By Kabir Taneja
July 12, 2018
This paper examines the influence of Islamic State (ISIS) in India, chronicling its rise beginning in the early 2000s to its supposed demise in 2017. It seeks to understand the effects of ISIS’ ideology and brand via India’s neighbouring countries and the people who joined the group (or came close to doing so). The author studied more than 80 cases to cull trends unique to the landscape of terrorism in India, and ponder the peculiar societal and cultural factors that fuel the process of an individual gravitating towards the so-called “caliphate”.
ISIS Influence in A Post-Geography Terror Threat
The ISIS’ conception in the post-Iraq war of 2003, its growth in the succeeding many years and, finally, its supposed ‘demise’ a couple of years ago—resulting in the geographical end of the so-called Islamic State—is a narrative that has been repeated both by governments and independent analysts alike over the past few months. This author has himself written a paper, ‘The Fall of ISIS and its Implications for South Asia’, that studied the future trajectory of ISIS and the form in which it will now strive.[i] As the year 2018 opened, the fight against ISIS—both military and in the realm of narratives—had taken the backseat in mainstream and regional media. However, questions remain on not only the finality of the so-called ‘defeat’ of the Islamic State but the fate of the ideology itself. After all, such ideology was successfully disseminated not only in Iraq and Syria but also to a global audience via the group’s impressively organised internet outreach.[ii]
Despite the prevailing narrative, there is no consensus amongst those who study ISIS and the Syrian civil war on what the future holds, and whether this celebrated defeat means only a geographical suppression or a larger, ideological breakthrough to break the backbone of the movement. “Beneath this mask, there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask, there is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof,” so says the lead in the American fiction film, ‘V for Vendetta’, based loosely on British anti-establishment revolutionary Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up the British parliament in 1605. The ethos behind this quote, generously provided by American pop-culture, resonates with the basic question over the future of ISIS. Theology plays a critical role within ISIS despite being underappreciated in public discourse as a pivotal reasoning behind the group’s success.
The life of the Islamic State in its post-geography phase will likely be the subject of many case studies, as the group evolves and trains its sights on regions beyond Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it has already garnered some degree of success in this sphere—with ‘lone-wolf’ attacks attributed to IS in Europe, US and other regions—and the coming of ‘ISIS 2.0’ has become an accepted fact amongst scholars and analysts who follow the organisation.[iii] While it is imperative to remember that ISIS works strongly on a psychological level, and is expected to intensify its approach of radicalising potential recruits online, the post-geography era of the group offers a bigger challenge than that which can be defeated by military operations against a semi-defined proto-state. The relapse of the Islamic State into its original form that of an insurgency, is inevitable. Current responses by regional powers, non-state militias and external powers are proving to be nothing more than a Band-Aid over a scrape; what is required, however, is major surgery and rehabilitation.
While Iraq has arguably witnessed a more successful approach to plugging political vacuums in the wake of defeating ISIS in prominent cities such as Mosul and Tikrit, the prevailing situation in Syria was always going to have a polar-opposite outcome. However, the effects of ISIS on global debate, the war on terrorism and how states approach tactical outcomes of both military and political insurgencies and terror groups alike is expected to drastically change based on the strategies employed—and now institutionalised—by ISIS.
India is often highlighted as an ‘anomaly’ as far as the influence of ISIS is concerned. As a country with the world’s third largest Muslim population (after Indonesia and Pakistan), the number of ISIS cases that have been, or are currently being probed by investigative agencies remains just above 100, with liberal estimates hovering around the 200 to 300 range. Even with the higher estimates, the numbers are lower than most European countries that have seen foreign fighters move towards Iraq and Syria in sizeable numbers. The number of Indians who managed to travel to either West Asia or Afghanistan to answer ISIS’ call between 2014 and 2016 is around 10 to 15. [iv]
These trends often raise the question of whether ISIS failed in India. How deep were its organised attempts to develop a presence in India, and what threat perceptions persist from a geographically depleted organisation? This paper dissects the Indian cases and picks out patterns about what have led individuals to join the so-called Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’. The research relies predominantly on data provided by government and state investigation agencies, due to a lack of other, independently verifiable sources.
The Initial Pro-ISIS Cases in India
During the period of 2012-2013, New Delhi under the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was proactive in the international multilateral efforts to develop a global consensus in ending the hostilities in an increasingly ravaging Syrian civil war. In 2014, then Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid addressed the Geneva-II meeting, reiterating India’s stance on a peacefully negotiated end to the war and New Delhi’s commitment to humanitarian efforts in Syria. “India believes that societies cannot be re-ordered from outside and that people in all countries have the right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future,” the minister said.[v] “In line with this, India supports an all-inclusive Syrian led process to chart out the future of Syria, its political structures and leadership. There can be no military solution to the crisis. India's stand on various resolutions in the Security Council and General Assembly has been in support of efforts to bring about an end to violence by all parties. India has important stakes in the Syrian conflict. It shares deep historical and civilisational bonds with the wider West Asia and the Gulf region. We have substantial interests in the fields of trade and investment, diaspora, remittances, energy and security. Any spillover from the Syrian conflict has the potential of impacting negatively on our larger interests.” Since then, the Geneva talks have served as a monument to the utter failure of the United Nations and the international community to bring an end to the civil strife. [vi]
During the same year of India’s participation in Geneva, the first few cases of Indians getting involved in pro-ISIS activities started to come to light. From 2011 till 2013—the timeframe during which the erstwhile Al Qaeda hierarchy in Iraq re-branded as ‘ISIS’—Indian approach towards the crisis was largely based around the paradigm that it was contained within the Middle East region. This gave Indian security agencies a false sense of security on the precise nature of the group and how it planned to expedite its own strategies, which from the beginning included establishing a geographic foothold in Iraq and Syria followed by global outreach methods. To be fair, however, New Delhi’s blind-spot to the development of the so-called Islamic State was not unique; the group’s rapid advances both geographically and using the internet as its second battlefront took the entire world by surprise.
The first two prominent cases of Indians being involved in pro-ISIS activities occurred in Singapore and the town of Kalyan in Maharashtra. Two childhood friends, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, a manager at a grocery store in Singapore and Gul Muhamed Maracachi Maraicar, a software engineer in a multinational firm became part of a plot to join ISIS and travel to Syria. Both Ali and Maraicar, born and brought up in Cuddalor, Tamil Nadu, witnessed the Syrian crisis unfold from 7,600 km away and were moved by the plight of the Muslims suffering in the conflict. This being the earliest in the timeline of the rise of ISIS as a global phenomenon, Maraicar and Haja’s radicalisation seems to have been rooted in witnessing images and consuming news via mainstream media before attempting on their own to access ISIS propaganda online. The plan was built by the two between 2011 and 2014, with trips to India in the middle to consult family members and plan their move to Syria. In this duo, it was Gul with a steady job and the financial resources, who prodded Haja to carry out the travel. In 2013, Haja visited Cuddalor to seek blessings from his parents and prepare his family to travel with him. Despite his parents’ attempts to dissuade him, Haja left for Syria along with his family. (There is little clarity on the route they had taken, but it was likely via Turkey which was the preferred transit for most foreign fighters.)[vii] Haja would later be featured in ISIS propaganda videos in 2016.[viii]
Meanwhile, Singapore authorities arrested Maraicar and deported him back to India. During investigations, Maraicar had revealed that both him and Haja had planned to expand recruitment for ISIS and had looked into tapping into educational institutions in Chennai. The fallout of Maraicar and Haja’s plans were visible even in 2017, four years after the latter left Indian borders. In September 2017, at least five individuals were arrested in Tamil Nadu, with one of them, Ansar Meeran, being found as the financier behind Haja travelling to Syria with his family. [ix] Meeran and associates worked towards furthering the agenda, arguably failing to do so in the four years they remained at large.
