The insidious spread of ISIL globally seems to have brought it right up to India’s doors. With a hostile Pakistan and a shift in Afghanistan’s strategic ties, are we ready for this new phase in terrorism?
By Col R Hariharan
There are ominous signs that the IS is increasing its ability to destabilize nations across the world. It heralded the holy month of Ramadan with simultaneous terrorist attacks, kill-ing nearly 70 people in Tunisia, Kuwait and France. The attackers were apparently responding to a Ramadan message from an IS spokesman who said: “Muslims, embark and hasten toward jehad. O mujahidin everywhere, rush and go to make Ramadan disasters for the infidels.”
IS attacks continue undeterred by thousands of airstrikes and conventional operations carried out by different armies. Despite drone attacks, battle-front setbacks and loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, the IS continues its march. The recent attacks show its innovative ability to decentralize terrorism through local youth brainwashed by its online propaganda beamed globally. They also indicate that the IS is poised to develop the ability to coordinate operations across nations. In both Tunisia and France, a lone gunman carried out the attack, while in Kuwait, it was a lone suicide bomber who killed 27 Shias in the Imam Sadiq mosque.
Many have researched why youth are attracted to jehadi terror groups. The core reasons are an anti-American mindset, coupled with Sunni sectarianism stoked by the fundamentalist idiom of the Wahabi sect. “Lone wolf” attacks by individuals seem to have become the specialty of IS terror operations. It is perhaps the most cost-effective way to spread terrorist attacks and is ideally suited for Europe and the US. Despite advanced technologies, no nation can keep track of individuals whose jehadi sympathies only show up when they attack.
This can be a dangerous trend in a net-savvy environment like India. With internet access growing rapidly, special technology protocols will have to be devised to weed out and short-list potential converts to jehadi terrorism.
Though for some time now, Muslim youth from India have been making a beeline to Syria via Turkey to join the IS, their numbers have remained small. But there are indications of IS presence in the country: the Madhya Pradesh police busted the first-ever cell affiliated to the IS in Ratlam in April 2015. According to media reports, Imran Khan Muhammad Sharif, leader of the cell, was allegedly recruited online by Yusuf (actual name Muhammad Shafi Armar from Karnataka), leader of Indians fighting with the IS in Syria.
According to the police, Imran Khan, in online chats with Yusuf, sought his help to make explosive devices, procure weapons and select targets for attack. Yusuf asked Imran to record each operation for using it in IS’ online propaganda. Police are said to have recovered some chemicals for making explosive devices.
Imran’s profile, as the son of a government clerk and a college dropout, typifies the average IS recruit the world over—frustrated youth adrift in search of their moment of glory. They are drawn by IS propaganda which glorifies its achievements with gory visuals and stresses that “Jannat” awaits martyrs. It would be useful for security agencies to look for tell-tale signs of indoctrination through close interaction with community leaders. Vulnerable sections should be taken into confidence to spread general awareness of the threat to the whole community from such lone wolves.
What should be a matter of concern is the increasing presence of IS in Afghanistan. The recent attack on Afghanistan parliament is a strong reminder that jehadi terror threat remains undiminished in South Asia.
Meanwhile, most of Europe is in a state of paranoia. This could affect their objective approach to decision-making, not only on jehadi terrorism and national security, but on a whole range of other sensitive national issues relating to Islamic minority, race relations and non-white immigration.
The French experience holds an important lesson for India because it has maintained social harmony despite its heterogeneous mix of people. Though jehadi terrorists have been trying to disrupt it by periodic attacks, the country has not allowed jehadi paranoia to color its war against terror. If it fails, jehadi terrorism will succeed in destabilizing the society by whipping up sectarian and anti-religious confrontation. As the IS comes nearer home, India is likely to be tested more often on this count.
Even as the IS has affiliates all over the world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (also known as “Caliph” Ibrahim), the IS leader, now incapacitated with a back injury, boasts that the “Islamic State is thriving and expanding like any good multi-national with solid quarterlies. We now employ hundreds of thousands of functionaries, agents and operatives, to say nothing of the millions of affiliates to which we have licensed our franchise rights. Only Walmart has grown at a comparable rate in so short a time, and I wouldn’t wish their corporate culture on the Badr Corps”.
Al-Baghdadi’s global tactics to spread the IS brand is what makes it a dangerous threat to global stability, which has been hastened by the West’s strategies for regime changes in Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Actually, the West-sponsored proxy war for regime change of autocratic regimes by arming tribal and sectarian militias and irregulars, including those of Sunni extremism (the IS was one of them), provided many of these groups opportunities to gain access to modern weapons and warfare and establish their control over pockets of influence. The IS perhaps benefitted the most from this strategy to spread its control over a third of Syria and Iraq as well as parts of Libya. Though fully aware of the flaws in US strategy, President Obama seems to have run out of ideas.
In this charged environment, the IS has been drawn into a power struggle with the al-Aaeda (AQ). The Sunni sectarian idiom is also related to the IS’ competitive strategies against the AQ to justify its self-styled caliphate. However, the world over, Shias and Sunnis have, by and large, lived amicably, particularly in India, which has the largest population of Shias next only to Iran. How-ever, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism of the Wahabi kind has fanned latent sectarian differences in South Asia. Shias in Pakistan have been the favorite target of AQ affiliates and a few hundred of them have perished at the hands of the Taliban, with the state taking little action to curb them.
The confrontation between the IS and rival jehadi groups such as the AQ has continued, particularly in Syria, home turf of the IS. This has sent a strong message to AQ’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra Front, which had been enjoying some successes. Their relationship with the IS had been uneasy after the proclamation of the Caliphate. So, probably, the time for an overt conflict between the two jehadi groups is nearing.
But what should be of concern to India is the increasing presence of IS in Afghanistan, where the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani is facing increasing attacks from the Taliban. The recent daring Taliban terrorist attack on the Afghanistan parliament while it was in session is a strong reminder that jehadi terror threat remains undiminished in South Asia.
In fact, this threat has increased in Afghanistan. According to a UN report, in the first four months this year, 3,000 civilians have been killed or injured in jehadi terror attacks in Afghanistan, up 16 percent for the same period last year. In particular, Kabul has become more vulnerable to attacks against foreigners and embassies.
According to the US State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism 2014 released on June 19, 2015: “A number of these attacks were planned and launched from safe havens in Pakistan. Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) provided security throughout most of Afghanistan as the transition to full Afghan leadership on security continued and US and Coalition Forces (CF) continued to draw down during 2014. The ANSF and CF, in partnership, took aggressive action against terrorist elements in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, and in many of the eastern and northern provinces.”
The resurgence of the Taliban comes at a time when President Ghani is trying to mend fences with Pakistan to fight Taliban terrorism; at the same time, he has entered into closer strategic relations with China in preference to India, Afghanistan’s traditional strategic partner.
This is impacting India’s plans in Afghanistan; it has already pruned its mega $10.8 billion Hajigak iron ore mine development and infrastructure project, conceived in November 2011, to just $2.9 billion. It has also revived its plans to further develop the Chabahar Port in Iran to provide an alternate strategic link to Afghanistan and Central Asia and as a strategic counterpoise to China-aided Gwadar Port in Pakistan. These strategic plans could be jeopardized with the worsening terrorist situation in Afghanistan, as perhaps for the first time, India is virtually excluded in its strategic make-up by design.
In real terms, there is no change in the US attitude of ignoring Pakistan as the source of India’s transnational terrorist threat. India has to fight its war on jehadi terrorism and deal with Pakistan on its own terms.
According to a recent Reuters report, fighters allied to the IS have seized large areas in Afghanistan for the first time. It quotes eye-witness accounts in Nanganahar province saying the IS was scorching out poppy fields to prevent the funding of Taliban’s fight against the government. Unlike the Taliban who force villagers to feed them, the IS has come with lots of cash and spends it on food and for luring the youth to join them. So power struggle between the IS and the Taliban in Afghanistan would probably happen sooner than later.
Lone wolves have become the specialty of IS terror operations. This can be dangerous in a net-savvy environment like India. We’ll have to devise technology to weed out potential converts to jehadi terrorism.
However, India should not underestimate the Taliban threat. Though the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) suffered setbacks due to Pakistan army operations last year, the Haqqani Network, a Taliban affiliate, continues to be a powerful entity. In September 2014, AQ leader Zawahiri announced the creation of a separate wing for India, including Kashmir, to wage jehad. AQ wants to portray Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an enemy of Islam.
And India-specific terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) which carried out the attack on the parliament on December 13, 2001, and the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, remains intact and is ready to operate with impunity against India from bases in Pak-istan. Despite all the well-wishers in India and Pakistan for peace and amity, the Pakistan government is either unwilling to bite the bullet or powerless to curb the use of its territory as a base for attacks on India.
While the US terrorism report said that “India remained a target of terrorist attacks” and referred to AQ’s announcement of a new branch in the Indian subcontinent, it pussy-footed Pakistan’s culpability saying: “Indian authorities continued to blame Pakistan for supporting terrorists operating in Jammu and Kashmir”. In real terms, there is no change in the US attitude of ignoring Pak-istan as the source of India’s transnational terrorist threat. All talk of counter-terrorism cooperation with the US would, therefore, be limited to information sharing and some joint training activity and nothing more. India cannot expect the US to help in reining in Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a strategic tool against India.
The moral of the story is that India has to fight its war on jehadi terrorism and deal with Pakistan on its own terms. Recently, IS flags, along with Pakistani ones were displayed in a recent separatist rally in Kashmir at the start of Ramadan. While the BJP spokesman said Indian agencies “knew the IS might spread its hold in India as well,” and that the NDA government “has made sure that this never happens…ISIS will not be able to gain a foothold in India,” the GOC of 16 Corps, Lt General KH Singh, said that the IS was trying to get a foothold in India.
In the war on terror, one can never be too ready. But how alert is the intelligence apparatus to the jehadists at our gates?
—Col Hariharan is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group