Originally Published 2017-02-14 09:02:25 Published on Feb 14, 2017
Asian states and their capacity to address global jihad

The concept of jihad is at least as resilient as modern statehood. What it lacks in resources, it makes up for through ideological commitment. Daesh’s military successes in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and its attacks on Europe during 2015-16 have alerted governments that they face a multi-generational challenge. A challenge which will not disappear by killing operational leaders even if the immediate threat in terms of planning, financing and coordinating terrorist attacks is significantly degraded.

Why have Asian states failed so far to root out jihad as an instrument of politics as well as geopolitics? One reason is that for a sizeable number of people, ‘jihad’ and ‘terrorism’ are not synonymous. Despite preventing/countering violent extremism programmes, the inability to permanently delegitimise jihad as a political tool nullifies policing efforts and international treaties. Governments need to build a new and exclusionary security architecture to address this reality.

Global overview

At its root, jihad is about territory and re-engineering the religious identity of people on that particular territory. It is about ‘liberating’ co-religionists from infidel rule. Whether imposed directly or through ‘apostate’ proxies, such rule is always assumed to be repressive of Muslim identity. As a global phenomenon, jihad emerged from the establishment of an American military presence in Saudi Arabia in 1990—an event whose provocative nature perhaps was not fully appreciated at the time.

Following the abolishment of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, some Islamic intellectuals yearned for a shared and sovereign realm—a wish which never faded among its strongest adherents. The First World War had unleashed the genie of nationalism and its corollary, the Westphalian nation-state, upon the Ummah. Thereafter, political boundaries were seen as a Western ploy to divide Muslims into locally-administered territories and prevent them from developing a common identity.

How is this relevant to the persistence of present-day jihad in Asia? It explains the transnational nature of terrorism that is falsely conducted as a ‘jihad,’ regardless of the strength of local grievances. The American presence in Saudi Arabia in 1990 was seen as a neo-colonial occupation, a humiliation similar to 1924. Since the desert kingdom is the spiritual homeland of Sunni Islam, and the United States the sole superpower, a context arose wherein a near-universal sense of resentment among militant Sunnis was met by an omnipresent adversary with vulnerable interests scattered worldwide.

Global jihad is essentially anti-American jihad, and has been combated from that narrow perspective since 2001. Regional Islamists who sympathise with it, but maintain no obvious ties with its practitioners, are left to be dealt with by local regimes. Since these regimes are poorly resourced, they seek to undermine terrorist movements through covert deal-making (always a sign of long-term regime weakness) alternated with occasional shows of raw strength. Very rarely, if ever, can they follow up security efforts with the sustained development of institutional and administrative capacity.

This distinction between transient and lasting power is crucial: it explains for instance, why the military successes of the 2007 US Army ‘surge’ in Iraq were frittered away through political infighting over the following seven years, allowing Daesh to resurrect its networks. Any battlefield defeat suffered by jihadists can be reversed over a sufficiently long timeframe, because it tends to be the outcome of their own tactical mistakes rather than the cleverness of government strategists. Competitiveness among local planners breeds innovation, and innovation makes an attack more deadly since it increases the probability of defeating the bureaucratically bound intelligence-collection procedures of governments.

Unlikely and opportunistic alliances can emerge from terrorism, as opposed to the more puritanical concept of jihad. During the 1980s, Sunni and Shia militias in the Middle East competed for supremacy in their immediate neighbourhoods, most notably Lebanon. Yet, by the early 1990s a sub-unit of Hizballah was training Sunni Al Qaeda members in suicide car and truck bombing techniques. The turnaround was due to operational factors—a result of the personal admiration which Osama bin Laden had for Hizballah’s master terrorist Imad Mugniyeh, who pioneered the use of such bombings. While the two holy warriors shared a common purpose in spilling infidel blood, the larger ideological frameworks within which they operated, in particular Saudi-Iranian rivalry, precluded any strategic alliance.

