Operatives of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are gaining ground on three flanks of India. On the eastern side, its activities are mainly in Bangladesh and Assam. It also has influence in more than a dozen states within the country. On the west, Pakistan, as expected, is sheltering the dreaded outfit.
In particular, Bangladesh is seeing jihadist trouble increase. This year alone, four secular bloggers, both Hindu and Muslim, were killed: Niloy Chatterjee on 6 August in Dhaka, Ananta Bijoy Das on 12 May in Sylhet, Washiqur Rahman Babu in Dhaka on 30 March, and Avijit Roy in Dhaka on 26 February. Their killings have been claimed by Ansarullah Bangla Team (ATB). The first high-profile killing was of Ahmed Rajib Haider on 15 February 2013 in Dhaka. It seems it was carried out by an offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, which later evolved into ATB after establishing a relationship with Al-Qaeda. At least one terror training camp of Bangladeshi nationals in Afghanistan was noticed in the recent past. There were attempts on the lives of other bloggers. While blogs written by Ahmed Rajib Haider and other secular bloggers led to the Shahbag protests in February 2013 demanding capital punishment for the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders convicted of war crimes in the 1971 war, counter- protests were led by Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and other Islamist groups such as Hefajat-e-Islam (‘Protection of Islam’), leading to nearly 50 deaths in May 2013. Islamists groups can organise quickly. Hefajat-e-Islam, a coalition of a dozen Islamist groups supported by 25,000 madrassas in Bangladesh, did not exist before 2010. Its rise, the conviction of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for war crimes and Al-Qaeda’s designs on the region came after that.
The ISIS has also begun targeting foreign nationals in Bangladesh. This is a distinct shift from their previous target- killing of bloggers. On 28 September, ISIS issued a statement claiming responsibility for killing Italian national Cesare Tavella in Dhaka. Translated from Arabic by the Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor of the Middle East Media Research Institute, it warned that people from ‘the Crusaders’ alliance’ would not be safe in Muslim countries. Tavella was working in Bangladesh for the Netherlands-based NGO called ICCO Cooperation. His murder is ISIS’s first terror attack in Bangladesh. On 3 October, ISIS released another statement in Arabic claiming responsibility for killing Kunio Hoshi, a Japanese national at Mahiganj in Rangpur district, 300 km from Dhaka.
These statements were issued via Twitter within hours of the killings. Both Al-Qaeda and ISIS have stepped up operations in Bangladesh. Sometime around 2009, Al-Qaeda’s central leadership had begun appointing Pakistani nationals to its top organisational posts in Pakistan. Ustad Ahmad Farooq, killed since by a US drone strike, was the first Pakistani to be appointed to a senior position in Al- Qaeda as head of its media and preaching department for Pakistan.
In a statement dated 30 September 2013, Ustad Farooq mentioned the issue of Muslim minorities in Thailand, Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka, and urged Islamic clerics in Bangladesh ‘to step forward and help the oppressed Muslims in your neighbourhood’. Outlining Al- Qaeda’s look-east policy, he also stated: ‘I warn the Indian government that after Kashmir, Gujarat… you may add Assam to the long list of your evil deeds.’ While Al- Qaeda had once failed to get a toehold in India, it is beginning to attract Assamese youths. This should not surprise us, because Assam and nearby Myanmar have witnessed atrocities against Muslims.
On 29 September, Khagen Sarma, director general of police in Assam, told the press that ISIS is attracting Assamese Muslims: “A lot of interest has been generated in Assam in the ISIS. Hits [for] the internet photos of ISIS are very high in Assam.” Reminded by journalists that this could be due to curiosity, the state’s top police officer responded: “Many people have visited the ISIS websites through the internet and the hits recorded by these websites indicate that it is more than curiosity. It is on the higher side like in Jammu & Kashmir or Andhra Pradesh.” He also noted that the Assam Police have arrested 24 members of Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a jihadist group whose members moved to India after a crackdown on it by the secular government of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The radicalisation of Indian youths may not be top-down. Self-motivation is the main driver. On 1 September, a media report noted that Muslim youngsters in small towns follow ISIS through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google. Citing statistics from an intelligence agency’s survey, journalist Bharti Jain wrote: ‘The largest volume of internet traffic related to ISIS is being generated not from urban, IT-savvy centres like Bengaluru and Hyderabad but mofussil towns... Mumbai is the only metropolis among the top six Indian cities/towns reporting online interest in ISIS, ranking fifth after Srinagar, Guwahati, Chinchwad (a suburb of Pune) and Howrah. Unnao near Kanpur… occupies the sixth position.’
On 17 August, it emerged that Alok Sinha, the divisional commissioner of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, wrote to the police chiefs in the six districts of Meerut, Bulandshahr, Baghpat, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Hapur and Ghaziabad, advising them to keep an eye on students from the Gulf countries and Afghanistan who are studying at different colleges in the region and look for ‘newly rich’ students whose spending was beyond what their families could afford. Sinha also noted that the ISIS ‘is recruiting educated young blood who are getting involved into anti- national activities through internet. In rural areas, the young generation easily gets involved into such activities due to religious frenzy.’ On 1 August, a Home Ministry meeting indicated that Muslim youths in more than a dozen states could be influenced by ISIS. The meeting discussed ways of dealing with this self-radicalisation as well as attempts by jihadist groups to recruit Indian youths.
