In Fight Against ISIS, a Lose-Lose Scenario Poses Challenge for West

ISIS has lost around a quarter of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. Important commanders have died in airstrikes; an estimated 20,000 of its fighters have been killed. The group has run out of high-profile hostages to extract ransom for or publicly assassinate for propaganda purposes.

The ISIS brand needed a facelift: Attacks in Paris, Beirut, and against a Russian airliner over the last three weeks — all of which ISIS has claimed credit for — have given them that. At a time when ISIS is facing setbacks on the battlefield, its success in striking targets beyond territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria has given its loyalists something to cheer about.

The terrible success of these attacks, analysts say, puts Western powers in a lose-lose scenario: Beating ISIS in its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria will likely motivate more international terrorism, as the group, clinging to power and relevancy, seeks to strike back abroad.

Worse yet, a complete collapse of its so-called caliphate could free up tens of thousands of ISIS militants — currently busy defending that territory — to focus on terrorism.

This grim scenario was drawn by analysts as Western leaders continue to grapple over how best to respond to the ISIS threat. Until recently, its grisly reach appeared limited to Iraq and Syria, and to parts of North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Asia where it has elicited oaths of loyalty from previously-established extremist organizations.

But any notion that ISIS’s tactics would be limited to areas where they already hold sway was shattered as the organization took credit for the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt that killed 224; last week’s twin suicide bombing in Beirut they killed 43; and finally, Friday’s attack on Paris that left 129 dead.

The attacks came more than 13 months since U.S.-led bombing against ISIS expanded from Iraq into Syria, an effort that President Barack Obama has defended despite calls for a more aggressive military engagement.

“From the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News mere hours before the attack on Paris. “They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria it — they’ll come in, they’ll leave. But you don’t see this systemic march by ISIL across the terrain.”

It’s the very success of that containment policy that is motivating the terrorist attacks, says analyst Clint Watts, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“Part of what has sustained ISIS in Syria and Iraq is battlefield success — they pursue battlefield successes and broadcast it on social media,” he said. “They’re no longer having those. And they’re actually losing ground for the first time since they took Mosul in June 2014. So whenever you can’t find the success you need to keep your fan network going, you start to look for other options.”

And it worked, noted analyst J.M. Berger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the book, “ISIS: The State of Terror.” ISIS has lost territory near the cities of Kirkuk and Ramadi and the Baiji district in Iraq, and parts of northern Syria. Last Thursday, global media was reporting that ISIS was losing Sinjar province in Iraq, which it held since August 2014. By Saturday, Berger noted, “the big story was ISIS is rampaging out of control all over the world.”

ISIS has always had the capacity to terrorize the heartlands of its enemies, but has not deployed it until recently because they had other means of provocation, Berger said.

“For a while they had hostages they were able to provoke the West with, and they didn’t have to go anywhere to do it,” said Berger.

Now that they no longer have a supply of Western hostages to exploit — only one is known to still be held — they have moved into provocations abroad.

This is hardly a new tactic for extremist organizations: For instance, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate that controlled large portions of Somalia, including Mogadishu until 2011, has ramped up attacks in neighboring Kenya as it has lost territory in Somalia over the last five years.

“This is classic playbook,” Watts said. “Enrage the enemy, get them coming at this on all planes, and now you can rally the Muslim world against the West. This is exactly what unravels a containment strategy, is you have a terrorist attack, and everyone gets upset, and then they are primed to take action, which is exactly what ISIS wants.”

There is considerable debate about ISIS’s motivations for the international attacks it is now claiming credit for. It may be a desire for revenge against the West. It may be a calculation that the more nations become embroiled in a response to the Syrian civil war, the more difficult it will be for the international community to coordinate a response. It may be a desire to jumpstart an apocalyptical battle with the West that religious texts favored by ISIS have predicted.

Regardless, ISIS has been explicit in stating such attacks help drive people to their cause, as counterterrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir of the Institute of Study of War described in The Washington Post recently. Islamic State publications earlier this year said that terrorist attacks will elicit a harsh anti-Muslim response from Western “crusaders,” which will in turn alienate and radicalize otherwise moderate Muslims, Gambhir wrote.

“The group calculates that a small number of attackers can profoundly shift the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim members, and as a result, the way European Muslims view themselves. Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West,” said Gambhir.

The U.S. has thus far favored a more moderate response to the attacks. Its containment policy, Watts explained, is designed to wall ISIS into increasingly restricted territory and letting it fail due to its own mismanagement, economic problems, and internal discord, rather than because of the actions of a foreign oppressor.

“ISIS gets a lot of its money by taking the wealth of the places it captures, and we’ve held them back from any major conquests in the last months, so right now they’re squeezing blood from a stone, economically speaking,” said Berger. “That’s not something they can do indefinitely, so if they reach a tipping point, we could see ISIS collapse in a very short amount of time. The problem is we don’t really know how long that will take to happen, and a lot of bad things can happen between now and then.”

But the more “bad things” happen, the less palatable a slow pace of advance against ISIS will seem to Western leaders. Already, France has begun aggressive military actions in response to last week’s attack, calling them an “act of war” by ISIS.

“The question is will the West have the patience to let the containment policy work,” said Watts. “The whole idea of terrorism is to get the targets to overreact — and you see it already here, with the backlash at refugees, people calling for more airstrikes, hitting targets that we’re not really sure what they are, just to show symbolically that we’re doing something.”

But losing patience and using pure military might to decimate ISIS’s hold on its territory might do nothing to stem its international terrorist ambitions, said Berger.

“One issue is they already have a lot of people deployed abroad. And a second issue is if you went in with force and took their territory away from them, you’re freeing up tens of thousands of fighters who are currently involved in policing the Islamic State, securing its borders, running checkpoints — all those guys are free to do terrorism then, if they don’t get killed in the attack,” Berger said.  “In terms of a happy ending any time soon, I find it hard to imagine.”

Regardless of approach — containment or stepped-up military aggression — the West is likely to suffer more attacks, because there are so many potentially dangerous people in Europe now, according to Watts.

“Where (Western leaders) have fallen down is that they’ve let this problem fester for four years,” he said. “They let the borders in Turkey flow, they let their own citizens flow in and out of Turkey, they let them fight with (Al Qaeda affiliate) Al Nusra and ISIS, they’ve let them come back into the country, they haven’t done programs to counter violent extremism at home, they haven’t done other programs to try to rehabilitate their communities — so what’s happened in Paris is completely unsurprising to anybody who’s been watching the foreign fighter flows over the last five years.”

Powered By WizardRSS.com | Full Text RSS Feed

ISIS has lost around a quarter of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. Important commanders have died in airstrikes; an estimated 20,000 of its fighters have been killed. The group has run out of high-profile hostages to extract ransom for or publicly assassinate for propaganda purposes.

The ISIS brand needed a facelift: Attacks in Paris, Beirut, and against a Russian airliner over the last three weeks — all of which ISIS has claimed credit for — have given them that. At a time when ISIS is facing setbacks on the battlefield, its success in striking targets beyond territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria has given its loyalists something to cheer about.

The terrible success of these attacks, analysts say, puts Western powers in a lose-lose scenario: Beating ISIS in its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria will likely motivate more international terrorism, as the group, clinging to power and relevancy, seeks to strike back abroad.

Worse yet, a complete collapse of its so-called caliphate could free up tens of thousands of ISIS militants — currently busy defending that territory — to focus on terrorism.

This grim scenario was drawn by analysts as Western leaders continue to grapple over how best to respond to the ISIS threat. Until recently, its grisly reach appeared limited to Iraq and Syria, and to parts of North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Asia where it has elicited oaths of loyalty from previously-established extremist organizations.

But any notion that ISIS’s tactics would be limited to areas where they already hold sway was shattered as the organization took credit for the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt that killed 224; last week’s twin suicide bombing in Beirut they killed 43; and finally, Friday’s attack on Paris that left 129 dead.

The attacks came more than 13 months since U.S.-led bombing against ISIS expanded from Iraq into Syria, an effort that President Barack Obama has defended despite calls for a more aggressive military engagement.

“From the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News mere hours before the attack on Paris. “They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria it — they’ll come in, they’ll leave. But you don’t see this systemic march by ISIL across the terrain.”

It’s the very success of that containment policy that is motivating the terrorist attacks, says analyst Clint Watts, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“Part of what has sustained ISIS in Syria and Iraq is battlefield success — they pursue battlefield successes and broadcast it on social media,” he said. “They’re no longer having those. And they’re actually losing ground for the first time since they took Mosul in June 2014. So whenever you can’t find the success you need to keep your fan network going, you start to look for other options.”

And it worked, noted analyst J.M. Berger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the book, “ISIS: The State of Terror.” ISIS has lost territory near the cities of Kirkuk and Ramadi and the Baiji district in Iraq, and parts of northern Syria. Last Thursday, global media was reporting that ISIS was losing Sinjar province in Iraq, which it held since August 2014. By Saturday, Berger noted, “the big story was ISIS is rampaging out of control all over the world.”

ISIS has always had the capacity to terrorize the heartlands of its enemies, but has not deployed it until recently because they had other means of provocation, Berger said.

“For a while they had hostages they were able to provoke the West with, and they didn’t have to go anywhere to do it,” said Berger.

Now that they no longer have a supply of Western hostages to exploit — only one is known to still be held — they have moved into provocations abroad.

This is hardly a new tactic for extremist organizations: For instance, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate that controlled large portions of Somalia, including Mogadishu until 2011, has ramped up attacks in neighboring Kenya as it has lost territory in Somalia over the last five years.

“This is classic playbook,” Watts said. “Enrage the enemy, get them coming at this on all planes, and now you can rally the Muslim world against the West. This is exactly what unravels a containment strategy, is you have a terrorist attack, and everyone gets upset, and then they are primed to take action, which is exactly what ISIS wants.”

There is considerable debate about ISIS’s motivations for the international attacks it is now claiming credit for. It may be a desire for revenge against the West. It may be a calculation that the more nations become embroiled in a response to the Syrian civil war, the more difficult it will be for the international community to coordinate a response. It may be a desire to jumpstart an apocalyptical battle with the West that religious texts favored by ISIS have predicted.

Regardless, ISIS has been explicit in stating such attacks help drive people to their cause, as counterterrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir of the Institute of Study of War described in The Washington Post recently. Islamic State publications earlier this year said that terrorist attacks will elicit a harsh anti-Muslim response from Western “crusaders,” which will in turn alienate and radicalize otherwise moderate Muslims, Gambhir wrote.

“The group calculates that a small number of attackers can profoundly shift the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim members, and as a result, the way European Muslims view themselves. Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West,” said Gambhir.

The U.S. has thus far favored a more moderate response to the attacks. Its containment policy, Watts explained, is designed to wall ISIS into increasingly restricted territory and letting it fail due to its own mismanagement, economic problems, and internal discord, rather than because of the actions of a foreign oppressor.

