follows: jihad functions at two completely different levels. The doctrinal level, as far as the top leadership is concerned, they of course are Salafi, and they are nurtured in the texts of jihad of Sayyid Qutb, Shukri Mustafa, Abdullah Azzam, etc. There is a body of literature readily available. Some of us would believe that it is a serious distortion of the original text but be that as it may, there is a body of literature available for the educated, doctrinally oriented jihadi at the apex.

The rank and file of jihad have absolutely nothing to do with any literature. They are incapable of reading these texts. The appeal to them is not even religious. The appeal to them is about comradeship, about being a part of something greater than themselves. It is really interesting the kind of social media appeals that are made to these young men in different parts of Europe. They have very little to do with Islam. They take into account the fact that you are culturally or economically or educationally disoriented. You feel that you are marginal in your society or adopted society, you don’t fit it either in your traditional, authentic culture, or in your adopted culture where your parents have brought you.

Very often, parents are so busy making a living and nurturing a home that they are not able to give these young people all the solace and comfort that family life should give them. So many of these people are open to blandishments, that here is something bigger than you. The first appeal is to comradeship. The lonely, isolated, frequently abused individual is very often seduced by this allure of comradeship. The second is to be part of something which is historical, to be a part of something extraordinary. Can you imagine whom the Americans would call a “loser.” Someone would say that you are not a loser, you have been mistreated, you have not been given justice, but here you are part of an enterprise that is bigger than yourself and your name will be sung and celebrated for years and decades to come. There are twin appeals of comradeship and of being part of a great historical enterprise and there is very little about Islam.

In the case of Pakistan and India, I am told that the social media tend to focus on Muslim glory and contrast it with their shameful lives today. ISIS is alarmed that while the Pakistanis have been seduced by jihad over 30 or 40 years, the Indian Muslim refuses to budge. This is a huge catchment area and we are again struggling to understand that the Indian Muslim rejected the Al Qaeda in toto. Even when 100,000 jihadis went across to the Pak-Afghan border from 1982-92, not a single Indian Muslim went. This is not because they were not provoked. Do recall the period is the 80s and 90s, the period of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the mobilisation on the basis of Hindutva, the Hashimpura massacre, the Rath Yatra, then you had the communal riots in Bombay and the large-scale killing of Muslims at that time, not one of which has been satisfactorily addressed by the Indian state. Then you had the jihad in Kashmir. The Indian Muslim refused to budge.

Even today, though there are some sections that are alarmed that there are even one or two or ten or fifteen who have gone, I tend to be much more comforted by the fact that only a handful have been seduced. Do recall that from Europe almost 10,000-15,000 people have gone, including 5,000 women. Do recall that more than 20,000 GCC nationals have gone. Of course the base is from Iraq and Syria, but what about those huge numbers of central Asians and Southeast Asians. So I am still comforted with all the things that have gone on wrong in our political order and in our social order at home, I am still delighted to see that jihad has very little resonance, that the Indian Muslim believes and continues to believe that his salvation lies in a strong secular democratic order at home. There is no salvation for him in jihad or in any kind of a Muslim order; it is only in a secular order.

SV: We’ve got a couple of questions that have come to us through Facebook. Satyavrat Mishra asks, is ISIS a greater threat than it is being presented as, and Mohsin Atique Khan asks who created ISIS and why are the great powers taking that much of time to finish it off?

TA: Well, who created ISIS? ISIS originates entirely in the U.S. assault upon Iraq. There was no ISIS before that. In reaction to Shia empowerment, there was a mobilisation of Shia forces, it is said in the early stages that some sections of the GCC community funded the jihad led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi generated a very lethal form of jihad in Iraq. He affiliated himself to Al Qaeda and was the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Later on he was killed in 2006 but the institution that he had put together continued to be resilient. This institution survived the Sunni uprising against jihad in Iraq between 2007-09.

So in retrospect, if you want to look at the paternity of the Islamic State, you have to point your finger first at the American invasion, not just at the invasion in the regime change – a deliberate decision to structure the political order in Iraq on a sectarian basis. It need not have been so, and many of us now believe that it was a deliberate policy of divide and rule – to let the Iraqis fight each other till the last Iraqi. It was seen foolishly by the neoconservatives in Washington that this was the way in which you could ensure security. They never thought they would lose the war. The Americans killed millions of people, destroyed the cities, destroyed the institutions, but the Iraqi never gave up. His protest was against the sectarianisation of his country. That was the most important thing to be pointed out. It cannot be eradicated. Jihad is not an institution, it is not a structure. It is a mindset. It is a belief that you are participating in something larger than yourself, that you have enemies around you who wish you ill, who are destructive of your culture and destructive of your faith and therefore you have to take arms against them. In this war, there are no innocents.

By the way, let me also point out to you that we focus so much on the violence of the Islamic State. Just shift your gaze onto the other side and view it from there. Since the U.S. has intervened in West Asia over the last few years – I’m not even going back to the global jihad, just to the Afghan struggle from 2001 onwards after 9/11 – 20,000-30,000 Afghans have been killed in carpet bombings. Half a million Iraqis have been killed as a result of the war for no rhyme or reason that anybody can figure out. Several thousand Libyans were killed in carpet bombings over Tripoli. The Israelis have carried out extraordinary violence against the Arabs in Palestine and in Lebanon with total immunity.