There are two reasons for jihad’s longevity, besides the reverence with which the very concept is held among its adherents. First, jihad lends itself to manipulation for geopolitical ends. Second, governments play the old colonial-era game of divide and conquer. By factionalising jihadist movements, they hope to split the unity and coherence of their opponent. What they do not realise is that politico-ideological divisions both prevent Islamist militants from creating a common rebel administration, and complicate the task of governance by the legitimate state apparatus.

The result is a slow-moving expansion of contested areas where neither the writ of the state nor the jihadists holds complete sway. The two biggest hubs of terrorism—the borderlands of Syria-Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan—are Shariah-possessed shadow states created in such contested spaces (Nigeria in West Africa is a third, smaller hub with less international impact, though very disruptive regionally). For jihadists based here, international boundaries are either nonexistent or at best, a convenient foil against hot pursuit by security forces. In both cases, sectarian rivalries have merged into power play by neighbouring countries. Interestingly, there is also an element of ‘blowback.’ Pakistan is facing terrorism thanks to its own policy of interfering in Afghan domestic affairs for over four decades. Syria is experiencing an Islamist rebellion because during the early 2000s, it played a crucial role in destabilising Iraq through Arab proxy warriors. Both regimes, Pakistan and Syria, have used the West’s fear of jihadism to legitimate their own adventurous and repressive policies, by hinting that worse could yet come if efforts to promote popular and representative government are intensified.

Dynamic in Asia

Elsewhere, countries as distant as the United States are affected by the propaganda that filters out from the twinned hubs of ‘Syraq’ and ‘AfPak.’ Immediately at risk are Asian states with large Muslim populations that could be lured by the prospect of gaining martial skills against local authorities. The resurgence of Uighur militancy in Xinjiang for instance, can be partly traced to an inflow of East Turkestan Islamic Movement members to Syria. Until recently, China was content to watch the West panic about foreign fighters travelling to the Middle East, having itself calculated that these would only target Western nationals. Now it is growing concerned that its own overseas commercial and military interests, not to mention diplomatic installations, could come under attack.

The key strength of both Al Qaeda and Daesh has been their ability to forge local alliances. This quality has allowed them to spread out to new areas when threatened in their main bases. Upon being ousted from Afghanistan, mid-rank Al Qaeda operatives found shelter in Pakistan’s frontier territories through hasty marital alliances. Senior leaders hid in cities due to sympathiser networks in the military and local Islamist parties dating back to the Soviet-Afghan War. Subsequently, upon becoming the collateral victims of American drone strikes and Pakistani security operations, many of these sympathisers supported Al Qaeda out of vengeance. Thus, what began in the 1980s as local jihad against the Soviets, became part of the global jihad when Arab terrorists led Pakistanis in opposing the United States. Their ability to do this very effectively will be explained below. Suffice it to say at this point that Pakistan’s dual identity as both a South Asian state with weak governance structure and a pseudo-Arab state with fiercely competitive power factions and a praetorian army made it a perfect host for global jihad.

At the far end of South Asia, in Bangladesh, Daesh now seeks to pull off a similar feat by co-opting elements of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh to carry out attacks on foreigners. With the JMB having experienced a crackdown under the Awami League government, together with the national branch of the Jamaat-e-Islami (a collaborationist leftover from Pakistani colonisation), militants in Bangladesh are desperately looking for outside affirmation of their local agendas. Thus, while Daesh might not yet have raised its own cadres on Bangladeshi territory, being able to claim the July 2016 Dhaka attack as its own has demonstrated the group’s ideological leadership among local jihadists.

Media reports suggest that Daesh is also looking to establish a ‘province’ in Southeast Asia, to make up for the territorial losses that followed its military setbacks in the Middle East. It has made itself popular with affiliates by issuing the loosest of directives: hit the enemy (however defined) as often as possible, wherever possible. Unlike Al Qaeda, which seeks to impose a degree of centralised control over an affiliate (partly as a result of harsh lessons learnt in Iraq in 2005-06), Daesh only seeks to unleash chaos. Its organisational philosophy is codified in the 2004 book The Management of Savagery, which advocates unrestricted use of terror to polarise communities and prevent the routine functioning of administrative systems. By this logic, multi-ethnic Asian countries like Myanmar and Malaysia risk being divided by provocative terrorist incidents designed to undermine societal cohesion.