“ISIS gets a lot of its money by taking the wealth of the places it captures, and we’ve held them back from any major conquests in the last months, so right now they’re squeezing blood from a stone, economically speaking,” said Berger. “That’s not something they can do indefinitely, so if they reach a tipping point, we could see ISIS collapse in a very short amount of time. The problem is we don’t really know how long that will take to happen, and a lot of bad things can happen between now and then.”

But the more “bad things” happen, the less palatable a slow pace of advance against ISIS will seem to Western leaders. Already, France has begun aggressive military actions in response to last week’s attack, calling them an “act of war” by ISIS.

“The question is will the West have the patience to let the containment policy work,” said Watts. “The whole idea of terrorism is to get the targets to overreact — and you see it already here, with the backlash at refugees, people calling for more airstrikes, hitting targets that we’re not really sure what they are, just to show symbolically that we’re doing something.”

But losing patience and using pure military might to decimate ISIS’s hold on its territory might do nothing to stem its international terrorist ambitions, said Berger.

“One issue is they already have a lot of people deployed abroad. And a second issue is if you went in with force and took their territory away from them, you’re freeing up tens of thousands of fighters who are currently involved in policing the Islamic State, securing its borders, running checkpoints — all those guys are free to do terrorism then, if they don’t get killed in the attack,” Berger said.  “In terms of a happy ending any time soon, I find it hard to imagine.”

Regardless of approach — containment or stepped-up military aggression — the West is likely to suffer more attacks, because there are so many potentially dangerous people in Europe now, according to Watts.

“Where (Western leaders) have fallen down is that they’ve let this problem fester for four years,” he said. “They let the borders in Turkey flow, they let their own citizens flow in and out of Turkey, they let them fight with (Al Qaeda affiliate) Al Nusra and ISIS, they’ve let them come back into the country, they haven’t done programs to counter violent extremism at home, they haven’t done other programs to try to rehabilitate their communities — so what’s happened in Paris is completely unsurprising to anybody who’s been watching the foreign fighter flows over the last five years.”



Powered By WizardRSS.com | Full Text RSS Feed

ISIS is in Afghanistan, But Who Are They Really?

It’s only been a year-and-a-half since the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized one of Iraq’s largest cities and declared a caliphate in the swathes of territory it held in both countries. Since then, foreign fighters have flocked to join the conflict and ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has inspired pledges of allegiance from aspiring insurgents and breakaway factions of militant groups in countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Libya, as well as from well-established groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

Now, it appears ISIS-allied fighters are gaining a foothold in Afghanistan as well. But who are they really? Do they take orders from ISIS’ leadership in Iraq and Syria? And could their ideology and grasp on territory spread like it did in Iraq and Syria? Here is what three experts had to say.

Who is “ISIS” in Afghanistan?

James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 until Dec. 2014, says he first heard rumors of ISIS in Afghanistan as his term was ending. “Just as I was getting ready to leave, there were rumors, but nothing very solid — expressions of concern that ISIS was starting to make contact with Afghans and Pakistanis, and trying to recruit people to come to the fight in Syria and Iraq.”

However, experts say that the entities that now call themselves ISIS in Afghanistan are not fighters from Iraq or Syria. Rather, they’re primarily disaffected Taliban members and insurgents from other groups who seized an opportunity to “rebrand” themselves as ISIS.

“It’s important to look at what we mean when we say ISIS,” says Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, “because these were groups that were disgruntled and they essentially rebranded themselves as a way of reinvigorating their group or faction, and attracting funding.”

“There’s been increased dissatisfaction among certain elements of the Taliban, and with the media talking about ISIS all the time and the Afghan government playing up the idea of ISIS as a way of keeping the United States interested, all of that sort of set the ground for the groups to rebrand themselves,” Gopal says.

Among the groups that have taken up ISIS’ black flag in Afghanistan are factions of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban, or TTP; the Pakistani militant group Lashkar e Taiba; and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Currently, the leaders of ISIS in Afghanistan are predominantly former Pakistani Taliban members.

Some members and commanders of the Afghan Taliban have also defected, highlighting rising disaffection within the group, which despite being able to briefly take and hold the provincial capital of Kunduz in September, has experienced fragmentation and turmoil over the last several months. Some defectors began joining ISIS because of the long absence of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader whose stature and mystique held the disparate group together. The confirmation of his death in July has only increased defections. Others, meanwhile, were driven to ISIS by disagreements over whether the Taliban should take part in peace talks with the Afghan government.

“The motivations for people to want to take up arms and fight against the Afghan state haven’t diminished,” Gopal says. “You have the leadership saying, well, it’s time to negotiate, time to look at peace.” The groups that have rebranded themselves as ISIS are able to step in, Gopal says, and claim, “‘We’re not the Taliban … we’re not going to enter these negotiations. We’re part of this global movement now that’s been so successful in Iraq and Syria.”

No one knows exactly how many fighters now call themselves ISIS in Afghanistan, but officials estimate there are around a thousand. The main areas where they hold sway are districts in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, and parts of Zabul in the south and Kunduz in the north. By July, it was claimed that ISIS had defeated the Taliban in three districts in Nangarhar — Achin, Shinwar and Khogyani. But the Taliban has been pushing back, leaving civilians caught in the middle of fighting between both groups. The mid-year tally of civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit a record high in 2015, since the United Nations started counting in 2009 — 1,592 dead, 3,329 injured.

Do they take orders from or have ties to ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

While a spokesman for ISIS central in Iraq and Syria announced the establishment of an Afghan affiliate in January, experts say there isn’t much evidence of centralized command and control links between fighters in Afghanistan and the leadership in Iraq and Syria yet.

