The ISIS project is more than a sect. Fergana News interviews the expert on the dangers of the caliphate for Russia and Central Asia
One of the main issues on the world agenda of the outgoing year is the fight against the terrorist threat. The success of the international forces in countering the so-called "Islamic State" (the banned terrorist organisation "the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant", ISIL, IS, ISIS in English, or "Daesh" in Arabic) in Syria can be considered only a local and intermediate victory in this struggle. How serious are the concerns about the redeployment of IS forces to Afghanistan and the establishment of a new stronghold of the caliphate there, what threats to Russia and the countries of Central Asia are real, and what are - imaginary, how not to turn the fight against terrorism into witch-hunt - Fergana News has asked these and other questions from expert of the Centre for the Study of Modern Afghanistan, the head of the Analytical Group "Accents", political scientist Andrei Serenko.
- Andrei, what are the indicators and trends in the global fight against terrorism in 2017?
- Since the main symbol of international terrorism in 2017 was the "Islamic State" we can talk about the liquidation of the ISIS project in the form in which it existed in 2014-2016. IS suffered a military defeat in 2017 from the forces of the international coalition led by the United States, as well as from the Russian-Iranian-Syrian military alliance, and this is certainly the main event in the endless struggle against terror in the world. But the military defeat of IS does not mean the liquidation of the "Islamic State" as a political project, as a myth and a brand that remains attractive to thousands of young Sunni Muslims.
The weakening of the positions of IS in Sham (Syria and Iraq - note by Fergana News) will force its jamaats to temporarily go underground, into the desert, to switch to the format of the "partisan caliphate". However, in my opinion, in a couple of years, if not earlier, IS will reassert itself in this region. Perhaps this time, its main idea will be the support of the Palestinian liberation movement in the struggle against Israel for the liberation of Jerusalem. There are indications that the Gaza Strip, as well as selected areas of Lebanon, will soon become one of the essential reservoirs of IS in the Middle East.
It should also be expected that militants operating under the IS franchise will be activated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. Here IS will try to take deep roots, actively and aggressively superseding the Taliban, Al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba from the local terrorist market. In Afghanistan, IS will try to build a surrogate caliphate, instead of lost in Iraq and Syria, relying on two unique resources - huge income from the drug business and local youth. According to the most conservative estimates, terrorist organisations in Afghanistan receive more than $ 200 million a year from the sale of heroin. Now, these incomes are mastered by the Taliban, but there is no doubt that IS will try to squeeze out the Taliban from the regional narcotic market as early as 2018. Three-quarters of the population of Afghanistan are young people under the age of 30. It is this age group that has traditionally been the target of the recruitment of IS operatives. And in 2018, the supporters of the caliphate will increasingly rival the Taliban for influencing the Afghan youth.
- In December, head of the Asia Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Zamir Kabulov has announced a new figure of the estimated number of IS militants in Afghanistan - more than 10,000. The Afghan Defence Ministry does not agree with such data - they believe that supporters of this group in the country are many times fewer. What are the positions of IS in Afghanistan now, what forces and means the group has?
- According to some Israeli experts, the number of IS militants in Afghanistan increased six-fold over the past year. The US military does not confirm this information, believing that the number of armed supporters of al-Baghdadi in Afghanistan in 2017 decreased as a result of active operations of Afghan and NATO soldiers.
In fact, no one knows the exact number of IS militants in Afghanistan. The figures, which are periodically called, range from three thousand to ten thousand people. Probably, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Today, the bulk of the Afghan IS militants bases in the east of the country - in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Khost. Lately IS also strives to penetrate into the eastern province of Logar - by the way, the birthplace of the current President Mohammad Ashraf Gani. Here IS has to engage in fierce battles not only with the Afghan army but also with Taliban and armed supporters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who by secret agreement are engaged in securing the Chinese project to develop the copper deposit "Ainak". However, IS in Logar is not interested in copper, but the possibility of control over the logistical corridor to Kabul and the central part of the country.
Some time ago, individual IS groups were seen in the northern provinces of Jowzjan, Sar-e Pol, Faryab. Militants of the caliphate created training camps there, where local youth are recruited, and not without success. The number of IS supporters in northern Afghanistan today hardly exceeds 1,500 people.
