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Decoding the ISIS threat to India

ISIS threat to India

During the annual meet of the Director General of Police and Inspectors General of Police in the arid yet spectacular Runn of Kutch in Gujarat, the Indian government has once again red flagged the growing global concerns on ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, Daesh etc).

Home Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted the fact that influence of ISIS has witnessed an increase in India’s neighbourhood, particularly Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Prior to this, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had stated that India would be willing to participate in anti-ISIS operations if the same were to be conducted under the flag of the United Nations. While India’s External Affairs ministry distanced this stance by Parrikar, saying the minister was only talking about a hypothetical situation, the fact that only a day later US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a gateway UN resolution on talks to end the Syrian crisis was perhaps not so hypothetical, but a months long process by Washington and Moscow that India must have keenly followed via diplomatic channels (a detailed look at India’s stance on Syrian crisis is readable here).

It is safe to say that the threat posed by ISIS today is real and requires due attention as almost all nations in the world stand vulnerable to it. The reasons behind the ‘new’ nature of how ISIS works are witnessed in the manner with which the terror organization functions. As ISIS declared large swathes of territories in Iraq and Syria as part of its ‘Islamic State’ caliphate, the group has managed to create some of the most organized jihadist structures ever seen. How they have done this is a mixture of hierarchical discipline, experience of former Saddam regime Ba’athist generals in ISIS, organized economic traits such as black marketeering of oil, earning from local taxations, extortions from kidnappings and so on. The entire financial operation of ISIS today earns it an estimate $1.2 billion per year, providing teeth like no other terror organization has perhaps experienced before (UN is now moving to halt ISIS financial streams).

Even though ISIS has managed to attract many foreign fighters, mainly from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Europe, there have not been too many known cases as of yet of Indian citizens travelling to fight in Iraq or Syria. While the case of the youths from Kalyan, which included Areeb Majeed who returned and surrendered, remains the most high profile and significant such case, it is also important to note here that very little data is available whether any Indians already residing in various countries in West Asia have joined ISIS.

India’s measures to both understand and counter ISIS both in influence and practicality are still in the blueprint phase. This is not unexpected, as gauging and quantifying the ISIS threat is not easy and has many layers that require different counter-measures. For India, however, ISIS’s biggest threat comes through its effective and planned use of media propaganda through the Internet.

For example, even though the case is still under investigation, the recent arrest of an Indian Oil employee in Jaipur for ‘Islamic State links’ claimed that the man was in possession ISIS’s glossy, well-produced propaganda magazine Dabiq.

Prior to this, one of the most pro-ISIS Twitter accounts over the past few years, known as @ShamiWitness, was found to be run by Indian engineer named Mehdi Masoor Biswas in Bengaluru. Other cases where Indian citizens were stopped from travelling over their intentions to join ISIS had history of online communications with ISIS sympathisers and recruiters.

This is where India needs to increase its vigilance urgently. The case of Biswas being behind the most popular pro-ISIS propaganda handle was not picked up by Indian intelligence agencies, but Channel 4 of Britain did the unmasking of the case. In another case that followed much later, one Salman Mohiuddin was arrested from Hyderabad over his plans to travel to Turkey and eventually make his way to fight for ISIS in Syria. The Americans were also observing for his online pro-ISIS activities, but Mohiuddin, a middle-class educated engineer seemed to have escaped the eyes of Indian intelligence.

ISIS’s strategy of effectively using online propaganda is in today’s world as dangerous as traditional geographical conflict involving states and borders. In fact, the ability to rally support purely based on the idea of a caliphate (not necessarily so much so on sharia or jihad) around the world to some successful effect is worrisome. While India is, by all means, not at any significant direct threat from ISIS, its neighbourhood is providing two case studies of effects worth noting.

Afghanistan: A country with vast pockets of governance vacuums with factionalism between tribes, the Taliban, the state, Kabul is facing the first signs of ISIS footprints. Pictures and videos of alleged ISIS training camps in Afghanistan have surfaced in the recent past, and recent reports also suggest pro-ISIS radio stations have come up in the country’s eastern Nangarhar province. The said station broadcasts in Pashto under the ‘Voice of the Caliphate’ badge. Kabul has said it is looking to trace the station’s roots and shut it down. The political state of Afghanistan is bound by a fragile government, built on a compromise and a military that is being kept afloat by the US in every sense of the word.

Bangladesh: ISIS footprints in Bangladesh have surfaced in a completely different manner than seen in any other place. The targeting murders of secular bloggers in the country over the recent past have come with an accompanying ISIS badge. Blogger Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death in front of his wife in Dhaka earlier this year, was murdered allegedly by an Islamist group called Ansarullah Bangla Team to avenge America’s war on ISIS. Other cases like those of Roy have taken place in the country against secularists, and again often accompanied by ISIS justification. Whether this justification reflects directly to ISIS hierarchy in Iraq and Syria is still up for debate.

Keeping the two above cases in mind, direct ISIS threat to India is an unlikely outcome from its borders with Pakistan, but slightly more likely from Bangladesh albeit in limited capacity. On Pakistan, the country’s own furnished terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network may not allow a rise of ISIS in the region. However, complacency here should also not be preempted. Jihadi fighters often work like any other careerists, they move from faction to faction looking for better positions in hierarchy, more money and more influence. In such moves often ideology is not fundamental, and examples of this can be seen in both ISIS held territories and in Afghanistan.

For India, the immediate jihadi threat remains from its neighbourhood, specifically Pakistan and its state-sponsored terror groups. However, ISIS is a rising, untraditional Islamist force that has taken modern technological routes to propagate its influence much faster than states have been able to install counter-measures. For India at the moment, the real challenge remains in trying to be one step ahead in intelligence. Much of ISIS threat to India can be contained with a robust, effective chain of intelligence gathering and sharing where it does need to learn from other foreign agencies about prevailing threats posed by ISIS within its own borders.

Category: India

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