The ISIS Network: Has it been underestimated?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Daesh, “so-called Islamic State”, ISIS, call them what you will, are not a state and disregard certain tenets of Islam wilfully. What they are becoming however, is far more interesting to speculate on, in the light of the diplomatic wrangles between the United States President Elect, Donald Trump, the US’s own intelligence agencies and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

ISIS is proving to be more than your typical terror outfit and is global dynamic threat

Here I will argue that ISIS cannot be defeated, either by “smart” policy or Russian and Turkish muscle, because it is changing its nature. It is becoming more savvy, with a greater geographical spread than just Shams and al-Iraq and is, crucially, in the process of gaining central asian allies and access to their networks, specifically the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) mostly present in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) based in Western China amongst the Uighurs, the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based former affiliate of Al Qaeda and the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) of the Pakistan Armed Forces. Under all these terrifying acronyms lie something of a common strategy, which centres on the future shape of Afghanistan, and a common need to accommodate ISIS as a new entrant to this old theatre of conflict.

Middle East Conflict Context

Firstly to the fight against ISIS in the Levant and Iraq. There has been tenacity displayed by ISIS units based in the cities of northern Iraq, and a fairly well functioning logistics system: they haven’t starved, or run out of ammunition and materiel. Indeed in certain instances they appear better equipped than the Kurdish Peshmerga, having apparently adequately apportioned the Iraqi security forces weaponry they captured in 2014. They are also fighting with a real degree of creativity, for instance deploying civilian camera-equipped drones for battlefield intel and to coordinate suicide truck strikes against Kurdish forward positions.

However this does not counter the fact that, even with hard fighting, they are being pushed back on most fronts, and any gains are likely to be reversed by a stepped up campaign of US air support under Trump. Indeed, with President Assad of Syria saying he is willing to put his leadership of the country on the table to achieve a peace with other groups fighting in the Syrian Civil War (this is a ploy to secure Western involvement in the peace; his premiership is backed by Russia and so is under no threat) the pressure will only intensify on ISIS, eventually driving them, at great cost it must be said, out of their bases in Syria possibly as early as 2018. In Iraq, it is likely, despite a lack of international support for the Kurds due to Turkish pressure, that a similar outcome will be achieved, but with an elongated timeframe. Regardless, ISIS are on the retreat, and will be thinking of new ways to sustain their Caliphate. The degree to which the loss of territorial control will deal a blow to their reputation is beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that ISIS will have to begin to operate in a more “traditional” trans-national network manner, underground, in the fabric of existing societies, rather than, as they are now, trying forge their own through warfare as a ground-fighting force.

Afghanistan as ISIS base

An obvious theatre for them is Central Asia, as they have already begun to operate in this manner across the region. It is again beyond the scope of the present piece to comment on ISIS’ involvement in the Yemeni Civil War, in Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, suffice to say in the latter three cases the same dynamics appear to be holding true.

ISIS has had a verifiable presence in Afghanistan since mid-2015, supplanting the Taliban through violence in several high valleys in the East of the country on the border with Pakistan. Indeed this is the only part of the world outside the middle east where they actively hold territory. This active hold is actualised as revenues extracted from locals, backed up with extreme violence: a particularly disturbing propaganda video shows a row of Taliban and village elders (the two are entwined in this part of Afghanistan) having their heads blown off with simultaneous landmines. The ISIS members in the area are mostly local Pakhtun, presumably frustrated with the progress of the Taliban’s war against the state, and ex-Supreme Leader Mullah Mansoor’s apparent willingness to come to terms. This has halted with new Supreme Leader Akhunzada, who has stepped up fighting against the Afghan government, partly to stem of the flow of potential recruits to ISIS. The ISIS compliment in Afghanistan is further made up of Arab leaders from the Middle East, and other Central Asian groups, notably the Uzbeks, who are numerous in the north of Afghanistan, and are waging a separate conflict against the government that has recently cooled with a peace treaty.

Afghanistan has many attractions to ISIS. Its geography makes it notoriously hard to police: the might of the American and Soviet militaries were unable to stem flows of fighters and materiel around the country. The weak government in Kabul has few true friends, outside of India, actively hostile neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, and has many antagonistic groups within Afghanistan itself.  The government’s stated allies, in NATO, and especially the US, are attempting to draw down their troop deployments from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, leaving a vacuum that will not be filled by the undertrained, understaffed and under-qualified Afghan National Army. Afghanistan’s airforce is in a woefully inadequate position to conduct even the most basic area denial operations, and, while America is likely to keep up a drone programme of some ferocity in the theatre, militants are becoming wise to the use of this tactic, and America is beginning to realise that the psychological effects of drone strikes are eliding into the strikes usefulness as a recruiting battlecry for militant groups. And here we arrive at one of the key points: Afghanistan is a ripe recruiting ground, full of experienced fighters, angry young men with few prospects, families livid at being torn apart by endless war, but seeing no other way out. While ISIS, for the moment, retains an Arab bias, and as such will struggle to stir up the same ethno-nationalist sentiment that the Pakhtun-dominated Taliban do, this position will likely soften, and, for the moment, provide them with one of their greatest assets in the theatre: they are new entrants, carry little baggage beyond their ideology and attachment to the middle east, and can easily act as go betweens and new allies to the many groups already active in the region.


