Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Business Recorder column July 5, 2016
The IS footprint Rashed Rahman The Islamic State’s (IS’s) footprint is expanding. First, an area where it originally arose and still has a formidable battling presence, Iraq. An IS suicide car bombing on Sunday, July 3, in Baghdad’s Karrada shopping district, busier even than normal because of crowds of Eid shoppers, killed 119 and wounded more than 140 people. This was the deadliest attack in a long line of attacks since January in the Iraqi capital. It came just one week after the recapture of Fallujah from IS by a resurgent Iraqi army. Mosul now is the only city left under IS control. The bombing in Baghdad is being viewed as IS’s riposte against civilians for its recent military reverses. IS has claimed responsibility, reiterating that the action was aimed at Shias, as have its past such strikes in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. The Baghdad bombing came just one day after the incident in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. There, an IS group slit the throats of 20 people with machetes, the favourite weapon it seems of terrorists in that country. Gunmen took customers at a café popular with foreigners near the diplomatic quarter hostage, sifted Muslims who could recite the Quran from those who could not, spared the former and slaughtered the latter. Thirty hostages were wounded in the incident. Two policemen died in an initial exchange of fire. After an 11-hour siege, security forces stormed the café, killing six of the attackers and capturing one alive, who is under interrogation. The Bangladesh government offered a strange explanation for the incident. Denying that the attackers had any affiliation with IS, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said the killers were well-educated members of a homegrown militant outfit Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) who found extremism “fashionable”. JMB was banned by Bangladesh more than a decade ago. Although IS claimed responsibility for the atrocity and its news agency Amaq published extensive details and photos of the attack, the Bangladeshi authorities stuck to their version, probably fearing that an acknowledgement of IS’s footprint in the country would frighten off foreign investors. Some of the foreigners killed were reportedly buyers involved with Bangladesh’s garments export sector, second only to China’s globally and on which the Bangladeshi economy heavily depends. Some others were involved with Japan’s aid agency JICA’s projects in Bangladesh. The fallout for Bangladesh’s economy could be devastating, hence the government’s reluctance to admit that IS was behind the massacre. Despite the Bangladeshi government’s head-in-the-sand denial mode, IS’s own claim of responsibility clinches the argument. Additionally, the government of Sheikh Hasina has been indulging in misplaced concreteness. Since last month, the government has launched a crackdown that has netted some 11,000 suspects, but analysts say these arrests smack of arbitrariness and seem to be aimed largely at the political opposition. The main target therefore comes out as Begum Khalida Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), some of the latter’s leaders having been imprisoned and others hanged on charges of genocide during the country’s 1971 independence war. The JI has been banned since these controversial trials and executions. IS attacks in countries as far apart as France, Belgium, the US, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, north and west Africa and now Bangladesh point to the spreading ripples of this most ruthless of the terrorist groups in the field globally. What the Bangladesh government is not willing to acknowledge in an unlikely to succeed stance is that like its predecessor al Qaeda, IS does not function with a centralized command structure. It is enough for any extremist terrorist group anywhere in the world to pay obeisance towards IS and its self-proclaimed Caliph of its declared Islamic State, al-Baghdadi, to be recognized and awarded the IS ‘franchise’. This enterprise is now flourishing and spreading like never before. The world is in turmoil as a result and its reasons and the present trajectory have their roots in the Afghan wars since the 1980s. The US-led west’s cold war obsession with defeating communism persuaded it to utilize the opportunity afforded by the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 in support of its Afghan communist allies. This translated, in Brzezinski’s phrase, into a campaign to ‘bleed’ the Soviets through the agency of the Afghan Mujahideen. The west succeeded in this venture in spectacular fashion, forcing thereby the Soviets to finally retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 and suffer an internal collapse just two years later in 1991. With the cold war won and the Soviet Union not only vanquished but dismembered, the west now turned its back on ‘backwaters’ like Afghanistan, mistakenly thinking that no great strategic interests remained for it in that part of the world. This left the field open in Afghanistan for the local and regional players to fill the ‘vacuum’. Through the collapse of the Afghan communist government, the twists and turns of the Mujahideen civil war that followed and the eventual rise of the Taliban, the west is now learning to its cost what a blunder that was. As though having learnt nothing from the disaster of 9/11, the US invaded and occupied Afghanistan (where it still has a precarious toehold), then Iraq, and under a ‘peace’ President Obama, destabilized Libya and Syria through proxies. Withdrawal from Iraq opened the door to the rise of IS. The rest, as they say, is history. While IS can by now boast ‘franchise’ or affiliated groups stretching from South East Asia through South Asia and the Middle East into northern, western and eastern Africa, with local groups able to strike as far as the west itself, there is no countervailing international anti-terrorist architecture available to conduct the necessary coordinated struggle on the military, security and political-ideological front worldwide. This allows IS and similar terrorist goups to wriggle through the gaps of states’ national considerations and perceived interests and strike far and wide in a random pattern that is difficult to predict let alone stave off. The struggle against the antediluvian delusions of IS and others of its ilk promises therefore to be long and bloody. Whether the will and consensus exists internationally to bring the superior military might and resources of the world to bear on the task is a question whose answer still goes abegging. Pakistan had better beware of the possibility of the IS franchise arriving on our soil (there have been relatively weak claims of IS affiliation by some existing terrorist groups here too). We already have enough on our plate without the resources of IS being thrown into the equation in support of terrorist groups we are struggling against.