See some of the origins of Arab anger and Muslim anger in these episodes, which are not highlighted at all and which are dismissed in the Western media and the Western consciousness, but they are indeed an extremely powerful lived experience for the people of West Asia. Look at the drone attacks. You killed one jihadi and you think that you have got away with it. The analysis of jihad, of Ayman al-Zawahiri, that in this war there are no innocents, is exactly matched by the thinking in Washington – that in this war there are no innocents and therefore I have immunity and impunity with regard to the violence I can inflict on my enemy. They are two mirror images of each other.

SV: Are there still connections between states in the region and ISIS?

AT: Of course. Please do recall that jihad flourishes under state support. This is very complicated and nuanced and it would be wrong of me to point fingers at specific countries. The global jihad in Afghanistan was state sponsored, put together by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. After the success of the global jihad, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia took over the sponsorship of the Taliban state with full support of the Americans. After the 9/11 bombings, Pakistan became the guardian of Al Qaeda and Taliban and it continued to be so to this day, not only of these two organisations but a horde of domestic entities as well.

With regard to the Islamic State, do recall here that Turkey permitted a large number of jihadis to cross its border into Syria. Many of them Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda affiliate, and many of them joined the Islamic State. There was a jihadi superhighway that was constructed. The counties that intervened in Syria put together a large number of Salafi militia which robustly cooperated with the jihadi groups in Syria so much so that it was difficult to tell one from the other. How can you tell on the battlefield of Syria that one is Salafi and the other is jihadi? Particularly when there is so much operational cooperation between them? For a long time the Islamic State did not need state sponsorship. It had a state, it had revenues, it had an army, a bureaucracy and a judiciary. It provided municipal services, ran schools, provided salaries, provided marriage guidance to young people.

They therefore became a proto-state. It is possible that under military action a proto-state may not exist – just as the Emirate of Afghanistan ceased to exist – but my question to you would be: after 35 years has Al Qaeda ceased to exist? With all the weaponry we have used against them, Al Qaeda today is as robust as it was just before the bombings of 2001. It now controls two-thirds of Afghanistan. Large parts of Pakistan are under jihadi control. Almost the entire state of Somalia is under jihadi control. Large parts of Nigeria, Mali and Southern Algeria are under jihadi control. Does this seem to you like people who are losing the war? Look at the reasons. When you destroy state order through external intervention or internal civil conflict, you open the doors for jihad. Whenever you do not provide governance to people that opens the doors to jihad just as Boko Haram has flourished in the north of Nigeria and Mali.

Governance on one hand and breakdown of state order on the other hand are the reasons why people penetrate and establish themselves. This is how regional affiliates come into being. The lone wolf is a narrative of its own and we have discussed it already but the decentralisation is also a very dangerous thing. I am looking at a scenario where you could have a situation where the Islamic State’s top leadership may merely provide you with inspiration through social media and you will have a variety of decentralised entities that would carry out operations on their own and there would be individual lone wolf warriors who would carry out individual actions. There could be occasional cooperation between them. We have seen that there is operational coordination between Al Shabaab of Somalia and Boko Haram of Nigeria. Boko Haram has become a robust entity because of the training it got from the Al Shabaab. Can you imagine a scenario in the near future where many people carry out their own operations and from time to time coordinate with the bigger operations? It has happened before and I cannot rule it out today.

SV: Final thought before we end the discussion today. It’s a pretty grim scenario that you are painting. What then are the options available for security agencies, states, and law enforcement agencies to deal with this kind of threat?

AT: If you take a historical view, terrorist elements have been with us for the last 130-140 years. The basis may change. You will recall in the 19th century when the anarchists who perpetrated extraordinary violence all across Western Europe and the U.S. They killed a large number of heads of states and heads of government. People were terrified of them and they were seen as the scourge of their times. Then, of course, on the eve of the First World War you had nationalism based terrorist. After that, you had left-wing based terrorists in different parts of the world. In the case of South Asia, you had an ultra nationalistic Tamil Tigers and you had the response from the Buddhists, which was also extremely violent.

Islam-based terror originates with the global jihad of Afghanistan. It’s just about 35 years old. It has a long line of terrorism related violence. It will wither away at some stage, but of the political things that have happened in West Asia, the most terrible aspect of the political order of West Asia is Western intervention. Consistent Western intervention has manipulated the politics of Western Asia to ensure that large parts of this region remain extremely backward and do not experience the modern, democratic and popular participation systems that the rest of the world has acquired. The most important aspect is Western intervention and the overt support of the West for tyrannies in West Asia.

If I can see the silver lining in this entire situation, it is India. The only explanation for why the Indian Muslim does not get seduced by jihad is because in his experience the Indian state order has consistently given him certain remedies for his predicament. Firstly, we are committed constitutionally and legally to a secular democratic system which already has extraordinary capacity for self-correction. I would say to you that only in an obnoxious scenario where marginalisation, dispossession, disenfranchisement and abuse become the central aspects of the Indian political order, which I do not believe will happen because the self-correction mechanisms will come into play well before that. I do not believe that the Indian state has to fear the scourge of jihad.

SV: And to the extent to which politics in India provides that safety valve for people to address their concerns.

AT: Absolutely. The Constitution of India, the media, the Supreme Court are all institutions that hold their own. It comes as a shock to the ruling party that they have been defeated by people they had never taken into account. The Indian Muslim is an integral part of the national political order and should be seen as such. He should never been seen as the Other, or as the excluded Other.

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