The other, popular pro-ISIS case to emanate from India was of the four young men who left their homes in Kalyan, Maharashtra in 2014 and successfully made it to Syria. Amongst the four was Areeb Majid, son of an Unani doctor, whose radicalisation story predated the formulation of ISIS in all its forms. The others who fled with Majid were Fahad Tanveer Shaikh, Aman Naeem Tandel and Shaheem Tanki. All four of the Kalyan men faced different fates as members of the so-called Islamic State. Majid was the only one of the four who eventually surrendered and was brought back to India from Turkey, tried and jailed; Tandel, Shaikh and Tanki were reported killed over the period 2014 – 2017.
ISIS in South Asia: Ideology vs Ground Reality
On 27 February 2018, the US State Department announced a host of ISIS ‘affiliates’ to be designated as terror organisations.[x] From South Asia, Bangladesh for the first time appeared in an official communique of this kind. The group is called ‘ISIS-Bangladesh’, which by accounts will represent an umbrella to include all factions of the Neo-Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (NJMB) and smaller groups if further terror acts are committed in allegiance to ISIS. [xi]
The neo-JMB in Bangladesh would not have had much difficulty as far as recruitment goes, with there being enough interest in Bangladesh to market the Islamic State’s ideology. In 2016, one Mohammed Mosiuddin (alias Abu Musa), a 26-year-old grocer from West Bengal’s Burdwan region was arrested for allegedly planning lone-wolf attacks in the name of ISIS, including those against Western targets.
Mosiuddin took to online platforms in 2014 to get in touch with more like-minded people, and scope out the activities of pro-ISIS supporters in the region. During this search, he came in contact with many such individuals, including Shafi Armar (alias Yusuf al-Hindi, founder and self-appointed Emir of Junud-Al Khalifa-e-Hind), also known to be a resident of West Bengal and a known former Indian Mujahideen operative seen as the Islamic State’s predominant ‘recruiter’ for India. However, during this period, Mosiuddin also came in contact with Abu Sulaiman, a former member of the Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen (JMB). Initial communications took place via Facebook and then switched to various other platforms such as Nimbuzz, Surespot and Trillian. The communications between Mosiuddin, Sulaiman and others took form fast, albeit in an unorganised and ad-hoc manner. In 2015, the JMB joined these conversations while Mosiuddin attempted to get financing and help in obtaining a passport from Armar in order to plan his travel to Syria. Meanwhile, Sulaiman paid Mosiuddin a visit from Bangladesh to decide the course of action they wanted to initiate for setting up ISIS’ presence in the region. It is unclear how Sulaiman arrived in India (though taking conventional modes of transport such as air or road would have been most likely).
People like Armar are guided by ISIS to become effective recruiters, giving them access and information on how to convince probable candidates into joining their brand. While the differences between the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS are mostly glaring, some strategies are common between the two, including the weaponisation of the internet via selective militarisation of the Quran. Jesse Morton, who was a former online recruiter for Al Qaeda and went by the name Yonus Abdullah Mohamed, has explained the three-point agenda that is used (at least by him and the radicals he was in contact with) to pull potential recruits towards their ideology. The entry point, as explained by Morton and one that occurs repeatedly in examples of radicalisation of individuals across the board—is personal grievance, a dent in a person’s psyche that can be nurtured in a negative manner and used to contribute to a broader cause.[xii]
This strategy is divided into three silos. The first is Tawheed al-Haakimiyyah, or the promotion of undisputed idea that Allah and his judgement and legislation (Sharia law) is supreme. Second, Kufr bin Takhud or the complete rejection of ‘false gods’, which includes idols, elected democracy, parents if they stop you from joining the greater cause, and so on. Lastly, Al-Wallah-Al-Burrah, complete loyalty to Muslims and only Muslims. These tenets to radicalisation, mixed with global events such as the Syrian civil war—images of which are livestreamed on television and even more easily available online—offer a potent concoction for recruiters. The flip side of the coin is that the targeted individual also needs to have more than just the sense of social, cultural or political disillusionment. The sense of ‘purpose’ and, perhaps surprisingly, boredom and the lack of achievements and purposelessness are also highlighted as personal traits that jihadist recruiters pry on.
Between Mosiuddin and Sulaiman, the former also tried to recruit two others—Saddam Hossein, a 25-year-old unemployed youth and Shaikh Abbasuddin, a 22-year-old daily wage plumber. Mosiuddin demanded complete loyalty to him of both the men, and set out to build an agenda. This included, in consultations with Sulaiman, recce trips to New Delhi and Srinagar in 2015 via train, where failed attempts were made to rile up protests with ISIS flags, video clips on YouTube and trying to make space for the Islamic State’s ideology in the valley. Mosiuddin’s JMB-sponsored trips pushed him to pursue his initial ideas further, to fight in Syrian soil. It never came to fruition due to financial problems and Armar’s inability to provide them with monetary support, even via JMB, who described Sulaiman as an ISIS cadre.[xiii]
On the other geographic side is Afghanistan: while posing much less of a threat to India directly, it has become a battleground as far as ISIS goes and is home to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Both the JMB and ISKP’s relations with ISIS are distinctive enough for the mandate for them to have a separate dedicated study. However, Afghanistan already has the second largest pro-ISIS presence outside of Syria and Iraq. This presence has more to do with Afghanistan’s local jihadist ecosystem and domestic and regional political dynamics than a devout allegiance towards the caliphate. Here, many jihadists know of no other way to make a living other than waging a war, and ISKP has taken advantage of this talent pool, as have others. For example, Iran hired hundreds of fighters from the Liwa Fatemiyoun, an Afghan Shiite militia largely funded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and deployed them on the frontlines in Syria. Meanwhile, ISKP largely comprises of former Pashtun fighters of the Taliban displaced by Pakistan’s military operations along its borders with Afghanistan.
Mosiuddin’s example highlights not just an Indian case, but one of the many South Asian and South East Asian examples of pro-ISIS people looking to undertake Hijrat, or the holy trip to Syria to fight in ISIS in the name of God. While the men from Kalyan in Maharashtra were economically more stable, Mosiuddin, a small grocery store owner, had to repeatedly ask Armar for monetary help, not just for his intended travels but to procure small locally manufactured weapons as well, including knives, swords and machetes (tools often seen being used for grotesque violence in ISIS propaganda videos). The important aspect in this case, however, was the seemingly easy way that Mosiuddin and Sulaiman were able to collaborate across the border. These recent worries of Islamist radicalisation in Bangladesh on the back of the Rohingya crisis in neighbouring Myanmar also provoked a barrage of reports—mostly unsubstantiated and uncorroborated—detailing the supposedly rising influence of ISIS amongst the refugees, in refugee camps and in the general Rohingya population. The more direct threat of radicalisation remains with the tapping of local organisations such as the N-JMB by larger global jihadist factions such as Al Qaeda, empowering them economically, ideologically and militarily to use the Islamic State brand and orchestrate jihad. (A comparative case is militant group Abu Sayyaf’s allegiance to ISIS and the impending battle with the state in Marawi, Philippines). The trend of multiple parties claiming attacks to both hijack and confuse narratives is commonly observable in examples from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and even in India’s Jammu & Kashmir.
Mosiuddin’s case highlights an important factor—that a person’s ability to understand and tackle day-to-day life issues also plays a role in their planning abilities to either commit an act of jihad or attempt to travel abroad to join a terror group. Dealing with the system for simple tasks such as obtaining a passport was a failed exercise for Mosiuddin. It remains unclear to what extent Armar was willing to help Mosiuddin. However, it can be safely presumed that the distance and the limited worldliness of Mosiuddin made sure Armar either failed in equipping him or eventually gave up.[xiv]
Despite the number of pro-ISIS cases being relatively negligible, the Indian political and social environment remains conducive for Islamist activities with multiple social and political pressure points. However, there remains a distinction between the Indian cases who bought into the caliphate’s marketable jihad and the historic connotations of what has fuelled Indian jihad—which largely has been the issue of Kashmir.
Mapping Pro-ISIS Cases In India
According to research conducted as part of this paper and the ones preceding this, the number of pro-ISIS cases attributed to both the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the media stand at 112. The process of collecting the data was challenging despite some of it being made publicly available by the NIA. It was difficult to formulate a clear hypothesis on both the outcome of a concentrated effort by either ISIS or pro-ISIS individuals to set up an exclusive India entity, which in turn made it harder to adhere to systematic (or traditional) use of research methodologies.
The mapping of the 112 cases in India threw both interesting data and expected trends. Kerala, the most literate state in India, led the number of pro-ISIS cases with 37 out of 112. The numbers are expected to be higher, however, as per corroboration done for this research, the count that includes cases that could not be fact-checked does not exceed 150. These cases are of those in India, or that began in India. The number of Indians who have or may have joined ISIS or travelled to Syria or Iraq from within West Asia or other foreign points remains a grey area with little to no data available. More than seven million Indians reside in the larger West Asia region, and this lack of data is problematic both for mapping trends and in the overall attempt to study ISIS’ influence and alleged footprints in India and its neighbourhood.
It is hardly surprising that Kerala leads the number of cases of radicalisation towards the Islamic State. Despite its literacy rates, as a state, Kerala depends on remittances from the Gulf region for much of its economic well-being, which in turn translates into the Gulf’s political influence as well. Other states such as Maharashtra, Telangana and West Bengal have also witnessed comparatively higher incidence of radicalisation. The seriousness of each case, however, varies—from being a concentrated effort to simply wishful thinking.
There are few commonalities between the cases but they do help construct some patterns that may be of significance in studying counter-terrorism from an Indian perspective. As it is known, radicalisation online promoted by the Islamic State’s well-orchestrated media propaganda arms became the easiest platform to access both for jihadists and potential jihadists. Almost 95 percent of all cases in India started from the online sphere, and not necessarily ended in contact with either ISIS or pro-ISIS recruiters, but with access to the hordes of general propaganda that includes text documents, videos of executions, speeches by prominent clerics, well-produced glossy magazines such as Dabiq (later renamed Rumiya after the town of Dabiq fell away from the caliphate’s control), and other such paraphernalia.[xv]
The most common apparatus for contact and outreach between most cases has been Facebook, which is an anomaly given global trends. The uses of Facebook range from direct messaging, to creating new profiles specifically for pro-ISIS activities using dedicated mobile phones and numbers, to having a relatively free access to both like-minded folks and materials shared by them as the platform itself struggles to curb misuse of its services. One commonality that can be sketched out from the available data is the fact that potential pro-ISIS individuals seem unwilling to work alone. Like any ‘fan club’ that works online for celebrities, the method to rally support for pro-ISIS ideology does not involve specialised tactics as far as most Indian cases go. Other chat programs such as Telegram has become popular as official ISIS channels and pro-ISIS activities started to use the Russia-based software more often due to its higher encryption levels that make it harder for governments to break into it and orchestrate surveillance against its users. Initially, non-encryption of the popular messaging app WhatsApp (owned by Facebook as of 2014) was one of the reasons pro-ISIS figures did not use the service. Absent empirical studies, an argument can be made that this allowed India’s nearly 200 million WhatsApp users a deterrent via the lack of a privacy option that was fast becoming common amongst other providers. [xvi]
The need to work in a group rather than alone in trying to plan attacks locally or attempting to travel to Syria has both commonalities and anomalies to how potential ISIS recruits behave. Europe has seen what has come to be known as ‘lone-wolf’ attacks, where a radicalised individual commits an act of terror in the name of the Islamic State, using daily items such as knives for stabbings or a vehicle to mow down pedestrians on busy city streets.
