The decline of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in the Middle East and the dilapidation of its Pakistan Chapter (Walayat-e-Khurasan) have provided Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) enough space to reassert itself in Pakistan. It appears that the AQC policy of ‘wait and see’ has worked and the group is now making calculated moves to stage a comeback. The AQC in Pakistan is launching new auxiliary organisations and capitalising on IS returnees from Iraq and Syria to revive.
By Farhan Zahid*
The rise of IS as the leader of global jihad in June 2014 eclipsed Al-Qaeda’s preeminence within the jihadist fraternity. However, IS’ recent battlefield defeats, including the loss of Mosul, and other territorial losses in the Middle East has significantly weakened the group’s clout. These developments have once again made the competition for the leadership of global jihad a contested domain.
Against this backdrop, this article examines AQC’s status in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the group’s ties with the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, other militant groups and its current strategy. The article argues that given the recent setbacks in the Middle East, IS will not be able to hold its ground much longer in the Af-Pak region against AQC and its affiliates.
With significant territorial losses in 2016 and 2017, it is now evident that IS will not be able to hold territories in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and Afghanistan. IS control of its territories in Syria is weakening, with its presence now confined to Raqqa. Similarly, in Nigeria the IS-affiliated Boko Haram is facing a three- pronged assault from Nigerian, Cameroonian and Chadian forces in the territory under its control. Likewise, IS has already lost Sirte, its stronghold in war-torn Libya. It is obvious that the momentum IS established in 2014-2015 has been reversed in the affected countries.
In Pakistan, the situation is a little complicated compared to other countries as AQ is gradually regaining its lost momentum. The surfacing of a pro-AQ militant group, Jamaat ul Ansar al-Sharia, in the port city of Karachi in June 2017 signifies this. As claimed by law enforcement officials in Karachi, Ansar Al-Shariah comprises returnees from Syria and Libya. These war- returnees are well-trained and battle- hardened militants who are trying to resurrect AQ in Pakistan.1
Al-Qaeda’s Possible Revival in Pakistan
After proclaiming the self-styled caliphate in Mosul in June 2014, IS urged other jihadist groups to pledge their oath of allegiance to the so-called Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Responding to IS’ call, as many as 50 jihadist groups, some as large as Boko Haram of Nigeria and as small as Ansar al Bait al- Maqadis of Egypt, shifted their loyalty from AQ to IS. The widespread defections to IS dented AQ’s standing as the leader of global jihad. Following these developments, the aspiring jihadists looked towards IS for direction, mentorship and inspiration. At that time, AQ appeared down and out as it lacked numbers, appeal and the power to fight back. However, it went into hibernation and managed to survive.
Notwithstanding the abovementioned defections, the AQ chief Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded in keeping the major jihadi affiliates loyal to the group. For instance, the Somalian militant group Al-Shabab, Al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Yemini affiliate Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), rejected IS’ Caliphate proclamation. Moreover, the AQ based in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region has argely remained immune from the clutches of IS-Khurasan (ISK), the regional affiliate of IS in Af-Pak.2
AQ’s Post-IS Reorganisation in Pakistan
In September 2014, to curtail IS’ influence in its backyard, AQ announced its chapter for South Asia, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub- Continent (AQIS).3 Asim Umar, a former commander of a Kashmiri militant group Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islami (HUJI) was appointed as the chief of AQIS. Zawahiri, in his 55-minute video, described AQIS as:
“This entity [AQIS] was not established today, but it is the fruit of a blessed effort for more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid.” 4
The first target of AQIS was an intelligence officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Brigadier Zahoor Fazal Qadri. AQIS assailants gunned him down on September 6, 2014 in Punjab’s Sarghoda district, while he was off duty and offering prayers at a Sufi shrine. The group’s spokesperson Usama Mahmood claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement, “The Sargodha attack should be taken as a warning [to] the slaves of [the United States of] America in the Pakistani Armed Forces to leave the US- backed ‘war on terror’ or get ready to face the consequences.” 5
Following that, AQIS recruited serving Pakistan Navy officers and carried out a botched naval dockyard attack in Karachi.
The plan was to hijack a frigate and target the US-Pakistan joint naval exercise in the Arabian Sea. However, the plan failed as Pakistan Navy commandos killed two of the six attackers and arrested the other four near Quetta while they were escaping to Afghanistan. AQIS chief Asim Umar claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack.6
Al-Qaeda’s Affiliates in Pakistan
Most of the jihadist groups in Pakistan have remained loyal to AQ barring a few marginalised elements of the Tehri k-e- Taliban Pakistan (TTP-Shahidullah faction), Karachi-based Jundulah, and a lesser-known Tehrik-e-Khilafat Pakistan. No major jihadist group has pledged allegiance to IS. On the contrary, AQ, as mentioned above, made a move in reinvigorating its agenda with the creation of AQIS in September 2014.
Pakistan remains pivotal for AQ and its future survival. The group considers the Af-Pak region its home and birthplace. Veteran AQ leaders still allegedly maintain residence in tribal areas and other parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. AQ also maintains close relations with Pakistani Islamist militant groups such as: Harkat ul Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), Harkat ul Mujahedeen (HuM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e- Mohammad (JeM) and to some extent Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).7 Although AQ lost the Central Asian militant group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) that pledged allegiance to ISK, it possesses stable relations with the Afghan Taliban.
AQ will not concede ground to IS in the Af- Pak region given its longstanding ties with other Islamist militant groups, stakes in the Afghan conflict and the nature of terrain that provides it with enough ungoverned spaces to survive and expand. The IS’ flirtation with AQ-linked Islamist terrorist groups has not yielded the desired results for ISK. The IS’ apparent plan was to lure AQ-linked Islamist terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and gain as much as space possible in Pakistan’s jihadist landscape.
Another reason for AQ to consider IS its bête noire was the IS-Afghan Taliban clash of interests in Afghanistan, in particular, and ideological issues, in general. The IS ingress in the Af-Pak can undermine Taliban’s unrivaled monopoly, which will weaken AQ. This is why AQ has not only reaffirmed its support to successive leaders of the Afghan Taliban but it has further strengthened its operational ties with them as well.
AQ strategy for Pakistan
The AQ has adopted a long-term strategy of “wait and see” in Pakistan. The group has not conducted any major terrorist attack in Pakistan in the last two years,8 following the establishment of AQIS. More recently, the emergence of a pro-AQ group Jamaat al- Ansar al-Sharia in Pakistan is indicative of the fact that AQ is about to make a rebound in Pakistan. As claimed by law enforcement officials in Karachi, the organisation comprises returnees from Syrian and Libya. While the exact numbers are not known, these well trained and battle-hardened militants are now eyeing the resurrection of AQ in Pakistan9.
Meanwhile the AQ-affiliated terrorist organisations have continued terrorist attacks in Pakistan. For instance, AQ-linked TTP is involved in masterminding and executing major terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities and tribal areas. It appears that AQ is maintaining a low profile amid Pakistani state’s crackdown against IS in different parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Afghan and US forces’ operations in neighboring Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Paktika.
The IS has not been able to outsmart AQ, which is apparently waiting for the complete destruction of ISK by Pakistani, Afghan, US forces and the Afghan Taliban and to absorb the ISK remnants in the region once again. There are, indeed, guestimates indicating that AQ now comprises around 50-10010 leaders and rank and files; it has always been AQ’s strategy to rely on local Islamist terrorist groups for attacks and work in tandem with these groups for logistics, safe havens and recruitment.
In fact, AQ has always been a small group of Islamist militants who collude with local Islamist groups and build their capacities, provide funds and logistics, work on their skill development and ideological indoctrination. Post 9/11, AQ transformed from a hierarchical organisation to a decentralised movement mentoring the next generation of jihadists and engaging in a war of ideas instead of operational fighting. It is also true that AQ suffered massively in Pakistan because of the US drone campaign against its top leaders. However, it seems that it is now hoping for local militants for a lead role. Traditionally, Deobandi (a sub-sect of the Sunni-Hanafist school of thought) militant organisations have dominated Pakistan’s jihadist landscape leaving very little room for the Takfiri-Salafist-jihadist outfits to operate. Given this, it is expected that ISK would have no choice but to rejoin AQ.
AQ, at least in Pakistan, is trying hard to preserve itself and hitherto has not allowed IS to consolidate its position in the diverse Jihadist landscape of Pakistan. IS has not been able to replace AQ in Pakistan as far as influence over other jihadi organisations is concerned, and ISK has not appealed to the Pakistani Islamist terrorist groups linked with AQ. For instance, the ISK developed a working relationship with violent sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and perpetrated terrorist attacks with its assistance but it could not convince several LeJ factions to change sides.
