Five years after the death of bin Laden, al Qaeda is being overshadowed by IS, which is expanding not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in Bangladesh. DW examines the new challenges to the group in South Asia.
In an era marked by an exponential rise of jihadist group “Islamic State” (IS), not many people remember or care about Osama bin Laden, the most feared terrorist in the world a decade ago. IS has not only overshadowed bin Laden’s al Qaeda in the Middle East, it is now also making huge gains in the Af-Pak region, which was previously dominated by al Qaeda.
The South Asian militant groups, including some factions of the Taliban, are moving closer to IS, which has proven its strength in the past few years by capturing vast swathes of territories in Iraq and Syria, something which al Qaeda could never manage to do in its heyday. The world now fears Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of the “Islamic State.” Bin Laden has been largely forgotten.
On May 2, 2011, American Special Forces unilaterally raided a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad and killed bin Laden – the former head of al Qaeda – who had been hiding in the garrison town for around six years. America’s most-wanted terrorist was finally dead, and the world heaved a sigh of relief.
Bin Laden’s assassination was dubbed as the end of an era. Though there was much pondering over Islamabad’s role in allegedly protecting him, the fact that the US managed to kill bin Laden, was considered a huge blow to al Qaeda. Washington claimed victory over the terrorist organization, which had caused much harm to the US for around two decades.
But the victory over what? All over the world, al Qaeda is being replaced by a deadlier organization, more lethal in its tactics, more brutal in its execution. And that organization is spreading its influence all across South Asia, including Bangladesh, which is witnessing a wave of IS attacks on secular writers and activists – both local and foreign.
Al Qaeda has been weakened, but the radical Islamic ideology is thriving. Bin Laden has been long dead and forgotten, but Islamic militancy has reached new heights since his assassination.
Overshadowed, but not totally defeated
“IS is the biggest beneficiary of al Qaeda’s decline. Many al Qaeda members and its affiliates have joined the organization. It is a growing Islamic terrorist group in both Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on Islamic terrorism, told DW.
“I do not see a bright future for al Qaeda in South Asia and Afghanistan. It is largely considered an Arab organization in the region. On the contrary, the IS’ strategy is to infiltrate local groups, instead of looking for affiliates,” the analyst added.
In an interview with ResearchGate News, counter-terrorism expert Farhan Zahid said that IS “without any doubt has managed to overshadow al Qaeda.”
Zahid gives the following reasons for the group’s phenomenal success: “ISIS controls a large territory in Syria and Iraq after it successfully captured Mosul, while al Qaeda has no territory. ISIS also controls oil rigs in Iraq and Syria and has substantial financial resources,” said Zahid, using an acronym for the militant group.
“Because of its tremendous successes and its proclamation of Islamic Caliphate (declaring all other groups invalid and requiring members to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi as caliph) potential jihadists now tend to join ISIS rather than joining al Qaeda.”
But Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, believes it is too early to write off al Qaeda. “The group is still extremely relevant in South Asia, despite frequent claims from the US government that it has largely disappeared from the region. Reports of al Qaeda’s demise in this part of the world have always been unfounded. Most of the region’s militant groups have close ties to al Qaeda,” he told DW, adding that a very large al Qaeda training camp was recently discovered in Afghanistan.
“If the security climate continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan, then al Qaeda could establish new safe havens and sanctuaries. History, unfortunately, could repeat itself,” he underlined.
Al Qaeda’s new face
Experts say that al Qaeda is trying to re-invent itself in the shape of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The new face of al Qaeda in the region aims to fight the governments of Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh and establish Shariah rule in these countries.
“Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent is an effort to survive in South Asia. There is evidence that some sections of the Pakistani military are supporting it. The objective of the Pakistani army is to channel al Qaeda’s militant prowess towards its arch-rival India,” said terrorism expert Jamal.
Al Qaeda has not achieved much success in launching terrorist attacks in India, but it has definitely increased its presence in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country that is at a crucial juncture in its struggle for secularism. The terror group has been involved in a spate of deadly attacks on the country’s secular bloggers and human rights activists. In fact, al Qaeda is now more powerful in Bangladesh than in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Last week, a Bangladeshi militant group affiliated to al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, claimed responsibility for the killing of a top gay rights activist and his friend. Xulhaz Mannan, editor of a LGBT magazine, and actor Tanay Mojumdar, were hacked to death in the capital Dhaka.
The new epicenter of Islamic terrorism?
At the same time, IS has also become active in the South Asian country, using the political polarization to its benefit. Its target is mostly foreign rights activists.
Nevertheless, the Bangladeshi government continues to deny the group’s presence in the country. Recently, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told DW that the country had no IS operatives.
“Some extremists released on bail from jail are issuing threats of different types. This does not need to be taken seriously,” he said. “Our law-enforcing agencies are prepared to face any attacks.”
In an interview with DW, Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), said the Bangladeshi government was trying to deal with the growing IS threat, but not openly.
“The government must openly admit that IS exists in the country and adopt a comprehensive counterterrorism approach to deal with the threat,” he said.
Five years after bin Laden’s assassination, the Islamic militancy has taken new forms in South Asia. New militant groups are now vying for the region’s control, and new battle lines are being drawn on new territories. While Afghanistan and Pakistan remain vulnerable to Islamic terrorism, it seems that Bangladesh is now the epicenter of the jihadist activities in the region.