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How big is the Islamic State threat to India?

By Rajiv Kumar
December 18, 2015 09:05 IST
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As far as India is concerned, the danger is the potential of the IS to create mischief rather than its actual capability right now, says Rajiv Kumar

A resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves an Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, Syria. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

Terrorism, particularly jihadi terrorism has since 9/11 taken centre stage in any threat assessment anywhere in the world. However, India has been facing this problem for quite some time, and therefore, whenever the security establishment has made threat assessments, terrorism was always a factor to contend with.

Even after jihadi terrorism took root in the region and Afghanistan became the melting pot of such groups, India, more or less remained away from their pernicious influence. While there were reports of some Afghans joining hands with terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir, it was more of an exception rather than the rule.

Even after the J&K terrorism scene changed with advent of Pakistan-based groups such as the Lashkar-e-Tayiba or Hizb-ul-Mujahideen taking centre stage, it remained confined to the Pakistani groups rather than Pan-Islamic groups.

With the rise of Islamic militancy and the advent of jihadi terrorism post 9/11, the narrative changed all over the world. While earlier, most of the terrorist acts were undertaken by local groups based on real or perceived injustices against their communities, the trend post 9/11 has been an effort to link terrorism by local Islamic groups with broader war against "crusaders and infidels".

Whether it was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Phillipines, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Al Shabab in Somalia or Boko Haram in Nigeria -- all these groups tried to project themselves as fighting for the greater cause of Islam. Al Qaeda had projected itself as a pan Islamic group right from the very beginning.

India was no exception to this trend. The Kashmir centric Pakistani groups such as the LeT and the Harkat-ul-Mujahdeen tried to project themselves as fighting for the larger cause of Islam.

Though their primary focus remained Kashmir and India, they began to actively project themselves as part of a global Islamic movement. HuM was signatory to original declaration issued by Al Qaeda against "crusaders".

The LeT involved itself actively in promoting terrorism not only in India but in western countries too.

However, this trend did not result in formation of strong pan-Islamic global groups in India. The militancy continued to retain its regional character with only occasional words of support from extra regional players such as the Al Qaeda.

Unlike in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Pakistan, where the Al Qaeda found large support from the radicalised Muslim youth, the support it received in India has been lukewarm. In India, local militants seem to rely on local networks and fighters rather than on foreign elements of the Al Qaeda.

Even in J&K, the foreign fighters were only from Pakistan based groups rather than from the Al Qaeda. However, on an ideological plane both the Kashmiri groups as well as the Indian Mujahideen sought to draw sustenance from Al Qaeda. Some efforts were also made by the IM to develop operational ties with the Al Qaeda, but they were not very successful.

The rise of the Islamic has, however, added a new dimension to this problem. The Al Qaeda as a symbol of Islamic resistance to western domination was in the initial phases of its rise, an important magnet for Islamic jihadists.

But once they were decisively beaten in Afghanistan and in Yemen, and it was becoming apparent that despite their primary visceral pull, they were not able to emerge as an alternative to the existing rulers of Islamic countries allowing the Islamic jihadists the euphoria of victory, their attraction to the disenchanted Muslim youth started waning.

The rise of IS in Iraq and Syria at this point has filled this void. The fact that despite decades of its existence, the Al Qaeda was unable to control any territory anywhere, while the IS, in its relatively short existence has been able to control significant territory in Iraq also made ISIS more attractive to the jihadi Muslim youth everywhere particularly in Europe.

The jihadi elements in India were also influenced by this trend. Some of the jihadi militants in India who were hitherto looking to Al Qaeda for inspiration have started to look towards the IS. Since middle 2014, some IS pamphlets and flags have started to appear in parts of India.

Some flags and banners of the IS were noticed in Jammu & Kashmir in June/July 2014. It was followed in mid-July by an online IS recruitment video, wherein a Canadian IS activist dressed in war fatigues urges Muslims to enlist in global jihad. Significantly, the subtitles in the video were in Hindi, Tamil and Urdu, indicating that the IS had started targetting the subcontinent for their recruitment drive.

Some Muslim youth from India joined the IS in Syria. At least four such youth from Mumbai were identified by the authorities. One of them has returned, the other has been reported dead while two others are still in Syria/Iraq.

In December 2014, a Bengaluru-based executive was arrested by authorities for uploading pro IS propaganda material from his twitter handle. In January this year, a youth from Hyderabad was stopped at the airport while he was leaving for Syria to join the IS.

Recently, a suspected IS operative, an Indian Oil Corporation employee, was arrested by the Rajasthan police in Jaipur.

These are stray incidents and do not indicate a large scale penetration of the IS in India yet.

Islamic State billboards are seen along a street in Raqqa, eastern Syria, which is controlled by the Islamic State. The billboard reads:. "We will win despite the global coalition". Photograph: Nour Fourat/Reuters

However, the government is concerned, and in last week of February notified the IS as a banned terrorist organisation under the unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, stating that it is involved in radicalisation and recruitment of vulnerable youth from various countries, including India.

More recently, this month, the ministry of Home affairs termed the terror threat being posed by the IS as a "long-term national security concern."

Thus, although the extent of activities of the IS in India is not as yet at a level where it could be said to cause major alarm bells, there are enough reasons for the government to be concerned.

While the theatre of activities of the IS has only been in Middle East so far, there are indications that it is trying to increase its footprints to other areas, including South Asia.

Ideologically, it has made no secret of its global ambitions and has avowed aim of Islamic world domination which includes parts of India.

The "caliphate" map which the IS released, includes parts of northwest India as well as Gujarat as part of province of Khurasan of the ‘Islamic caliphate’.

On January 26 this year, Abu Mohammad Al Adnani, spokesperson for the IS officially recognised the wilayah (province) of Khurasan. He called commanders in the wilayah to join a new fight to enforce "tawhid" (monotheism) and vanquish “shirk” (polytheism).

The formal recognition of the khurasan wilayah was perhaps the result of appeals made by the disgruntled Tehrik-i-Taliban and Afghan Taliban commanders to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS supremo.

Though there were many such appeals it was only in January this year that the IS accepted the pledges of support holding that "they have fulfilled the conditions and met the requirements" for the establishment of a wilayah.

In its latest mention about India, in an e-book released online on jihadist platforms in November, the IS stated that "It would now expand into India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan."

It has also mentioned about the beef controversy of India and has specifically mentioned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a right wing Hindu nationalist who is preparing his people for a future war against the Muslims.

This action showing interest in South Asia seems to have spurred the Al Qaeda leadership also to try to re-energise their activities in the sub continent.

In August 2014, the Al Qaeda released a video announcing the establishment of a new branch in South Asia, stating that it was meant to revive jihadist activities in a region that was once "part of the land of Muslims, until the infidel enemy occupied it and fragmented and split it."

Later, Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri also recorded a message, ‘assuring’ Muslims in India that they were not forgotten by the Al Qaeda. It is clear that the terror group has ceded substantial ground to IS in their quest to become ideological leaders of the jihadi elements worldwide.

In Middle-East, this loss is apparent and the IS has established itself as the ideological mentor of all Sunni groups. In South Asia, particularly in the Af-Pak region, the Al Qaeda is on a stronger wicket, having established their presence much earlier. However, they are being threatened by the rise of the IS.

This struggle for influence is likely to lead to some significant action in the subcontinent by groups owing allegiance to the Al Qaeda or the IS, even if to gain support from the jihadis in the area.

For India, an area of concern also is large number of expatriate workers in the Middle-East. Even if the IS is not very active in India, its tentacles can be felt if they undertake some action against the Indians there. Around 50 Indian workers are being held by the ISIS in Mosul area.

Islamic State militants embrace in celebration after taking over Tabqa air base near Raqqa, Syria.Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

More such cases cannot be ruled out. There is also fear of recruitment among the Indian Muslim youth working in the Middle-East.

The fear as far as India is concerned is that with ISIS being able to project itself as the ideological mentor of the jihadi movement worldwide and if it is able to generate enough funds because of the illegal oil revenues or through donations from rich patrons in Middle-East, the Islamic militant groups operating in the region may gravitate towards it.

This linkage may be ideological, operational or a combination of both. Some disgruntled commanders within the TTP and the Afghan Taliban have already pledged allegiance to the ISS. Elements in the IM in India are also reported to be trying to establish linkages with the IS.

So far, these attempts seem to have not been very successful but as mentioned earlier, the IS has already woken up to this opportunity.

As far as India is concerned, the danger is the potential of the IS to create mischief rather than its actual capability as of now. However, since the potential for the mischief is massive, the government and the security forces need to be extremely vigilant to guard against any possibility of expansion of IS or Al Qaeda influence in the region.

They also need to remain cognisant of the possibility of a major event to gain attention by either the Al Qaeda or the IS as a result of their struggle to be the ideological mentors of the jihadi elements.

Also read:

'We should not discount the ISIS threat in India'

The article represents the views of Rajiv Kumar, who retired as additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Kumar has experience of dealing with security and intelligence-related matters for nearly 30 years. 

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Rajiv Kumar
Source: ANI