Jihadist social media sites have swapped "core" al Qaeda content for 'Islamic State' messages, according to an IHS report. Analyst Omar Hamid tells DW how this may help the militant group gain a foothold in South Asia.
Al Qaeda-affiliated websites, such as the Global Islamic Media Front, the Ansarullah Media and Bab-ul-Islam, have been increasingly replacing messages of the terror network with content from the Syria and Iraq-based Sunni extremist group "Islamic State" (IS), according to a new report by IHS, a global analytics firm. The jihadist forums have reportedly even failed to cover al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's recent announcement of the formation of an al Qaeda branch in South Asia and Myanmar.
In the past, al Zawahiri had been the main focus of these websites, with his messages often being posted there first. According to the report, there are also signs that IS' increasing social media presence is part of the militant group's strategy to establish itself in South Asia. The Karachi-based Tehreek-e-Khilafat, a disgruntled Taliban faction, has already publicly switched its loyalties and pledged alliance to IS.
Omar Hamid, Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS and author of the report, says in a DW interview that IS and al Qaeda are on a collision path, and that IS' success in gaining control of social media sites that had traditionally been controlled by Al-Qaeda or the TTP, reflects the group's burgeoning presence in South Asia.
DW: What has your monitoring of jihadists sites revealed?
Omar Hamid: Our monitoring of these sites has shown a gradual move from highlighting al Qaeda (AQ) and Zawahiri in particular, to highlighting IS and its declared leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is almost as if Zawahiri had been turned into a nonperson.
Hamid: 'IHS' monitoring of jihadist social media has indicated that IS is attempting to establish a presence in South Asia'
So while some coverage is still given to AQ and the Afghan Taliban, the bulk of coverage has shifted to IS. Even when there is coverage of AQ or AQ allies, Zawahiri is cut out of it.
What does this development in social media say about the influence of the Islamic State in South Asia?
IHS' monitoring of jihadist social media has indicated that IS is attempting to establish a presence in South Asia. At present, IS enjoys two advantages in this regard. Its financial strength is greater than the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and core al Qaeda, allowing it to offer militant factions large sums of money to switch allegiances.
Reports have infomed us that several Afghan Taliban commanders have been approached by IS representatives and offered large monetary rewards for switching their allegiance from Mullah Omar to "Caliph" al-Baghdadi. Similarly, several of the disgruntled TTP factions that have been expelled by Mullah Fazlullah have expressed admiration for IS. One group, the Karachi-based Tehreek-e-Khilafat, has already publicly switched its loyalties. In another case, Omar Khalid Khurasani, the head of the TTP's Mohmand Agency chapter, was sacked a few days ago for having disobeyed instructions.
Jihadist social media monitoring indicates that Khurasani, who has a reputation as one of the most brutal TTP commanders, had already entertained offers from IS and is likely to swear allegiance to them. Obtaining the loyalties of these groups will provide IS with an operational foothold in South Asia.
Why would IS take over these sites and what would they gain by doing so?
The emerging rivalry between core al Qaeda and IS is manifesting itself in attempts by both groups to control jihadist social media sites in South Asia. IS' burgeoning presence in South Asia can be measured by its success in gaining control of social media sites that had traditionally been controlled by al Qaeda or the TTP. To put it in corporate terms, they gain a market share in the South Asian jihadist market by controlling these sites.
What languages is 'Islamic State' using to target social media spaces?
The advantage of these sites was that traditionally they put out material simultaneously in a number of languages, including Arabic, Urdu, English, Pashto, Bangla, Turkish, Russian, and Bahasa. Although IS does not have an independent setup anywhere outside the Middle East, this is precisely why it is targeting social media and trying to win over local jihadist commanders. That way the group can boast that it has a global footprint. They have tried a similar thing in Indonesia as well.
How have the Asian countries targeted by IS reacted to this social media campaign ?
On a governmental level, there has been no reaction to this in either India, Pakistan or Afghanistan. But the real contest will be within the jihadist groups operating in these countries, and which side those groups choose to take. One prediction is that following IS' efforts to sideline and downgrade Zawahiri, their next target is likely to be Mullah Omar, as Omar proclaims himself caliph, and Baghdadi is unlikely to tolerate a "rival." Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that IS is trying to buy off Afghan Taliban commanders and get them to switch loyalties from Omar to Baghdadi.
What does this mean for Al-Qaeda and Zawahiri?
IS and al Qaeda are on a collision path. The core of al Qaeda faces a two-pronged battle to maintain its status among South Asian jihadist groups. The launch of a military offensive in North Waziristan by the Pakistan Army and the disruption and losses caused to its benefactors, the TTP, has made al Qaeda's physical security precarious in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Factionalization within the TTP, and attempts by IS to win over influential jihadist commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan have reduced al Qaeda's leverage, forcing it to pander to the interests of local Kashmiri and Sunni sectarian groups in a bid to stay relevant.
Omar Hamid is Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS.