Celebrated by historian William Dalrymple in his book Nine Lives as “a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them”, the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a Sufi shrine in Sehwan, Pakistan’s Sindh province, was the most unlikely place for conflict. Yet it was the target last week of a terrorist attack, for which the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility,) for, and which killed at least 80 people.
Why was the shrine chosen as the site for savagery? Dalrymple’s description of the shrine as “a syncretic place” is a possible explanation. The IS is known for its intolerance towards all non-Sunnis, especially the Shias, and constantly looks for an opportunity to spoil any endeavour to forge inter-sect unity. There are reasons to believe that the Pakistani Taliban, from which many have defected to the IS, has collaborated in the Sehwan attack. Whatever be the case, the Sehwan attack confounds experts as it comes at a time when reports suggest a marked decline in the IS’s capacity to hold on to its territory in Iraq and Syria.
Attracting the youth
Ever since it made its appearance a decade ago, the IS has concentrated on building its strength on the basis of brutality and an ability to attract volunteers from different parts of the world. At the height of its successes, the IS could boast of fighters from nearly 80 countries to fight for its cause. It is estimated that nearly 30,000 IS volunteers have gone to Iraq and Syria since 2011. In its early days, the IS built up its financial strength by attacking government treasuries. It also seized a few rich oil wells, especially in Iraq, to generate considerable wealth in order to meet its commitments towards funding the administration of its captured territories.
However, a cause for consternation was the steady stream of volunteers that the IS could attract from the West. These were not merely young people from privileged and educated families; some even came with their families. They were given substantial wages and other perquisites. Some were offered sex slaves from a large pool of prisoners. This highlighted the IS’s depravity, which was cleverly concealed under a religious cloak.
However, this was too good to last for long. In the past year, the IS has shown definite signs of wilting against the relentless onslaught of the U.S. and coalition forces. Added to this was the unusual alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which, though primarily directed against Syrian rebels, also targeted IS resources. Having lost nearly a quarter of its territory in Syria and Iraq over the course of a year, the IS is now engaged in a last-ditch attempt to retain Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
As Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, said: “The appeal of Islamic State rested on its strength and its winning. Now that it’s losing, it’s no longer attractive.”
A major reason for the IS’s reverses is its inability to retain the loyalty of its international recruits. The failure lately to pay them even a modest wage, which is due to the IS’s diminishing revenues, has been compounded by the fear psychosis among the volunteers. Many have returned home, no longer motivated, and others are reportedly packing their bags too. The influx into the IS is now said to be a trickle; the exodus is far higher.
Some of the IS deserters are those disillusioned about the cause for which they had been fighting. They may never return. However, surprisingly, a larger number of those who have left the IS are still said to be determined to establish a Caliphate, even though they have returned home. This introduces a new dimension to the internal situation in a number of countries that had contributed a steady flow of volunteers.
The situation is relevant to India too. There is no clear estimate of the numbers who had gone to fight or who have come back. We could invest our intelligence agencies with the required knowledge and wisdom to handle the complex situation.
Where is the IS heading? Few observers would bet on its annihilation. It would perhaps do better than al-Qaeda, which lost its punch following the killing of Osama bin Laden. The IS is expected to be more enduring than its rivals because it is not personality-oriented. It has shown itself to be more pragmatic in opting for expansion in terms of geography, instead of sticking to mere ideology.
Credible analyses by Western intelligence agencies point to the extensive fanning of IS cadres to various parts of the world. The small numbers arriving in each country make them difficult to be identified. Also, we have to contend with the strong mental reserves of each recruit who returns home.
A few recent arrests in India confirm that the lure of the IS is still strong. It is in this context that the outfit’s extensive use of the Internet to disseminate its captivating propaganda material causes some worry. A few successful exercises have been carried out recently to build software that can quickly identify propaganda material and remove it from the Internet. Only time will tell how effective this counter-offensive has been.
R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI director