The Pulse

Will the Islamic State Gain Influence in South Asia?

The Islamic State will have a hard time gaining a foothold in South Asia.

Following its sudden rise to international notoriety this summer, the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) seems to slowly be gaining traction with Islamic extremist groups across the world. Following its declaration of a caliphate encompassing the inner Levant, IS has allegedly expanded its influence eastward, toward South Asia. IS is reportedly distributing pamphlets in Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan. According to Pakistan’s Tribune, the extremist group distributed a booklet titled “Fatah” in Peshawar as well as in Afghan refugee camps.

The group has also found some traction with local extremist groups. Earlier this week, the BBC reported that a Taliban-aligned Islamic militant group in Afghanistan, Hezb-e-Islami, would join the caliphate. Although the group has denied the claims made by the BBC report, the group wouldn’t have been the first in the region to declare its allegiance to the IS and the caliphate. Earlier this summer, Tehreek-e-Khilafat, a Pakistan-based terror group, pledged its allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS and its self-declared caliph.

Despite its attempts to recruit in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and despite some declarations of support from extremist groups in the region, there is little reason to expect IS or a similar group to supplant the existing structure of terror groups in South Asia. Groups like the Taliban (both the Afghan Taliban and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan), the Haqqani Network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba have much to lose by recognizing the legitimacy of the IS caliphate. The decision to do so makes little sense for these groups from both a rational and a symbolic sense. They risk alienating important support bases and sources of financing by supporting IS. Al Qaeda remains an important tether for several Sunni extremist groups in South Asia, and as long as it remains relevant in South Asia, IS will likely fail at gaining any serious traction (Arif Rafiq took a more detailed look at the administrative reasons why the TTP likely won’t join IS).

A counterpoint to the above is Al Qaeda in Yemen’s (also Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP) decision to declare its support for IS. AQAP is a major Al Qaeda affiliate, and perhaps one of the deadliest when it comes to its focus on U.S. interests and targets. AQAP’s decision to break ranks with Al Qaeda demonstrates that perhaps IS’s influence and appeal is at the point where serious terror outfits see real value in declaring their support for the caliphate. The Islamic States’ appeal to terror groups in relative proximity to the Levant (such as AQAP) primarily stems from its successful control of important Iraqi territory — something Al Qaeda is unable to offer.

Indeed, the fate of IS in South Asia will depend wholly upon if it succeeds in its project to dethrone Al Qaeda from the apex of global Islamic extremist leadership. If IS’s first objective in the Levant is to carve out a piece of land to call a sovereign caliphate, its second objective is to leave no ambiguities about its superiority to Al Qaeda. There’s another interesting to angle to this struggle between Al Qaeda and IS, as J.M. Berger notes in a perceptive piece in Foreign Policy: in the global jihad pecking order, strictly speaking, Al Qaeda is inferior to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda reaffirmed its allegiance to Mullah Omar just this summer. In reality, however, Al Qaeda has been relatively free to manage its affiliates, independent of much meddling from Mullah Omar.

South Asia is certainly on IS’s recruiting and expansion radar, but, for the moment, the region’s terror outfits simply don’t have the incentives to declare support for the caliphate. The region’s governments, however, would do well to consider the effects of smaller groups joining IS for support. Given the group’s broader crusade against Al Qaeda’s leadership role in organized global jihad, South Asia could see its fair share of skirmishes in the burgeoning Islamic extremist “civil war.”