Central Asia had been the scene of the most dangerous terrorist organization, namely al-Qaeda, which was initially established in 1998 under the name, Islamic Movement for Jihad against Jews and the Crusaders.
Al-Qaeda cooperated with the Taliban in bringing down the government in Afghanistan and forcing Soviet troops out of the country. It also helped the Taliban establish a fundamental regime in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda evolved into a real danger to world peace and security, having founded branches in almost all continents. It staged coordinated attacks against the American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998.
The movement also staged the most famous terrorist attacks in history, namely the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon headquarters, in what came to be known as the 9/11 attacks, in 2001.
This study will draw a line of demarcation between separatist movements, on one hand, and terrorist organizations, on the other. It will list these organizations in the light of the degree of danger they pose to security in the countries where they are based and to international peace and security.
First, distinctions between terrorist and separatist movements
The failure of the international community, especially the United Nations, to introduce a clear definition of terrorism has been behind the lack of distinction between terrorist and separatist movements.
Some countries label some movements as “terrorist”, whereas other countries consider the same movements as part of the political opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a case in point. This Islamist movement has been strongly linked to terrorism in Egypt since 2013. A large number of the movement’s leaders were convicted by the courts. The Muslim Brotherhood was also branded as a terrorist movement by the Egyptian governments and governments in the Arab Gulf. Nevertheless, some Western countries consider the Brotherhood as an opposition movement. This creates confusion and threatens international peace and security.
This shows the importance of the presence of consensus on the nature of movements and whether they are terrorist or opposition movements.
First, different concepts of social movements
1 –Separatist movements
These are movements formed by the citizens of some states, who fight for independence from these states. These citizens feel different from the rest of the people in these states because of the cultural peculiarities in the regions they live in. Most of the separatist movements have a history of independence or autonomous rule. These movements are widespread in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
2 – Radical revolutionary movements
These movements work to effect political change in the countries where they are based. They try to effect this change through revolutions or violent military action.
3 – Rebel groups
These are unlawful groups that pretend to be defending the interests and the rights of the people. They claim that they are into the rebellion for the sake of the people.
4 – National independence movements
These are movements that originate in occupied countries. They are formed by indigenous people.
5 – Extremist and terrorist movements
Extremism is the act of going beyond what is acceptable or common in a given country or place. Extremist movements evolve into terrorist movements when they try to impose their own values through the use of force. This means that terrorism is an inevitable outcome of intellectual and religious extremism.
Second, Egyptian efforts in defining terrorism
The international community has not agreed on a specific definition of terrorism. This is a major problem. Egypt has been trying to introduce a definition of terrorism since the 1980s. In doing this, successive Egyptian governments try to coordinate and unite international counterterrorism efforts.
Egypt started making efforts in this regard on January 28, 1986 at the European Parliamentary Council at an initiative by ex-president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was the first Egyptian head of state to call for holding an international conference on terrorism. He warned that terrorism would hit everywhere, if the international community had not joined hands to fight it. The ex-Egyptian president also underscored the need for introducing a specific definition of terrorism. Nonetheless, nobody listened to him, which is why everybody is paying the price now.
Incumbent Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered a speech at the American-Islamic summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21, 2018, that amounted to a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. The strategy is based on the need for fighting for all terrorist organizations without exception; eradicating terrorism funding, arming and political backing to it; making terrorist organizations incapable of drawing in recruits, and boosting the central state and state institutions in Arab countries.
The United Nations Security Council has adopted President Sisi’s speech in the summit as well as the Egyptian point of view about the need for considering the fight against terrorism a human right.
Third, Central Asian models for mixing separatist movements with terrorist movements
1 – Taliban movement (Afghanistan)
This is one of the most outstanding models for mistaking separatist movements for terrorist movements. The Taliban is classified as one of the most dangerous terrorist movements in the world because of the intensity of operations it staged against the Afghan government and American troops in Afghanistan. However, regional and international powers seek to negotiate with the Taliban to bring stability back to Afghanistan.