Closer to home, India faces a problem that is only partly similar. On the one hand, there is no doubt of the need for continued vigilance against Daesh radicalisation. Managing inter-communal tensions after a major terrorist attack by home-grown militants will be a real challenge. On the other hand, the biggest terror threat to India comes from state-sponsored groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Analysts are rightly concerned that the emergence of Daesh in South Asia has added another layer of deniability to Pakistan’s proxy war, allowing Islamabad to claim that any future attack on India is the work of stateless ‘rogues.’ This feeds into the false narrative peddled by states like the United Kingdom, that India and Pakistan have a shared opponent in terrorism. In the process, the fact that Pakistan seeks to fight its own domestic militancy by merely funnelling it in the direction of India is conveniently forgotten.

When grilled about the 2008 Mumbai attack, a former Pakistani prime minister told this writer it was Islamabad’s responsibility to ensure such an event did not happen again. But what seems like a conciliatory comment is double-edged: Islamabad was mortified that the attack both targeted third-country nationals and was unambiguously traced back to its own territory. However, it calculates that such a damning combination of circumstances is unlikely to recur. It is therefore not interested in stopping localised cross-border terrorism directed solely against Indian nationals, or cooperating with the West in stabilising Afghanistan. Influencing its decisions in a positive way requires covertly inflicting costs on the Pakistani army.

Pakistan as the ‘Mothership of Terror’

Indian Prime Minister Modi deserves credit for acknowledging what has been widely known since 2003. As reported by the Pakistani newsmagazine Herald:

“al-Qaeda’s documents and the information found on computer discs regarding the organization’s ideology, tactics and financial transactions has convinced Americans of two fundamental facts about Islamic terrorism. One, that Saudi Arabia is the single largest source of al-Qaeda’s funding and, second, that Pakistan provides the friendliest politico-administrative environment for Islamic extremists to thrive”.<1>

The journalist and author Mohammad Hanif put it equally succinctly, describing Pakistan as “an international jihadi tourist resort.”<2> What is it about Pakistan that has made the country’s political climate favourable for global jihad?

The answer partly lies with the Pakistani army. Its antipathy towards the United States stems from memories of Washington’s pressure to allow elections and the return of civilian rule after the death Zia-ul-Haq in 1988, a divisive and deeply unpopular move among the then military leadership.<3> Since then, government-to-government relations have been poisoned by the army. As the American scholar Stephen Cohen noted in 2011, “some sections of the army are even more anti-American than they are anti-India.”<4> Within civil society, anti-Americanism has even deeper roots, having surfaced in four waves since 1947. The first was in 1953-54, when the Communist Party of Pakistan was banned and the country opted to join CENTO, a US-led alliance. Former leftists organised themselves into protest groups and publicly celebrated every American defeat in Vietnam during the following two decades. The second wave came in 1979, when Islamist parties tacitly encouraged by the Zia government dominated anti-American rhetoric in order to deny the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party a political platform. The third wave came in 1990, when Pakistanis protested American preparations for war with Iraq. Large outflows of migrant workers to the Gulf since the 1970s had partially ‘Arabised’ sections of the Pakistani urban middle class, such that Arab animosity to the United States over its Israel policy found a receptive audience in many parts of Punjab and Sindh. Finally, the most recent wave came in 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad. In order to save itself from domestic criticism for having failed to stop the raid, the Pakistani military establishment, through its spin-doctors in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), reframed the public debate in terms of national sovereignty. The United States was cast as a bully that had misused its armed might to transgress into Pakistani territory and commit an illegal killing.

