By Sreeram Chaulia
10 Aug, 2014
The revelation that four Indian Muslims from Kalyan in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) shakes past assumptions and raises fresh challenges for national security. Belief that extremists among India's Muslims are locally focussed and immune to jihads happening in distant lands are being upended by the magnetic quality of ISIS, which is pulling aggrieved Sunni Muslims from across the world.
According to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), approximately 11,000 foreign fighters from 74 countries are members of hard-line Islamist rebel groups trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. The majority of them come from neighbouring Arab countries, but ISIS has stunned the world by expanding its recruitment pool far beyond West Asia.
Projecting itself as a pure Islamic movement run on Sharia law and reviving the notion of a caliphate that all Muslims must obey over and above their respective nation states, ISIS is stirring political ambitions of Islamists on the same global scale that its predecessor, Al Qaeda, had done in the past two decades. The anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan used to be a big draw in the 1980s, but the Syria-Iraq theatre has now surpassed it in terms of the number nationalities and the sheer volume of 'guest warriors' eager to sacrifice and earn martyrdom.
Until the parents of the four boys from Kalyan reported to the police about their missing wards, it was considered a safe bet that Indian Muslims were not going to be lured by a politicized Sunni-Shia tussle in West Asia. ICSR had labelled India as "the only significant black spot" with no credible evidence of its citizens entangled in the war in Syria. When the Syrian ambassador to India remarked that "Indian fighters" were engaged in jihad against Assad, he was summoned by our foreign ministry and forced to recant. But the Kalyan disclosures as well as disturbing instances of ISIS fan T-shirts displayed by young Indian Muslims in Tamil Nadu and Jammu and Kashmir augur a different counter-terrorism strategy.
Denial is no longer an option for India. Last month's debut speech by ISIS' self declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from the Grand Mosque in Mosul boasted that his caliphate had "gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami [Syrian], Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribi [North African], American, French, German, and Australian", all under one banner to exact revenge on enemies of Islam. India has the world's second largest Muslim population. Even if ISIS converts 0.1% of them to its fold, it would be a numerical windfall. The key for ISIS lies in connecting perceived or experienced injustices felt by purposeless or alienated young Indian Muslims to a bigger global cause of 'liberating' oppressed coreligionists worldwide.
In its heydays, Al Qaeda made this linkage between local problems of Muslims and the quest for universal redemption through violence. Today, ISIS is doing it even better with slick online campaigning. Its promotional jihad videos on You-Tube and Islamist websites are garnering millions of views. To attract foreign Muslims, ISIS has released online testimonials of American and Canadian suicide bombers recorded before they embark on their final missions. ..
The four Indian Muslims who disappeared from home and reappeared in Mosul were carried away by such online rhetoric. They belong to a rising category of online self-radicalized individuals who are 'normal' guys with high educational qualifications (three of the four from Kalyan had engineering degrees). Unlike locally oriented terrorists such as the Indian Mujahideen or the Hizb ul Mujahideen, internet jihadists are not swayed by local clerics, politicians or Pakistani intelligence agencies. They exist in a make-believe universe, browsing the web incessantly for material that confirms their ill-informed premises that Muslims are victims who have to be rescued from infidels by force.