By Abdul Basit

With the advent of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2014, the opinions and analyses of policymakers and the strategic community in South Asia remain divided on whether the terrorist group constitutes a threat to the region or not. These differences can be attributed to two schools of thought.
The first believes that, given its global appeal among the jihadist groups and the traction of its ideology among disaffected and radicalised youth, IS poses a significant security threat to the region. The other school of thought opposes this notion, arguing that the monumental barriers of geography, language, and culture will hinder IS attempts to gain a foothold in South Asia.
However, in the last two months the spate of IS-directed or IS-inspired high-profile attacks in Dhaka, Kabul and Quetta, coupled with the travel of radicalised youth from India and Maldives to Iraq and Syria, have dispelled the previous myths that considered ISís presence in South Asia a media hype. The level of planning, sophistication, and coordination exhibited by these attacks indicates the growing footprint of IS in the region.
In less than two years, the terrorist group has built a network of supporters and sympathisers in South Asia, evolving from a potential security risk to a tangible threat.
Against this backdrop, the growing IS influence, the spread of its ideology, and the nature of its presence in South Asia warrants a deeper examination for accurate threat assessment. Once the enabling factors and structural causes of its growth have been analysed, the existing policy frameworks for counter-terrorism and extremism will have to be revised in line with the evolving trends and patterns.
The sudden increase in IS activities in South Asia is not a coincidence given the groupís intentions, since its inception, to carve out a niche in the region. Through its online monthly English magazine and videos, the militant outfit has been routinely hinting at increasing its operations and activities in Bangladesh (Dabiq issues no 12 & 14), India (Dabiq 14) and Pakistan (Dabiq 13).
A terrorist group needs physical sanctuary (ungoverned spaces), social sanctuary (chaotic living conditions) and the demographic sanctuary (vulnerable and disenfranchised youth) to flourish. The prevalence of these factors in South Asia has provided the Islamic State with a conducive environment and ideal conditions to gain a foothold. Additionally, political squabbling, blame games, self-denials, and the dismissive attitudes of regional states have further augmented ISís efforts to increase its regional footprint.
The presence of longstanding disputes like Kashmir and Afghanistan, the militarisation of sectarian differences and the politicisation of religion have further helped IS galvanise support in the region.
ISís presence in South Asia has three key nodes. The first of these are lone-wolf individuals who get inspired by ISís ideology through the internet and other social media platforms. Then there are lone-wolf groups (packs or cells) of self-radicalised individuals who are connected to IS-Central through a recruiter and are engaged in disseminating the groupís extremist propaganda, collecting funds, and planning future attacks. And the third are like-minded militant groups who have jumped on the IS bandwagon and rebranded themselves under the banner of the so-called Caliphate after taking an oath of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
From a policy-perspective, four trends are particularly concerning. First, the growth of Salafism under the garb of a self-styled caliphate is being packaged in a jihadist narrative. This is contrary to pacifist and populist Sufi traditions of South Asian Islam. Second, IS is inspiring and influencing the educated youth of middle and upper-middle class from urban areas who do not fit the traditional profiles of militants considered to be madressah students from impoverished backgrounds.
This trend is similar to the mobilisation of youth from Europe who have travelled to Syria and Iraq as foreign fighters. Against the over-simplistic and popular notions that considered a potential militant to be from particular socio-economic and educational backgrounds, the participation of the educated and well-to-do youth in terrorism has raised new research questions and policy-relevant dilemmas for academics and policymakers.
The ability of Islamist militant groups like IS to connect isolated and individual grievances with the meta-narrative of global jihadism enables them not only to transcend geographical barriers but also helps them overcome diversity by surpassing linguistic, socio-cultural and political constraints, making IS an unprecedented transnational terrorist threat. So, the advent and rise of IS has created new symbols, new leaders, new ideas, new iconography of terrorism and new narratives which are markedly different from previous jihadist narratives.
Third, a critical factor relates to the proliferation of extremist ideas and discourses in cyberspace and social media platforms. While the underlying structural factors of extremism and its enabling elements exist in the real world, such discourses take a particular shape in the virtual world of the internet.
Thus, the battlefield has expanded from real space to cyberspace. The war within cyberspace pertains to the war of ideas, which can only be fought with better, stronger, and smarter counter-ideas. A hollow and empty rhetoric cannot overcome extremist ideology.
And lastly, the overtly sectarian outlook of IS not only apostatises Shias but also ex-communicates other Sunni groups, such as Barelvis, Sufis and Deobandis. Thus, the growing IS influence in the region will target both inter-sectarian divisions (Sunni vs Shia) as well as intra-sectarian (Salafi vs Sunnis) cleavages.
The IS-directed attacks against the Ismaili Shia community in Karachi (2015), the targeting of a Muharram procession in Dhaka and the sporadic kidnapping and targeted killings of the Hazara Shia community in Afghanistan offer glimpses into the sectarian ideological outlook of IS.
Furthermore, the critiques of the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba by IS in Dabiq magazine offers further insights into its ideological stance vis-a-vis other Sunni extremist groups.
To overcome the threat posed by IS, South Asian states will have to look beyond their selfish and myopic interests and forge a functional relationship in which they can cooperate against this common enemy. The absence of regional counterterrorism and counter-extremism frameworks will hinder isolated efforts by regional states to defeat Islamic State.

The writer is an associate researchfellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.