Recent statements by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) suggest that there is friction between the two groups. This friction could in turn spur competition for funding, recruits and affiliates in the region and may potentially result in IS and LeT clashing against each other in South Asia.
The Times of India carried an article on November 23 that quoted IS’s online magazine, Dabiq, contemptuously dismissing those groups that operate in Jammu & Kashmir through the Pakistan Army’s direction. “In India, [groups like LeT] are the allies of the nationalist Kashmir factions whose advances and withdrawals are only by the order of the apostate Pakistan army,” the report said, quoting IS’s magazine.
On November 30, Hafiz Saeed declared though his group’s magazine, Jarrar, that IS did not represent Islam or Muslims and called for a global effort on dealing with the group. He argued that by carrying out the heinous attacks in Paris, IS was giving Islam a bad name. Saeed went on to describe IS as a puppet of the West, being used by Western governments to bring Islam into disrepute.
It may appear counter-intuitive to accept that the relationship between two groups advocating violent jihad and responsible for several gruesome acts of terrorism would be adversarial in nature. But not all terrorist groups are created equal, not even those with decidedly Salafi underpinnings. Indeed, at the heart of this contestation between LeT and IS lies a significant ideological divide between the two.
The scholar Thomas Hegghammer broadly classified five forms of what he calls “modern Islamist activism,” which can manifest itself though both violent and non-violent means. Under Hegghammer’s typology, groups like IS, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab gravitate towards umma-oriented activism, which is informed by a “desire to protect [in this case, through violence] the Islamic nation as a whole from external (non-Muslim) threats.”
IS and other umma¬-oriented groups seek to establish a Salafi caliphate and view autocratic Arab leaders, Gulf monarchs and indeed even the Pakistan Army as apostates and vassals of the U.S. This worldview directly contradicts with that of groups like Hamas and Jamaat ud-Dawah (LeT’s parent organization), which, under Hegghammer’s typology generally fit the mold of “Nation-oriented” activist groups. Nation-oriented activist groups desire to “establish sovereignty [again, in this instance, through violence] on a specific territory perceived as occupied or dominated by non-Muslims.”
Unlike umma-oriented groups, strong state support is a hallmark of Nation-oriented groups. Indeed, states that would otherwise be considered apostate by umma-oriented groups (such as the Pakistan Army in the case of JuD) are dominant sponsors of Nation-oriented terrorist groups.
JuD today operates as a proxy of the Pakistan Army, which supports, trains and funds the group. Current and former Pakistan Army officers serve both as ideologues and handlers for terror operations (as was evident from the Karachi Project during the attacks in Mumbai in 2008). This ideological divide could play a part in driving the two terrorist groups to conflict as IS looks to gain a foothold in South Asia.
There are other more obvious reasons why increased competition in South Asia is likely between the two groups. Chief among these reasons being money and recruitment. Terrorist groups rely on goodwill and contributions from their sympathizers. Each visible act of terror acts as a veritable brochure for recruitment and funding, demonstrating the group’s ideology, capability and seriousness of intent.
Now, in IS’s case, a significant portion of its revenue comes from its control over the oil infrastructure in Iraq and Syria that it has overrun, but even that isn’t an entirely guaranteed source of income with the U.S. and Russia pounding IS-controlled oil wells in places like Deir ez-Zor.
Thus, IS also relies heavily on financial contribution from sympathizers in the Middle East, as does LeT. Given that the Kashmir issue today slowly but surely continues to lose resonance in the Middle East, it is possible that potential donors from that region may double-down on IS to the detriment of the largely Kashmir-focused LeT.
IS’s eastward push could also drive it into competition with LeT for recruits. Today, JuD/LeT is the largest and most potent terrorist organization in South Asia, boasting of over 80,000 members, by its own count. Its annual ijtema (congregation) in November 2014 is alleged to have drawn over 400,000 participants. Most of its recruits are from Pakistan’s Punjab province, predominantly from those border districts where anti-India sentiment is more pronounced than in other parts of the country.
In contrast, a majority of IS’s recruits are Middle Eastern, predominantly Tunisians, Jordanians, and Saudis. However, the allure of IS’s message continues to attract many non-Arab foreign fighters as well. By some accounts, as many as 330 Pakistanis have joined ranks with IS. While IS doesn’t currently have a formal recruitment structure in Pakistan, its ability to use social media will undoubtedly serve as a force multiplier for recruitment and put it at odds with groups like LeT.
Through 2015, IS has continued to establish a meaningful presence in Afghanistan, beginning with its declaration of the establishment of the province of Khorasan and appointment of Hafiz Saeed Khan (no relation to JuD’s Hafiz Saeed) as governor of the province. In February, there were reports of ÌS activity in Helmand province, with Taliban defectors offering bayat (pledging allegiance) to IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and taking on both the Afghan government and the Taliban. IS has reportedly also clashed with the Taliban forces in Patika and Nangarhar.
Should IS and LeT forces clash against each other in the near future, it will likely occur in Afghanistan, particularly in the eastern provinces of Patika, Paktika, Khost and Nangarhar, with potential spillover effects in neighboring Pakistan. IS does not present an imminent threat to India at this time, as counter-terrorist expert Ajai Sahni notes, but India’s forces and national security managers must remain vigilant, even as they seek answers on countering the decades-old menace of terrorism imposed by Pakistan on India through proxies like LeT.
Rohan Joshi is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution, focusing on Indian foreign policy and strategic affairs. He is a regular contributor to Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review and The Diplomat.
He tweets as @filter_c