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Islamic State: The New Brand of Terrorism in India
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Issue Vol. 31.2 Apr-Jun 2016 | Date : 11 Aug , 2016

Competition among fundamentalist groups could push each of them to outdo others who would evolve in a constant state of ‘one-upmanship’. There are already strong indications of such a threat emerging in India. Incidentally, the Al Qaeda’s first cell in the Indian subcontinent was recently uncovered in Sambhal. Given this discovery, the Islamic State’s growth in India will lead to competition among like-minded groups such as Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, which would spur them on to unleash more violence in different parts of India. Constituted by a literate membership, driven by hardcore ideology, the Islamic State in India has essentially become a new brand of terrorism which is as yet unseen in the annals of political violence.

…the discovery of state-wise modules in 2016 by the National Investigation Agency, has lend credence to the theory that the Islamic State has already made inroads into India.

In September 2015, Western intelligence agencies stumbled across a 32-page Urdu document of the Islamic State in Pakistan. This document, which was obtained from a Pakistani citizen with linkages to the Pakistani Taliban, contained preparations to attack India through a final apocalyptic battle christened Ghazva-e-Hind.1 The prophesized Ghazva-e-Hind, when viewed along with Islamic State’s activities inside India, has certainly set the cat among the pigeons.

The Islamic State’s activities in India had remained largely muted till date. Even the political dispensation has attempted to quell the fears stating that Islamic State does not pose any danger to India only to retract it days later.2 However, the discovery of state-wise modules in 2016 by the National Investigation Agency, has lend credence to the theory that the Islamic State has already made inroads into India. Till 2015, scores have been prevented from going to Syria and Iraq, some hard core elements have been even been arrested in India. And yet this is the first time, local modules focused on terrorist activities have been discovered in India.

In one of the largest counter terrorist operations in the history of India, the National Investigation Agency swooped in and arrested around 20 Islamic State operatives and sympathisers across India in January and February this year. Six operatives namely, Mohammed Ahad, Mohammed Afzal, Syed Mujahid, Asif Ali, Suhail Mohammed, Najmul Huda from Karnataka, four operatives namely Mohammed Shareef, Mohammed Nafees, Abu Anas, Mohammed Obedullah from Telangana, four operatives namely Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh, Khan Muhammed Hussain, Imran Khan Pathan, Mohsin Ibrahim Sayeed from Maharashtra, two operatives Rizwan Ahmed Ali Nawazuddin, Mohammed Aleem from Uttar Pradesh, have been either arrested or detained with respect to their links to the Islamic State.

The UAE has deported a sizeable number of Indians suspected to have links with the Islamic State…

These arrests closely follow the arrest of four operatives of the Islamic State in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, a couple of days prior to this crackdown. The Special Cell of Delhi police arrested Akhlaq ur-Rahman, Mohammed Osama, Mohammed Azim Shah and Mehroz, who were alleged to have links with the Islamic State. This Islamic State module had planned to carry out attacks on some spiritual places, trains and malls in Delhi. These arrests follow the May 2015 arrest of the first known module in Ratlam which was loosely connected to the Islamic State.

These modules were handled by an Indian Islamic State operative in Syria known by his nom de guerre, Yusuf-al-Hindi, who is ostensibly Shafi Armar, the younger brother of Sultan Armar who died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria last year. The group’s Indian sympathisers have grown gradually since 2013, taking the total number persons travelled to Iraq and Syria to 27 (Figure 1).

Source: Compiled by the researcher. Data Caveat : AP & Telangana have been clubbed together.

The following data can be deciphered with respect to the Islamic State’s activities in India and outside India involving Indians:

The structure of the Islamic State modules which have been neutralised in India is more organised and hierachical…

  • 27 Indians have so far joined the Islamic State, out of which six have been killed. One person has returned from the Islamic State voluntarily.
  • Around 70 per cent of these recruits who have travelled are from South India.
  • Around 41 persons with suspected links to Islamic State have been either arrested/prevented/stopped from going to Syria. A small percentage of Non-Resident Indians have also travelled to Syria directly.
  • Of the 19 Indians who had planned to go to Syria in 2015, 16 were identified and stopped by the Telangana police alone.
  • Nearly 30 persons suspectedto be IS sympathisers have been deported to India by various countries in recent times.
  • Turkey has deported around 15 Indians. The UAE has deported a sizeable number of Indians suspected to have links with the Islamic State.
  • Interestingly, a foreign national has been deported from India and two have been arrested attempting to cross over to Pakistan to join the Islamic State.
  • The Government of India has blocked 60 websites promoting terrorism.
  • Nearly 150 persons are currently under surveillance in India
  • 70 sympathisers have been identified by the Telangana police alone and are under surveillance.

Developing Trends

The Islamic State is targeting highly educated youth with extremely good technical capabilities…

If we are to analyse the data related to the number of recruits who have been arrested, stopped, deported to India, interesting facets and trends emerge which indicate that the Islamic State is more organised and networked in 2016 compared to its earlier phase between 2013 and 2015.

Firstly, till 2015, most of the suspected Islamic State operatives arrested in India were planning to go Syria or Iraq, unlike the 2016 operatives whose primary objective was to conduct terror attacks inside India. These arrests and subsequent revelations indicate a clear departure from the Islamic State’s earlier recruitment pattern of moving recruits to Syria and Iraq. Earlier instances of recruitment for the Islamic State in India, pertains to flow of potential recruits out of India, who were either travelling to Syria or Iraq. On the contrary, the recent arrests point to the fact that the Islamic State is in the process of setting up modules within India, ostensibly to carry out terror attacks within India. These attempts by the Islamic State are a clear indication to deviate from its earlier attempts to move recruits from India to Syria or Iraq.

The structure of the Islamic State modules which have been neutralised in India is more organised and hierarchical. The organisation known as Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind is headed by Amir Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh, followed by Naib Amir (Deputy), Mohamed Aleem, Najmul Huda as its military head and Mohammed Nafees Khan as the finance chief of the outfit. The organisational structure then percolates to the state level and city level arrangements with major presence in Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu. Though, the superstructure appears highly hierarchical which would facilitate better control and governance, the bottom rung is more flexible, flat and virtually connected.

According to Europol, the EU contributed around 24 recruits between 2005 and 2007 but now the figure is in thousands…

Secondly, the Islamic State is targeting highly educated youth with extremely good technical capabilities. For instance, out of the total of 68 persons who have either travelled to Syria or arrested in India, at least 30 of them have a decent educational background. Among these literates, engineering and computer technology students make up a large chunk.

Thirdly, Islamic State activity is focussed mainly in South India in the states of Telangana, Andhra, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Recruits from North India are far lesser compared to recruits from South India. Even Kashmir has contributed only one recruit so far. For instance, out of the total of 27 persons who travelled to Syria including the dead, 19 (70 per cent) are from the South India. However, with recent arrests, recruitment from other states such as Maharashtra, Uttarakhand have picked up indicating a growing trend.

Fourthly, community-related countermeasures appears to be more vocal in South India which strengthens the theory that South India is under a significant threat as most of counter measures from Islamic religious groups are concentrated in the four states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The rationale behind such an inference is that the Islamic religious groups who have been running a counter campaign against the Islamic State will be the first to know if a person(s) is radicalised and hence, any effort from their part has to be treated as high priority. For instance, a seminar by such groups against the Islamic State in a particular area, could indicate Islamic State related soft-core activity like sloganeering, posters and wall graffiti.

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The recruitment pool is mainly from Telangana, Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This certainly leads to the theory that the top recruiters of the Islamic State could possibly hail mostly from these Southern states or in other words, the recruitment network is managed by Southerners. Though this recruitment figure is only in double digits now, this could actually go up in future. For instance, according to Europol, the EU contributed around 24 recruits between 2005 and 2007 but now the figure is in thousands.3 The same scenario could play out in India if this is unchecked.

Fifthly, there were no clear connections among recruits from various states in its earlier phase. Only assorted connections were observed. For instance, Adnan Damudi from Bangalore was connected to the Telangana group in 2014 detained in West Bengal. Afsha Jabeen was linked to Salman Moinuddin, Mohammed Ahad was connected to Javed Sheikh and Ibrahim Nowfal. However, recently arrested modules appear to be linked to each other through a series of nodes and important facilitators who act as the common denominator for all the modules. Each of the group is driven by one single person who motivates his personal network to join.

Using updates from airports, Indian embassies in Libya, Turkey and UAE have to work proactively to identify potential travellers…

For instance, Maraicar from Tamil Nadu motivated Fakkrudeen Ali, Afsha Jabeen is linked to Salman Moinuddin and the Telangana group has been motivated by Basith. Hence, these persons act as facilitators or otherwise called as “cut-outs” in the intelligence parlance. This is the model which is adopted by terrorists groups which have a cell structure, where the leader of each cell communicates only through human “cut-outs”. However, in this case, these persons act as virtual “cut-outs”, where the interactions appear to be in the virtual world, which is difficult to interdict.

Sixthly, Indian recruits travel through various routes in order to travel to Syria and Iraq. The most travelled routes are from India to United Arab Emirates, Turkey to Syria, India to Libya to Syria and India to Sudan to Syria. The illegal crossings are from West Bengal in India to Bangladesh to onward journey and Jammu and Kashmir to POK to onward journey.

Interestingly, around nine Indian recruits have flown directly to Syria/Turkey from other countries of work or residence. Most of these recruits have been identified by “person missing” complaints. Hence, these complaints both in India and especially abroad in Gulf countries have to be treated with utmost priority. Using updates from airports, Indian embassies in Libya, Turkey and UAE have to work proactively to identify potential travellers.

Radicalisation in India’s Neighbourhood

Given the above scenario, radicalisation in India’s neighbourhood should also be of serious cause of concern for Indian policy planners. The Islamic State has a notable presence in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, even attracting recruits from Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Radicalisation in India’s neighbourhood should also be a serious cause of concern for Indian policy planners…

Bangladesh

In its 12th issue of Dabiq entitled “Just Terror”, the Islamic State has given the clarion call for its jihadi campaign in Bangladesh with an article entitled “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal”4 dedicated to the cause of jihad. This is the first official instance of the Islamic State trying to revive jihad in the Indian subcontinent, concomitantly confirming the presence of the Islamic State in Bangladesh thereby posing serious security problems to India.

The Dabiq article has been authored by Abu Abdur Rahman Al Banghali, ostensibly a Bangladeshi himself, identified by the nom de guerre suffix ‘Banghali’, which refers to a person of Bengali origin. The use of the word ‘Bengal’ in the Dabiq article is explained by an annotation stating that “Bengal is what the region was referred to before the founding of ‘Bangladesh’ by nationalists in 1971.”

The Dabiq article has claimed that the Islamic State’s security cell has carried out the following attacks in 2015.

  • September 28 – assassination of Cesare Tavella, an Italian citizen.
  • October 03 – assassination of Kunio Hoshi, a Japanese citizen in the city of Rangpur.
  • October 24 – multiple IED attacks on a Shia procession in Dhaka, killing one and wounding eighty-seven others.
  • November 04 – assault on a police checkpoint in Dhaka, killing one policeman and wounding another.
  • December 25 – suicide bomb attack on Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat at the Baghmaraupazila of Rajshahi, killing the suicide bomber and injuring five. Baghmara is 250 km from Dhaka.

According to a recent study commissioned by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Sri Lanka, there are no Islamic jihadist groups operating there.

In addition to that, the Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for killing a Hindu priest in Bangladesh in 2016. Islamic State has released recruitment videos and audio messages in Bengali targeting the Bengali speaking population both in Bangladesh and in West Bengal in India.

Sri Lanka

The Islamic State revealed the identity of the first Sri Lankan national killed in Syria fighting for the Islamic State. The November 2015 issue of Dabiq has claimed that 37-year old Sri Lankan national identified as Mohamed Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam also known by his nom de guerre Abu Shurayh al-Silani was killed between May to July 2015 in Raqqa during a US-led air strike.  Another Sri Lankan, Thauqeer Ahmed Thajudeen also known by his nom de guerre Abu Dhujana Silani is believed to be still fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. This is the first instance where a Sri Lanka national has been found to have joined the Islamic State.

According to a recent study commissioned by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Sri Lanka, there are no Islamic jihadist groups operating there.6 As per this latest report, the Islamic State could fill this void, using the conflict between Wahabism and Sufism within Muslims in Sri Lanka.

According to the Soufan Group, around 200 recruits from Maldives are fighting with the Islamic State…

Maldives

According to the Soufan Group, around 200 recruits from Maldives are fighting with the Islamic State.7 Of this at least, seven are believed to have been killed fighting for the Islamic State.

Islamic State activities in Bangladesh, pose a serious threat to India’s national security. Given its porous border with Bangladesh and its restriction-free Visa regime with Maldives and Sri Lanka, potential operatives could either choose India as a transit point or as a staging post to further their activities. The Bangladeshi government has already handed over a list of 204 top terrorists who are presently in hiding in India.8

Moreover, by virtue of its physical proximity to these countries, West Bengal and Bihar on the Bangladesh border, Kerala with its Maldivian connections and Tamil Nadu with its Sri Lankan connection, could pose a serious threat to India’s security.

Conclusion

Till 2015, roughly around 14 persons (50 per cent) have been put through de-radicalisation. However, the success of this de-radicalisation program is yet to be ascertained. This program known as the “Telangana model” initiated by the Telangana police has shown some chinks in its armour. For instance, two youngsters who were already on the de-radicalisation program since 2014, have been detained in December 2015, when they attempted to go to Syria again. In another instance, a person, who was under the de-radicalisation program after being deported from Turkey, was arrested in 2016 as he was in the process of radicalising another group of youngsters.

India could witness a rise in violent terror attacks carried out by home-grown groups with active assistance from external groups…

There is a clear possibility that, increasing difficulty amongst recruits to leave India, may force some of them carry out “lone wolf” attacks either at the behest of the Islamic State or individually. Some of recruits who were stopped could join local terror groups such as the Indian Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba or become ‘surrogates’ for other transnational groups. New recruits may leak information on the topography of major installations, power generation units, ports, airports, rocket-launching centres and other critical infrastructure to the terror group which could be used in a terrorist strike.

For a country like India which has its own share of homegrown as well as foreign terrorist groups, the rise of the Islamic State in India and in its neighbourhood could only add to the existing complexities both at the strategic and tactical level. India could witness a rise in violent terror attacks carried out by home-grown groups with active assistance from external groups such as the Islamic State. It is also imperative to understand that Indian counter terrorism measures which are custom-made to counter IM and LeT, could become redundant as trained foreign nationals (especially Westerners), who could bypass the Indian security measures, could possibly be a potential source of threat. For instance, Indian counter terrorism program never anticipated an American jihadist (David Coleman Headley) to conduct reconnaissance for the LeT, which was focused on operatives of Pakistani or Indian origin. On the other hand, given the huge resources, there is a possibility that non-conventional attacks could replace usual conventional attacks. Details to weaponise and deploy biological weapons such as bubonic plague by the Islamic State have already been uncovered in Syria.

Competition among fundamentalist groups could push each of them to outdo others who would evolve in a constant state of ‘one-upmanship’. There are already strong indications of such a threat emerging in India. Incidentally, the Al Qaeda’s first cell in the Indian subcontinent was recently uncovered in Sambhal. Given this discovery, the Islamic State’s growth in India will lead to competition among like-minded groups such as Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, which would spur them on to unleash more violence in different parts of India. Constituted by a literate membership, driven by hardcore ideology, the Islamic State in India has essentially become a new brand of terrorism which is as yet unseen in the annals of political violence.

Notes

  1. IS readying for attack on India: US Report, The Hindu, July 30, 2014 available at  http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/is-readying-for-attack-on-india-us-report/article7478202.ece (accessed on 31/003/2016)
  2. Threat from IS is serious, Rajnath tells Russia, The Hindu, September 8, 2015 available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/threatfromisisseriousrajnathtellsrussia/article7626377.ece (accessed on 31/003/2016)
  3. EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2007, The Europol , March 2007, available at https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/…/tesat2007_1.pdf
  4. This article features in the 12th issue of Dabiq which is the official English mouthpiece of the Islamic State.
  5. ibid
  6. Mohamed Faslan & NadineVvanniasinkam, Fracturing Community: Intra-group relations among Muslims of Sri Lanka, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, November 2015, available at http://ices.lk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Fracturing-Community.pdf (accessed on 31/03/2016)
  7. Foreign Fighters, An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq, The Soufan Group, December 2015 available at http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf (accessed on 31/03/2016)
  8. Kallol Bhattacherjee, We are tracking two IS killers inside India, says Bangladesh, The Hindu, November15,2015 available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/we-are-tracking-two-is-killers-inside-india-says-bangladesh/article7913542.ece(accessed on 31/03/2016)
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr V Balasubramaniyan

is a research scholar at the Research Department of Defence & Strategic Studies, Guru Nanak College.

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