On 15 August 2018, a suicide attacker detonated his explosive vest in a classroom at the Mahwood Education Centre in Kabul, killing at least 40 students and injuring over 67. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State (aka Daesh), provoking a flood of commentary about the Daesh rampage across Afghanistan.
While data from Afghanistan is fragmentary, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan estimates a total of 1,692 civilians killed in the country in the first half of 2018, an overwhelming majority by the Taliban, but there is little comparable hysteria about these killings.
Nor does much commentary emphasise the reality that Daesh in Afghanistan is, in fact, a breakaway faction of elements drawn from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
Dwindling Daesh, Disappointed Experts
Daesh, imagining itself the promised Khilafat that would lead the world to Armageddon, is now in desperate retreat, having lost virtually all the vast ground it held at its peak in 2016. The widening networks of Daesh ‘affiliates’ have largely disintegrated, and the only surviving fractions appear to be in countries where Islamist terrorist movements were already entrenched long before Daesh appeared, and where the Daesh flag offered transient prominence in the search of a more dramatic identity.
Clearly, the ISIS leadership today is demoralised, and deeply disappointed in the evanescence of its power, and the abject failure of its barbaric tactics.
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There is another and surprising constituency that shares ISIS’s disappointment: the preponderance of strategic and counter-terrorism ‘experts’ who had bought into the myth of Daesh exceptionalism and invincibility, and who had invested much of their credibility and intellectual capital in the idea that Daesh had irrevocably transformed the world of terrorism, which it would dominate into the indefinite future. Despite the crushing defeats inflicted on this terrorist formation, these experts continue to insist that its threat has not diminished and may – in forms inchoate and yet undivined – be even greater.
One influential US think tank thus intones, “Like the mythological Hydra, the Islamic State has remained resilient and lethal, even after losing its physical caliphate…” There is a lot of glib writing about “Islamic State 2.0”, as if a new and improved Daesh has come into being after the group has been wiped out of its own heartland. One commentator menaces us with the assertion that the “Post-geography era of the group offers a bigger challenge than that which can be defeated by military operations against a semi-defined proto-state” and that “current responses are nothing more than a Band-Aid over a scrape…”
Within India, we are told that, despite the very tiny numbers of Muslims who succumbed in any manner or measure to the seduction of Daesh’s siren call, it remains “possible” that much worse could follow (but everything is “possible”!).
No Analysis, Only Rhetoric
Very little of this is backed by anything that can legitimately pass off as hard analysis. There is no examination of trends, no sourcing in the history of terrorism and armed violence, or of war, no explanation in terms of the dynamics that created ISIS or that led to its decimation. The principal basis has been occasional ‘lone wolf’ attacks in various Western locations and, in the South Asian region, vastly exaggerated reports of ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria to set up the “Caliphate’s” ‘headquarters’ in Afghanistan. These are compounded by a miasmic sense of the ‘ideological threat’ of Daesh’s Islamist terrorism.
The first of these is particularly interesting. A few killed in alleged ‘lone wolf’ attacks in a Western city – often by individuals who have simply been following IS propaganda on the Web – creates a global pandemic of anxiety; hundreds, even thousands killed in other locations, leave little impact on ‘security assessments’.
One of the most dramatic cases in point was the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris on 7 January 2015, in which 12 employees of the satirical magazine were killed.
The entire leadership of the Western world assembled and marched hand in hand in Paris to demonstrate solidarity against this ‘barbaric attack on civilization’, uniting under the emotive slogan, “We are all Charlie Hebdo”. On the same day and the two days preceding – 5-7 January 2015 – Boko Haram terrorists (a group also opportunistically ‘affiliated’ with Daesh) slaughtered an estimated 2,000 people in the Nigerian town of Baga, an event that found little reportage or resonance anywhere in the world.
It is our slavish, intellectually colonised mindset that allows us to accept – without objective critique – the panicked evaluations of a West that has long preserved its own privileges and security at the expense of people in other parts of the world.
Trapped in Colonial Mindsets
As for Daesh in Afghanistan, this is merely a breakaway of existing groups in the Af-Pak region. They were murdering people under another banner before this, and they now murder people under their new identity. There has been no extraordinary augmentation of capacities or resources; only a re-branding.
Significantly, the slaughters in Iraq and Syria mattered little to the West, till they began to spill over into Europe and beyond.
The world remained blind to the convoys of oil tankers flowing from Daesh-held areas into Turkey; to the unhindered movement of ‘foreign fighters’ through Turkey; and to the deeply destabilizing impact of Western interventions in these unfortunate countries, and across West Asia. Till, of course, Russia intervened, an event that coincided with a string of lone wolf attacks in Europe, abruptly galvanising Western powers to respond with the full measure of their capacities; very quickly, the ‘invincible’ Islamic State crumbled.
The most significant common element in terrorist movements across the world, today, is destabilisation by Western states, ill-conceived projects of ‘regime change’ and the indiscriminate flooding of volatile regions with discontent and weaponry.
When these projects go predictably wrong, terrorism flourishes to fill the vacuum of authority that is created, and Western commentary muddies the waters with strident rhetoric about the ‘global threat of terror’. Far more than the conduct and imagined power of terrorist organisations, it is the conduct of states and the many proxy wars they are launching or supporting, that should most concern us.
Most Indian commentators remain trapped in a colonized mindset and often do little more than parrot Western assessments of terrorism, or offer counter-terrorism ‘models’ based on disastrous Western misadventures. Absent an adequate application of mind to the realities of the ground and assessments divested of sentimentalism and hysteria, these present no useful inputs for policy or strategy, and do nothing more than feed a growing hysteria in the media, the public and the policy establishment.
(The writer is founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. He can be reached @Ajai_Sahni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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