May 27, 2019
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Return of Islamic State fighters pose threat to South Asia

By Indira Guerrero

New Delhi, May 15 (efe-epa).- The threat of Islamic State terror group raising its head in South Asia is ringing alarm bells in the already volatile region as fighters of the global terror network head home following a crushing defeat of the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

The Apr. 21 Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, attributed to little-known local Islamist organizations – which until then had been accused of nothing more severe than damaging a Buddhist monument, bore the signature of the Islamic State, according to sources from the Sri Lankan intelligence.

The attack, which occurred just a month after the end of the self-proclaimed caliphate in the Islamic State strongholds, has led to apprehension about the fighters who had left their countries to join the terror outfit in parts of Syria and Iraq are now returning home.

According to New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) head Harsh Pant, the first security lapse in the region was the lack of a mechanism to check people seeking to fight for the terror network, and now the real challenge would lie in tackling their eventual return.

India as well as Southeast Asia already has a significant number of people on the fringes of the law, and the big challenge will be to ensure that the return of these fighters does not lead to the situation getting worse, Pant told EFE.

According to US-based The Soufan Group, Southeast Asia has "not only seen an influx of returnees, but also a certain number of foreign fighters who appear to have chosen to go there rather than return to their own homes, whether or not advised to do so by IS leaders."

A 2015 United Nations report had already warned of the threat posed by the influx of foreign terrorists, putting special emphasis on the Maldives, which had accounted for a disproportionately high number of fighters (200 from a total population of 345,000 inhabitants) in Islamic State ranks.

Brigadier General Zakariyya Mansoor of the National Counter Terrorism Centre in Madives said that from the information provided by Maldivian families in Syria "we have learnt about the children that have been born there, people who do not have travel documents and many other such issues”.

“These are the issues,” he said, “that the state needs to solve before they can return.”

At the same time, the situation is also a human rights issue for the states, Azim Zahir, an expert on Muslim radicalization, told EFE citing cases of Maldivian children dying in camps due to lack of medical attention.

He estimated that there are around 47 Maldivians but the authorities were not doing enough in this regard.

In this context, Indian analyst Pant said it was "difficult to analyze (how) the people of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives are getting attracted to the ideology and with the amount of cross pollination happening, it is very difficult to control or get a hold on of how many are coming in and going out.”

A source from Colombo's intelligence services, who asked not to be named, told EFE that in Sri Lanka's case, Zahran Hashim – the mastermind behind the Easter attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels that killed more than 250 people – forged ties with the Islamic State many years earlier when he looked to join their ranks.

He finally returned to the island to lead local extremist cells such as National Thowheed Jamath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, the two outfits blamed for the bombings.

India and Bangladesh have increased terror alert with raids and police operations against extremist groups and alleged members of the Islamic State returning to their countries.

In Bangladesh this month, the security forces confirmed to EFE the arrest of an alleged Islamic State member who had returned to the country in February after fighting in Syria.

The suspect was allegedly trying to contact a faction of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a local group blamed for killing 22 people in an attack on a Dhaka cafe in 2016.

The arrest came less than a week after the death of two suspected Islamist militants, who blew themselves during a police raid on their hideout in the capital on Apr. 29.

Bangladesh has denied the role of Islamic State in the 2016 attacks, despite the terror group claiming responsibility. Mufti Mahmud Khan, spokesperson of the elite police force Rapid Action Battalion, insisted that "there is no IS in Bangladesh."

"Some local groups may follow their ideology but they are not run by IS chain of command. If we have information about any IS fighter returning to Bangladesh we are ready to take necessary legal action." Khan told EFE.

Muhammad Amir Rana, a security analyst and the director of Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies – an Islamabad-based think tank – told EFE that the presence of Islamic State militants in the region was not new, and its existence was reflected in terror attacks linked to the group in recent years.

"I would say it (IS) never vanished from South Asia. It was already there,” Rana said.

The biggest Islamic State stronghold in the region is in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, an area where the group was engaged in territorial fights with the Taliban, according to Rana.

"In Pakistan, it has already managed 11 major terrorist attacks. Last year, it managed five and this year so far one. Of course (at the moment) there is IS presence in Pakistan," said the expert, adding: "I can't give an argument on why the government is reluctant to accept this reality.”

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