As the world was a mute witness to the horrifying abductions and brutalities wrought by the Islamist terrorists, Boko Haram, in Nigeria, a greater menace emerged with the rise of the al-Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now renamed simply ‘Islamic State’.
The ISIS insurgency in Iraq – OPEC’s second largest oil producer, with a daily production of 3.5 million barrels – took control of key cities and oilfields, and plundered banks, treasuries and armouries at will.
Some 10,000 Indians live in Iraq, most of them providentially away from the strife-torn areas. But 40 Indian construction workers were kidnapped by the Islamic State militants from projects they were engaged on near Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. They were abducted as they were being evacuated from the area ravaged by the war between these Sunni jihadis (religious warriors) and the government in Baghdad dominated by the rival Shia sect.
One of the workers subsequently managed to escape and another is feared to have been shot dead, but the fate of the others is yet unknown, though the Iraqi government and the Indian embassy there maintain they are alive and safe.
In sharp contrast to their predicament, Indian diplomacy triumphed decisively in securing the release of 46 Indian female nurses who were holed up for nearly a month in their hospital in the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, the hometown of the fallen Iraqi president Saddam Hussein who was hanged in December 2006. As Iraqi government forces battled to retake the city from the ISIS rebels, the young women took refuge in the hospital’s basement, surviving on biscuits and bread.
New Delhi is believed to have managed their release with help from liberal Kurdish intermediaries who presumably have some leverage over the Islamic State outfit. While in Iraq, most of these nurses, however, had desired to stay put, as they had taken huge loans to fund their shift there and had not received their salaries for the past four months. But once back in India, they vowed never to return to the strife-torn nation. While the militants did not harm them in any way, some of them sustained injuries when hit by shrapnel from their hospital that was blown up by the rebels moments after they were evacuated.
The Indian government’s focus is now on getting the sequestered construction workers back home. But it appears that ISIS commanders would want to use them as human shields against any Iraqi military assault, or even as a bargaining chip to extract a safe passage for themselves in the event of an Iraqi siege.
At the beginning of their insurgency, ISIS had traumatised the world by releasing pictures of its fighters shooting unarmed Iraqi soldiers in cold blood. ISIS is bolstered by military officers from Hussein’s Ba’ath faction that had ruled over Shia-majority Iraq from 1968 to 2003. Over 60 per cent of Iraq’s population is Shi’ite Muslim, the country also being the site of their holy pilgrimage cities of Samarra, Najaf and Karbala. ISIS is reported to have slain Iraqi judge Raouf Abdul Rahman for having sentenced to death Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, whom they regard as a martyr.
The aggression ironically almost brought the two adversaries, the United States and Iran, to contemplate a joint military initiative to counter the Islamic State. Shia-dominated Iran is anxious to protect the Shi’ite population in Iraq as well as their holy sites. Washington and other Western powers are alarmed by the support the fighting is evoking within the Muslim world, with hardliners from many of these countries converging on Iraq to join the ISIS militia there. Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam that judges itself as the rightful potentate of the Muslim world, has been unnerved by the ISIS belligerence, but in an oblique message to Tehran, has warned that foreign countries should stay out of Iraq.
Indian security is attempting to track 18 Indian citizens who have travelled to Iraq to fight as jihadis. Many other countries too are trying to track and prevent their citizens from joining this war. It is learnt that these aspiring jihadis from India are not from any extremist group, but have been individually radicalised. Of the 18 under the scanner, the jihadi zeal of six of them has apparently waned after they were mistreated by their leaders, causing them to leave the zone of conflict for other Gulf nations. The allure of jihad is being spread electronically, via YouTube videos, by western extremists who are themselves swelling ISIS ranks as also recruiting others for the ‘holy war’. An estimated 2,000 such radicals from Europe and the US may have joined the combat and these western governments are fearful of the threats they may pose to their countries upon their return, indoctrinated, trained and geared for violence. This aspect was also discussed by visiting French foreign minister Laurent Fabius with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Some 110 people from France are believed to be fighting alongside ISIS, apart from 210 from Germany, 200 from the UK, 45 from Denmark and 30 from Sweden. Indeed, a top Shia organisation in India, Anjuman-e-Haideri, has in turn called for thousands of volunteers to travel to Iraq to fight the “terrorism” of the Islamic State and to “protect Shia shrines” and “look after” the wounded. Numbers of Shia Muslims are believed to have registered for the mission.
Implications For Australia
Australia has seen numbers of Islamic militants leaving for Iraq and Syria to join the combat there. Estimating some 100 such Australians to have joined the combat, Canberra too fears the threat these elements may pose to the country upon their return. It may follow the measures adopted by Britain to tackle the threat of returning homegrown jihadis by revoking their dual citizenship on their Australian passports and intercepting electronic communication between suspected extremists and their handlers.
In an effort to enhance regional counterterrorism cooperation to guard against any such threats, Australia is reaching out to neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that have also seen radicalised elements heading out to the conflict.
Though Australia has never seen a terrorist attack on its territory, it is one of the biggest per capita source nations of extremists in the current conflict in Iraq and Syria. Australians have, however, borne the brunt of some deadly terrorist attacks, as the truck bombing of the embassy in Jakarta by the Indonesia-based terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), that killed 11 in 2004, as also the 2005 attack, also by JI, on a Balinese nightclub in which 202 people perished, 88 of them Australians.
