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Netting Jihadis Online

By Rahul Tripathi

January 9, 2015

Intelligence Agencies Open Their Own Chapters Online To Counter Radicals

When Munawad Salman, 30, an engineer formerly employed at Google's Hyderabad office, was detained at the city's airport in late October last year, the police claimed he was headed for Saudi Arabia. From there, he allegedly had plans to go to Iraq and join the ranks of the jihadist militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Salman, who was later let off, had reportedly studied ISIS propaganda on the internet for months before he firmed up his plans. And that is where the story takes a turn from the usual. Many of those online chat and interactive sessions were with intelligence operatives who were scouring the Net to net people precisely like Salman: young men 'coached' online by propagandists for radical groups. It is the latest counterintelligence programme of Indian intelligence agencies, codenamed 'Operation Chakravyuh'. It's an initiative still in the developing stages but an idea whose time has come.

So what is Operation Chakravyuh? As a member of a counterintelligence agency explained to INDIA TODAY, officers create accounts with assumed identities of Jihadi groups and get on Facebook, Yahoo or other chat platforms to lure youths influenced by online propaganda. Following initial discussions, those interested and intent on carrying out jihad are either taken to a separate chat room or asked to develop one-on -one contact through email.

Salman, said the intelligence official, came on the radar after the agencies started a chat room with a display picture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS chief, and claimed to be affiliates of the Jihadi group, out there to facilitate interested entrants. Once the grain is separated from the chaff, the job for the counterintelligence experts is to ferret out the real identity, verify details, and put the suspects under surveillance.

That is how Salman was caught. And that is how nearly 120 youths have been identified in the last six months-all of them willing to join ISIS, a counterintelligence official said. But unable to take action, agencies have merely put them on watch for now.

While the misuse of Twitter by alleged ISIS sympathisers such as Mehdi Masroor Biswas, the Bangalore-based engineer arrested in December last year, may have opened a can of worms labelled 'online radicalisation' for most people, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has trained its guns on such cases for a while. As the next course, and the logical corollary of the work done by Operation Chakravyuh in monitoring and identifying radicalised youth, the MHA's internal security division has been asked to prepare a national programme where the primary thrust will be to counter pro-jihad propaganda material available on the internet.

The nascent idea was thrashed out in detail during the annual DGPs' conference in Guwahati in November last year, where the Intelligence Bureau (IB) made a detailed presentation on the need for counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation programmes. Police chiefs unanimously agreed on the need to develop greater capability to monitor cyberspace and the significance of building a counter-narrative and propagating it on the internet to dissuade gullible, marginalised youth.

It is not that such attempts were not made earlier. In fact, one shot at developing a tool to monitor online jihad came a cropper after it was largely caught in red tape between the National Technical Research Organisation, the IB and the Research and Analysis Wing-all agencies reporting to the national security adviser (NSA).

So the plan now is to set up centres inside jails, with experts doing psychological analysis and evaluation of indoctrinated radicals, like it is done in many countries, officials said.

The problem for intelligence agencies is there's a very thin line between taking risk and letting a Jihadi grow. "We never know the extent to which persons involved have gone, or are willing to go. So such initiatives (counter and de-radicalisation) may become a tool for investigators in future," says Karnal Singh, a former head of Delhi Police's Special Cell who busted the first module of Indian Mujahideen (IM).

The idea, though, comes with its share of critics. In fact, many within the intelligence agencies, including senior IB officers, contend that such programmes may lead to further alienation among the minorities. Besides, there is no foolproof counter-radicalisation programme, say sceptics, citing the example of Man Horin Monis, the gunman who carried out a siege in a Sydney café in December last year. Monis, a self-radicalised preacher, had undergone one such anti-radicalisation drive in Australia. The programme obviously failed to rid the radical elements in him. What cannot be denied, however, is the easy access to radical thoughts, ideas and preaching available online. "Social media has given them a lot of opportunity to communicate and express their radical views," says Delhi Police Special Commissioner (Special Cell) S.N. Shrivastava.

Tech-savvy Jihadis know how to exploit the internet to the hilt, proxy servers being one of their weapons. "If you close one Twitter account, they will open another," says former IB special director Rajinder Kumar. Tech wizardry apart, intelligence agencies are often at sea even after busting a terror module. With limited research done in this field and lacking material that can counter, say, the al Qaida's propagandist Azan magazine, all they have at their disposal is a psychoanalyst to counsel the suspects. "But these men are highly radicalised," says a National Investigation Agency (NIA) official. "When Yasin Bhatkal (of IM) was caught, we tried to get him counselled but failed."

Sultan Shahin, who runs a website from New Delhi that counters Jihadi propaganda, said his site has been banned in Pakistan for publishing such articles. But there are lessons to be learnt from the experience of other countries where such programmes are being run. "Although de-radicalisation programmes are not a great success, counter-radicalisation can be of help in the Indian context," he says.

As NIA Chief Sharad Kumar puts it, "These youths are easily lured over the internet. And once radicalised, they can be dangerous anywhere-in India or outside. We need to nip them in the bud."