One of the most important of these is the IMU. Founded in 1998, they failed to overthrow the dictatorial government of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, and recast themselves as allies of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, fighting against the Northern Alliance in return for freedom of operation in Afghanistan. Since then, they have proved a valuable ally, able to move material and information between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the period of NATO occupation. However, in mid 2015 the group’s leadership publicly pledged themselves to ISIS. As such, it is fair to make the assumption that the IMU, with its deep ties to the region, the ability to move through it, and a knowledge of Taliban tactics and strongholds, will act as the vanguard of ISIS. This position will only be hardened by an IMU defeat at the hands of the Taliban after they announced their allegiance to ISIL; most IMU fighters have fled to north-western Pakistan, and their allies in the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a separate outfit from the Afghan Taliban, and one made more dangerous by its association with ISIS, and with one of ISIS’s other major potential allies, the Haqqani Network.

Haqqani Network

The Haqqani’s are a nebulous group. Ostensibly an independent outfit, one of their members main members, Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of founder Jalaluddin, is deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban. Not promising allies for the ISIS, sure, but what clinches it in my mind, is the working relationship between the Haqqanis and Pakistan military intelligence service ISI. Some analysts have posited that ISI helped ISIS early on in its infiltration into Afghanistan, before it declared territorial intentions, as it was seen by ISI as just another destabilising group for the Kabul government to deal with. While an unstable Afghanistan is inimical to the interests of the civilian government in Islamabad, the Pakistan military see stable Afghanistan as a belligerent enemy (and one with which they have ongoing border disputes that occasionally flare into cross-border firing) and ISI finds use in having a hotbed of militant groups that they can steer toward attacking India; ISIS was one such, until it got out of ISI’s control. It seems unlikely that the Haqqanis, notorious as networkers and negotiators for the ISI, would not have had contact with ISIS. Likewise, the Haqqani’s have potentially acted as interlocutors between ISI, the IMU and thus the Afghan Taliban. Indeed, the ISI set the stage for this cooperation in the so called “Airlift of Evil” which occurred early on in the NATO invasion, when ISI airlifted its own agents, Al Qaeda commanders (including Bin Laden), and thousands of Taliban (probably including members of Haqqani network) and IMU fighters out of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. US special forces were powerless to stop this, as Vice President Cheney wanted to maintain relations with Pervez Musharraf, former ISI operative, and dictatorial ruler of Pakistan at the time, for tactical-logistical reasons.

Now that the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, in Pakistan, with a democratically installed civilian government, you would expect the ISI to have reigned back its operations. However, the antagonistic relationship between the civilian government and the military constantly simmers. The parts of ISI that wish to continue the strategic use of militant groups against India are somewhat out of favour, the army having conducting significant internal anti-militancy operations under its former leadership, which is a trend set to continue under the new army chief. While the army will continue to appear to the populace that it is fighting the good fight, the tactical use of militant groups cannot be denied for achieving objectives beyond improving the Pakistani public perception of them. The most concrete example of this is the Pathankot Airbase attack, early in 2016, which derailed new talks between India and Pakistan, something anathema to a huge army that has to justify its existence. As such ISI will maintain links with the Haqqanis and with IMU, but it has obviously lost control of any ISIS elements it once thought under its thumb. And this leads to some slightly apocalyptic conclusions surrounding militancy in western China.


A very large proportion of Pakistan’s future economic growth potential, aside from any trade windfalls with the Gulf states, unlikely given the overall direction of oil prices, is tied up in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a sprawling network of road, rail and pipeline links between Kashgar in western China and the port of Karachi. However, the development of this project, the majority of which is due for completion by 2025, has been dogged by the threat of attack by militants. While no major attack on the infrastructure has yet occurred, there have been sporadic attempts, threats, and also indicative attempted attacks on Chinese workers; upwards of 36,000 security personnel have been deployed by Pakistan to mollify the Chinese.

The thread that binds this to ISIS is the fate of the Uighur ethnic group in western China. It is an open secret that many of ISIS’ fighters in Iraq and Syria are Uighurs; to reach Syria they may have needed the networks of the IMU and the Haqqanis. The repression suffered by the Uighur minority in western China has led to sporadic attacks, mostly with knives, in Urumqi, the capital of the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, by ETIM affiliates and lone-wolves. This spontaneous violence is a reaction to Chinese repression, and to a sense of cultural culling by the Uighurs: they believe that the majority Han Chinese are trying to wipe out their unique Turkic culture.

That ETIM, Al Qaeda and, most effectively, ISIS have managed to tie this ethnic and cultural struggle into the wider narrative of the renaissance of a certain militarised form of Islam, and the number of fighters willing to travel an entire continent to prove the narrative’s validity, is symbolic of just how repressive the Chinese state is in Xinjiang. This is due to the huge strategic importance the Chinese ascribe to this salient, as it is both a base from which to threaten rivals India and Russia, and a place through which much mineral wealth flows into China from Central Asia, and a zone which China hopes to utilise as a swifter and more controllable export area with massive investment in east-west railroads. The CPEC is merely one part of this investment drive, known as “One Belt, One Road”.

However, the dynamics of this region are changing, and the insertion of ISIS, and the networks created by the IMU, ETIM, the ISI and the Haqqanis, are going to massively complicate the issue for both China and Pakistan, in the three ways below.

First, let it be said that the Chinese counter-terror policy of mass repression and cultural assimilation has been counterproductive, but is unlikely to change: the Chinese government has proved remarkably unadaptable in this area, at least for the time being. While it has been wary of arousing the ire of the Islamic world, due both to mineral resource dependency and the want to keep Xinjiang as a domestic issue, is state of affairs is unlikely to last.

Second, returning Uighur fighters, those that will inevitably based out of Afghanistan have a ripe target in the CPEC. Its vulnerability will also provide a propaganda boost for ISIS in its new recruiting grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan; if the army is forced to publicly kill more militants in the name of China this will also be a narrative victory for ISIS. The apocalyptic scenario is one in which Pakistan, struggling under the weight of a failed CPEC, a beleaguered army and continued attacks from Afghanistan, vents its frustration on India. A little more mild, but equally precarious, situation, would be for Pakistan to become in essence a state either failed, or propped up entirely by Chinese money and muscle. The most likely outcome, however, is one in which a CPEC rendered economically less viable by attacks adversely affects Pakistan’s growth prospects leading to a spike in unemployment, providing a large pool for various groups to recruit from, exacerbating the conflict in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also likely spilling over into India, Kashmir, Xinjiang and other theatres in Central Asia.

The third, and perhaps most intriguing aspect of this nexus, is the greater exposure between groups, this ISIS network,  is likely to have on their operational capacities, ideologies and their relationships with the wider world. The first is easiest to answer; as long as they, like modern armies, find ways of integrating their communications and command systems, the gains from cooperation could be exponential. The battlefield environment in which they exist is constantly changing, but, ISIS especially, have found ways of maintaining an adaptability which would have astounded those on a middle eastern battlefield only a decade ago.

Further, the information battle environment is one in which, again ISIS especially, has come to operate with ruthless efficiency. The question that remains is how effective ISIS’ particularly virulent brand of Sunni extremism will prove in other environments: their narrative of Islam under attack is slightly less coherent than Al Qaeda’s, due to their own slaughterer of fellow Muslims, but its sheer animation and the simplicity of purpose appears to derive a much wider appeal than that of AQ.

It must be stressed, though, that this appeal appears broader only to a very small and certain subsection of the Muslim world; however, therein lies its effectiveness, in motivating those, from this small set, who would have otherwise dismissed alternative Islamist ideologies. Finally, with an avowed anti-Muslim in the White House, and a conflict in Afghanistan he wants no part of, the conditions are ripe for ISIS to exploit Central Asian theatres, from both an ideological and practical standpoint.

The degree to which Donald Trump will unite disparate Islamist elements against him remains to be seen, but ISIS, and the central Asian networks of the IMU and the Haqqanis are more than likely to cast themselves as military tribunes against him. The degree to which he forces these militant groups closer to one another, and to the ISI, looks likely, at this early stage, to be his defining foreign policy legacy in Central Asia. He may have already started a cascading process of anti-American sentiment that cannot be reversed, leading to at least a decades more conflict in Central Asia.

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell is an independent political, historical and cultural researcher. He formally worked with the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis company, covering South Asia. He has a Masters Degree in South Asian Area Studies from SOAS, University of London, and a Master of Arts (Honours) Degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. While his focus remains on Asian politics and Asian relations, particularly India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the current situation in his home continent of Europe and home country of Scotland has led to a broadening of his research and analysis to the Western world.
Christopher Cannell

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