It would thus be wholly inaccurate to explain global jihad as a Middle Eastern phenomenon, which almost by accident, got transplanted to South Asia by the Soviet-Afghan War. Pakistan became the primary staging post for Al Qaeda during the 1990s because nowhere else did an Arab-style ‘Deep State’ run by a handful of top generals and their spymasters rule over such an administratively weak territory. When castigated for sheltering international terrorist fugitives, as it was in the early 1990s, Islamabad could always claim it had little control over its borders. After 9/11, it was quick to adapt to update its evasive discourse in tune with international academic and policy jargon, favouring the term ‘non-state actors.’ But as the Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul dryly observed, “the moment you induct religion into statecraft, the lines between state and non-state armies largely vanish.”  And the Pakistani army has been training its personnel to think of themselves as Islamic holy warriors since the 1960s.

The ISI in particular deserves credit for manipulating domestic and international discourse on its sponsorship of terrorists very effectively. One of its biggest propaganda successes was in 1998, when the United States launched missile strikes against Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The strikes inadvertently killed 22 ISI and Harkat-ul Mujahideen trainers at a camp known as Salman Farsi. When word of the deaths was leaked, the agency went into damage control mode. It planted reports in the local English media that Sunni sectarian terrorists wanted for massacring Pakistani Shias were hiding in Afghanistan and that the Taliban was refusing to hand them over. In this way, it brought some relief for the policy establishment in Islamabad, which was being excoriated for its closeness to the Taliban and unwillingness to leverage its ties for the purpose of shutting down Al Qaeda facilities. By perpetuating the fiction that the Taliban was a genuinely sovereign government and with whom even Pakistan had disagreements on terrorism, the ISI ensured that public embarrassment caused by the missile strikes quickly subsided. Years later, nobody made any comment when some of these same Sunni terrorists quietly re-entered Pakistan after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan and lived unmolested by security agencies. Others, who were suspected of being double agents, were taken into police custody and then liquidated to erase any chances that disclosure of their earlier activities might cause a scandal.

‘Dividing jihad to control it’<5>

Pakistan’s policy for dealing with domestic militancy is similar to Saudi Arabia’s: to extravert it. The only difference is that Saudi Arabia is a relatively prosperous country due to oil wealth, while Pakistan has a rentier economy dependent on foreign largesse. Foreign targets, be they Western powers or neighbouring states in South Asia, serve as convenient substitutes for the policy establishment when needed to absorb public anger over poor governance and elite corruption. But despite its habit of conflating domestic and strategic power accretion strategies, the military part of this establishment has instrumentalised jihadists for entirely rational geopolitical gains. Just as Saudi Arabia used Sunni sectarianism as a counterweight to Iranian revolutionary zeal after 1979, so has Pakistan used Pan-Islamism as a bridge to other Muslim countries. The International Islamic University in Islamabad, where Osama bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam once lectured, was founded in 1980 as part of this drive. The Tablighi Jamaat’s ijtema (convention) in Raiwind in Pakistani Punjab, the world’s second-largest gathering of Muslims after the Hajj, became an entry point into jihadism for amateur adventurers who travelled to Pakistan, wanting to experience the thrills of paramilitary training with a mujahideen group. By positioning itself at the centre of the Ummah’s military profile through its sponsorship of local jihad, and tacit encouragement for global jihad, Pakistan makes itself indispensable as a problem-solver. For who else but a rambunctious spoiler can ensure that peace does not return to Afghanistan or to Jammu and Kashmir? The conflictual dynamic that sustains the Pakistani military’s outsized importance to the country’s security requires that tensions be stoked with neighbouring powers.

Blowback can and does occur, but its effects upon the military are almost always limited. The vast majority of those killed by terrorists in Pakistan have been civilians and a few policemen, but not soldiers, sailors or airmen. Only the formation of the Pakistani Taliban in the mid-2000s, as a result of incitement by Al Qaeda, led to genuine damage being inflicted on the military establishment in the form of deliberate killings of soldiers and their families. As Isaac Kfir notes, in the Pakistani context militants have learned for the most part to focus their attacks on minorities, whether sectarian or ethnic, in order to avoid bringing down the full wrath of the security establishment upon themselves.<6> As long as they exercise such self-control, they are left to local police forces to tackle. Since these forces are ill-equipped and ill-trained to handle even basic forensic investigations, never mind confronting terrorists armed with military-grade weaponry, police pursuit is not a serious concern for committed jihadists.

