Report of Roundtable with Dr. Max Abrahms on ‘South Asia’s Geo Strategic Conundrum: A New Theater for ISIS’

Introduction

Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) organized a roundtable discussion on ‘South Asia’s Geo Strategic Conundrum: A New Theater for ISIS’ on May 17th, 2019. The event was organized against the backdrop of a number of recent security incidents in South Asia including ISIS’ attacks in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, a new propaganda video of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’s chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and ISIS’ announcement of creating a province named ‘Wilaya al-Hind’ in Occupied Kashmir.

Ambassador (R) Ali SarwarNaqvi, Executive Director, Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS), chaired the roundtable discussion. Mr. Muhammad Amir Rana, Director for Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies and Dr. Max Abrahms, Assistant Professor of Terrorism and Counter Terrorism at Northeastern University were the guest speakers at the roundtable discussion. Several representatives of think tanks, academicians, and researchers, atteneded the event.

Summary

The key arguments of the speakers are listed below:

Dr. Max Abrahms said that in the aftermath of ISIS’ defeat in the Middle East, South Asia was a ripe place for ISIS to expand its presence for keeping itself alive. He maintained that there were several factors – the topography, presence of large disenfranchised segments of society, and existence of militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan- which could offer ISIS opportunities for establishing itself in this region. He stated “ISIS may not be doing well on the aggregate, but is moving into these areas (South Asia) to keep itself alive”. He rejected the claims offered by the US government that ISIS was entirely defeated. He believes that ISIS was not as strong as it was once in Iraq and Syria, but it has not been comprehensively defeated. The terrorist group, therefore, could try to set up cells in newer territories.

Dr Abrahms, while referring to his research about militant groups, said ISIS downfall in Middle East and its relatively weaker position today, where it can be seen as struggling for existence, was because of absence of a centralized leadership, poor target selection, and not disassociating itself from the attacks on civilians.

Explaining ISIS actions, the US based expert further contended that ISIS was a currently desperate group trying to change the narrative about itself that it has been defeated. All militant groups persuade audiences that they are more successful than the others and ISIS is doing same thing by claiming presence in newer areas, he said.

Mr. Muhammad Amir Rana warned about ISIS’ possibly adopting new narrative and strategy for inspiring like-minded individuals and groups to revive itself. He cautioned “Daesh may seek to regroup and review its strategy and ideological and political paradigm to make its narrative attract other extremists. This is expected in coming days. New ideological inspiration can attract militant groups”.

He concluded his remarks by stating that the challenge for Pakistani security agencies would be to prevent this sectarian terrorist organization from exploiting fault lines in the country.

Ambassador (R) Ali Sarwar Naqvi maintained that ISIS might not increase its presence in South Asia as it had managed to do so in the Middle East, yet he expressed his fear that it might continue to wreak havoc through its terrorist actions.

Prof Sajjad Bokhari, Executive Director IPI, said that decline of ISIS in Middle East created hope. He said that latest incidents have renewed concerns. He contended that ISIS latest attacks and tactics are well choreographed acts by the terrorist group to keep itself alive.

Observations:

The experts participating in the discussion presented their valuable insights and brought forth following recommendations for tackling the possible challenges posed by the rise of ISIS in South Asia:

  1. ISIS must not be taken as a conventional outfit or group, like Al-Qaida or the Taliban. The strategies successfully employed for curbing Al-Qaida may not work in case of ISIS.
  2. A strategy needs to be developed to prevent ISIS from networking with local sectarian groups, which are currently stressed due to absence of financial resources. A collaboration with ISIS can revive the former, while giving the latter greater capacity and space to carry out its actions.
  3. Government of Pakistan (GoP) must take immediate steps against extremist tendencies, which can be exploited by ISIS to fuel sectarian violence in Pakistan. ISIS is an overtly sectarian outfit with Salafist tendencies.

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