By Syed Ata Hasnain
May 8, 2019
The suicide terror bombings in Sri Lanka took that country and the entire world by utter surprise. The Islamic State (ISIS) took its time claiming responsibility, but once it did the puzzle started to fall into place. These attacks came at a time when ISIS was considered defeated in the field and vanquished as an entity; from Fallujah to Mosul and then Idlib in Syria, it lost ground but retained its networked state and ability to direct a rump campaign outside the physical precincts of its presumed “caliphate”.
The expected surge in Somalia and Nigeria, where the surrogate Al Shabab and Boko Haram exist, did not emerge. Neither did the efforts to find space in the Philippines in conjunction with the Abu Sayaf group. The Taliban’s hold over Afghanistan’s ungoverned parts is too strong for the ISIS to make successful incursions, as is the hold of disparate radical groups in Pakistan who don’t wish to act as surrogates. Mindful of all this, it is likely that ISIS is looking to break fresh ground in order to remain relevant.
Its network-based presence remains sufficiently threatening to the world, where the vulnerability of minds continues to exist. ISIS therefore is in search of areas where unexpected emergence may help through a sufficiently clandestine setup and where the intelligence networks may yet be weak. Many believe that India has little potential for an ISIS emergence because even in its heyday four years ago, a very small ratio of India’s 180 million Muslims got radicalised enough to take the plunge to travel to the “caliphate” territory.
The presence of experienced Indian intelligence agencies whose track record, especially after 26/11, has largely been without blemish may also be an input into such an assumption. However, the ISIS wish list may include a region or nation with democratic and secular principles of existence with a base of Muslim presence. That immediately enhances India’s vulnerability. The starting point from Sri Lanka, where a small minority of Muslims exists, could be commencement from the fringe. The level of penetration into India has somehow always been questioned. That may no longer be entirely valid.
While the Tamil Nadu-based Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) may be in strict denial of any linkage to the National Thowheed Jamath, that was allegedly responsible for the Sri Lanka carnage, there can be no denial about the fact that extremist radical ideology of the ISIS type has been spreading around the world through the Internet and by word of mouth influence of unmonitored returnees, not necessarily only from the ISIS badlands. Investigations in Sri Lanka are throwing up undiscovered networks involved with word of mouth influence, although admittedly the ISIS linkage has not fully been established despite the claims made.
If ISIS has been scouting for other potential locations to showcase its relevance, there can be enough locations all over India as the spread of Muslims is not restricted to any one state. Merely the presence of Muslims is not an invitation for terrorism to establish root; such belief is just as bad as labelling all Muslims as potential terrorists. Vilifying any one segment of Muslims too is counter-productive. Radicals are those who believe in the right of existence of only their ideology and sanction the use of violence to convert all others to their belief.
This is best illustrated by a captured Pakistani suicide bomber, interviewed on Geo TV, who was questioned on why he believed he was doing something for Islam when all the people killed by his potential act were also fellow Muslims. His answer sums it in the best way. He stated that none of the people who would be killed were actually Muslims because true Muslims were only those who thought and followed the faith the way he and his colleagues did.
That is an actual hardcore radical of the ISIS variety which the world is battling. There are enough Muslims who are battling them too, but there are also enough confused Muslims around the world who incorrectly think that the ISIS “caliphate” is a true caliphate, and that they are duty-bound to support it and fight for it.
Many think that India has escaped the wrath of ISIS due to the inherent strength of our plurality. While the safeguards due to plurality are in place and Indian intelligence agencies have largely marginalised radical groups set up by transnational crime syndicates and many by Pakistan, India is not out of the woods. Nothing signifies that more than the events in Sri Lanka. Indian Muslims are actually different. They are among the few who have had an opportunity to rub shoulders and share lunches with people of every faith. They participate in different religious festivals. There are cities where Hindus and Muslims sit together to decide the routes and timings of processions on days when their festivals clash; such inter-faith bonhomie can rarely be seen anywhere in the world.
Yet with all that, there are maverick elements on both sides who cannot rest in peace or promote the obvious strength of their nation. An organisation such as ISIS thrives on the divisiveness created by both these segments by promoting mutual fears. The politics of divisiveness will always exist in the strongest of societies, especially in open democracies. Morals can never be dictated, they have to be perceived and to expect a hundred per cent of that is utopian. There will always be a threshold dictated by international trends. Strong societies overcome that with hiccups, just as India is currently experiencing. On one hand Pakistan’s strategy works towards promoting that divisiveness in India and then there is the phenomenon of an organisation such as ISIS. Their interests are quite different, but the methodology may actually be the same.
We cannot claim India has firewalled itself against these efforts. There will be elements within who will be influenced by extraneous propaganda, made so much easier today by the existence of the social media. Fake messages and hate messages will continue to rule the ether waves and somewhere they will impact, just as it has happened in Sri Lanka. We have many more returnees from the Gulf than Sri Lanka has. Each one of them cannot be monitored effectively. Thus, sleeper cells do exist to rear their ugly head at opportune moments. We have seen it happen in Bangladesh, and we have now experienced it in Sri Lanka.
What is required is not clichéd advice but effective monitoring. The intelligence agencies have their job cut out for them. The poll rhetoric has created divisiveness and vote banks are obvious, but this cannot be allowed to convert into threats against India’s internal security. The clergy bears a greater responsibility towards the correct interpretation of the faith and there are enough sane members of it and institutions in India who can play a positive role to offset the mischief that both Pakistan and organisations such as ISIS have in mind.
Most important, India’s Muslims need leaders of substance who can guide, lead and advise. The levels of ignorance within the community are extremely high, making it vulnerable to propaganda. Considering the fact that educationally well-qualified people too are seen to be vulnerable, it will need correction from within the community. That can happen only if the absolutely uncalled-for vilification of the community on the basis of unnecessary labelling is also effectively curtailed.
Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.