“They embrace the label, and they swear allegiance to Baghdadi, but it doesn’t appear there is any direction, control or instructions coming from Syria, Iraq or Baghdadi,” explains Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“If you look at the way in which this group has operated on the ground, it operates very differently from the ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Gopal says. “They’re not acting like ISIS central … They’re not destroying shrines and doing things against local culture.”

However, that could change, and the things to keep an eye on are capabilities or behaviors of the group changing over time, experts say.

Could they spread like ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

The startlingly rapid rise of ISIS rattled Western officials. In 2011, the group emerged from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2011 and gained recruits and fighting experience in the Syrian civil war before launching a lightning offensive on Mosul and establishing its caliphate. The group took advantage of power vacuums and weakened state security forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as harnessing sectarian tensions in Sunni majority areas.

With fighters in Afghanistan now flying the flag of ISIS too, the natural concern is whether what happened in Iraq and Syria could happen in Afghanistan.

It’s still to early to tell, experts acknowledge, but there are fundamental differences between ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the situation in Afghanistan that could impede ISIS’ spread in the latter.

ISIS’ ideology, which is Salafist, is antithetical to the Taliban’s ideology, which has origins in Sufism and Deobandi. Salafist ideology is a very austere interpretation of Islam that’s “supposed to harken back to the way they imagine the Prophet lived,” Gopal says. However, in Afghanistan people worship holy shrines and saints, and the beliefs are more mystical. “That’s the way Islam functions in southern Afghanistan, but it’s all considered heretical by the Salafists.” These ideological differences make it harder to recruit and gain the acceptance of the public.

Gopal offers the example of an Afghan Taliban commander who allied with ISIS and was killed in a drone strike. Mullah Raouf Khadim had a lot of difficulty recruiting people in Afghanistan, because “he went back to his village and told people, ‘You shouldn’t worship graves. You shouldn’t go to the holy men.’ And they all thought he was crazy.” He was only able to get people to come around after mollifying some of the Salafist interpretations.

Afghanistan also doesn’t have the same kinds of sectarian tensions that ISIS can exploit, Felbab-Brown points out. “Although the Pashtuns often feel excluded from the government, and mobilizing along the lines of Pashtun ethnicity has been a factor, there’s already an alternative that exists — the Taliban — and that’s the big difference compared to Iraq and Syria.” While Syria’s militias were fractious, and Iraq’s sectarian tensions boiled over, in Afghanistan “you have a pan-Afghan, national, potent, long-established insurgency” in the Taliban. So far, the fiercest fighting has not been between ISIS and government security forces, but between ISIS and the Taliban.

ISIS and the Taliban not spreading in Afghanistan is also contingent upon the stability of the government and the strength of Afghan security forces, who seemed to struggle in regaining control of Kunduz when the Taliban briefly overran it for two weeks in September.

To help prevent their spread, President Barack Obama announced last month that the United States would keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016, and maintain about 5,500 going into 2017. In announcing the decision, Obama said, “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”

Withdrawing all troops as planned, given the current situation, “would have led to a very dangerous situation for the region and for us,” Cunningham, who now serves as the Khalilzad Chair on Afghanistan at the Atlantic Council, says. “I think the outcome would have been one in which the Afghans were not able to sustain their security effort in the way it needed to be done.”

Such concerns have only grown in the wake of the Nov. 13 attack on Paris that killed at least 129 people — an assault that Iraqi intelligence suggested was at least partially planned in Raqqa, ISIS’ self-appointed capital in Syria. As Cunningham says, if the growing brand of ISIS in Afghanistan isn’t somehow defeated, the danger is that “there will develop a more organic connection with ISIS as it exists in Syria and Iraq.”

Powered By WizardRSS.com | Full Text RSS Feed

It’s only been a year-and-a-half since the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized one of Iraq’s largest cities and declared a caliphate in the swathes of territory it held in both countries. Since then, foreign fighters have flocked to join the conflict and ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has inspired pledges of allegiance from aspiring insurgents and breakaway factions of militant groups in countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Libya, as well as from well-established groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

Now, it appears ISIS-allied fighters are gaining a foothold in Afghanistan as well. But who are they really? Do they take orders from ISIS’ leadership in Iraq and Syria? And could their ideology and grasp on territory spread like it did in Iraq and Syria? Here is what three experts had to say.

Who is “ISIS” in Afghanistan?

James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 until Dec. 2014, says he first heard rumors of ISIS in Afghanistan as his term was ending. “Just as I was getting ready to leave, there were rumors, but nothing very solid — expressions of concern that ISIS was starting to make contact with Afghans and Pakistanis, and trying to recruit people to come to the fight in Syria and Iraq.”

However, experts say that the entities that now call themselves ISIS in Afghanistan are not fighters from Iraq or Syria. Rather, they’re primarily disaffected Taliban members and insurgents from other groups who seized an opportunity to “rebrand” themselves as ISIS.

“It’s important to look at what we mean when we say ISIS,” says Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, “because these were groups that were disgruntled and they essentially rebranded themselves as a way of reinvigorating their group or faction, and attracting funding.”

“There’s been increased dissatisfaction among certain elements of the Taliban, and with the media talking about ISIS all the time and the Afghan government playing up the idea of ISIS as a way of keeping the United States interested, all of that sort of set the ground for the groups to rebrand themselves,” Gopal says.

Among the groups that have taken up ISIS’ black flag in Afghanistan are factions of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban, or TTP; the Pakistani militant group Lashkar e Taiba; and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Currently, the leaders of ISIS in Afghanistan are predominantly former Pakistani Taliban members.

Some members and commanders of the Afghan Taliban have also defected, highlighting rising disaffection within the group, which despite being able to briefly take and hold the provincial capital of Kunduz in September, has experienced fragmentation and turmoil over the last several months. Some defectors began joining ISIS because of the long absence of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader whose stature and mystique held the disparate group together. The confirmation of his death in July has only increased defections. Others, meanwhile, were driven to ISIS by disagreements over whether the Taliban should take part in peace talks with the Afghan government.

“The motivations for people to want to take up arms and fight against the Afghan state haven’t diminished,” Gopal says. “You have the leadership saying, well, it’s time to negotiate, time to look at peace.” The groups that have rebranded themselves as ISIS are able to step in, Gopal says, and claim, “‘We’re not the Taliban … we’re not going to enter these negotiations. We’re part of this global movement now that’s been so successful in Iraq and Syria.”

No one knows exactly how many fighters now call themselves ISIS in Afghanistan, but officials estimate there are around a thousand. The main areas where they hold sway are districts in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, and parts of Zabul in the south and Kunduz in the north. By July, it was claimed that ISIS had defeated the Taliban in three districts in Nangarhar — Achin, Shinwar and Khogyani. But the Taliban has been pushing back, leaving civilians caught in the middle of fighting between both groups. The mid-year tally of civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit a record high in 2015, since the United Nations started counting in 2009 — 1,592 dead, 3,329 injured.

Do they take orders from or have ties to ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

While a spokesman for ISIS central in Iraq and Syria announced the establishment of an Afghan affiliate in January, experts say there isn’t much evidence of centralized command and control links between fighters in Afghanistan and the leadership in Iraq and Syria yet.

“They embrace the label, and they swear allegiance to Baghdadi, but it doesn’t appear there is any direction, control or instructions coming from Syria, Iraq or Baghdadi,” explains Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“If you look at the way in which this group has operated on the ground, it operates very differently from the ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Gopal says. “They’re not acting like ISIS central … They’re not destroying shrines and doing things against local culture.”

However, that could change, and the things to keep an eye on are capabilities or behaviors of the group changing over time, experts say.

Could they spread like ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

The startlingly rapid rise of ISIS rattled Western officials. In 2011, the group emerged from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2011 and gained recruits and fighting experience in the Syrian civil war before launching a lightning offensive on Mosul and establishing its caliphate. The group took advantage of power vacuums and weakened state security forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as harnessing sectarian tensions in Sunni majority areas.

With fighters in Afghanistan now flying the flag of ISIS too, the natural concern is whether what happened in Iraq and Syria could happen in Afghanistan.

It’s still to early to tell, experts acknowledge, but there are fundamental differences between ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the situation in Afghanistan that could impede ISIS’ spread in the latter.

ISIS’ ideology, which is Salafist, is antithetical to the Taliban’s ideology, which has origins in Sufism and Deobandi. Salafist ideology is a very austere interpretation of Islam that’s “supposed to harken back to the way they imagine the Prophet lived,” Gopal says. However, in Afghanistan people worship holy shrines and saints, and the beliefs are more mystical. “That’s the way Islam functions in southern Afghanistan, but it’s all considered heretical by the Salafists.” These ideological differences make it harder to recruit and gain the acceptance of the public.

Gopal offers the example of an Afghan Taliban commander who allied with ISIS and was killed in a drone strike. Mullah Raouf Khadim had a lot of difficulty recruiting people in Afghanistan, because “he went back to his village and told people, ‘You shouldn’t worship graves. You shouldn’t go to the holy men.’ And they all thought he was crazy.” He was only able to get people to come around after mollifying some of the Salafist interpretations.

Afghanistan also doesn’t have the same kinds of sectarian tensions that ISIS can exploit, Felbab-Brown points out. “Although the Pashtuns often feel excluded from the government, and mobilizing along the lines of Pashtun ethnicity has been a factor, there’s already an alternative that exists — the Taliban — and that’s the big difference compared to Iraq and Syria.” While Syria’s militias were fractious, and Iraq’s sectarian tensions boiled over, in Afghanistan “you have a pan-Afghan, national, potent, long-established insurgency” in the Taliban. So far, the fiercest fighting has not been between ISIS and government security forces, but between ISIS and the Taliban.

ISIS and the Taliban not spreading in Afghanistan is also contingent upon the stability of the government and the strength of Afghan security forces, who seemed to struggle in regaining control of Kunduz when the Taliban briefly overran it for two weeks in September.

To help prevent their spread, President Barack Obama announced last month that the United States would keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016, and maintain about 5,500 going into 2017. In announcing the decision, Obama said, “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”

Withdrawing all troops as planned, given the current situation, “would have led to a very dangerous situation for the region and for us,” Cunningham, who now serves as the Khalilzad Chair on Afghanistan at the Atlantic Council, says. “I think the outcome would have been one in which the Afghans were not able to sustain their security effort in the way it needed to be done.”

Such concerns have only grown in the wake of the Nov. 13 attack on Paris that killed at least 129 people — an assault that Iraqi intelligence suggested was at least partially planned in Raqqa, ISIS’ self-appointed capital in Syria. As Cunningham says, if the growing brand of ISIS in Afghanistan isn’t somehow defeated, the danger is that “there will develop a more organic connection with ISIS as it exists in Syria and Iraq.”



Powered By WizardRSS.com | Full Text RSS Feed

“The Most Risky … Job Ever.” Reporting on “ISIS in Afghanistan”

The viciousness with which the self-proclaimed Islamic State has treated journalists is, sadly, well ingrained. In August 2014, the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for last Friday’s horrific attack on Paris posted a video online showing the beheading of kidnapped American reporter James Foley. Less than a month later, another video was released of a second beheading, this time of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff.

It’s against this backdrop that Najibullah Quraishi returned home to Afghanistan this past summer to report on the recent emergence there of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“I’ve been embedded with the Taliban many, many times,” Quraishi says in his new FRONTLINE documentary, ISIS in Afghanistan. “But when I first heard about ISIS in Afghanistan, I was shocked. I was thinking, ‘Why ISIS in Afghanistan? What are they doing in my country?’”

What he witnessed was as disturbing for him as it was confounding — former members of the Taliban joining ranks with militants waiving the black flag of ISIS in multiple districts across eastern Afghanistan and training a new generation of jihadis.

In the district of Shaigal, Quraishi found ISIS fighters living among the locals, who told him local children are educated by the Islamic State from the age of three. At one school he visited, he filmed an instructor showing children how to shoot a Kalashnikov, how to throw hand grenades and preaching to them about the ways of jihad. In Chapa Dara district, a commander introduced him to two teenagers who he said were trained to be ISIS suicide bombers.

The work was dangerous, and as Quraishi admits in the film, “I was remembering my wife, my sons … I was thinking, ‘Maybe you won’t come back again. They might kill you. They might kidnap you. They might do something wrong.’”

Just as frightening, he says, is what ISIS’ emergence in Afghanistan — though still nascent — will mean for the future of a country that has already been besieged by war for decades.

“When I saw these young children, I was really, really upset, really sad. I was thinking about Afghanistan’s future, Afghanistan’s next generation, what we have next. These children who learn how to kill people, how to do jihad, how to behead, how to fire, this would be Afghanistan.”

We sat down with Quraishi on Nov. 12, 2015 to talk about his reporting on ISIS in Afghanistan. This is an edited transcript of that conversation:

You’ve embedded with the Taliban many times before. How stark was the difference between them and the militants you met who are now aligning with ISIS?

Being with the Taliban, it’s completely different than being with ISIS. ISIS is more dangerous, and worse than any other terrorist network in the world … and they do whatever they want to. It was the most risky and dangerous job ever I’ve done in my life.

When did you first start hearing about ISIS in Afghanistan?

I heard first sometime in June 2014, but at first I didn’t believe that. Why should ISIS be in Afghanistan? We have the Taliban and other terrorist networks in Afghanistan, so I thought maybe it’s just propaganda, and maybe it’s not true.

But later after they [killed and hanged] 12 Taliban leaders in eastern Afghanistan, then everyone in Afghanistan was thinking and saying, who are these masked men? And later we found out that these masked men who killed 12 Taliban were no one else except ISIS, so then they began to have some space in Afghanistan.

Until last month they were fighting only against the Taliban, and their aim was only to get more territory out of the Taliban, but from last month they started fighting against the Afghan government. They are powerful. They have lots of money, they are wealthy, and they’re trying to capture more areas in Afghanistan and try to make a kind of base inside Afghanistan.

You should remember one thing — geographically, Afghanistan is a good place for the terrorists, because it’s surrounded by mountains, and there are lots of villages inside mountains, so it’s easy for them to hide themselves, or to recruit the people. Whatever they want to do they will do.

What do we know about where they are in Afghanistan and what their aims are?

They’re mainly on the border of Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan, and also they’ve moved into south Afghanistan as well, in Helmand province and Urozgan province. We have six borders with six countries, and that’s why I think one of the reasons why they’re in Afghanistan is because of our location. Because we have six borders, with China, with Pakistan, Iran, and with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

What they are saying, they are mentioning [an historical region] Khorasan. When we say Khorasan, that is the name of countries, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, so they’re aim is to go over to these countries from Afghanistan. This is their aim.

Are the fighters you met mainly from Afghanistan? Did you meet fighters from foreign countries as well?

I saw mainly Pakistani fighters and Afghans, but they told me that they have lots of foreigners too, from Chechnya, from Syria, Iraq, but they didn’t want to show me.

We see in the film an ISIS commander saying that they are recruiting fighters by offering them $700 a month. Is that the main draw or are there other factors at play?

This is something everyone in the rural areas knows about. Afghanistan is a poor country. They have farming, these things, so when ISIS goes through their contacts, they approach village elders, saying: “Here we are. We are Muslim. There is no Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, he has died, so now we have only Islamic State all over the world. You will go to heaven, and also you can earn money.” So the people are uneducated, as well as poor, so when ISIS is explaining like this, saying: “This is Islam. This is how you will go to heaven,” as well as $700 per month, then they say yes, it’s a good deal, let’s go ahead. They recruit like this.

Where is the Afghan government and the West in all of this?

While NATO was in Afghanistan, or American troops were in Afghanistan, we hoped we would [build] a really educated generation in Afghanistan. Then these fighters [who are with ISIS or the Taliban today] might be something else. These people were growing up in the last decade while Afghanistan was receiving billions of dollars in aid, but unfortunately, the government was corrupt, and they didn’t build a country, they didn’t build schools, they didn’t invest in the rural areas of Afghanistan.

Our main problem is education. Over 90 percent of our population is uneducated. So what can you expect? The terrorists come from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, saying the Quran says this, Quran says that, and the Afghans believe that because they speak Arabic, they think they know the language of Quran, and they know Islam better than us, let’s follow them. So they simply follow them.

The children who are in the film, some of them were eight or nine. I was shocked to see such a madrassa and such teachers, and the poor children who are learning weapons. Instead of grammar or math or something else, they were learning what is jihad, how to do jihad, how to kill, weapons, how you kill people. It was shocking for me to see inside Afghanistan, inside my country, such things going on even though we have spent billions of dollars investing in Afghanistan. Nothing has been changed in a positive way. So to be honest, I can’t see any bright future for the country.

James Foley, Steven Sotloff: It goes without saying that reporting on ISIS is one of the most dangerous assignments there is for a journalist. How worried were you about your safety?

To be honest, when you go inside something, then you are not with you. You are in the hands of somebody else, and you don’t know what they will do with you. Sometimes it seemed exciting that I was going to meet the most dangerous group ever, but sometimes when I was thinking about what they have done with other journalists in other countries, and how they are behaving with other people around the world, then I was thinking about my safety, and I had no hopes to come back again. I was saying this would be end of my life … They can do whatever they want to. And this was my worry. I was wearing proper Afghani clothes with a white hat on my head to show them I’m an ordinary person, but still, there was lots of risk. But as a journalist, if you want to explore the world, you have to take a risk.

Was there a particular moment where you were most concerned?

Yes. When I was following the two [teenage] suicide bombers, they went inside the mosque, and I didn’t know it was forbidden to film them inside the mosque. One of the fighters was shouting at me, basically not shouting, swearing on me. My fixer came to me and took my hand and told me to come out of the mosque. So when we came out, he said, “You didn’t hear the shout?” I said yes, I heard something, but I didn’t know it was for me. So when I heard this, we left the area. I told to my driver, just leave the area. We wanted to spend the night with them, then when I heard that from my fixer, I said no, it’s going to be dangerous for us. If we stayed during the night, he might do something. Safety was my priority. Not only my safety, my team’s safety. So I decided to leave. It was a dangerous moment for me.

You say that what we’re witnessing in Afghanistan now is really just ISIS in its infancy. What’s the potential for their growth there? And what needs to happen to stop it?

According to the local journalists and some experts who I was talking with, in the long term what they believe, either the Taliban would control some territory, ISIS would control some territory, as well as the government would control some territory. So Afghanistan would be split into three parts. Some think that in some years, we will not see any Taliban — they will all join ISIS because the Taliban don’t have a proper leader anymore.

But one thing you should remember, the Afghan population, especially after what happened a couple of days ago — they beheaded seven people, including two women and one child — the Taliban never did this before, so now all the Afghans are standing against them.

If they get no support from Afghan people, especially from the rural areas, then it’s hard for them to sustain in Afghanistan. They have to leave Afghanistan. If they get some support — again they have money. If you have money in Afghanistan, then you are able to do whatever you want to do. So I think that time will prove everything. Right now I cannot say anything, but all I can say, if they continue like this, like what I saw, they would capture all Afghanistan, and there would be no Taliban, no other insurgency. They would all join them.

Powered By WizardRSS.com | Full Text RSS Feed

The viciousness with which the self-proclaimed Islamic State has treated journalists is, sadly, well ingrained. In August 2014, the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for last Friday’s horrific attack on Paris posted a video online showing the beheading of kidnapped American reporter James Foley. Less than a month later, another video was released of a second beheading, this time of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff.

It’s against this backdrop that Najibullah Quraishi returned home to Afghanistan this past summer to report on the recent emergence there of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“I’ve been embedded with the Taliban many, many times,” Quraishi says in his new FRONTLINE documentary, ISIS in Afghanistan. “But when I first heard about ISIS in Afghanistan, I was shocked. I was thinking, ‘Why ISIS in Afghanistan? What are they doing in my country?'”

What he witnessed was as disturbing for him as it was confounding — former members of the Taliban joining ranks with militants waiving the black flag of ISIS in multiple districts across eastern Afghanistan and training a new generation of jihadis.

In the district of Shaigal, Quraishi found ISIS fighters living among the locals, who told him local children are educated by the Islamic State from the age of three. At one school he visited, he filmed an instructor showing children how to shoot a Kalashnikov, how to throw hand grenades and preaching to them about the ways of jihad. In Chapa Dara district, a commander introduced him to two teenagers who he said were trained to be ISIS suicide bombers.

The work was dangerous, and as Quraishi admits in the film, “I was remembering my wife, my sons … I was thinking, ‘Maybe you won’t come back again. They might kill you. They might kidnap you. They might do something wrong.'”

Just as frightening, he says, is what ISIS’ emergence in Afghanistan — though still nascent — will mean for the future of a country that has already been besieged by war for decades.

“When I saw these young children, I was really, really upset, really sad. I was thinking about Afghanistan’s future, Afghanistan’s next generation, what we have next. These children who learn how to kill people, how to do jihad, how to behead, how to fire, this would be Afghanistan.”

We sat down with Quraishi on Nov. 12, 2015 to talk about his reporting on ISIS in Afghanistan. This is an edited transcript of that conversation:

You’ve embedded with the Taliban many times before. How stark was the difference between them and the militants you met who are now aligning with ISIS?

Being with the Taliban, it’s completely different than being with ISIS. ISIS is more dangerous, and worse than any other terrorist network in the world … and they do whatever they want to. It was the most risky and dangerous job ever I’ve done in my life.

When did you first start hearing about ISIS in Afghanistan?

I heard first sometime in June 2014, but at first I didn’t believe that. Why should ISIS be in Afghanistan? We have the Taliban and other terrorist networks in Afghanistan, so I thought maybe it’s just propaganda, and maybe it’s not true.

But later after they [killed and hanged] 12 Taliban leaders in eastern Afghanistan, then everyone in Afghanistan was thinking and saying, who are these masked men? And later we found out that these masked men who killed 12 Taliban were no one else except ISIS, so then they began to have some space in Afghanistan.