Media reports suggest that pro-ISIS radicalisation is being noticed in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh, among other states. However, two regions around Mumbai and Hyderabad appear to be specially affected. In January this year, Sanjeev Dayal, the then Maharashtra police chief, revealed: “We had this case where this man wanted to go to a school in Bandra [in Mumbai] and do something.” Dayal was speaking about Anis Ansari, who was planning to carry out a lone-wolf attack on American School, which has the children of American and European diplomats as students. Ansari’s Facebook chat with an American jihadi alerted US intelligence agencies. A Muslim journalist from Mumbai, Zuber Khan, was recently detained in New Delhi for pro-ISIS Facebook comments and let off with a warning.
One of the reasons the Arab Spring failed was that a basic framework for liberal democratic ideas did not exist in these countries of the Middle East, where the role of religion remains excessive. By the same token, one of the reasons that ISIS is finding support among Muslims of the Subcontinent is that ideas propagated by it are already present in Muslim communities across the world. For example, on fundamental theological issues such as apostasy (Muslims leaving Islam) and blasphemy (criticism of the historical role of Prophet Muhammad), Islamic scholars across the world hold views similar to those of ISIS. Much before ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed the title of Emir-ul-Momineen (leader of faithful Muslims) on 29 June last year, four Muslim youths from Mumbai had flown as part of a group of Shia pilgrims to Iraq and joined the ISIS there. They did so because ISIS-like ideas are already prevalent in India.
One of the four, Areeb Majeed, was injured in Syria and was brought back to India from Turkey where he was being treated for wounds. It is worrying that a jihadi Twitter account on 30 September released new images of Areeb Majeed with a gun in Syria and several tweets indicating that he had developed a mission for India. One of the tweets reads: ‘Areeb Majeed decided to go back to India and perform a martyrdom operation on police headquarters [in Mumbai]’. Another claims that he received a phone call in Syria from his sister that she was abused by the police and so decided to return. If true, it is worrisome.
It is known to intelligence agencies that at least seven Indians are currently with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while six have died fighting there. But these agencies cannot be expected to know everything. Areeb Majeed disclosed that he saw at least 13 Indians at an ISIS training camp in Syria, though many may have been expatriate Indians. While young men from Mumbai and Hyderabad have tried to join the jihad, NRIs from Australia, Singapore, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Oman, UAE, and other countries have also made the journey.
On 11 September, Indian officials arrested 38-year-old Afsha Jabeen, aka Nicky Joseph, as she landed at Hyderabad airport, deported by the UAE for pro-ISIS activities. The mother of three daughters, she is accused of recruiting, among others, Salman Mohiuddin, who was arrested this year. It also came to light this year that a journalist from Kerala had joined ISIS. On 15 September, four Keralite men deported by the UAE were detained as they arrived at the Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram airports. The most high-profile arrest was last December in Bengaluru of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who used the Twitter handle @ShamiWitness for pro-ISIS activities.
Nobody is sure of the numbers involved, but they the trend is clear. Not all would-be jihadis are headed for Syria, but the Government cannot afford to let its guard down. Jammu & Kashmir is a special case. Journalist Bashaarat Masood noted in a report on 26 July that in the first half of this year, 33 youths had joined militancy in the Valley, though not necessarily the ISIS, bringing the estimate of active militants to 142, of whom 54 were foreigners (mainly from Pakistan). While youths in J&K have waved ISIS flags in recent months, this is probably a form of political protest. Radicalisation, however, cannot be ruled out. So the Centre must not be complacent. So far, jihadism in J&K had been backed mainly by the Pakistani state.
One way to grasp the threat is to understand Pakistan. The jihadist threat to India takes two forms. The first emerges from the Pakistani state and its security agencies, especially the Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI) and its jihadist branches such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. The Taliban in Afghanistan are essentially an arm of the ISI. While Pakistani jihadism in the region is well known, the ISIS has made inroads into Afghanistan over the past year, which could not only further destabilise the country but could also pose a long-term threat to India if some ISIS commanders there switch loyalty to ISI. This possibility is high because ISIS militants there are local Afghans and Pakistanis who have had some relationship with the ISI in the past.
Of all these groups, the LeT- linked Jamaat-ud- Dawa led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed poses a threat of a global nature because its members were seen this year in the camps of Burmese refugees in Indonesia, in Syria and in Gaza, ostensibly offering make-shift homes and food aid. Terror organisations are known to operate under the cover of charity work, the most notable being Hamas, which uses ambulances as cover.
On 26 September, the UN’s Al-Qaeda monitoring team warned in a report that ISIS has made inroads in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, thereby challenging the Taliban’s dominance. The UN report noted: ‘The number of groups and individuals who are openly declaring either loyalty to or sympathy with ISIS continues to grow in a number of provinces in Afghanistan.’ It seems that most ISIS militants in Afghanistan have had a past in the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban and comprise of Afghans, Pakistanis and Uzbeks. As per the UN report, Abdul Rauf Khadem, who has worked with former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, visited Iraq in October 2014 and has since established a group in the provinces of Helmand and Farah.
Other influential ISIS commanders are Hafiz Saeed Khan, the chief of its Khorasan branch, and Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost. Khan was reported killed in a US drone strike in July, but it emerged afterwards that he is alive. Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a former detainee at the Guantánamo Bay, is ISIS’s operational commander. Some jihadist commanders expressing loyalty to ISIS could be working on their own. The worrying part of the UN report is this: about 70 ISIS commanders have arrived from Syria and Iraq to set up a terror organisation in Afghanistan. India will need to watch the Islamic State’s activities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and also the Maldives, and ensure counter-terror cooperation with their governments.
India urgently needs to effect a counter- radicalisation law to deal with this phenomenon. Two, it needs to use FBI- style sting operations to catch extremists before they become serious threats and prosecute them in a court. Unlike illegal ‘encounter’ methods used by the police in some cases, sting operations are within the framework of law. There is no reason that the Indian state should deal softly with self-radicalised Muslim youths.
(Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC)