By Hiranmay Karlekar
06 September 2014
The presence of the Islamic State’s influence in India and Al Qaeda’s decision to have an Indian sub-continent wing, should be seen in the context of the bitter falling-out between the two dreaded terror groups
Al Qaeda’s announcement of a new branch, Quaedat al-Jihad, to raise, according to its chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “the flag of jihad, return [to] the Islamic rule, and empowering the Sharia’h of Allah across the Indian subcontinent”, has understandably caused a stir. Reporting to Mullah Omar, and headed by Asim Umar, the announcement of its formation comes not long after the Islamic State, a reincarnation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, aka Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, announced, also on June 29, the change in its moniker and the formation of a Caliphate straddling contiguous areas of Iraq and Syria. It also comes not-so-long after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, designated Caliph and renamed Caliph Ibrahim by the IS on June 29, said in a 20-minute audio that Muslims’ rights were being violated in India, China, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Sham (the Levant), the Philippines, Ahvaz (a city in Iran), Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco.
He asked Muslims worldwide to join the battle and help build an Islamic State in the newly conquered territory under the caliphate. Also, a map purportedly showing the areas that ISIS plans to control in the next five years, has widely appeared online. Covering the Middle East, North Africa and large areas of Asia, it reveals ISIS' ambition to extend into Europe. Spain, which Muslims rule until the late 15th Century, would form part of the caliphate, as would the Balkan states and Eastern Europe, up to and including Austria. It shows India, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar, not by name but a part of a region it calls Khurasan.
Both developments have to be seen in the context of the bitter falling-out between Al Qaeda and the IS, and al-Baghdadi and Zawahiri personally. In fact, Zawahiri had disowned al-Baghdadi after the latter’s refusal to heed his demand that the Islamic State leave Syria. The relations between the two leaders and their organisations had become so bitter that many have interpreted the IS’s announcement of the Caliphate’s formation as a declaration of war against Al Qaeda.
The Jihadi world is set to split in two with the younger combatants gravitating to the IS attracted by its dramatic results and millennial fundamentalist rhetoric and the older ones tending to remain with the Al Qaeda, which, considerably weakened by the death of Osama bin Laden, severe attrition of its leadership through repeated US drone strikes, and diminution of financial support, is clearly hard pressed. The last thing it would want now is the Caliphate’s men spreading their tentacles in India, which it has considered a part of its sphere of activity, even before Osama bin Laden had declared jihad against the country in 1998.
Reports about the IS’s propaganda efforts, mainly through emails and videos, in India, indicates that it has been doing precisely what Al Qaeda would not want it to. One of these, with Hindi, Tamil and Urdu subtitles, posted on Jihadi forums and YouTube, shows a Canadian Jihadi asking other Muslims to join the jihad, besides firing a rocket-propelled grenade and participating in combat before he is killed. Another features the first Friday sermon delivered by the IS Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with flawless Tamil sub-titles. Al Isabah Media Production, which claims on its Twitter account to be the media unit of ‘Ansar ut Tawheed Fi Bilad Al Hind’ (Supporters of Monotheism in the Land of India), says it has posted the videos.
By all indications, Al Qaeda’s planned response to IS’s attempt to steal its thunder in India is resorting to terrorist strikes under an organisation of its own — possibly with the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which is apprehensive about the rise of the IS but is apparently averse to taking it on directly. The result is India having to face competitive unconventional warfare by two of the most vicious extremist outfits in the world. As a first step it needs to identity the contours of the dual threat.
Al-Qaeda’s striking arm will be the terror infrastructure built up over decades by the ISI. That the man behind the IS’s digital campaign is almost certainly Indian Mujahideen’s Sultan Abdul Kadir Armar, suggests that the IM is working for the IS. Reports of its recruiting, on the IS’s behalf, in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Jammu & Kashmir, reinforces this conclusion. The hoisting of the IS’s flags in Srinagar on July 11 and during Eid-ul-Fitr on July 29, and credible reports of about 100 Indians fighting in the IS’s military, indicate that its efforts have not drawn a blank.
The departure of the youth may indicate the beginning of a trend toward extremism which, if it affects a significant section of Muslims India, can have serious consequences. The community can then become a large reservoir of potential recruits to terrorism. Besides, a committed, well-organised and well-equipped terrorist organisation can pose serious problems for the defence forces through sabotage, disruption of supply lines and revelation to the enemy the exact positions of our forces and critical facilities for missile, during a war with Pakistan.
There is no imminent danger of this happening. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are loyal Indians. A number of them in the Armed Forces have readily died for the country displaying outstanding gallantry. Most mainstream Muslim organisations and clergy in India have roundly condemned the IS’s actions and exhortations and savage ways.SM Hameed Chishti, caretaker of Dargah Ajmer Sharif has called them Takfiris out to destroy the pristine image of Islam by razing Iraq’s historically and spiritually significant shrines. Most Sunni leaders, including those from Deoband, have also been harshly critical.
There is, however, no place for complacence. There is a need to hone counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence operations, the most important factors in any unconventional warfare, and improve intelligence collection. This would require an increase in skilled manpower strength of intelligence agencies, an expansion of infrastructural support systems for digital and cyber security and surveillance, and enhancement of the operational capabilities of the police, paramilitary, military special force formations. Simultaneously, coordinated and well-conceived plans, including carefully crafted affirmative action measures, have to be implemented for helping backward sections among the Muslims. Politically-inspired minatory statements and aggressive rhetoric, which alarm and alienate the minorities, will stoke their feelings of insecurity and discrimination and drive them toward extremism.