Impacts in India and military response
With a fifth of its population of 1.25 billion being Muslim, largely Sunni, India has deemed it expedient to pursue cordial ties with the Arab world and other Islamic countries, which also harbour large numbers of Indian expatriates.
In a complete change from the pussyfooting the previous Congress party-led government was notorious for, the newly-installed Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime in India lost no time in getting in touch with the authorities in Baghdad. External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj also capitalised on India’s good bilateral relations to secure permission from Turkey, Jordan and Syria to carry out operations to rescue and evacuate the Indian nationals stranded in Iraq from their soil. These three Islamic countries that adjoin Iraq have agreed to allow safe passage to the rescued Indians from two locations in each of them.
India has readied plans for one of its biggest and most elaborate rescue manoeuvres in recent times, using sea, air and land routes. Teams of security and defence experts have been dispatched to the three countries to work out the logistics of the rescue efforts. Apart from land corridors identified to shepherd those rescued out of Iraq, New Delhi has deployed two warships – a destroyer and a frigate – in the region and is keeping on standby three Air-India civilian airliners as also Indian Air Force transport aircraft like the Boeing C-17 Globemaster and the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules to ferry them out at short notice from any of the three neighbouring countries. Camp offices have also been set up in Basra, Najaf and Karbala to identify the evacuees and process their documentation without delay.
The Iraqi government has also marshalled Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft delivered by Russia and helicopter gunships in its offensive to retake Tikrit and other large parts of northern Iraq from the ISIS rebels. Its ground forces are launching offensives with tanks and armoured vehicles. It is likely that the Sukhois are being manned by Russian fighter-pilots and the United States too is aiding the effort by having sent 300 advisors, mostly Special Forces, as well as drones.
The ISIS jihadis are, however, entrenched in their north-central Syria headquarters of Raqqa, and in areas on both sides of the border of Syria and Iraq running from north to south. Heady with their newly-gained powers, they have rechristened themselves as “Islamic State” and declared their captured territories as the Islamic “caliphate”, calling on their community worldwide to pledge allegiance and uphold the jihad. They have also incriminated Shi’ite Muslims as heretics who deserve death.
More daringly, they have anointed their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the ‘Caliph’, or sovereign of their Islamic state, and have asked all Muslims to acknowledge him as their supreme leader. “He is the imam and khalifa (Caliph) for Muslims everywhere,” proclaimed the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, in an Arabic audio speech that was translated into several languages. The ultimate aim is to re-create a typically mediaeval caliphate obliterating borders from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. Indeed, the last ‘S’ in ISIS may alternatively stem from the Arabic “al-Sham” that can mean the Levant. The term stands for the cultural and geographic sweep of the Eastern Mediterranean spanning from Anatolia to Egypt, including present-day Israel. “We are fighting to make the word of Allah the highest,” announces the spokesman.
These developments pose a direct challenge not only to the primacy in the global jihad of al-Qaeda, the two-decade-old terrorist grouping that has already disavowed ISIS as upstarts, but to the conservative Arab states as well. Formed in April 2013 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS has sworn the expansion of its rebellion, threatening to “break other borders” as well, namely, of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and has vowed to “free” Palestine.
Where to from here?
The militant group’s exact size is unclear, but its ranks are swelling as greater numbers of radical jihadis, especially the youth, get drawn by its hegemonistic ideals and by its shadowy leader al-Baghdadi, known to have been born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in 1971. He was a tactician and strategist in al-Qaeda and had joined the insurgency engendered in Iraq soon after the 2003 US-led invasion. The new entrants are finding greater inspiration from a field commander like al-Baghdadi than from al-Qaeda whose leader Ayman al-Zawahri is an Islamic theologian and a qualified surgeon.
Hindu-majority India – that is neither an Arab nor an Islamic republic – faces the biggest threat from the fact that the Islamic State aims to create an “Islamic World Dominion” that is designed to include India. A recently released “world dominion map” by ISIS had parts of north-west India shown as part of the Islamic State of Khorasan, a caliphate that the outfit aims to achieve.
Recently, it also released a video calling on Muslims in India’s embattled northern state of Kashmir, that borders adversary Pakistan, to follow the example of their ‘brothers’ in Syria and Iraq and wage a violent jihad against the Indian authorities. The video speaks of a “caravan of heroic martyrs” coming from Afghanistan to “liberate Kashmir”
The Sunni Arab countries are averse to interceding in Iraq till so long as it is ruled by the Shi’ite Nouri al-Maliki who has been prime minister for the past eight years and is eyeing a third term. He has rebuffed intense international and domestic pressure to form a national unity government, with the minority Kurdish and Sunni sects in his country accusing him of marginalising them during his rule. Though the Obama administration is not overtly seeking al-Maliki’s ouster, it will consider an aerial campaign against the insurgents only once a new government is formed.
While Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam – the word Sunni derived from Ahl al-Sunna, the people of the tradition – and pledge allegiance to Prophet Mohammad and those close to him, the Shias are a political faction called Shiat Ali, or the party of Ali, as they are adherents of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law. Ali, as also his sons Hussein and Hassan, were killed in power struggles over who should be the Caliph.
Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, with a large presence also in Yemen, Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
There is little doubt that the emergence of the Islamic State will widen the reach of radicalism and create turmoil the world can ill afford and may not be prepared for.