Islamic State’s decline in Middle East may impact its presence in South Asia, says expert
Today in New Delhi, India
Jan 18, 2019-Friday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Islamic State’s decline in Middle East may impact its presence in South Asia, says expert

Aisha Ahmad’s book — Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power — focuses on how black markets, smuggling and criminal networks play a part in the growth of “proto-states”.

world Updated: Oct 01, 2017 11:56 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times, Toronto
Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power,Aisha Ahmad,University of Toronto
A member of the Iraqi forces holds the Islamic State flag upside down after ousting the jihadists from Sharqat town on September 22, 2017.(AFP Photo)

The withering away of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate may impact its emerging presence in South Asia, according to the author of the recent book Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power.

In an interview in Toronto, Aisha Ahmad, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science, said the IS may be affected in several ways.

“As IS loses territory, it will morph into a ragtag insurgent group that does hit and run terrorist attacks, which will reduce the appeal of their brand. If IS can no longer claim to be state-like or caliphate-like, its brand will be less interesting to other jihadist groups around the world,” she told Hindustan Times.

Those groups are along the lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border, particularly Waziristan, and areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa such as Swat, and while dominated by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), factions have vowed allegiance to IS, fashioning themselves as its Khorasan unit, covering South Asia including parts of India.

The “decline of the IS brand” is one aspect of dwindling attraction; another is the financial aspect. “These affiliated groups may also lose interest in IS if it no longer seems to be a lucrative relationship,” she said.

Aisha Ahmad, author of Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power (Courtesy Aisha Ahmad/Oxford University Press)

Ahmad’s book, in fact, focuses on how black markets, smuggling and criminal networks play a part in the growth of what she describes as “proto-states”. As with IS, or Boko Haram and al-Shahaab in Africa, or their predecessor, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, these do not meet “fixed criteria” or “conceptual definition” for statehood, but they have, undeniably, “a type of political identity”.

“These jihadist groups are trying to make something like a sovereign state, but they don’t get all the way there,” Ahmad said.

In researching a work that is replete with field visits to some of the most troubled regions of the world, she posits that the bazaars and the major merchants, mostly of illicit goods such as heroin or guns, fuel the consolidation of political control.

“If you want to understand why some of these Islamist groups rise to power, follow the money. You cannot win wars on ideology alone, you need cash for weapons and soldiers. You can’t succeed on pure passion,” Ahmad explained.

They offer what she describes as an “Islamist discount”, providing security services to networks moving products across turf that may have been fragmented between various warlords, thereby reducing the cost to the merchants.

Thus, the jihadis get a “buy into their protection racket”. There is also initially local support for the pious who do not appear to be influenced by the profit motive, as with the Taliban originally.

“In a conflict zone, any rules are better than no rules at all.” Of course, the fallout eventually is negative. “After they’ve bought into this Islamic product, they tend to very disappointed,” she said.

Author Aisha Ahmad in Lebanon while researching for her book Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power (Courtesy Aisha Ahmad/Oxford University Press)

In a sense, Ahmad’s work is rooted in her past, since her grandfather was part of smuggling networks along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

“A veritable godfather of the smuggling industry in the Pashtun border region, he hosted powerful local mafias, Afghan commanders, and elite Pakistani officials at his opulent mansion in suburban Peshawar,” she writes in Jihad & Co.

Ahmad travelled to several conflict zones to collect material for the book. “To understand the economic drivers of jihadist power, I’ve travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Mali, Lebanon, and the UAE…and I’m heading to Iraq and Nigeria soon.”

Cover of Jihad & Co: Black Markets and Islamist Power by Toronto-based Aisha Ahmad (Courtesy Aisha Ahmad/Oxford University Press)

The first set of countries were for research for Jihad & Co and the last two are for a new project on the future of jihadist war economies.

In the not too distant past, the IS was making “inroads” in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, offering higher salaries and benefiting from timber smuggling. It may have lost its lustre, but the IS’ loss of power “should not cause us to be complacent”, Ahmad said.

“When they stop behaving like proto-states and stop governing, they revert back into extremely bloody types of insurgencies. When they lose territory, they lash out in ways that we find deeply abhorrent and frightening,” she said.

Thereby, in order to stay relevant, they will “engage in spectacular attacks”. And the space they vacate may be quickly occupied, as she argued, “Al Qaeda will make a comeback in the global jihadist branding game”.

First Published: Oct 01, 2017 11:55 IST