AQ’s reemergence will pose new security challenges to regional peace and security. Fragmentation and reintegration of terrorist groups is as old as terrorism. A possible realignment and absorption of ISK within AQC cannot be ruled out. US President Donald Trump’s announcement of stepping up the war effort in Afghanistan will give AQ the right political environment in the region to re-launch its jihadist activities. In this regard, the surfacing of Jamaat al-Ansar al-Sharia needs to be monitored closely. At the same time, pacification of the Afghan conflict to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders is equally important to defeat AQ, operationally and ideologically.
About the author:
*Farhan Zahid did his PhD in Counter Terrorism (Topic: Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist violent Non-State Actors in Pakistan and their relationship with Islamist Parties) at Vrije University Brussels, Belgium.
This article was published by RSIS in its Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, Volume 9, Issue 09 | September 2017, paged 1-4 (PDF).
1. Discussions with a senior police officer of Karachi police, on 17 August 2017, who requested for anonymity.
2 Only a handful of Jihadi groups joined hands with ISIS-Khurasan chapter and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
3 “Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri launches al-Qaeda in South Asia”, BBC News, September 4, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29056668
4 Bill Rogio, “US adds Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, leader to terrorism list”, Long War Journal, June 30, 2016, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/06/us- adds-al-qaeda-in-the-indian-subcontinent-leader-to- terrorism-list.php
5 “Al-Qaeda claims slaying of ISI brigadier”, News International, September 20, 2014, https://www.thenews.com.pk/archive/print/526386-al- qaeda-claims-slaying-of-isi-brigadier.
6 Fahim Zaman and Naziha Syed Ali, “Dockyard attacker planned to hijack Navy frigate”, Dawn, September 13, 2014, https://www.dawn.com/news/1131654; Shehzad Baluch, “Quetta Operation: Three Navy men held over dockyard attack”, Express Tribune, September 12, 2014, https://tribune.com.pk/story/761240/quetta- operation-three-navy-men-held-over-dockyard- attack/
7 All have worked with Al-Qaeda. HuJI’s leader Qari Saifullah Akhter was close to Al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan during Taliban era (1996-2001) and HuJI’s offshoot, the 313 Brigade led by Ilyas Kashmiri, later became part of Al-Qaeda Core in tribal areas of Pakistan; HuM Emir Fazal ur Rehman Khalil was co-signatory of Osama Bin Laden’s Fatwa against the US in 1998, and he was also part of Bin Laden-led Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders; Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian jihadi group of Pakistan trained its rank and file at Al- Qaeda-run training camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e- Taiba joined hands to perpetrate Indian Parliament attack in December 2001 to create a military standoff between Pakistan and India in order to provide breathing space to under sieged Al-Qaeda leadership at Pakistan-Afghanistan border. HuM and JeM along with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad kidnapped and assassinated Wall Street Journal’s correspondent Daniel Pearl in Karachi in March 2002. Apart from these activities, scores of terrorist incidents against US and western interests and against Pakistani security forces were conducted by these organisations in collusion with Al-Qaeda. Most importantly, the TTP provides sanctuaries and safe havens to Al-Qaeda leaders in tribal areas, where TTP as the umbrella organization of more than 27 factions operates. Al-Qaeda planned and executed many of the high profile terrorist attack while comfortably staying in TTP-controlled areas.
8 AQ’s modus operandi is based upon franchising local Islamist groups and developing their capacities and providing them logistics support. AQ-linked groups in Pakistan perpetrate acts of terror in connivance with AQ. For example, Daniel Pearl was abducted by AQ affiliates and later KSM visited their safe house and beheaded Pearl. Danish Embassy bombing in 2008 was planned and executed by Hammad Adil cell in Islamabad, an AQ-TTP linked cell operating from Islamabad.
9 Discussions with senior police officer of Karachi police, who requested for anonymity in July 2017.
10 Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Sending more troops to Afghanistan is a good start”, Long War Journal, August 21, 2017, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/08/sen ding-more-troops-to-afghanistan-is-a-good- start.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=e mail&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+LongWarJournalSit eWide+%28FDD%27s+Long+War+Journal+Update %29