The concept of lone-wolf attacks was discussed by people such as Mosiuddin. However, it did not materialise in any of the cases studied for this paper. Before delving further into this aspect of Islamic State’s effect on people being radicalised towards jihad, it is imperative to clarify what a lone-wolf attack is and how it is identified. Clark McCauley and Sofia Moskalenko in their research have theorised two schools of thought, illustrated via the top-down pyramid approach—one to decipher Radicalization of Opinion (Figure 1) and the other, Radicalization of Action xvii]
Researcher Lewis W Dickson recognises the fact that the process of understanding terrorism conducted by solitary persons—and how they moved from harbouring opinions on a matter to conducting an act of violence—is a transition that may not have any systemic variables.[xviii] Often, definitions of lone-wolf attacks, such as one formulated by Ramon Spaaji, highlight the fact that the attackers do not belong to organised terror networks and the person operates only on the behalf of themselves.[xix]
Despite the fact that most researchers have been unable to come to any concrete framework on how to define a ‘lone-wolf’ attacker, the lack of such incidents in the name of the Islamic State in India can indeed be seen as an anomaly. While not many detailed sociological or cultural research exists to quantify this from an Indian point of view, the fact is that most cases in India mostly involve groups of people.
At the beginning of this research it seemed that the ‘only-groups’ argument could either be common to Indian cases due to socio-cultural factors or other unknown reasons. Yet, similar trends were observed in a Canadian study released by the country’s Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).[xx] The output analysed Canadian cases over a three-year period to outline select findings, specifically looking into what pushed the people who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS from “talkers” to “walkers”, and what the factors were that bridged the process between thought and action.
The CSIS study found that the tendency for younger people to work in groups and not alone is one that was commonly observed. This hews to observations made in most Indian cases as well. The following section from the CSIS puts things in perspective from a common experience point of view between India and Canada. “The Service’s analysis found that young adults (under the age of 21) and minors mobilize more quickly than adults. The mobilization process for youth, especially young travelers, is a relatively minimalistic endeavour. In extreme cases, it requires nothing but a passport, plane ticket and cover story for the travel. Young adults and minors have fewer obstacles to overcome in their process of mobilization and they also tend to mobilize to violence in groups, which can also help them overcome any existing obstacles by pooling resources and expertise.”
Further, the analysis highlights that group mobilisation is faster, and offers better cover to hide violence indicators. The research also showed that socio-cultural factors such as marriage, relationships, and others play an important role in mobilisation patterns, specifically for women, who rarely move about on their own, given cultural norms.[xxi]
The pattern of moving in groups from an Indian perspective also has similar points of experience as those seen by Canada. The age demography studied by CSIS and the median age in the Indian cases are comparable, other than the fact that there were hardly any cases in India of minors either travelling or showing signs of pro-ISIS activities. Both the Indian and Canadian experiences are distinct from those of European nations. For example, the Paris attack in November 2015 was a concerted effort between a group of young men residing in Brussels, Belgium, led by 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who is a Belgium-born French national of Moroccan descent.[xxii] While the attack was effective, it was also one of the less common types of violence committed in the name of ISIS in that country. The terror strike claimed 130 lives, and symptomatically, was much different than the debated fear of lone-wolf attacks in European capitals, specifically as the number of Syrian refugees looking to enter the continent grew significantly during that period. All the attackers knew each other and belonged to the same locality in the Belgian capital’s impoverished and mostly Muslim-populated Molenbeek area. Some of them were childhood friends.
A comparative to the Canadian and European examples is the Indian case of a short-lived, 12-hour-long siege in March 2017 between the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) and terror suspect Saifullah, who was alleged to have links with ISIS and was killed in the operation in UP’s capital Lucknow’s Thakurganj area. This particular case had other political and sociological commonalities as well when compared to other pro-ISIS cases in Western countries.