Military representatives of the United States promised to destroy IS in Afghanistan by the end of 2017. Obviously, this promise would not be kept, and in 2018 supporters of al-Baghdadi will continue to control some districts in Nangarhar province, as well as separate enclaves in the north of the country. The success of IS here directly depends on the attitude of the local population, first of all, to the authoritative tribal elders and the leaders of the large criminal groups. The fact that IS was able to consolidate itself in the east of Afghanistan shows that at least some of the local Pashtun tribes continue to support them. IS fighters are now seeking the same understanding in the north, and, I'm afraid, can be found not only among the local Pashtun settlements but also with some field commanders of the former Northern Alliance, who for one reason or another have been offended by the authorities.
- In this regard, what do you think, the threats of penetration of IS fighters into the territory of the CIS are exaggerated or are they still based?
- Freshly, predictions about the imminent invasion of IS from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and other states of Central Asia have become popular. I'm not a supporter of such horror forecasts. In my opinion, today the objective facts speak not of preparations for the invasion of IS into the former Soviet Central Asia, but with the intention of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's supporters to gain a foothold in Afghanistan - it is he, and not Central Asia, today is the main goal of the "Islamic State" in the region. And here IS will attack primarily Kabul and national security infrastructure objects, attack Afghan security and NATO forces, recruit Afghan youth into their training camps, organise the transit of militants to Afghanistan from Central Asia, from the North Caucasus, the Middle East and other regions. In the short term, the Central Asian republics are unlikely to be interested in the Afghan branch of IS as an object of invasion.
Today, Russia should fear not so much IS fighters in Afghanistan as there are attacks from the so-called "sleeping jamaats" already established on the Russian territory, as well as autonomous supporters of IS who can organise an "attack of inspiration" in almost any Russian city with a knife, screwdriver or car - this is the most dangerous form of terrorist activity to date. The lone fighters who respond to the tactics of the "lone wolf" sanctioned by the Caliph al-Baghdadi are almost impossible to calculate in advance. The usual methods of police and special services are not always effective in combating such "autonomous jihadists" who do not pass for any special accounts, did not go to war in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan and have a law-abiding life until the last moment.
"Autonomous Jihadists", single terrorists today have become the most effective weapons of IS. It is not by chance that the caliphate propagandists in their latest appeals to their supporters in Russia, America and Europe, put their solitary "inspiration attacks" higher than the participation of "classical Mujahideen" in the fighting in Iraq and Syria. And these assessments are not just a rhetorical device for deceiving fools, but a sober and prudent view of the real situation of the strategists of IS who, in spite of today's military defeat, is already thinking about tomorrow.
- It seems that the intelligence services assess these threats - just recently the head of the FSB of Russia Alexander Bortnikov spoke about "autonomous jihad."
- I think Bortnikov is right when he singles out "autonomous jihad" as the main terrorist threat to Russia's national security. And, I note, the Afghan branch of the IS has nothing to do with these attacks - the danger comes from the spontaneous, unorganised supporters of IS already inside our country. "Autonomous Jihad" is the creative development by the strategists of IS of the Palestinian tactics of individual terror using improvised, available means. Today, ISIS propagandists in America, Europe and Russia, urge its followers to take knives and screwdrivers and kill "infidels" at the doorways and on the streets. "Take the knife and hit. Have no knife - take a stone. Have no stone - spit in the face," today closed groups in social networks conducted by agitators of the caliphate are full of such directions.
According to IS analysts, the attacks caused by "lone wolves" during autonomous "inspiration attacks" in Western countries and Russian cities have a wider and acuter public resonance, a greater political effect than numerous attacks of "inghimasis" (suicide bombers - note by Fergana News) in Syria and Iraq. That is why the political leaders and military commanders of IS called for almost all of their supporters in Russia, the US and the EU in 2017 to abandon their visits to the war zone and to prepare individual terrorist attacks at home.
- What are the chances for ISIS in Afghanistan to gain strength, to replenish its ranks - to attract some of the warring factions to its side or to recruit new members?
- Partially I have already answered this question. Chances are if the functionaries of IS can establish positive relations with local authorities, retain access to large monetary resources (as long as they have it - they say that their IS commanders pay more to their fighters than Taliban to their fighters) and will conduct several successful mass recruitment campaigns among Afghan youth. I think that the 2018 year will be a watershed for IS in Afghanistan. If the Afghan security forces and the US military do not destroy the main IS support centres in the east and north of the country in the spring and summer of next year, then, most likely, the supporters of the caliphate will be able to continue successful expansion in Afghanistan.
- Can internal inter-ethnic contradictions serve IS?
- Any local conflicts and rivalry - on a religious, ethnic, settlement and another basis - serve IS. Until now, the ISIS has been betting on attracting Pashtun youth into its ranks, which was one of the reasons for their enmity with Taliban. However, in my opinion, in the medium term, IS can move to more flexible tactics, focusing both on the Pashtuns in the eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan, and on the non-Pashtun groups - Tajiks and Uzbeks - in the northern areas where the Pashtuns are a minority. In the latter case, IS could bring into its ranks the field commanders of the former Northern Alliance, who were dissatisfied with the Pashtun domination in the central government bodies and the pro-Pashtun leader's course of Ashraf Ghani.
I do not rule out that as a result, two ISIS branches would be formed in Afghanistan - for Pashtun and non-Pashtun districts, which would operate autonomously from each other, relying on traditionally competing ethnic groups. Uniting element for them will most likely be hatred for Shiites, which is the "brand name" of the "Islamic State" as a global religious and political project.
- The Afghan army, with the support of the coalition forces, regularly carries military operations against Taliban and IS, including in the northern provinces, for example, in December - in Kunduz, Faryab and Jowzjan. How effective are they if the government controls not more than half of the country's territory?
- The Afghan army is strong enough today to conduct successful clean-up operations against Taliban and IS militants in virtually any part of the country. The problem is that then they cannot retain this victory by defeating terrorists. As a rule, after sweeping, army units are sent to other parts of the country, giving way to police posts and formations. They are also unable to control the liberated areas, and as a result, as a rule, Taliban and IS militia have the opportunity to attack again the territories that were recently left under the blows of the Afghan army special forces.
It is also important to note that with all these shortcomings of the Afghan security forces - corruption in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the small number of army special forces, the lack of own aviation - Taliban and IS are unable to seize the strategic initiative and capture at least one city in the country. And despite the fact that Taliban has set such a goal for the past three years. The inability of Taliban militants and ISIS to break out of the rural enclaves into "urban space", to hold the captured territories and repel offensive operations of the regular Afghan army all indicate that the armed opposition in Afghanistan has reached its peak of effectiveness. The extremists are no longer able to achieve greater. They, of course, can attack police checkpoints, ambush, kill individual security agents and terrorise civilians, but they are not in a position to take power in this way by such methods, or even take control and retain at least one provincial centre. And the Americans already feel this moment and announced a new strategy of action in Afghanistan.
In my opinion, the Afghan strategy developed by the Pentagon and supported by Donald Trump at the end of August has a good chance of success. Taliban can be forcibly compelled to negotiate peace by pre-empting a series of sensitive defeats on the battlefield. For this, it is necessary to modernise the Afghan army, increase the number of special forces - the most effective force in the fight against extremists, and reform the police. The US and NATO countries would render a great help to Kabul.
As the recent events in Iraq showed, where NATO and American instructors prepared efficient combat units of Kurds and Iraqi law enforcers who crushed ISIS, this work is not bad for Western partners. If, of course, they do it for real. I think that such work will also be done in Afghanistan in 2018-2020, and in the new year, the infrastructure of the Taliban militants and IS would be challenged by tangible blows. In this case, perhaps in 2020, Taliban will still sit at the negotiating table with Kabul. True, this may require the physical replacement of more than one top political leader of the Taliban. In any case, with the current "ruler of the Faithful" Maulavi Haybatullah Akhund, there is no chance to rely on the negotiation process.
- Over the past year in Russia, the number of reports about the exposure of extremist groups that prepared the terrorist attacks has increased noticeably. Almost all reports include people from Central Asian countries. Although before the terrorist act in the St Petersburg metro, no citizens of the Central Asian countries were seen in any attack in Russia in previous years (all were committed by the natives of the Caucasian region). Are Asians among the potential terrorists now predominant, or is there any explanation for this situation?
- In December 2015, militants of the terrorist group "Tawhid Wal-Jihad" in Syria, consisting of ethnic Uzbeks, declared jihad to Russia - in response to the support of the Bashar Assad regime and the destructive air raids of the Russian air and space forces on the position of militants. Since that moment, the threat of terrorist attacks in Russian cities by radical young people of Uzbek nationality, in my opinion, has become a reality. The events in St Petersburg in April 2017 showed that the appeals of "Tawhid Wal-Jihad" are not an empty phrase. Of course, this extremist organisation is not among the largest; it is far from the "glory" of ISIS. Nevertheless, Tawhid Wal-Jihad and other jihadist groups have learned how to effectively use the methods and methods of agitation and recruitment brought to perfection by the operatives of "Amniyi", the security service of the caliphate.
In my opinion, today the threat posed by young radicals from the Central Asian countries is quite comparable to the similar threat on the part of the Caucasian radicals. And, perhaps, even more serious, since, in Chechnya, Ingushetia and other North Caucasian republics, a system of control and neutralisation of supporters of radical trends has already been established. Many of them received a one-way ticket, leaving in 2013-2016 for the war in Syria, and they were safely disposed of there. Young radical immigrants from the countries of Central Asia, unlike the same Chechens, have not yet been subjected to any systematic accounting and control in the territory of Russia. In this regard, the exchange of information between Russian and Central Asian special services on this score can hardly be considered ideal.
The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB will need, apparently, several years to pass "contingent" of "risk groups" already living in the country through the filter of various checks, smash it with their agents and so on. Until this work is done, no one is immune from the emergence of single-player terrorists, brainwashed by the IS propagandists for "attacks of inspiration."
- The media have repeatedly written about the fact that terror suspects are forced to give confessions and engage in self-incrimination under torture. The Azimov brothers, accused of preparing a terrorist attack in St Petersburg, as well as those suspected of plotting an explosion in the Kazan Cathedral in the same city, spoke of this in particular. Do you think that in Russia and some other CIS countries the real fight against terrorism is often substituted by the imaginary, for the sake of achieving specific political interests?
- Of course, there is a threat of such a substitution. Russian special services, as well as specialised agencies of the Central Asian states, are imperfect, permeated with corruption, interest in illegal business occupation abusing official position. There are people in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and special services, who believe that insignias give them an advantage in the market of services and capital, first of all. Therefore, faced with real threats of terrorist acts, such security units fall into administrative panic, begin to act on the principle of "better oversee than overlook" and habitual fraud towards the authorities and public opinion. This tactic is extremely dangerous, and not only because innocent people are subjected to repression as a result, but because the prosecution misses real and not imaginary terrorists. I believe that the current terrorist challenges would force the Russian special services to reform. Otherwise, they simply would not be able to carry out their tasks successfully.
- We know that extremists use the Internet to recruit citizens, and special services take measures to control the virtual space. But sometimes these measures reach the point of absurdity. For example, in Tajikistan recently, the communications regulator started talking about the need to prohibit citizens from using instant messengers like Viber, WhatsApp and others, allegedly for security purposes. How justified are such solutions? How not to turn the fight against terrorism and extremism into a witch-hunt?
- You are right, the ISIS propagandists actively use various messengers in their work. However, in my opinion, control over them would not help to solve the problem of the continued popularity of jihadist discourse among Muslim youth. This is just the case of the ineffectiveness of traditional police measures in the fight against the myth and brand of the "Islamic State". Figuratively speaking, the law enforcers in various post-Soviet states strive to erase the project of the IS from the hard drive when it has long gone to the Cloud. And it is not customary for police officers to get it there.
Today, it is necessary to develop a fundamentally new complex, and not just police, approach to countering the mythology of IS. I am convinced that the "Islamic State" project is not only another terrorist organisation. First and foremost, this is a phenomenon of culture, profound and diverse, creating vivid and attractive patterns for mass consciousness and behaviour, new and quite popular standards of life and death, especially for young people. Therefore, IS is more than an ordinary criminal group or a militant religious sect, and approaching it with such patterns means blurring the depth of the problem and refusing to see the whole panorama of the threats that this project brings to civilised society.
By the way, that is why the struggle against the propaganda of IS with arguments, institutions and representatives of traditional, "moderate" Islam will be ineffective. Hoping that our grey-haired and respectable imams who do not understand how the computer turns on can overcome the postmodern subculture of IS based on digital technologies and new means of communication is like treating AIDS with aspirin.
- Your last remarks are especially important, and we hope that the special services and politicians will not leave them without attention. Thank you for the interesting conversation.