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Saturday, April 13, 2024

ARTICLE: The Shift from Globalization to Regionalization in Terrorist Strategies and Operations: Understanding the Escalating Threat of ISIS-K Attacks

To comprehend the current surge in Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K or IS-K) attacks and the looming threat it poses, it is imperative to explore the historical and religious trajectory of its jihadist ideology, particularly the ties it holds with Central Asia. The presence of a diverse array of international, Arab, and local ex-ISIS fighters within Iraqi prisons underscores the global nature of the terrorist threat. The disproportionate representation of individuals from Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, in comparison to other countries, highlights the historical and religious roots of the ideology fueling the resurgence of the Islamic State and the propagation of Sunni Islam through jihad and persistent terrorist attacks. The narrative of “Dar al-Islam,” representing the house of peace, stands in stark contrast to “Dar al-Harb/Al-Shirk,” the house of war, which refers to Western countries and their Arab and Muslim government allies. These concepts were prevalent among ex-ISIS fighters whom I interviewed in Iraqi prisons as part of my PhD research.

The link between ISIS in Iraq and Syria and IS-K should not be viewed as an extended branch only but rather as an extension of an ancient jihadist ideological and tribal historical root. Its main goal is to always continue jihad in all forms and as a tool for the rising Islamic State, capable of overcoming tribal, regional, and cultural differences to meld diverse peoples into one unified entity. Central Asia’s historical ties to Baghdad and the rise of the Ghaznavid Empire have strategically positioned it as a pivotal region in the evolution and adaptation of ISIS’s terrorist strategies, stemming from its historical and jihadist ideological roots. Untangling these connections underscores the region’s significance as a crucial hub in the development of ISIS’s tactics and ideologies. A brief analysis of these ties was shared in a recent LinkedIn article. The Ghaznavid’s alliance with the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad established the historical ties with Sunni Islam and exemplify the enduring influence of Ghaznavid principles. The Ghaznavid state emerges as a pivotal chapter in the annals of Islamic empires, intricately interwoven with the geopolitical landscape of Khorasan, northern India, and Central Asia. Established in Khorasan, northern India, and Transoxiana, the Ghaznavid state’s capital was Ghazni, located within present-day Afghanistan. Investigating its historical narrative unveils a saga of power, religion, and identity resonating across time and space. By exploring the historical and religious threads that connect Central Asia to the rise of ISIS-K, we gain insights into the complex interplay of factors fueling its resurgence. Understanding this evolution is crucial for developing effective counter-terrorism strategies that address the root causes of extremism and safeguard against future threats posed by IS-K and similar regional terrorist groups.

In this exploration, the trajectory is uncovered to unravel the historical bedrock of the Ghaznavid state and illuminate its relevance to the modern-day manifestation of IS-K. Tracing the path of the Ghaznavid empire and probing its enduring legacy provides insights into the intricate dynamics shaping the current landscape of Islamic extremism in the region. Through this lens, light is shed on the parallels and divergences between past and present, elucidating the enduring impact of religious ideology on the course of history.

Despite its eventual decline, the Ghaznavid state bequeathed a lasting legacy, characterized by its adherence to religious tenets, Sharia, and jihad. Mahmud bin Sabuktigin, also known as Mahmud of Ghazni (988-1030), epitomized this commitment, their reigns epitomized fervent dedication to Islam and its propagation. Their military endeavors were imbued with a vision of establishing a society grounded in justice, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence. As the historical roots of the Ghaznavid state are delved into, parallels emerge with contemporary movements, notably the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). Both entities share a fervent commitment to monotheism and the enforcement of Sharia law, aspiring to construct societies rooted in their interpretation of religious precepts. However, the repercussions of such ideologies involve emptying gazwat (long and deadly attacks), flare-up grievance narrative for radicalization and recruitment, and takfir “excommunication” of others who do not follow Sharia law or demonstrate complete obedience to the Islamic caliphate.

With the rise of jihadist movements and the Salafist jihadist ideology of Ibn Taymiyyah, the role of Abu Musab al-Suri, the engineer of global jihad, comes to the surface in his work “Muslims in Central Asia and the Next Battle.” He linked between the jihad liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the rise of a Sunni Islamic state with jihad in Central Asia and Khorasan, stating: “The waves of disasters and the darkness of injustice continue to converge on these faithful groups. In these dire circumstances, a ray of hope and the dawn of a new era emerged from the east of the Islamic nation, heralding the signs of the return of Dar al-Islam and the raising of the banners of Sharia over the land of Afghanistan. Many of these oppressed people on the ground have begun to mobilize and gather again towards the lands of Greater Khorasan… The signs and indications continued to point to the imminent gathering of the people of truth and jihad in these lands, hence the importance of considering this issue and this hope.” As ISIS gained momentum as a global movement, Iraq and Syria served as central hubs for terrorist activities, drawing militants from various regions, including Central Asia. The strategic importance of these countries in furthering ISIS’s global jihadist agenda cannot be overstated.

However, with the decline of ISIS and the loss of its key leaders in Iraq and Syria, there will be a noticeable shift in focus towards sustaining the jihadist movement through a transition from global to regional and central and strong jihadist attacks. Scholars of jurisprudence in these regions emphasize the adaptability of strategies in pursuit of the overarching goal: the establishment of a Sunni Islamic state and the propagation of Sunni Islam. This goal necessitates tactical adjustments to secure territories, ensure financial sustainability, and account for recruitment of new fighters. These old ideological and historical narratives, diffused tighter, steeped in Jihadist fervor, often catalyze violence and radicalization, perpetuating cycles of conflict and instability in the region.

The Ghaznavid legacy intertwines with the contemporary rise of ISIS across Iraq, Syria, and Khorasan, underscoring a period marked by anticipation and preparation. Central to this narrative is the symbolism of black banners, emblematic of relief, conquest, and allegiance to the Mahdi—an anticipated figure expected to rectify the world’s injustices. Jihadist scholars view these developments including Israel -Hamas war 2023 as pivotal signs signaling the culmination of prophetic events. Among these prophecies is the predicted downfall of the Jews and the concurrent rise of the Islamic State, seen as harbingers of the end times. This period of expectation is laden with the anticipation of witnessing the realization of these long-awaited prophecies and the emergence of the Mahdi, heralding a new era of justice and righteousness.

The ideological and historical threads cascade through time, triggering collective memories of jihad, past triumphs, and the narrative of a united Sunni ummah. These threads weave together with current events, as jihadist scholars recently emerge, persistently propelling the notion of interconnected Sunni nations towards a shared destiny despite barriers erected to impede their progress. As these threads intertwine, the emergence of new ISIS leaders in Central Asia becomes imperative. The organization pivots from its dwindling stronghold in Iraq and Syria towards leveraging regional support and expanding its influence in Central Asia. This shift underscores the adaptability and resilience of jihadist movements, which continue to pose significant security challenges in the region.

In conclusion, unraveling the historical and religious roots of ISIS-K offers crucial insights into the need for ISIS to rely on ISIS-K to adapt new jihadist strategies in response to new challenges for the sake of spreading Sunni Islamic state and the constancy of Jihad. By understanding the interplay of historical legacies, religious ideologies, and contemporary geopolitical dynamics, policymakers can develop more effective strategies to counter extremism and safeguard against future threats posed by ISIS-K and similar regional terrorist groups.

Note: These interviews with ex-ISIS fighters were conducted with the approval of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at George Mason University, as part of the requirements for my forthcoming PhD dissertation.

author avatar
Suha Hassen
Suha Hassen, Ph.D. holds a PhD from Al-Nahrain University Medical School in Baghdad City and is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, specializing in terrorism and homeland security with a specific focus on Islamist terrorist groups.
Suha Hassen
Suha Hassen
Suha Hassen, Ph.D. holds a PhD from Al-Nahrain University Medical School in Baghdad City and is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, specializing in terrorism and homeland security with a specific focus on Islamist terrorist groups.

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