Terrorism, particularly jihadi terrorism, has since 9/11 taken centre stage in any threat assessment anywhere in the world.
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 Indian 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 jihadi groups, India remained more or less away from their pernicious influence. While there were reports of some Afghans joining hands with jihadi terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir, it was an exception rather than the rule.
Even after the Jammu and Kashmir terrorism scene changed with advent of Pakistani based groups such as LeT or HuM 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 the 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 MILF in Phillipines, JI 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 apart of course from fighting for their “oppressed” people. Al Qaeda of course had right from the very beginning projected itself as a pan Islamic group.
India was no exception to this trend. The Kashmir centric Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba(LeT) and Harkat-ul-Mujahdeen(HuM) 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 global Islamic movement. Harkat ul Mujahideen was signatory to original declaration issued by Al Qaeda against “crusaders”.
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 Al Qaeda.
Unlike in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Pakistan, where AQ found large support from the radicalized 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 Al Qaeda.
Even in Jammu and Kashmir the foreign fighters were only from Pakistan based groups rather than from AQ. However on an ideological plane both the Kashmiri groups as well as IM sought to draw sustenance from Al Qaeda. Some efforts were also made by IM to develop operational ties with AQ , but they were not very successful.
The rise of ISIS initially in Iraq which is now threatening to expand to whole of Middle East has, however, added a new dimension to this problem. 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 ISIS in Iraq and Syria at this point of time has filled this void. The fact that despite decades of existence Al Qaeda was unable to control any territory anywhere while ISIS in its 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 ISIS. Since middle 2014, some ISIS pamphlets and flags have started to appear in parts of India.
Some flags and banners of ISIS were noticed in Jammu & Kashmir in June/July 2014. It was followed in mid July by an ISIS recruitment video online wherein a Canadian ISIS 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 ISIS had started targeting the subcontinent for their recruitment drive.
Some Muslim youth from India have also joined ISIS in Syria. At least four such youth from Mumbai have been identified by the authorities in India. One of them has returned, the other has been reported dead while two others are still in Syria/Iraq.
In December 2014 a Bangalore based executive was arrested by authorities for uploading pro ISIS propoganda materials from his twitter handle. In January this year a youth from Hyderabad was stopped at airport who was leaving for Syria to join ISIS.
Recently, a suspected ISIS operative, an IOC employee, was arrested by Rajsthan Police in Jaipur.
These are stray incidents and as yet do not indicate a large scale penetration of ISIS in India.
However the Government of India is concerned and in last week of February notified ISIS as a banned terrorist organisation under the unlawful Activities ( Prevention) Act, 1967 stating that it is involved in radicalisation and recruitment of the vulnerable youth from various countries, including India. More recently this month itself the Ministry of Home Affairs termed the terror threat being posed by ISIS as a “long-term national security concern.”
Thus, although the extent of activities of ISIS 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 so far the theatre of activities of ISIS has only been in Middle East, 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 ISIS released includes parts of North West India as well as Gujarat as part of province of Khurasan of the “Islamic caliphate”. In January 26, Abu Mohammad Al Adnani, spokesperson for ISIS officially recognized 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 disgruntled TTP and Afghan Taliban commanders to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Though there were many such appeals it was only in January this year that ISIS 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, ISIS has stated that “It would now expand into India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.” It has also mentioned about beef controversy of India and has specifically mentioned the Indian Prime Minister as a right wing Hindu nationalist who is pre[paring his people for a future war against the Muslims.
This action of ISIS showing interest in South Asia seems to have spurred AQ leadership also to try to re-energise their activities in the sub continent. In August 2014, 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 the Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri also recorded a message directly assuring Muslims in India that they were not forgotten by Al Qaeda. It is clear that Al Qaeda has ceded substantial ground to ISIS in their quest to become ideological leaders of the jihadi elements world wide.
In Middlle East this loss is apparent and ISIS has established itself as the ideological mentor of all Sunni groups. In South Asia, particularly in Af-Pak region Al Qaeda is on a stronger wicket having established their presence much earlier. However they are being threatened by rise of ISIS.
This struggle for influence is likely to lead to some significant action in the subcontinent by groups owing allegiance to Al Qaeda or ISIS, 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 Middle East. Even if ISIS is not very active in India, its tentacles can be felt if they undertake some action against Indians there. Already around 50 Indian workers are being held by ISIS in Mosul area.
More such cases cannot be ruled out. There is also fear of recruitment among Indian Muslim youth working in 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 TTP and Afghan Taliban have already pledged allegiance to ISIS. Elements in IM in India are also reported to be trying to establish linkages with ISIS. So far these attempts seem to have not been very successful but as mentioned earlier ISIS has already woken up to this opportunity.
So far as India is concerned, the danger is the potential of ISIS to create mischief rather than its actual capability as of now. However since the potential for mischief is massive, the Government and the security forces need to be extremely vigilant to guard against any possibility of expansion of ISIS or Al Qaeda influence in the region. They also need to remain cognizant of the possibility of a major event to gain attention by either AQ or ISIS as a result of their struggle to be the ideological mentors of the jihadi elements.
Attn: The article represents the views of Mr. Rajiv Kumar, who retired as Additional Secretary in Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Mr. Kumar has experience of dealing with security and intelligence-related matters for nearly thirty years.