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ISIL’s Caliph Left Mosul. Is he Now in Afghanistan?

ISIL Caliphate, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, is said to have fled Mosul. ISIL says this is not true and it makes everyone believe he is still there. Though we have never thought of killing individuals, or terrorist leaders, as important compared to refuting their ideas, it is always tempting to see the head of this criminal gang behind bars or being beheaded by one of his many victims.

But the question is: Where did Baghdadi go?

Naturally, a group like ISIL will think of securing its symbol where it has some infrastructure capable of providing a safe refuge to him. The only place that comes to mind is Afghanistan or any geographically inaccessible region in Central Asia.

This should raise again the more important issue of the expansion of terrorist Jihadism in that region. This issue is steadily growing and it is likely that in a decade or two, and so long as global cooperation does not move to this ground fast, we will be talking less about the Middle East and more about Central Asia.

ISIL is squeezed in Iraq and Syria, and with global focus on preventing its expansion in Libya and Egypt’s campaign to uproot it from Sinai, it has been patiently working on its own “pivot” to Central Asia. The organization recently circulated a video picturing its Turkmenistan fighters promising to force Islam on all nations “by the sword”.

Obviously, ISIL Turkmen may as well change their dealer who seems to be selling them counterfeited stuff. But the few dozen or so who appeared in the video looked dead determined to “Make the flag of Islam rise over the US, Russia and China, and spell blood and make rivers of it to revenge for the oppressed”, as they said. They forgot Africa and Europe, though.

No question that this bunch of terrorists can cause some damage. But the real reason behind the video was to attack another rival group, the “Islamic Party of Turkmenistan”, which is also active in Syria and Iraq.

The video has nothing to do, at least directly, with ISIL slow migration to Central Asia. However, the fighting experience gained in the Middle East will now be used as seeds to plant their bloody ideology in what appears to be a relatively soft spot in the surrounding environment. The combination of weak states, indeterminate borders, ethnic minorities and religious tension makes this destination very fertile.

This expected migration may fuel some older presence, championed by Al Qaeda. Areas previously “opened” are Kashmir, Uyghur, Afghanistan, the Caucasus region, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, some areas in Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia, and elsewhere in Central and South Asia.

Most likely, the trajectory carved by Al Qaeda and similar groups will be the one trodden by ISIL. Though this is not a definitive pattern, practical requirements and the experience of previous ideological organizations suggest that it is easier to go to a place already familiar with the key elements and terminology of this ideology.

According to President Putin’s estimates in winter 2015, there are between 5000 and 7000 fighters from Russia and former Soviet Republics have travelled to Syria to join ISIL. And according to other reliable estimates a combined total of approximately 2000 went from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

However, the magnet could be the ungoverned areas in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. We have seen, for example, that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which based itself in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, was one group that joined ISIL before others. It declared its commitment to ISIL’s Caliph only one year after announcing his Caliphate.

These ungoverned areas are already providing the adequate infrastructure and environment to host the expansion of ISIL. We already see early signs that the organization may indeed be eyeing this region as its future springboard. And what helps is that it has a number of Afghanis and Pakistanis in Syria, and those can work in creating the proper organizational platform to start activities in that region. Moreover, challenging Al Qaeda in its own “territory” must be of particular interest to ISIL leaders.   

In fact, this is already happening. We have seen the gruesome images of ISIL’s attack on a Sufi shrine that killed 75 in the Sindh province in Pakistan, and killing nine workers in the Red Cross in Afghanistan last month. Both operations were claimed by the “Khorasan” group which is the spearhead of ISIL’s operations in Central Asia.

The group is based in Nangahar province in Afghanistan. And according to Pakistani security reports, it does not have a base in Pakistan. However, the pattern of Syria-Iraq leaves little doubt that ISIL is busy building its own base there, if indeed it does not already have several bases on Pakistani territories.

While US officials say that intelligence suggests ISIL is based mainly in Nangarhar and neighboring Kunar province, US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said US drone strikes and special forces attacks killed about a third of ISIL fighters in Afghanistan and forced them to leave almost a third of their “territories”.

The US military is aware of ISIL’s plans to migrate to Afghanistan. General Charles Cleveland, the main US military spokesman in Kabul recently said that US forces are increasing the pace of their operations there in preparation for receiving the fighters who will leave Syria and Iraq. General John Nicholson said that counter-terrorism forces planned a series of operations in 2017 to defeat ISIL in Afghanistan “and preclude the migration of terrorists from Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan”.

Nicholson thinks that there are 800 ISIL members in Afghanistan. Afghani officials estimate that there are double that number. But Iraq and Syria tell us that numbers are not as important as other catalysts that help the organization expand faster.

One of those catalysts is the sentiment that Al Qaeda lost its vitality. An ISIL commander said recently that Al Qaeda has “gotten old”. Vitality, in ISIL’s dictionary, has always meant horrifying attacks that are certain to cause a shock and terrorize everyone. They are the crudest and most immediate manifestation of terrorism. Yet, they appeal to certain segments of the larger population.

ISIL is heading to move its center of activities from Iraq and Syria to Pakistan-Afghanistan borders. And it will not be surprising to find out later that they are preparing a cave there for the Caliph. Efforts to receive him well should also be increased by security forces in the two countries and their global partners in the fight against terrorism.

16 March, 2017

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