Ever since the rout of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, a debate has raged regarding its future. IS, not very long ago, was the richest and most dreaded global jihadi terror organisation. It was in occupation of vast swaths of real estate, oil fields, refineries and mines in Iraq and Syria. It soon thereafter unleashed barbaric terror and genocide of those deemed enemy of their version of Islam. However, after America and Russia agreed to the need of defeating the terror outfit, it gradually started losing all captured assets with many of its fighters leaving the Caliphate.
The maximum exodus took place during the Battle of Mosul, which lasted almost 300 days. It was the world’s largest military operation. In March this year, the Caliphate finally lost its last stronghold with the liberation of Baghouz, Eastern Syria. Many ISIS fighters returned to their homelands. Others redeployed in smaller groups by relocating themselves in different parts of the world. Northern Afghanistan was one of the most favoured destinations of the foreign fighters escaping from Iraq and Syria.
ISIS: From a Caliphate to a Terror Organization
ISIS soon transformed from a Caliphate into a terror organisation with a flat hierarchy. Its cells and affiliates dispersed over different lands, acting autonomously but remaining glued to the ISIS ideology. However, their digital media wing continued to operate unabated. It was producing large numbers of Jihadists, popularly termed “Lone Wolf” or “Lone Ranger”. They were radicalised and motivated through social media, ready to fight wherever they feel their Muslim brothers are under threat.
It also produced a large number of IS-inspired local radical groups in nations where Muslims felt aggrieved. ISIS acquired the image of a “Brand Name” with every other localised terror outfit wanting to be associated with it. Certain outfits became ISIS affiliates after their leadership swore oath of allegiance (Bay’h) to the ISIS supremo Baghdadi, the self-appointed Caliph Ibrahim. Others were happy to operate independently motivated by ISIS ideology; they were known as IS-inspired-network of trainers, preachers and recruiters. Cadres of some outfits also trained in IED and Bomb-making through smart-classes on social media. These outfits planned small-scale terror attacks as well.
A Potential to Spread Presence
While ISIS is on the decline in West Asia, the terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, Bangladesh, parts of South-East Asia and most recently the serial blasts in Sri Lanka highlight the potential of this group which goes beyond physical presence and traditional role to include a range of smaller affiliates and indoctrinates willing to carry forward the mission of the Islamic State. India has been on their radar ever since the launch of Wahhabi-inspired and petrodollar-financed global jihad.
ISIS Mission in India
Although ISIS displayed its interest in India since 2014, it was limited to recruiting fighters in Iraq and Syria. With an estimated 35 crore internet users, large Muslim population, hostile Muslim neighbours and inherent internal fault lines, India appeared as an ideal fertile ground for luring Muslim youth through online propaganda. ISIS succeeded in its mission in India to some extent, particularly in northern, western and southern parts. ISIS-affiliate Islamic State (Khorasan Province), came up in the same year with a focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Based initially in FATA area of Pakistan, it subsequently shifted base to Afghanistan. It was believed that a few Indian Muslim youths had fled to Afghanistan or middle-east to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. However, the number was not large so as to be a cause of concern. It goes to the credit of Indian Muslims accounting for the second-largest Muslim population globally, that India’s share of pro-ISIS individuals is minuscule as compared to their Western counterparts.
A group named ‘Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind’ (JKH) is the Indian affiliate of the ISIS. It was formed at the instance of Yusuf al-Hindi, who Indian security agencies believe is Shah Armar, from Karnataka. The following points are thus noteworthy here –
- JKH is actually the re-modelled version of the Ansar-ul-Tawhid (AuT)
- Radical elements of the Indian Mujahideen (IM) formed The AuT
- Kerala-based Ansarul Khalifa Kerala (AKK) is the affiliate of ISIS operating in J&K
- Radical Bangladeshi organisation Jamaat-ul-MujahideenBangladesh (JMB) is another affiliate which has some presence in India
- Radical organisations in Sri Lanka and South India have also established links
IS Re-emergence with Sri Lanka Blasts
The existing ISIS modules and cells have not been able to emerge as a major threat. National Investigation Agency (NIA) frequently works towards busting these. Over 100 returnees from West Asia and radicalised youths also form a potent threat. The mastermind of Sri Lankan blasts, Zaharan Hashim, has reportedly successfully radicalised many Sothern Indian youths. One of the arrested youths by NIA even confessed plans to carry out suicide attacks in Kerala. The overall impact of ISIS in India has been negligible so far. However, there is a concern over their potential; a number of cells were exposed in the recent past with reports of youths suspected to be ISIS affiliates. The serial blasts in Sri Lanka have announced the re-emergence of IS with a vengeance.
Spreading Wings for Affiliates
The formation of a separate province Wilayah Hind (Province of India), post-Sri Lanka blasts, indicates renewed focus towards India. A secular and democratic India is a bane to IS ideologues. It is evident from the recent poster circulation in NE-India in Bengali, Hindi, and English by the Emir of JMB. India, riven by internal fault lines, bordered by hotbeds of terrorism, and home to numerous extremist groups, seems to be the main reason of renewed IS interest. ISIS has also reportedly established contacts with Maoists and Rohingya, with Kashmir appearing to be an area of focus. The ISIS does not have any organisational presence in India. However, their potential to attack through affiliates, indoctrinated youth, returnees from the wars in West Asia and IS-inspired local terror outfits is a threat. Thus, a review of the ISIS threat and responses is necessary.
ISIS’s threat to India can manifest in two ways –
- Through its physical presence in the region
- Through its virtual presence in the cyber world.
India has virtually been encircled by ISIS through IS (KP) in Af-Pak region, JMB in Bangladesh and its latest foothold in Sri Lanka. IS (KP) is a favourite destination of ISIS returnees; 2000-7000 fighters are estimated to be located in Northern Afghanistan. Though there is large variance in estimates but the huge presence is significant and a cause of concern for India. Wilayah Khorasan not just threatens Indian interests in Afghanistan but also is a potential source of trouble in Kashmir. Also, cells of the IM, JMB or JKIS could carry out terrorist attacks in different parts of the country which would be claimed by the ISIS. Emergent Wilayah Hind may ultimately assume control of all IS operations in the Indian subcontinent.
The second threat relates to exploitation of new-age technology. ISIS has exploited the use of apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, Threema and other communication apps like Skype, Signal, and Trillion etc. In the aftermath of defeat in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is reconfiguring and leveraging technology as the main tool of communication, recruitment, motivation and propaganda. The emphasis is on secure virtual contact rather than personal contact. The new favourites of ISIS are Rocket Chat, Viber and Discord, along with its own Android-based secure chat app called ‘Alrawi’.
With the burden of securing the territorial caliphate no more on its head, IS now has resources and time to concentrate on India. Reports indicate Pakistan’s ISI is working towards combined attacks by al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), IS, JMB and other affiliates based in Kashmir, Hyderabad, UP, Kerala, West Bengal, and Sri Lanka. A meeting between IS (KP) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) was also organised recently by ISI.
A Need for Robust Intelligence Apparatus
Under pressure from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Pakistan, for the first time in 32 years, has sealed offices in POJK of all the 12 Kashmir specific terror groups operating under the banner of United Jihad Council (UJC) led by Syed Sallahudin, HM supremo. It has also jailed many hard-core anti-India terrorist leaders like Makki (brother-in-law of Hafiz Saeed), brother and son of Masood Azhar. It has stopped financial assistance to not only these 12 outfits but Kashmir-based conglomeration of separatists Hurriyat also. This, along with the drive launched by NIA against hawala transactions and terror financing is likely to decrease the tempo of Pak-sponsored proxy war.
However, as mentioned earlier, ISI has already begun patronising global jihadi terror organisations including the IS. Therefore, our intelligence apparatus will have to gear up to meet the challenges of emerging threat from global terror outfits individually/collectively/through their affiliates. Threat from IS-inspired local terror outfits will further test our intelligence apparatus’ effectiveness. Combating terror is not the responsibility of security forces alone but every citizen has to contribute by being alert and reporting any suspicious activity to local police or the security forces.
In order to keep Muslim youth away from the IS propaganda, it is crucial that the government addresses their grievances including the fear of right-wing extremism. Reports of IS acquiring chemical weapons, as highlighted during his address to the 90th Session of the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on March 12, 2019, by Permanent Representative of India, Ambassador Venu Rajamony adds another dimension to the complex threat spectrum. The battle against IS must be both ideological and technological.