ISIS - Expansion into Asia
July 1, 2016

Changes in social demographics:

The common thread for all ISIS affiliates is the supposed religious beliefs following Islamic fundamentalism. This applies to Bangladesh and Pakistan, where Arabic is not spoken, and translations of the Koran may not be readily available. The concept of Jihad (“coming together, common struggle”) is not usually understood by all people. Islamic law mandates that every Muslim is bound to participate in his/her way. This does not imply violence or any war, as presumed by religious extremists.

Since the days of Baader-Meinhof in Germany, children of wealthy parents have been fascinated with counter culture- anti-establishment anarchist rhetoric. In modern days, this translates into ISIS followers who profess Islamist extremism and Jihad. Many of them are pretending to be religious zealots but in reality, are without any considerable religious acumen. Case studies reveal that their lifestyles are far from firm Islamic beliefs, which seems irreconcilable with the purported ideology of the Jihadists. Much of the alleged funding comes from wealthy Saudi families (Bin Laden). The current trend appears to be a more direct involvement from children of such wealthy families.

The history of faith-based radicalization traces its origins back about 1000 years. In the days of the crusades, Hassan al-Sabbah, the “old man on the mountain”, dispatched blindly obedient groups of suicide assassins throughout the Levant, terrorizing kings & courts. Since then, there have been groups, sects, secret societies who infatuated and corrupted young people, susceptible to romanticized notions of glorified death. It comes as no surprise that we see a new trend in Jihadists, such as the group responsible for the recent attacks in Bangladesh. The children of well to do families, who seek purpose and meaning in radical Islam far outnumber the poor and deprived former students of madrassas.

Governments in denial:

Modern, self-centered and indulgence-focused lifestyles have created a generation of bored young people, who seek new ideas that provide fulfillment and a sense of belonging. Living glued to their IPhone, downloading the latest app and sharing pictures and daily events with friends and relatives has taken a new connotation. Posing with weapons, brandishing ISIS paraphernalia and professing supposed religious beliefs is becoming fashionable. This is such an overpowering new trend that it seems to overwhelm parents, teachers, and even governments, who find themselves denying this dangerous socio-political change. Historically, in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, there have been members of the middle class involved in subversive as well as terrorist organizations for over 30 years.

Centers for higher learning, such as universities, traditionally provide a breeding ground for mostly nonviolent anti-establishment ideologies. Bangladesh and Pakistan, long since plagued with various forms of terrorism cannot seem to reconcile the current events with the blatantly obvious changes visible throughout the internet. In addition to the strained relations between these two countries, dating back to the early 1970’s (Bangladesh War of Independence) there is now a common enemy that should if anything; result in a united stance against this threat. While some recruitment centers and jihadist networks have been detected and dismantled in Pakistan, there still seems to be no consolidated effort to openly solicit the assistance of those who see the changes in young people first. The cases of successful, well-adjusted students, who are inexplicably absent in the weeks, sometimes months, preceding an attack have clearly shown a distinct pattern in the life cycle of radicalization, preparation, attack execution.

ISIS on the rise in South Asia:

The parents of the perpetrators of the recent Bangladesh café attack have stated that they felt their sons had been taken away from them by some poisonous influence. The age group of these attackers is similar throughout all countries plagued by this phenomenon, 18 – 24 years of age. (even though there have been cases of 16-year-old girls traveling from the UK to Syria to join ISIS) The term ‘brainwashing’ should perhaps be replaced by ‘spellbinding’ since the young people in question do not exuberate any outward changes to those in their immediate surroundings. All seems normal and well until the critical moment of the actual attack when all friends and family are caught completely off guard by the most unexpected events. In some cases of students disappearing, the parents filed missing person reports of children that were attending a modern university or school. Only an estimated one in five attackers actually went to a madrassa, which means that 80% did not.

If we look at the numbers of terrorists, their geographic origin and the location of the attacks, it becomes clear that Saudi-trained clerics operating these madrassas are simply not capable of producing a large volume of radicalized students. This indicates that costly efforts, financed by foreign governments and outside agencies, to reform madrassas have made very little impact on the growing number of potential terrorists in the region. Demonstrating a proactive stance by focusing on madrassas has been a politically motivated effort rather than a factual approach based on intelligence and unbiased research.

Comparing the current situation in Asia to the days of Hassan al-Sabbah leads to surprising similarities. Governments deny the existence of an organization that successfully feeds on the young and impressionable – the very fiber of society.

This map depicts the global spread of ISIS. At present, there are 42 known groups in various areas that have pledged allegiance in varying degrees to ISIS in the last two years. Some of these groups have successfully recruited foreign fighters, often via various Internet sites. There are multi-lingual videos and publications geared towards the global recruiting process with ISIS having approximately 100 times more postings than the US Government. ISIS has considerable financial resources and is considered the best funded terrorist organization at this time.

Although this map is a pipe dream, there are factors to consider:

  • With the threat of ISIS looming large in the Middle East, the chances are that radical elements within Pakistan may already be switching sides from Al-Qaeda to this group.
  • With India largely having a Hindu population, a takeover by ISIS is unlikely but what about Pakistan? Pakistan’s army and government support the Afghani Taliban in its stand against ISIS. The Pakistani government has begun to crack down on the hardliners and extremists who oppose them. Their army will respond to an ISIS threat with great alacrity attempting to defuse the situation to protect its nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

The ‘weakest link’ in the region is most likely Bangladesh. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda have been trying to raise their profile in the area by taking advantage of the growing Islamist militancy.

They have co-opted or affiliated with homegrown jihadist groups. Al Qaeda has formed a branch, which includes Bangladesh, and elsewhere in Asia. ISIS is trying to establish a growing presence as it comes under pressure in its heartland. Bangladesh has seen a rise in Islamic Militancy in the last three years. The country’s attempt to subdue the primary Islamist party has resulted in growing support and active terrorism including the attacks on foreign nationals last year. While ISIS claims these attacks and widely publicizes their alleged success, the Government of Bangladesh has denied any ISIS involvement. Such attacks have been attributed to various fragmented groups, which have resulted in substantial criticism and serious concern for the effectiveness of combatting the growing threat. As ISIS is losing ground in its primary areas of operation, Bangladesh is providing a great opportunity for expansion into the region.
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