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Playing the ‘Oppression’ Card: How Islamic State Is Radicalising Youth in India

By Rezaul H Laskar

May 3, 2017

Within hours of singer Sonu Nigam triggering a controversy with his tweets about the ‘Azaan’, the Muslim call to prayer, chat groups on the Telegram instant messaging service frequented by Islamic State members and sympathisers from India lit up with conversations on the incident.

Screengrabs of the singer’s tweets and media coverage of the row over his remarks were widely shared among the members, mostly from India and neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh.

Islamic State supporters on such groups appear to keep a close watch on incidents across India, especially Jammu and Kashmir that can be used to attract more sympathisers to the terror group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Other incidents that were widely tracked and shared on the chat groups in recent weeks and sometimes cited as examples of the government’s alleged oppression of minorities included:

• The arrest of three suspected Islamic State operatives by Uttar Pradesh Police during a sweep spanning several states on April 20

• The seven-year jail term given by a special court in Delhi to two young men from Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra for their links with Islamic State on April 21

• The viral video that showed the army using a Kashmiri man tied to the front of a jeep as a human shield against stone-pelters

• The month-long suspension of 22 social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, in Jammu and Kashmir on April 26

One active Islamic State supporter from India posted: “Keep Kashmir in your (prayers), oppression is really intense! Youngsters are being hit with sticks on their faces and being killed by the (polytheist) Indian forces.”

A majority of posts on chat groups frequented by South Asian supporters of the Islamic State are devoted to sharing the group’s Jihadi propaganda – glossy images and videos of fighters firing guns and carrying out attacks in Syria and Iraq – or discussions on Quranic verses and Islamic concepts (or the Islamic State’s interpretation of these matters to suit its ends).

But the number of posts referring to developments in India that can be used to incite and radicalise impressionable youngsters or to attract more sympathisers and supporters has been growing recently, according to security and intelligence officials who track online Jihadi activity.

“More than any other group, the Islamic State has used online forums and chat groups to spread its message through its magazines in various languages, videos and images. It’s a low cost way of ensuring its message reaches the maximum number of people,” said one security official on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue who has closely tracked the online activity of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters, said such chat groups were like a “home” for disaffected and radicalised youngsters attracted to the terror group.

“Online, in talking with like-minded individuals from all over the world, they get a deep sense of belonging and sense of brotherhood. So, it’s not so much that Islamic State is using these environments to radicalise and recruit, although that happens, it’s that these individuals find a ‘home’ in these environments and it’s hard to break away from that bond with others, even if it’s only online,” Amarasingam told Hindustan Times.

The online forums and chat groups shouldn’t be seen only as “passive environments where individuals consume jihadist propaganda and become radicalised”, he said.

“They are producing their own content, sharing content, translating content, having in depth debates and conversations with fellow supporters. These environments become deeply important for these youth who, in their real life, may feel out of place or discriminated against,” he added.

Though Amarasingam believes fighters from South Asia are less active online than their Western counterparts, a lot of Islamic State supporters from India and Bangladesh are active in spreading jihadist content.

“It seems they try very hard to bring Jihadism in South Asia to the attention of others who are mostly obsessed with events in the Middle East. So, you will often see posts about Kashmir and so on. The other problem is that it is often hard to tell where any particular individual is from, judging strictly by online content,” he said.

Authorities in India have been working hard to gain access to accounts and groups operated by Jihadis on services such as Telegram but have run into difficulties because of free speech issues and the fact that most of these services are based in the West, outside the jurisdiction of domestic laws. Often, when a chat group frequented by jihadis is shut down, it is replaced by one or more similar groups and accounts.

Amarasingam said, “I think there’s been some reporting that applications like Telegram are already compromised by a variety of intelligence agencies. I’m not sure how true this is, but I think it’s definitely a challenge for intelligence agencies to keep track of all the channels, all the groups, and all the different arenas these youth are meeting and exchanging ideas.

“You need people who are presumably going undercover on these platforms and getting involved in the conversations, gaining trust with others, and so on.”