The fact is that there is a clear difference between this movement and classical terrorist movements, such as al-Qaeda. The Taliban is a nationalist religious movement. It is the military arm of Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes which used to rule the country. The Pashtuns make up almost 60% of the population of Afghanistan. This means that American attempts to impose new realities in this country and marginalize the Pashtuns will not succeed.
This is why the US now tries to negotiate with the Taliban. The Russians are also changing their view of the same movement. Instead of considering the Taliban as a terrorist movement, Moscow tries to reach political settlement with it.
The emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan, in what is known as the Province Khorasan, is changing the international outlook to the Taliban. Nonetheless, links between the movement and al-Qaeda are hindering international outreach to the Taliban. Since its birth, al-Qaeda swore allegiance to the Taliban. The connections between the two movements are still in effect. The Taliban’s fundamental ideology also impedes relations between it and the rest of the world.
2 – Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the Philippines)
This movement was formed by Muslims in the southern part of the Philippines in 1968, against the background of historical injustices done the country’s Muslims. This injustice started with the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. It caused hatred to spread between Muslims, on one hand, and Christian settlers, on the other. Muslims used to make up 98% of the population in the southern part of the Philippines. Nonetheless, in 1936, the US issued a law that gave it the right to confiscate plots of land owned by Muslims and then settle Christians in them. This resulted in turning Muslims into a minority in the area. Now, they make up 20% of the population in it.
The front was formed to defend the cultural peculiarity of Muslims in the Philippines. This demand then evolved into an armed struggle for independence. In 1976, the government of the Philippines started negotiations with the leaders of the movement. The negotiations produced the Tripoli Agreement for autonomous rule in 1977.
The government refused, however, to abide by the agreement, which opened the door for the emergence of armed groups from within the front, including Abu Sayyaf which was declared in 1991. In 2014, an agreement for autonomous rule was signed. The government continues to work to implement the agreement. Nevertheless, the protracted struggle between the government and the front paved the road for the emergence of terrorist groups, including Daesh itself.
Second, terrorism in Central and South East Asia
This study tries to list terrorist organizations in the light of the degree of danger they pose, using a number of parameters. These parameters include the ability of these organizations to impose control in a given place, the ability of national armies in fighting these organizations and the type of operations these organizations are able to stage.
The countries of the region can be subdivided into the following:
First, most dangerous terrorism
Afghanistan is in top position in this regard due to the ability of terrorist groups active in it to control large areas in it. Government and coalition forces are also incapable of meeting this challenge in anyway.
According to the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace, Afghanistan was the world’s second most affected country by terrorism in 2016 after Iraq. The victims of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan made up 17.8% of the number of all terrorism victims in that year. A total of 1,342 terrorist attacks were staged in the country, claiming the lives of 5,000 people and left 5,000 others injured. Around 80% of the attacks were launched by the Taliban. Khorasan Province, the local Daesh branch in the country, staged 12% of the attacks. Most of the attacks targeted government troops, whereas 25% of them targeted civilians and private properties.
1 – Al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda was born during what came to be known as the “Afghan Struggle”, against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. It was initially formed by Arab mujahedeen who arrived in Afghanistan from almost all Arab states to participate in the war against the Soviet-backed government. Most outstanding among the Arab figures arriving in the country and founding al-Qaeda were Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda was officially declared by bin Laden in 1998. It was called the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and the Crusaders then. The organization staged several important attacks, including the attacks against the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. The organization is now commanded by al-Zawahiri.
Al-Qaeda is mostly based now in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bin Laden swore allegiance to the leader of the Taliban since the founding of al-Qaeda. When he took over, bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri swore allegiance to the Taliban too.
Al-Qaeda is credited for being the pioneer of international terrorism. The organization worked to establish branches in the Arab Maghreb and North Africa. It also established a branch in Yemen, in the southern part of the Arab Peninsula. Other branches sprouted in Iraq and Syria.
The al-Shabaab movement of Somalia swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. The movement primarily targets American interests. It believes in the concept of the “Far Enemy”, which refers to countries that offer protection and support to regimes in the Islamic states. It thinks it can bring these regimes down if it succeeds in bringing the United States down.
2 – Khorasan Province
This organization started as a branch of al-Qaeda which fought US-led coalition forces that occupied Iraq in 2003. The organization started expanding into Syria after what came to be known as the Arab Spring of 2011.
In 2013, this organization promulgated itself as an independent entity, calling itself Daesh. The repeated defeats Daesh sustained in Syria and Iraq forced it to seek a safe refuge outside these two states. This was why it founded the Khorasan Province in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2015.
The organization aims to establish an Islamic caliphate with the nucleus of this caliphate in Afghanistan. It waged a brutal war against the Taliban, Afghan government forces and US-led coalition forces.
Between 1,000 and 4,000 fighters fight within the ranks of the Khorasan Province, according to statistics released by the United Nations Security Council on February 27, 2018. In 2016, the organization was responsible for 12% of all terrorist operations carried out in Afghanistan that year. In 2017, battles between the Khorasan Province and the Taliban morphed into a fierce struggle for control on the ground.
3 – Taliban
As mentioned above, the Taliban was formed by members of the Pashtun tribe in Afghanistan. The movement works to regain political and military control over Afghanistan and also establish a fundamental rule in the country. Nevertheless, the Taliban does not want to establish an international caliphate as Daesh and the al-Qaeda do. This is why it is becoming part of the solution to the crisis in Afghanistan. This is something the international community is starting to realize. World powers encourage the Taliban to sit on the negotiating table in their bid to integrate in Afghanistan’s political process. The Taliban contains between 40,000 and 45,000 members, according to the United Nations Security Council.
Second, dangerous terrorism
Pakistan is the only country that can be found here. According to a statement that was released by the Pakistani Interior Ministry on January 6, 2018, some of the terrorist groups active in Afghanistan are linked to others that are present in Pakistan. Other terrorist groups, the Interior Ministry said, are linked to terrorist groups that are present in other countries like India. Some of the terrorist groups target US interests, whereas others are linked to Iran.
Nonetheless, there is an essential difference between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, there is a strong army that does not allow terrorist organizations to have control on the ground. Most of Pakistan’s terrorist organizations are based in the border area with Afghanistan. They are also present in the disputed Kashmir region.
According to a study by the Tokyo-based National Institute for Defense Studies, Pakistan was most negatively affected by the presence of terrorist organizations in this region. Pakistan also lost more than 6,700 people to the war on terrorism. More than 15,000 Pakistani army troops were also injured in this war. The war also left more than 37,000 civilians dead and material losses that exceeded $78 billion, the center said in its study.
According to the 2017 Global Terrorism Index, which was prepared by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace, Pakistan was the world’s fifth largest loser because of terrorism in 2016. Terrorism victims in that country made up 3.7% of all terrorism victims around the world in that year, according to the index. Around 736 terrorist operations were carried out in Pakistan. These operations claimed the lives of 1,000 people. Around 1,700 others were injured because of these operations.
The branch of Taliban in Pakistan staged 35% of these terrorist attacks, whereas Khorasan Province carried out 17% of them. Around 35% of the operations targeted Pakistani army troops and police, whereas 25% of the operations targeted civilians and private properties.
Third, medium danger terrorism
Countries that fall into this category are ones where terrorist organizations active in them cannot impose control on the ground or establish their own states. These organizations can only form secret cells and carry out terrorist operations from time to time. There is a large number of states in the medium terrorism list. The list includes Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The marginalization Muslims were exposed to in these countries created appropriate conditions for the emergence of these organizations.
1 – Indonesia
Islamist extremism started in Indonesia with the formation of the Muslim league in 1912. The league was formed to resist Chinese influence in this country. This means that the league was primarily a political movement.
However, in the 1940s, the league started to morph into a religious movement, mimicking the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This gave rise to the Islam House Organization which staged mutiny against the Indonesia state. The leaders of the mutiny were executed in 1962. The new organization gave rise to the Islamic Group in 1969.
The Islamic Group works to establish an Islamic state that combines Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the southern part of the Philippines and the southern part of Thailand.
There are several other extremist and jihadist groups in Indonesia, including the Islam Defense Front, the Soldiers of Jihad, and Anasr al-Tawhid which swore allegiance to Daesh.
2 – The Philippines
Conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Philippines and Muslims’ struggle to obtain their rights created appropriate conditions in this country for the emergence of a number of extremist groups. Daesh succeeded in forming its own cell in the Philippines. According to the 2017 Global Terrorism Index, the Philippines came in position no. 12 as far as terrorism losses are concerned.
Daesh succeeded in tightening its grip on Marawi, a city of Mindanao province. The organization controlled the city for five months before the Philippine army recaptured it. Nevertheless, 162 Philippine army troops were killed in the operation. The army also succeeded in killing more than 800 Daesh terrorists. It also succeeded in freeing more than 1,700 hostages. More than 350,000 residents of the city were displaced because of battles between Daesh and the army.
The Philippines continues to suffer from the presence of terrorists, especially in its southern parts. There is a high probability that violence can erupt in this country any time.
3 – India
According to the 2017 Global Terrorism Index, India came in position no. 8 as far as the damage caused by terrorism is concerned. Around 929 terrorist operations were staged in that country in 2016. These operations left 340 people dead and more than 636 others injured. Maoist groups and the Indian Communist Party were responsible for 50% of these operations. The operations aimed to bring political gains and recognition to the groups and the party.
India is also vulnerable to attacks from Daesh. Indian intelligence acquired information about plans by the terrorist organization to stage a series of lone-wolf attacks in different parts of India. Daesh succeeded in carrying out its first attack in India in March this year. The attack targeted a passenger train. Several people were injured in the attack.
4 – Myanmar
Conflicts erupted in Rakhine State, on the western coast of Myanmar, between Muslims with Bengali origins and the indigenous residents of the state. The conflicts erupted against the backdrop of the rape by three Muslim men of a Buddhist woman.
Buddhists retaliated by killing ten Muslims. This opened the door for violence on a massive scale, one that left more than 50 people on both sides dead. The army had to intervene and declare a state of emergence.
The Burmese army and people consider the Muslims, most of whom are ethnic Rohingya, non-Burmese. They believe this ethnic minority belongs more in Bangladesh.
A report by Human Rights Watch in October 2016 describes the violence in Burma as an ethnic conflict between the army and some militant organizations.
A ceasefire agreement was signed by the army and eight militant groups in October 2015. Nevertheless, the agreement did little to stop the violence.
The Burmese government is accused of committing several atrocities and killing outside the framework of law. The violence had caused more than 300,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. This number rose to 750,000.
Fourth, states on the frontline
Countries located in close proximity to others where dangerous terrorist organizations operate are most vulnerable to terrorism. There is a long list of states in this regard, including Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Daesh had already threated to carry out operations in these countries.
The Prime Minister of Singapore said in February this year that the countries of South East and Central Asia were not immune from Daesh’s terrorism. He called on the ASEAN member states to join hands to stave off the terrorist threat.
The member states of the organization also started negotiations on an agreement for the handover of wanted persons and criminals.
Some of these states have internal problems, including ethnic conflicts. Areas where these conflicts are rampant are fertile soil for extremist organizations to take root and grow.
Major countries in the region, such as China; Russia; Japan, and China try to help terrorism-hit states by offering military support and training. The Chinese minister of defense had earlier declared the formation of a special combat force to fight terrorism outside Chinese borders.