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Urban Jihadists: For Them the Ends Justify the Means

By Abdul Basit

January 07, 2017

Traditionally, Jihadism in South Asia has remained associated with militant organisations, such as the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Indian Mujahideen (IM) and Harkatul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B).

These jihadist outfits recruited people from rural and lower socio-economic backgrounds with madrasa education.

Contrary to these perceptions, in the last two years, a new breed of educated jihadists from urban middle and upper middle class has emerged in South Asia. This breed of South Asian jihadists has two nodes of presence: self-radicalised cells and lone-wolf individuals.

For instance, the pro-IS cell in Karachi that targeted members of the Ismaili Shia community in May 2015 and the five-member cell, which carried out the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka in July 2016, were educated militants from rich families.

Similarly, in November 2016, Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe briefed parliament that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims from well-educated and elite families had joined the Islamic State in Syria. Likewise, the wannabe jihadists who have travelled to Syria and Iraq from India come from educated and urban backgrounds.

The path to violent extremism for these jihadists has been triggered by an identity crisis, the quest for a sense of belonging, a struggle for recognition and resentment towards their respective states due to unemployment, corruption, and bad governance. They suffer from double alienation from irresponsive states which have failed them as citizens and societies where a lack of consensus on what constitutes a ‘good Muslim’ pushes them towards extremist discourses to seek answers. This set of grievances fall within the broader parameter of contemporary political Islam and the Salafist narrative.

Traditionally, the jihadist and sectarian organisations in South Asia have been grassroots movements linked to madrasas and mosque networks whose target audience remained poor and lower-income class segments of society. Meanwhile, the educated middle and upper-middle class sections of urban areas have been targeted by evangelical and missionary organisations whose teachings and lectures revolve around contemporary discourses on political Islam. Prior to their entry into violent extremism, these educated militants from urban areas had some exposure to the so-called non-violent extremist narratives.

There are three reasons which account for the emergence of educated and urban militants in South Asia. First, deeper internet penetration and the onset of social media have decreased the distance between local and global developments, accelerated the flow of communication, democratised violence and eroded a state’s monopoly on information. The unregulated cyberspace in South Asia of 480 million users is the second largest in the world. The IS has exploited it to further its ideological narrative. This had a huge impact on the patterns of violent extremism and terrorism.

The IS’s ability to universalise local grievances in its meta-narrative of global jihad and offer putative solution in the revival of the so-called caliphate has resonated with the educated audience of urban areas. Other than addressing individual grievances, such rhetoric also provided them with a stronger sense of belonging and empowerment.

Second, the low threshold of radicalisation and violence because of the IS’s violent and well-publicised tactics has also played a critical role in mobilising South Asia’s educated and urban youth. They may have harboured radical thoughts but did not find Al-Qaeda and its associates’ jihadist platforms attractive. The IS’s radical message provided them with an alternative jihadist platform, coupled the excitement to create a global ‘Sunni Caliphate’ and a spiritual experience to fight for the glory of Islam as its hero-warriors and saviours.

Third, with the changing times and circumstances, social, political and religious movements undergo a generational shift, creating a rift between the old and the new generation. This rift can result in dissension, leading to the creation of splinter factions by the young and rebellious members. The younger generation views the older generation as status quo-oriented, rigid, and resistant to change. Meanwhile, the younger generation tends to be impatient, hungry for quick fixes, and driven by grander ambitions.

Characteristically, this generation of South Asian urban militants is tech and media savvy, overambitious, and – compared to the traditional South Asian jihadists – better aware of the political and religious history from which it cherry-picks. Generally, this generation has Salafi-Takfiri leanings.

Most of the militants of this generation are between 18 and 30 years old and they have gone through a relatively shorter period of radicalisation. While the motivational factors may vary from individual-to-individual and area-to-area, they all seem to be obsessed with ideas of the so-called caliphate, Hijrah and the end-time narratives. It is extreme in its methods, unapologetically brutal and morally consequentialist. For them, the ends justify the means.

In the rapidly changing global and regional environment – especially the reshaping of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East due to civil wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria – the disaffected and disfranchised Muslim youth in South Asia are facing an ideological dilemma. This unique challenge, in addition to operational and traditional law-enforcement responses, requires counter-narrative and counter-ideological responses.

The existing policy frameworks for counterterrorism and extremism will have to be revised in line with the evolving trends and patterns. However, the counter-ideological components within the broader CVE frameworks do not need to borrow foreign concepts. The answers to ideological threats are local and enshrined within the pacifist tradition of Sufi Islam in South Asia.

Sufi Islam promotes communal and sectarian tolerance and preaches peaceful coexistence. It needs to be promoted and strengthened. The concept is indigenous to the South Asian socio-cultural milieu and political environment.


Abdul Basit is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.