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Identity: A factor in making and breaking of terrorist organizations

terrorist organizations
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Khurram Minhas |

Terrorist organizations often advertise their struggle for protection and promotion of their brand of Islam. They often propagate their mission and its universality. Contrary to their claims, these terrorist organizations are highly conservative in nature, especially when it comes to local identities within those organizations. Identity-based on ethnicity, clan, sub-clan and sect often remain a binding force for the majority of terrorist organizations. This identity provides them leverage at the local level, which helps them to nourish their particular environment and society.

The absence or lack of identity in terrorist organizations often severely damages their activities in the region as well as their nourishment. For instance, Al-Qaeda had been organized and run by an Arab, Osama Bin Laden (OBL). It nourished on Arabian Peninsula. Most of the non-Arab Muslim terrorist groups used to be attracted towards Al-Qaeda due to its Arabian origin. However, after the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011, Al-Qaeda has been facing an acute dilemma of identity.

Al-Qaeda’s head had vividly laid down a well-defined organizational structure of the terrorist organization and being Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri was the logical head of this terrorist organization. However, since Zawahiri is an Egyptian national, he is not able to attract force from many Islamist or Jihadist organizations. Most of the people follow orders of Bin Laden’s son. His son is active in Afghanistan and he has been proved to be a source of attraction and a unifying force for many local Afghan terrorist outfits due to his Arab origin.

Resultantly, these terrorist organizations have been divided on the basis of identity and power struggle. With this in mind, identity has been proved to be a source of strength as well as a source of division for terrorist organizations.

ISIS is another example which is a prison of identity. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian national. Hence, despite his robust commitment and charismatic personality, he could not convince Iraq’s common public and various wary groups to unite under his rule in Iraq against the central government. Generally, he was considered an outsider by the local public and wary groups. Therefore, the world witnessed his two immediate successors, Abu Omer al-Baghdadi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, use ‘Baghdadi’ as their identity to portray themselves as representatives of the local community of Iraq. ‘Baghdadi’ is not a name but a metaphorical reference of identity.

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Historically, Baghdad remained the center of Islamic Caliphate for nearly five centuries. Resultantly, the majority of overseas Muslims found this slogan attractive enough to join this organization. Therefore, identity does not only provide space and support to keep unity within organizational ranks but it is also helpful for attracting more dedicated manpower for operational activities. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is another prime example of a terrorist organization dominated by an identity phenomenon.

TTP was established in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Mainly a branch of Mehsud Tribe was dominating the organization with resources and manpower. Its heads, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud belonged to the Mehsud Tribe of FATA. Their leadership was a source of attraction for many Pakistani tribal Pashtuns. The local public was highly supportive of TTP due to their local identity. However, after the killing of Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud, the TTP’s center of gravity has shifted to Mullah Fazalullah, who is a non-tribal Pashtun from Swat.

The absence or lack of identity in terrorist organizations often severely damages their activities in the region as well as their nourishment. For instance, Al-Qaeda had been organized and run by an Arab, Osama Bin Laden (OBL).

Since then the local support of TTP from various tribes of Pashtuns has either sharply declined or terminated. Many new fractions dominated by the tribal-Pashtun leaders of TTP have emerged in the last few years after the appointment of Mullah Fazalullah as Chief of TTP. For instance, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a local terrorist organization, was established by Omar Khalid Khurasaani who belongs to the Mohmand Agency. After almost 16 years of the War on Terror, the world has been witnessing a sharp decline in terrorist-related incidents and a breakup or weakening of terrorist organizations.

Read more: Terrorists roam free as politicians cannot decide on military courts

According to some conservative estimates, a 12 percent decrease has been reported in five countries that were mainly a victim of terrorism. In Pakistan, the decline of terrorist incidents is around 70 percent. One of the major reasons is that international community has adopted a hard approach against these terrorist organizations and targeted their centers of gravity. Resultantly, these terrorist organizations have been divided on the basis of identity and power struggle.

With this in mind, identity has been proved to be a source of strength as well as a source of division for terrorist organizations. The international community in general and Pakistan in particular need to further target the centers of gravity of these terrorist organizations. The focused efforts to weaken identity will not only further dismantle the terrorist networks but also discourage or distract the radicalized youth from joining ranks of these terrorist organizations.

The writer works for IPRI, a think tank based in Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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