Event ReportsPublished on Aug 26, 2015
The rise of Islamic State does pose a strategic threat to South Asia, although the influence might not be direct, according to Prof. Stephen Tankel of American University. He says since the decline of the Al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan, the IS has emerged a source of new leadership.
Situating South Asia in the US response to transnational threats and Islamic militancy

The ’strategic effect’ of the rise of the Islamic State (IS) is already being felt in South Asia, said Stephen Tankel at a talk on ’Transnational Threats, Islamic Militancy, and U.S. Foreign Policy’ organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Delhi, on 25 August 2015. Tankel is an associate professor at the School of International Service, American University, and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The talk was chaired by Vikram Sood, Advisor at ORF. Sood initiated the discussion by highlighting some of the key concerns surrounding the rise of the IS in West Asia, pointing towards the ambiguity that accompanies the speculation around the spread of its influence in the region. Is the IS threat restricted or is it reasonable to conclude that it is now moving closer to South Asia, particularly India? Sood also alluded to the subsequent shifts that have taken place in US policy on counter-terrorism in the wake of these developments.

Tankel highlighted two broad developments that have taken place in the area of counter-terrorism since 9/11: First, that the majority of the countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia that joined forces with the US and extended their support to the American entry into Iraq were countries that had experienced revolutionary insurgencies provoked by groups like the Al Qaeda in their own territories. Second, since 9/11, the Al Qaeda has grown and the last decade has witnessed an increase in the number of affiliates, which has given a more global focus to their activities. He pointed out that Pakistan is the only place in the region that has had pan-Islamic groups in operation after 9/11.

According to the speaker, however, since the Arab uprising in 2011, a number of shifts have taken place. The global focus on Islamic militant groups has reduced, and a more regional or local focus has emerged. In this context, the IS threat is markedly different from that of the Al Qaeda a decade ago, since the barriers to the entry of affiliates are not as pronounced. Two aspects were highlighted: the involvement of foreign fighters with the IS, and the robust use of social media by the group. Tankel therefore concluded that the group is more than a terrorist organisation; it is actively engaged in hybrid warfare that represents a departure from the ways of the Al Qaeda.

How do we situate South Asia in this? Tankel was of the opinion that the rise of the IS does pose a strategic threat to the region, although the influence may not be direct. Since the decline of Al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan, the IS has emerged as a source of new leadership. The flipside to this argument involves looking at whether the Al Qaeda leadership has the potential to re-emerge once the US troop presence in Afghanistan recedes. A major threat to South Asian regional stability also comes from the risk of existing terror operatives such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Indian Mujahideen associating themselves with the IS. The speaker said the IS is an alternative, a repository for disaffected individuals within these organisations who can easily come together and challenge the influence of the Taliban, among others. Either way, the risk of violent terror attacks in South Asia, particularly targeted towards India, is present, strategically motivated by the rise of the IS itself.

The US perspective on these developments is interesting. According to Tankel, the US approach seeks to work from within, by engaging with local operatives. The surgical use of drone strikes, and efforts to build partnership capacity with local actors in Yemen is a case in point. The focus of US policy has subsequently been on intelligence sharing, threat finding, and the use of military force for political leverage as witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tankel also emphasised that the involvement of the military is important for the success of leverage politics in combating Islamic militancy.

The US focus on South Asia, in Tankel’s view, can therefore be analysed historically. While the focus of the US has been on the Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, troop withdrawal has changed the nature of this focus. He emphasised the need for the US to look closely at local groups in South Asia, especially in the wake of enormous challenges in the Middle East and North Africa.

Tankel concluded his talk by highlighting two important aspects of renewed American focus on South Asia: the risk of an India-Pakistan crisis, and the WMD threat in the region. The latter, in his opinion, appears to be a most likely scenario if the Al Qaeda or other groups infiltrate and deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the event of an India-Pakistan crisis.

The talk was attended by former diplomats, foreign diplomats, media persons and ORF faculty.

Report prepared by Shagun Gupta, Research Intern, ORF Delhi.

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