The tendency to deflect domestic militancy towards an external target is characteristic of states where an all-powerful intelligence monolith has responsibility for foreign and domestic intelligence, as well as covert operations. Pakistan’s ISI and Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate perfectly fit this role, whereas the Indian Research and Analysis Wing, or the American Central Intelligence Agency, or the British Secret Intelligence Service, would struggle exert a similar degree of insider-based control over a jihadist network. To manipulate a terrorist group’s operational planning from within requires a high degree of penetration that is usually only feasible for highly resourced and ruthless secret police agencies. With democratic states usually having strict firewalls with regard to information sharing and oversight of covert operations, it is difficult for intelligence managers to execute activities which if publicly uncovered, can be conveniently dismissed as ‘rogue’ initiatives.

Another common tool used by intelligence agencies, in both authoritarian and democratic states, is factionalisation. But this carries the risk of inducing analytical blindness with regard to changing threat patterns. History indicates that factionalisation masks the subversive threat posed by supposed ‘moderates’ within the Islamist camp. Over-emphasising differences in doctrine or worldview, which are too arcane to concern ordinary jihadist footsoldiers, can leave government experts puzzled when a member of a not-so-extreme faction conducts a wholly unexpected attack. An example was the 2011 murder of the governor of Pakistani Punjab by one of his own bodyguards. As a Barelvi, the killer should have been praying at Sufi shrines and listening to qawwalis, according to the analytical orthodoxy prevailing at the time. Instead, he turned out to be a highly-strung individual who had previously been involved in an unauthorised shooting. As a devout Barelvi, he subscribed to the personality cult around the Prophet Mohammed, believing that anyone who insulted the Prophet deserved instant death, as did those who defended them via the state’s legal system, such as the Punjab governor. In a more recent example, the 2013 splitting of Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate in Iraq and Syria into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat-al-Nusra) and Daesh momentarily led some top-ranking American officials to ponder if it were possible to use one group against the other. Such a suggestion could only have heartened Al Qaeda, which is playing a long game in ‘Syraq’ and building ties with local communities in preparation for filling the power vacuum that will follow Daesh’s likely defeat by Western airpower.


Jihad is a concept inextricably woven into the historical discourse of the Islamic faith. That is not to overlook the fact that its conflation with mass casualty terrorism is a much more recent phenomenon. But the inability to separate overarching narratives from operational alliances and tactical actions means that a seamless continuum of militancy exists. States which are internally weak use this continuum, and their own equally seamless intelligence bureaucracies, to convert jihad into an instrument of geopolitics and domestic security. The United States was and will remain the common target of global jihad, but with its foreign policy becoming more isolationist since the second Iraq war (2003-2011), regional opponents will dominate the attention of jihadist groups. With Daesh having shown that unrestrained brutality can go a long way towards carving out an exclusive territory where ‘pure’ Shariah law can be implemented, Asian states need to be vigilant about possible Emirates and mini-Emirates being constructed in their backyards, drawn with borders of blood.

This article was originally published in Raisina Files: Debating the world in the Asian Century

<1> M. Ilyas Khan, “Borderline Case,” Herald, February 2003, 33.

<2> Mohammed Hanif, “Murshid, Marwa Na Daina,” Newsline, June 2011, 26.

<3> Ahmed Rashid, “Diplomatic Immunity,” Herald, October 1990, 29.

<4> Sairah Irshad Khan, “Dangerous Liaisons, “Newsline, June 2011, 21.

<5> This is an ISI tactic ably described in Sushant Sareen, The Jihad Factory: Pakistan’s Islamic Revolution in the Making (New Delhi: Har-Anand, 2005), 134.

<6> Isaac Kfir, “Sectarian Violence and Social Group Identity in Pakistan,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37, no.6 (2014):457-472.

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