Until last month they were fighting only against the Taliban, and their aim was only to get more territory out of the Taliban, but from last month they started fighting against the Afghan government. They are powerful. They have lots of money, they are wealthy, and they’re trying to capture more areas in Afghanistan and try to make a kind of base inside Afghanistan.

You should remember one thing — geographically, Afghanistan is a good place for the terrorists, because it’s surrounded by mountains, and there are lots of villages inside mountains, so it’s easy for them to hide themselves, or to recruit the people. Whatever they want to do they will do.

What do we know about where they are in Afghanistan and what their aims are?

They’re mainly on the border of Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan, and also they’ve moved into south Afghanistan as well, in Helmand province and Urozgan province. We have six borders with six countries, and that’s why I think one of the reasons why they’re in Afghanistan is because of our location. Because we have six borders, with China, with Pakistan, Iran, and with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

What they are saying, they are mentioning [an historical region] Khorasan. When we say Khorasan, that is the name of countries, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, so they’re aim is to go over to these countries from Afghanistan. This is their aim.

Are the fighters you met mainly from Afghanistan? Did you meet fighters from foreign countries as well?

I saw mainly Pakistani fighters and Afghans, but they told me that they have lots of foreigners too, from Chechnya, from Syria, Iraq, but they didn’t want to show me.

We see in the film an ISIS commander saying that they are recruiting fighters by offering them $700 a month. Is that the main draw or are there other factors at play?

This is something everyone in the rural areas knows about. Afghanistan is a poor country. They have farming, these things, so when ISIS goes through their contacts, they approach village elders, saying: “Here we are. We are Muslim. There is no Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, he has died, so now we have only Islamic State all over the world. You will go to heaven, and also you can earn money.” So the people are uneducated, as well as poor, so when ISIS is explaining like this, saying: “This is Islam. This is how you will go to heaven,” as well as $700 per month, then they say yes, it’s a good deal, let’s go ahead. They recruit like this.

Where is the Afghan government and the West in all of this?

While NATO was in Afghanistan, or American troops were in Afghanistan, we hoped we would [build] a really educated generation in Afghanistan. Then these fighters [who are with ISIS or the Taliban today] might be something else. These people were growing up in the last decade while Afghanistan was receiving billions of dollars in aid, but unfortunately, the government was corrupt, and they didn’t build a country, they didn’t build schools, they didn’t invest in the rural areas of Afghanistan.

Our main problem is education. Over 90 percent of our population is uneducated. So what can you expect? The terrorists come from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, saying the Quran says this, Quran says that, and the Afghans believe that because they speak Arabic, they think they know the language of Quran, and they know Islam better than us, let’s follow them. So they simply follow them.

The children who are in the film, some of them were eight or nine. I was shocked to see such a madrassa and such teachers, and the poor children who are learning weapons. Instead of grammar or math or something else, they were learning what is jihad, how to do jihad, how to kill, weapons, how you kill people. It was shocking for me to see inside Afghanistan, inside my country, such things going on even though we have spent billions of dollars investing in Afghanistan. Nothing has been changed in a positive way. So to be honest, I can’t see any bright future for the country.

James Foley, Steven Sotloff: It goes without saying that reporting on ISIS is one of the most dangerous assignments there is for a journalist. How worried were you about your safety?

To be honest, when you go inside something, then you are not with you. You are in the hands of somebody else, and you don’t know what they will do with you. Sometimes it seemed exciting that I was going to meet the most dangerous group ever, but sometimes when I was thinking about what they have done with other journalists in other countries, and how they are behaving with other people around the world, then I was thinking about my safety, and I had no hopes to come back again. I was saying this would be end of my life … They can do whatever they want to. And this was my worry. I was wearing proper Afghani clothes with a white hat on my head to show them I’m an ordinary person, but still, there was lots of risk. But as a journalist, if you want to explore the world, you have to take a risk.

Was there a particular moment where you were most concerned?

Yes. When I was following the two [teenage] suicide bombers, they went inside the mosque, and I didn’t know it was forbidden to film them inside the mosque. One of the fighters was shouting at me, basically not shouting, swearing on me. My fixer came to me and took my hand and told me to come out of the mosque. So when we came out, he said, “You didn’t hear the shout?” I said yes, I heard something, but I didn’t know it was for me. So when I heard this, we left the area. I told to my driver, just leave the area. We wanted to spend the night with them, then when I heard that from my fixer, I said no, it’s going to be dangerous for us. If we stayed during the night, he might do something. Safety was my priority. Not only my safety, my team’s safety. So I decided to leave. It was a dangerous moment for me.

You say that what we’re witnessing in Afghanistan now is really just ISIS in its infancy. What’s the potential for their growth there? And what needs to happen to stop it?

According to the local journalists and some experts who I was talking with, in the long term what they believe, either the Taliban would control some territory, ISIS would control some territory, as well as the government would control some territory. So Afghanistan would be split into three parts. Some think that in some years, we will not see any Taliban — they will all join ISIS because the Taliban don’t have a proper leader anymore.

But one thing you should remember, the Afghan population, especially after what happened a couple of days ago — they beheaded seven people, including two women and one child — the Taliban never did this before, so now all the Afghans are standing against them.

If they get no support from Afghan people, especially from the rural areas, then it’s hard for them to sustain in Afghanistan. They have to leave Afghanistan. If they get some support — again they have money. If you have money in Afghanistan, then you are able to do whatever you want to do. So I think that time will prove everything. Right now I cannot say anything, but all I can say, if they continue like this, like what I saw, they would capture all Afghanistan, and there would be no Taliban, no other insurgency. They would all join them.



Powered By WizardRSS.com | Full Text RSS Feed