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India Wakes up to ISIS Threat
It is undeniable that the influence of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) is not seeped into the Indian society even though it has not staged any attack inside the country. Ever since this outfit announced its caliphate little more than a year ago, the objective to set its foot in the troubled Af-Pak region, India and other part of Asia is well known to everyone. It is better-late-than-never- India finally takes cognisance of the level of threat and New Delhi is taking up certain steps to tackle this menace collectively by involving various government organs as well other civil society groups.
The support and sympathy for the outfit in India has been witnessed although the numbers of Indians actively participating in the outfit’s activities keep differing. Currently, it is estimated between 17 and 18. Indian-origin fighters’ involvement in the ongoing armed conflict either in Iraq or Syria has been evidenced by the report of the death of six people, which is indeed an alarming unfolding. Going back to last July, security establishments in the country were concerned by the departures of radicalised Muslim young men towards the above-mentioned two countries, and their profile raised several questions, and recruitment tactics being one of the most important. The current scenario is witnessing a radical change where people who are educated and has decent jobs are being recruited into the outfit, or at least rendering their support, ideologically or logistically. This is a widespread phenomenon not only in India but also in Europe, the US, Southeast Asia, and as far as Australia. For instance, the incident of the boys from Kalyan in Maharashtra is a good case and that of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a techie based in Bangalore, who, recently, was charged as “No empty propagandist of the global jehadist outfit Islamic State (ISIS), but he was allegedly tweeting details of the border crossings to those on their way to enlist as fighters with the ISIS”. These two separated incidents gave rise to two important aspects that need to be observed minutely- the growing radicalisation of youth in the Muslim society and the home-grown recruiters, who rely heavily on various social media tools.
The issue of radicalisation or self-radicalisation which is gradually pacing up in India should not be underestimated. The incidents where ISIS flags were displayed in Jammu and Kashmir by the protestors, mainly composed of younger generation, are indicative of this ongoing process. It is with the help of social media tools they are indoctrinating themselves with the extreme ideologies propagated by groups such as ISIS. This should, therefore, be taken as a warning bell regarding the heightened level of frustrations building up, and as a result, further alienation will drift them towards the "path of destruction". The traction received by the ISIS from similarly radicalised students from places like Hyderabad (in India) is equally a worrying trend. The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu also had seen these instances where youths flaunted t-shirts with slogans in support of the outfit. For the ISIS, these sects of people are soft targets as they want to lure those dissatisfied into their line of thinking which is against the modern-day concept of democracy and state. The local recruiters have a significant role in brainwashing the minds of these vulnerable people. While forum such as Twitter and Facebook are a crucial medium through which the message of ISIS is spread out, the tasks of the recruiters are far more challenging. It is widely observed that successful recruitment drive depends on the enticing power and the charisma of the local recruiters who can interpret the calls of this organisation in different vernacular languages and with more anti-state fervour. In most of the cases, places of religious learning and public gatherings have become the popular spots for radicalisation, followed by recruitment. Further, given the substantial population of Indians living in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, involvement of a few of them in the recruitment, or at least enticing someone into religious extremism cannot be ruled out. The recent revelation of Indians based in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) engaging in such activities requires an immediate attention.
It is very apt that the Indian government has finally realised the gravity of the threat perception of ISIS, thanks to the 32-page document written in Urdu, published by the USA Today, which mentions about a preparation to attack the country, and to “provoke an apocalyptic confrontation with America”. As Afghanistan had already witnessed ISIS-connected suicide attacks earlier this year, there is no reason why New Delhi will remain unperturbed. Sensing a serious impact on regional stability, Bruce Riedel from the Brookings Institute even said, “Striking in India would magnify the ISIS’ stature and threaten the stability of the region... Attacking in India is the Holy Grail of South Asian jihadists”.
Notwithstanding the delay, the strategy planned by the government to counter the growing threat from ISIS, its recruitment and radicalisation looks to be a comprehensive one and it needs to be executed efficiently. The recent meeting conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs by choosing particularly 12 Indian states including Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala, Assam, Punjab, West Bengal and Delhi, along with their home secretaries and police chiefs, was a much-needed one as these states had seen ISIS-related activities in some form or the other. Radicalisation, indoctrination by local leaders, online recruitment, transit for Syria-bound journey, etc. could be related with many of these states. Besides governmental measures, some of the counter-radicalisation steps decided to take up include counselling of youth, involvement of community or religious leaders to persuade the younger generation not to succumb to any form of extremist ideology, constant monitoring of internet and social media sites, quick response to reports of young people planning to join ISIS or any terror group, counter-propaganda strategies, etc. By going a step further, equal importance should be given to rehabilitation of the returnees from the conflict-ridden countries, no matter how less than significant the numbers of Indians fighting in the ranks of ISIS. Or, if the concerned authorities come across to any defectors, their narratives should be used as a tool to deter others from departing towards the conflict-ridden region to join the outfit. Academic institutions, strategic think-tanks and various civil society organisations can also play crucial roles in fighting the menace of radicalisation collectively. Tellingly, the teachings on Islam to young minds in Madrasas and other religious institutions need to be monitored and this should be done in proper consultation with the religious clerics so as not to hurt the sentiments of the Muslim society. In other words, this requires an empathetic approach. Integrative programmes constituting people of all faiths can be a good counter-narrative in this direction. Moreover, the condemnation and abhorrence expressed by a few Indian clerics and that of fatwas issued by 1,050Islamic scholars from the country is definitely a soft-approach that needs to be valued and promoted further.
Given ISIS’ emanation from a region where India has huge interests in terms of trade and commerce, energy as well as strategic importance, the threat of this outfit should be one of the catalysts to intensify New Delhi’s engagement with the countries in this oil-rich region. It is now required to look beyond traditional means of cooperation. The recent interactions India had with the visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif covered a wide gamut of issues and, ISIS was one of the topmost agendas. Both the countries are appearing to be capitalising on numerous opportunities to enhance their bilateral ties particularly in the wake of the nuclear agreement reached in July this year. Moreover, apart from its oil and energy trade and bilateral engagements, Iran figures prominently in India’s foreign policy pursuit to reach the Central Asian states and the landlocked Afghanistan. Incidentally, these precisely are the regions where the ISIS threat is gaining momentum rapidly. Similarly, India’s ties with the UAE is visibly getting enhanced with the visit of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi where he said, “he wants to see the UAE as the foremost partner in trade and countering terrorism”. This tiny Persian Gulf country views radical extremism and terrorism with utmost concerns and it is not at ease with the rising activities of ISIS in its backyards. As these two countries have issued a joint statement which laid immense emphasis on combating terrorism, a vigorous cooperation is expected on “counterterrorism operations, intelligence sharing, capacity building”, along with regular contacts between security agencies. As an aftermath to the visit, certain headways in these areas could be seen-the deportation of Indian youths allegedly connected with the ISIS, and the arrest of Afsha Jabeen for her alleged role in radicalising and recruiting for the outfit. She also confessed “that there is a need to spread the geographical area of ISIS caliphate with Muslim youth supporters”. In all probability, there could be many such cases, which need to be prevented before meeting their desired objectives.
Undoubtedly, India is going to battle ISIS and its influence on two fronts: domestic, and in the Middle East, where numerous labourers and workers are vulnerable or exposed to the threats. The abduction in Libya is the latest case. This has given a solid ground to enhance the engagement with all the countries there. The PM’s visit to the UAE, the first one in 34 years, can be construed as that timely step towards crafting a new Middle East policy, which otherwise has remained neglected for sometime. The announcement of a “strategic partnership” between these two countries is definitely a significant shift in India’s policy towards this region, and this will be more meaningful if they can execute timely on those agreements signed. Without any doubts, terrorism and threats of ISIS will continue figuring in Modi’s upcoming meetings with the Middle East leaderships.
Against the backdrop of ISIS influence in India, it is going to be an arduous task for the establishments to tackle the rising instances of youths getting radicalised in the country. What appears to be more worrisome is that the styles and tactics of the outfit have become an ideology which many radical elements are adhering to world over. Imminent challenges while combating these menaces loom large. In the light of this, the initiatives taken up by the government should be supported cutting across ideological, sectarian and political differences. But if there is an absence of inclusiveness in policy implementation vis-à-vis fight against religious extremism or terrorism, any effort will become futile. Therefore, a large amount of public support is required to prevent this terror outfit from implanting its influence in the country.
Alvite Singh Ningthoujam
13 October 2015
Research Associate, VIF