Analysis by Jotam Confino.
As ISIS faces inevitable defeat in its two strongholds, Mosul and Raqqa, the terrorist group is looking elsewhere in the region to establish a caliphate. It still uses the same old strategy that al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), invented, namely causing a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Al-Zarqawi and his gang became widely feared and had success in ripping Iraq apart during the early stages of the US invasion of Iraq, causing tremendous casualties and endless fights between the two major Muslim branches. First, the methods of slaughtering Shiites in the name of Allah alienated Zarqawi and his group from al-Qaeda. Second in charge of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri even wrote a letter to Zarqawi in which he reprimanded him and condemned his methods. It was only when Zarqawi became a superstar among jihadists that Bin Laden and Zawahiri officially embraced him as the leader of AQI. Years later, Zarqawi had succeeded in igniting a civil war in Iraq that would benefit AQI greatly the minute US troops left the country.
ISIS currently has its eyes on a variety of places, but especially Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to attract the territorial seeking group. Both countries have their own potential, although it will be much harder to conquer territory in Pakistan for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, Pakistan has become a target for ISIS lately, where the group is reusing its old strategy from Iraq. The latest attacks in Pakistan against a mainly Shiite shrine proves the case. Pakistan later accused Afghanistan of harboring ISIS militants and followed up by firing artillery into Afghan territory. It could be that Pakistan sees the attack as an excuse to lash out against its neighbor, but whatever the rationale behind the reaction, ISIS got what it wanted. The already tense relationship between the two countries is driving a further wedge between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and most importantly between Shiites and Sunnis.
ISIS first attack in the Pakistan was as brutal as usual, executing 45 civilian Shiites in the city of Karachi last year. It has since then been operating in the port city on the Arabian Sea, where some 20 million people live. Reports on ISIS affiliates trying to recruit university student, journalists and educated people around Pakistan, should be a warning sign to Islamabad that a new player is in town. In addition, ISIS has had success in the tribal areas of Bajour and Orakzai on the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban leaders in those tribes have switched allegiance and joined ISIS since they began operating in the area.
Ironically, Al-Zarqawi left the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan for Iraq, with the mission of setting up an al-Qaeda branch on the border between Iraq and Iran. Now his followers are back in Afghanistan, using the same tactics as he did in Iraq, which is recruiting tribal leaders to join their ranks while killing Shiites in large numbers. Pakistan, seemingly, has everything ISIS is looking for;
1: A vast majority of its 188 million people are Sunnis, and the sectarian violence has existed since the 1990’s.
2: ISIS is already operating in Afghanistan and on the porous border to Pakistan, gaining ground and followers.
3: The shady reputation of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, and its alleged cooperation with Taliban, gives further incentive for ISIS to raise its stakes in Pakistan.
Given that, ISIS gained popularity due to its territorial conquest in Iraq and Syria, the topographically attractive borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a bad omen for regional stability.
ISIS is in the midst of a popularity contest between terrorist groups. Since it started losing territory in Iraq and Syria, the group has relied on other “victories”, such as terrorist attacks in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East of course. In Afghanistan, ISIS has been fighting Taliban over territory and recruitment, seeking to destroy the state by launching a series of suicide attacks against Shiites in Kabul. Estimates say that around 90% of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan are foreigners, while Taliban is a rural group that seek to retake control of the country.
The alarming speed of suicide attacks committed by ISIS fighters in both Pakistan and Afghanistan resonates well with the activities of its offshoots around the region. ISIS branch in the desert of Sinai in Egypt fired rockets at Israel’s Red Sea resort, Eilat. Although the rockets were intercepted, the aggressive activities of ISIS’s branch in Sinai is a sign of the group stepping up its game. Until now, Hamas and Hezbollah have taken credit for fighting the Palestinian cause, but with the recent attack on Eilat, ISIS is signaling that it will do whatever it takes to gain support. Fighting Israel and Egypt at the same time in Sinai could be a suicide mission, but it will undoubtedly get respect and more followers around the world. Attacking Israel could also be seen as a retaliation against Hezbollah, which it has been in conflict with in Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah brands itself as the main foreign resistance movement against Israel, but the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war caused a mutual deterrence and relative peace between the two. The recent threats against Israel made by the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is first and foremost an attempt to scare off any Israeli attacks on Lebanese soil, but also to make it clear that Hezbollah hasn’t forgotten the Palestinians.
ISIS has also tried to gain support and power in Gaza, but Hamas has cracked down on Salafi groups, such as Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis which has sworn allegiance to ISIS. The relationship between Hamas, Salafi-Jihadists in Gaza and the ISIS affiliates in Sinai is very complex due to a number of reasons. First, Hamas is currently being held responsible for any rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The Salafi-jihadists in Gaza are more prone to attacking Israel, while Hamas has tried to avoid any clashes with Israel since the war in 2014. Second, the ISIS affiliates in Sinai have been responsible for killing hundreds of Egyptian police officers, while Hamas is seeking to restore ties with Egypt and al-Sisi again. If Hamas wishes to rebuild its economy and avoid any clashes with Israel and Egypt, it is vital that the group proves itself responsible by cracking down on Salafi and ISIS affiliates.
ISIS has been relocating and spreading its activities since it became evident that its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria would not last. The question is whether the old strategy of sparking sectarian violence and recruiting young souls for its purposes will prove itself successful again. With al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah as its rivals, ISIS needs propaganda and victories more than ever, if it wishes to remain on top of the popularity list among young jihadists.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.