ISI and the Islamic State smokescreen
On September 12, 2014, the streets of Western Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor city were abuzz with political gossip as the constituency was slated to go for assembly by-polls the very next day. But near noon, the old city’s Jataan locality was rocked by a big explosion in a house. Neighbors saw few youngsters rushing out of a rented house with two of them having serious burns. Investigators on reaching the blast site recovered a laptop, mobile phones, Jihadist literature, made in Pakistan daily-use products apart from some Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in-the-making (they were being made by filling empty LPG cylinders with explosives, one of which had exploded while being manufactured injuring the youths).
However, the most interesting recovery was that of large quantities of matchboxes which were being used to extract Potassium Chlorate to manufacture those IEDs. An investigation of the CCTV footage from the adjoining areas and mobile phones recovered from the room clarified the identities of terrorists- Amjad Ramzaan, Islam Ayyub, Zakir Badrul, Aizazuddin, Mehboob and Abu Faisal. All these were members of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) wanted in multiple terror related cases across India and had escaped from Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa jail in 2013.
Fast forwarding to 2016, in the last few weeks, the Indian security agencies have been begun conducting nationwide crackdown on suspected Islamic State (IS) modules all over India. As part of this counterterrorism drive, Delhi Police arrested four youngsters from Uttarakhand’s Mangalore- Akhlaq ur Rahman, Mohammed Osama, Mohammed Azim Shah and Afroz- who were allegedly in touch with IS’ regional affiliate, Ansar ul Tawhid fi bilal ul Hind (AuT) and were planning to carry out bomb blasts during the Ardh Kumbha Mela in Haridwar. However, recoveries from them revealed that they too like SIMI’s Bijnor module were using matchsticks to manufacture IEDs. Further investigations have revealed that one Mumbai-based Muddabir Mushtaq Sheikh, who has been the ringmaster of AuT modules operating in various parts of India, had instructed all of them to collect matchboxes for manufacturing bombs.
The copycat similarity between the modus operandi of SIMI fugitives and ostensible IS operatives indicates how both derive inspiration, training, and guidance from the same source. These recently busted Islamic State modules were being handled and coordinated by former Indian Mujahideen (IM) operative Shafi Armaar who is now AuT’s top leader. After the crackdown upon IM by Indian agencies and arrest of its key commanders like Yaseen Bhatkal, the remnants of the group formed (AuT) in Pakistan. This group later went on to swear allegiance to IS’ self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
IM was constituted in 2003 by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as part of the ‘Karachi Project’ by deriving recruits from Indian Islamist groups like SIMI to portray that Islamist terrorism in India is home grown and terror attacks were being carried out by Indian Muslim youths on their own without any Pakistani support. It was a notorious way of achieving high plausible deniability with respect to terror attacks in India during a period when Pakistan was interested in complying with a ceasefire arrangement with India due to various geopolitical reasons. Facing a lot of international pressure to scale down cross border terrorism against India after the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 that had evident Pakistani involvement in it. This had also seen the subsequent launching of Operation Parakram which had almost brought the two nuclear neighbors to a military showdown.
After 2003, ISI worked on the high plausible deniability option to continue war by means of terrorism during a period when low plausible deniability attacks through Pakistan based-proxies like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) were not preferable.
While after repeated crackdowns on the IM by Indian security agencies saw it being rendered largely dysfunctional, with its kingpins living in Pakistan. The rise of IS brand in the jihadist world seems to have provided ISI with the required opportunity to rejuvenate IM in a new incarnation as IS’s Indian affiliate AuT. What made this task easy was the fact that Indian jihadists by and large are not too well versed with theological nuances and differences between various jihadist creeds and can be easily seen as transmigrating from one group to another.
Such recruits usually join one group or the other on first contact over social media or with propaganda material. Thus, as in the past when India had seen IM cadre joining al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent, now we are seeing them join the IS affiliate AuT though there are many differences between the two on various theological and strategic issues.
As much of IS recruitment is happening through social media, it becomes very easy to carry out a false flag operation by interested intelligence agencies. The manner in which various intelligence agencies in Gulf and Mediterranean have employed these tactics in Syrian War is already in the public domain.
Some media reports are already speculating that allegiance to IS is being used as a mask for furthering rather narrow, region-specific goals. For instance, in a recent New York Times column titled “Pakistan’s hand in the Rise of International Jihad”, Carlotta Gal mentioned how a lot of jihadists were being facilitated by ISI to travel to Syria and Iraq via Qatar and Turkey to fight for the IS.
Some events from the last year provide more direct clues on how ISI may be using Islamic State as a convenient mask. On April 24, 2015, Pakistan’s leading Human Rights activist and founder of T2F cafe, Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead by gunmen in Karachi while she was returning from an event organized by her to discuss the disappearance of thousands of Baloch youth for which human rights activists blame Pakistani intelligence agencies. Pakistan blamed IS affiliated terrorists for her killing.
However, when in the very next month the IS linked terrorists shot dead more than 40 Ismaili Shias during an attack on their bus in Karachi, the Pakistani government denied that IS terrorists were behind the attack saying that the group has ‘no physical presence in the country’ despite the fact that IS linked groups claimed the responsibility for the attack. Recently, talking to Hindustan Times leading Baloch rights activist Mir Mohammed Ali Talpur said that though the government blamed IS for Sabeen Mahmud’s murder, he has no doubt that that the killing was meant to send a message that “they (Pakistani intelligence agencies) don’t want anyone to speak about human rights violations in Balochistan”.
Pakistan had claimed to have cleansed the Red Mosque of jihadist elements located in the heart of its capital city years ago, still the first IS inspired terror attack on the US soil by Tashfeen Malik and her husband was traced back to the same mosque. Now, the question that needs to be asked from Pakistani rulers is how did it happen? Pakistan may have even allowed Uighur jihadists fighting against China to operate from its territory for long given the fact that over the last few years most of the Uighur jihadists in Pakistan’s tribal areas were neutralized not by Pakistani army but by CIA drones. In such a scenario, Pakistan should be rigorously held accountable for the actions of groups operating from its soil. It is immaterial whether such groups operate with either active state support or that state tacitly allows them to further their goals.
Through employing IM for terror attacks in India over the last decade, Pakistan has been quite successful in diluting India’s allegations of perpetrating “cross-border terrorism” so much so that the phrase was almost been expunged from the Indian strategic lexicon. However, this phrase is once again coming to life with cross-border terror attacks directly traceable to Pakistan like the recent one on the Pathankot air base.
To ward off international pressure that is piling up on the political leadership of Pakistan, ISI may try to sponsor future terror attacks in the name of IS. To that end it is important that the Indian leadership and media do not get carried away too much by the emergence of IS.
Movement of terrorists from one group to another is driven by local and tactical considerations and it must not distract the Government of India from its claim that the cross-border terrorism from the Pakistan soil – whether as a direct result of sponsorship by the Pakistani ‘deep state’ or through the ideological inspiration provided by radicalisation infrastructure nurtured by it – is just a matter of detail.