One of the more remarkable documents found in the Osama bin Laden compound included a letter to the Islamic State group of Iraq and Syria cautioning Abu Musab al-Zarqawi over his group’s extreme violence.
The insurgency in Fallujah and Tal Afar had alarmed the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan as to how they would justify such brutality to the wider audience that they sought support from. This is perhaps the most significant question as one tries to analyze Islamic State strategy in Asia. Over the last month, Islamic State literature has been found in mosques and schools in the northwest of Pakistan and the group’s flags have been found in India, Indonesia and Uzbekistan.
It should not be a surprise that the two countries that Islamic State seems to be targeting in the Muslim world are Egypt and Pakistan. The group seems to be mirroring Saudi defense policy; seasoned Saudi political commentator Jamal Khashoggi has long argued that for Saudi Arabia to feel secure, the Pakistani army and Egyptian army must always be secure toward its eastern and western flanks. Alastair Crooke has gone even further and said that Islamic State is fast on the heels of the Saudis and is indeed learning from them. So this is where we must look to find out where the group’s strategy lies.
Pakistan has been publicly shortlisted by both al-Qaida and Islamic State as a country to be taken over because of its strong military and nuclear weapons. The Pakistani army has a long history of operating in the Arab world, particularly in the intra-Arab wars. This has made it vulnerable to intrigues of the Levant and the Persian Gulf.
The only other global group that seems to rival the barbarity of Islamic State militants is the Pakistani Taliban. While both groups have routinely beheaded prisoners, the Pakistani Taliban went further and played soccer with the heads of Pakistani soldiers. Both groups have attracted Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs.
So what does Islamic State want from Pakistan?
To begin with, they not only make easy bedfellows for the various groups that fall under the Taliban’s umbrella, they also have strategic alliances with Baluch nationalist groups that have been fighting the Pakistani and Iranian armies. This also attracts various militants from the Arab world who want to eliminate Shiites wherever they find them. Groups based in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have long sought to be trained and indoctrinated in Pakistan.
There are multiple reasons for this; Pakistan has a legitimate madrassa system, or schools teaching Islamic studies. But in addition to this are “ghost schools,” which are not under the control of any state institution. It is these schools that have attracted right-wing religious groups from East Asia.
It must be said, however, that Islamic State’s threat has been exaggerated, a fact alluded to recently by John Sawers, the former head of the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. There has been a recent realization among Western military officials that the Syrian army remains the only force capable of defeating the extremist threat.
Hints in Syria
Damascus could also be the key to predicting trouble in East Asia.
Aside from Pakistan, the highest number of Islamic students learning Quranic Arabic and pursuing Islamic studies traveled to Damascus over the decades leading up to the conflict in 2011. In the religious schools in the Muhi al-Din borough of Damascus, one could often find Chinese Muslims along with Indonesians and Malaysians. A prime factor in the success of the Syrian army and its security services has been the superior quality of its intelligence of the demographics of would-be fighters.
Syria’s army and intelligence services had long believed it was better to let in would-be militants to study Arabic and Islam so they could keep close tabs on them. China considers the war in Syria to be directly related to the security of its own western border, which sees militants operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is no secret that China has actively sought intelligence and advice from Syrian security forces on the whereabouts of some of their citizens fighting in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State will struggle to establish a clear foothold in Asia for now. It has begun making inroads in Pakistan, as it sees war on the Iran-Pakistan border as a good staging ground for further expansion in the East.
Russia and China have forged closer defense ties over the threat from the militant group, but this policy pivots on the success of the Syrian army. Islamic State’s strategy for Asia has been announced in Pakistan. Its success in Damascus will play a huge part in determining its future in Asia.
Kamal Alam is a fellow for Middle East regional defense and security issues at The Institute for Statecraft and is an adviser to the British army on Syrian affairs.