By Brig Anil Gupta
Ever since the rout of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also referred to as Islamic State (IS), a debate has raged in the strategic circles regarding its future. IS not very long ago was the richest and most dreaded global Jihadi terror organisation 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 both America and Russia agreed to the need of defeating the barbaric terror outfit, it gradually started losing all the assets it had captured and many of its fighters began to leave the Caliphate. The maximum exodus took place during the long drawn Battle of Mosul, which lasted almost 300 days, labelled as world’s largest military operation. In March this year, the Caliphate finally collapsed when it lost its last stronghold with the liberation of Baghouz in Eastern Syria. Many of the ISIS fighters returned to their native nations and others redeployed in smaller groups by relocating themselves in different parts of the world thus spanning the wings of the terror group. Northern Afghanistan was one of the most favoured destinations of the foreign fighters escaping from Iraq and Syria. ISIS was defeated but not destroyed.
ISIS soon transformed from a Caliphate into a terror organization with a flat hierarchy, with cells and affiliates dispersed over different lands and acting autonomously but remaining glued to the ISIS ideology. However, the media and social media wing of the ISIS continued to operate unabated and was busy producing large numbers of a new breed of Jihadists, radicalised and motivated through social media, ready to fight wherever they feel their Muslim brothers are under threat, popularly termed as “Lone Wolf” or “Lone Ranger.” 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” and every other localised terror outfit wanted to be associated with it. Certain outfits became the affiliates of ISIS 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 and were known as IS inspired network of trainers, preachers and recruiters. Cadres of some of these outfits were also trained in IED and Bomb making through smart-classes on social media. These outfits planned small-scale terror attacks as well.
While ISIS is on the decline in the core area 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 with its second largest Muslim population in the world has been on the radar screen of the Jihadi terror outfits ever since the launch of Wahhabi-inspired and petro-dollar financed global jihad.
ISIS displayed its interest in India since 2014 but the same was limited to recruiting fighters for its jihad to establish a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. India with an estimated 35 crore internet users, large Muslim population, hostile Muslim neighbours and inherent internal fault lines was considered as an ideal fertile ground for luring Muslim youth through its online propaganda. ISIS did succeed in its mission in India to some extent particularly in its northern, western and southern parts. The same year an ISIS affiliate Islamic State (Khorasan Province), IS(KP) in short was formed with its focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Based initially in FATA area of Pakistan, it subsequently shifted base to Afghanistan. A few Indian Muslim youth were believed to have fled to Afghanistan or middle-east in order to join the ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq, though the number was not large so as to be a cause of concern. It goes to the credit of Indian Muslims that though being the second largest Muslim population in world, India’s share of pro-ISIS individuals is minuscule as compared to their Western counterparts.
The Indian affiliate of the ISIS is a group named as the ‘Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind’ (the army of Caliph) (JKH) that was formed at the instance of Yusuf al-Hindi, who Indian security agencies believe is Shah Armar, a resident of Bhatkal in Karnataka. There are conflicting reports about his being killed in an air raid in Afghanistan. JKH is actually the re-modelled version of the Ansar-ul-Tawhid (AuT). The AuT in turn was formed by radical elements of the Indian Mujahideen (IM). A smaller outfit Ansarul Khalifa Kerala (AKK) is Kerala based and ISJK, is the affiliate of ISIS operating in J&K. Radical Bangladeshi organisation Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) is another affiliate which has some presence in India. Links between radical organisations in Sri Lanka and South India have also been established.
The ISIS modules and cells, though existing, have not been able to emerge as a major threat and are being busted on a regular basis by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). About 100 plus returnees from West Asia also form the potential threat. Radicalised youth is the other potent threat. It has been reported that the mastermind of Sri Lankan blasts, Muslim preacher Zaharan Hashim, has successfully radicalised many Indian youth particularly in South India. One of the arrested youth by NIA has confessed plans to carry out suicide attacks in Kerala.
The overall impact of the ISIS in India has been negligible so far, but there is a concern over potential of this group given a number of cells which have been exposed in the recent past and reports of a number of youth suspected to be affiliated with ISIS. The serial blasts in Sri Lanka have announced the re-emergence of IS with a vengeance.
The formation of a separate province Wilayah Hind (Province of India), post Sri Lanka blasts, by the IS indicates renewed focus towards India. A secular and democratic India is an anathema to the IS ideologues, as is evident from the recent posters circulated in NE India in Bengali, Hindi and English by the newly appointed Emir of JMB. India riven by internal fault lines, bordered by hotbeds of jihadi terrorism and home to numerous extremist groups seem to be the main reason of renewed IS interest. ISIS has also reportedly established contacts with Maoists and Rohingyas. Kashmir also appears to be an area of focus. The ISIS does not have any organizational presence in India. The threat is the potential to carry out attacks through affiliates, cells of indoctrinated youth, returnees from the wars in West Asia and IS-inspired local terror outfits. Thus a review of the ISIS threat and responses is necessary.
ISIS threat to India can manifest in two ways. One is through its physical presence in the region and the other 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) has been a favourite destination of ISIS returnees and 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 the Indian security establishment because Wilayah Khorasan not just threatens Indian interests in Afghanistan but also is a potential source of trouble in Kashmir. Also cells of the IM or JMB or JKIS could carry out terrorist attacks in different parts of the country which would be claimed by the ISIS. Nascent 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 how it leverages technology as the main tool of communication, recruitment, motivation and propaganda. The emphasis is on secure virtual contact rather than personal contact. Rocket Chat, Viber and Discord are the new favourites of ISIS. ISIS has also developed its own Android based secure chat app called ‘Alrawi’.
With the burden of securing the territorial caliphate no more on its head, IS has now resources and time to concentrate on India. Reports indicate that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is already working towards combined attacks by Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), IS, JMB and their other affiliates based in Kashmir, Hyderabad, UP, Kerala, West Bengal and Sri Lanka. A meeting between IS (KP) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) was organised recently by ISI.
Under pressure from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Pakistan for the first time in last 32 years has sealed the 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. 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 the 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 or collectively or through their affiliates. Threat from IS-inspired local terror outfits will further test the effectiveness of our intelligence apparatus. Combating terror is not the responsibility of the security forces alone but every citizen has to contribute by being alert and reporting any suspicious activity to the local police or the security forces. In order to keep the Muslim youth away from the IS propaganda, the government will have to address their grievances including the fear of right wing extremism. The reports of IS acquiring chemical weapons, as highlighted during his address to the 90th Session of the Executive Council (EC) of Organization for 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 has to be fought both ideologically and technologically.
Brig Anil Gupta is a Jammu based political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst.