The attack on a restaurant in the Gulshan area, the high-profile diplomatic enclave of Dhaka, marks the formal arrival of ISIS in the Indian sub-continent. The attack is one of the typical ISIS styled terrorist attack in which a bunch of tech-savvy and educated young Jihadis goes on a rampage at high-profile targets like airports, stadiums and diplomatic areas across the cosmopolitan capital cities like Istanbul, Paris and Brussels.
Although the government of Bangladesh has always been in a denial mode about the presence and spread of ISIS in Bangladesh, the ISIS’ spread in Bangladesh has been going on for quite some time now and prestigious global intelligence portals like STRATFOR had informed well in advance of the strong Jihadi activity going on inside the social, cultural and political crevices of Bangladesh.
This incident has major political and security implications on India. So far Indians have rejoiced in the fact that despite having the world’s second-largest Muslim population, not more than 25 Indians have joined ISIS in Syria as foreign fighters. This is indeed, a matter of great pride in deep-rooted traditions of liberal Sufi Islam in India and the secular-liberal ethos of Indian society and polity, but in the euphoria, somewhere Indians have missed the realistic aspects of the said issue. The reasons for Indians not joining the ISIS in Syria are myriad. The geographical distance, strict surveillance and counter-terrorism measures of Ajit Dobhal and his team, cultural alienness and a disconnect with the socio-political milieu of Middle East have been the major factors that prevented the Indian Muslims from joining ISIS en masse. Additionally, and very importantly Indian Muslim fighters were not treated at par by the Arab fighters, and they were made to do menial jobs like cleaning toilets.
The advent of ISIS in South Asia should never be a surprise for us. It was in the offing for quite some time. Before discussing, its immediate repercussions on India a brief historical background needs to be mentioned. The roots of the fascination of Mujahiddins with India can be traced back to the Quranic concept of Ghazwa-I-Hind.
Ghazwa-i-Hind is a Quranic prophecy which mandates that India will be conquered by Islamic forces forever. The prophecy says that there will be two armies. The main army of battle-hardened soldiers will fight the western world at Raqqa, (Capital of ISIS) and will route the armies of Christendom. The left-over contingents i.e. the rag tags will conquer the Indian sub-continent. This thought has dominated myriad schools of political Islam for centuries. Many Pakistani strategic thinkers like Zaid Hamid have often mentioned this prophecy in their interviews. ISIS also believes in this idea of Ghazwa-i-Hind. Further, India has its own history of Wahabbism. In the 18th century, Syed Ahmad Barelvi launched a strong Wahhabi revolt against British forces. After his return from Arab lands, he worked hard for the spread of Wahhabi ideology across India. NWFP i.e. today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa emerged as a hotbed of Wahhabi resistance in India and Syed Ahmad Barelvi commanded a huge following in that area. Finally, he was killed by British forces. Even today, he has a strong reverence in that area.
Given the fact that South Asia had it rendezvous with Wahhabism in the past, I would like to argue that this foreign ideology still has a fertile ground and it can get a huge following in a very short span of time.
STRATFOR had reported in its intelligence briefs a month back that ISIS was trying to find a niche in Bangladesh. As per its reports, there has been a turf war going on between AQIS (Al Qaida in Indian Subcontinent) and ISIS. ISIS wants to wean away the local Jihadi organizations like Jamanul-Mujahidin and Jamat-i-Islami from Al Qaida. Off late, many cadres have been shifting loyalties towards ISIS. The primary strategy ISIS adopted was to display extreme brutality in roadside killings of Hindus, Buddhists, bloggers and gay rights activists. However, it was looking for some high profile target like airports or diplomatic zones in order to establish itself and finally ISIS did manage to launch a brutal attack on a café in diplomatic area.
ISIS is making good use of the fertile ground of radicalization in Bangladesh which has been cultivated over the years by local extremist Islamic parties with the help of ISI. The intensity of jihadi fervor which is gaining ground in the society can be felt in the roadside attacks on minorities. The immense popularity of Wahhabi extremism can be felt through intense propaganda that is going at the ground level through religious sermons and preaching in the mosques. Haseena Shaikh’s government made 11,000 arrests in a single day, which speaks volumes of the fast spread of extremist ideology in society.
Bruce Hoffman has suggested that there is a strong possibility of the merger of Al Qaida and ISIS at a global level by 2021. Locally, this merger can come much earlier, given the diffused organizational nature of Al Qaida and ISIS. In Bangladesh, this merger may happen as a result of the major jihadi outfits joining ISIS. If this happens, the jihadi forces will mount a major threat to peace and stability in India. In India, ISIS can find a ready supply of recruits from districts of eastern UP like Azamgarh. Besides, they will penetrate India through Assam, Bihar, and West- Bengal. Confirmed intelligence sources have revealed that Jihadi sleeper cells have sprung up in West Bengal. Bangladesh refugees spread across India could generate a “terrorist diaspora” in India which will help the suicide bombers in logistics, shelter, and other requirements to establish sleeper cells. Although most of the ISIS sympathizers have been arrested by NIA from Hyderabad, but in the long run, the eastern route (West Bengal-Assam-Bihar) will be much more feasible and effective for ISIS to establish itself in India because of the facility of easy entry in the form of refugees.
There is also a possibility of Bangladesh and West Bengal based Jihadis joining hands with Maoists in the red corridor to destabilize India. STRATFOR briefs had earlier indicated the nexus between ISI, ULFA (Assam) and Maoists. STRATFOR had informed that Maoists were getting help from ISI in the form of weapons and money. This nexus can get strengthened with the advent of global jihadi outfits in Bangladesh. Besides this it has been reported that 10,000 ISIS fighters have established themselves in Nangarhar in Jalalabad (Afghanistan) and many local Taliban fighters are joining them. The ISI might use the cover of ISIS and Al Qaida in planning and executing terrorist activities in India as it will not bring any global defamation. Given the fact that ISI’s links with Lashkar and Jaish are known to the world community, it might not be possible for ISI to use them anymore in a direct manner for launching a major 26/11 kind of attack. It will be much easier, politically convenient and feasible to use the cover of ISIS to execute such attacks in India.
The strategy adopted by ISIS in Dhaka attack is peculiar in the selection of its targets. ISIS killed only non-Muslims and previously also the main victims were minorities. This strategy may have serious repercussions for India. In this backdrop of this peculiar strategy, I suspect that ISIS might play upon the existing fault lines in Indian society between Hindus and Muslims and Shias and Sunnis. Hence, the sabotage could also be in the form of roadside attacks with knives and daggers on non-Muslims and Shias or in the form of violent communal riots (with active help from ISI) besides the general pattern of high-profile bomb blasts and killings.
Another worrying trend in India is the fast spreading Deobandi and Wahhabi ideology. Deobandis are ideologically akin to Wahabbism and their ideology is followed by the hardline Taliban. These days it is not an uncommon sight to find scholars with green turbans across the two-tier cities of India like Udaipur, Jaipur, Indore teaching puritanical Islam which urges the Muslims not to worship Sufi saints, tombs and strictly adhere to dress codes of Burqa etc. Basically, they want to spread the Arabic and literal version of Islam. And, the effects can be seen in the form of increasing number of Muslim women taking Burqa, sermons of Deobandi scholars and mushrooming Deobandi mosques across the length and breadth of the country. Same is the case with Wahhabism. The workers in the cities of Kerala like Malappuram, returning from Gulf have abandoned the local versions of Islamic practices and adopted foreign ideologies like Wahhabism which are extremist in nature. Recently, in Delhi, it was reported that there are about 140 Maulvis on the payrolls of Saudi embassy. Between 2011-13 1700 crore rupees were transferred to India for Wahhabi charities. In Kerala, Wahhabis have emerged stronger. They are controlling the management of 75 local mosques. In the other states also, they are adopting the same strategy of capturing the management and control of the mosques. In my informal conversation with state intelligence officers, I have come to know of violent clashes between Deobandi/Wahabbis and Berelvis (an Indian variant of Islam Sufi Islam which is comparatively liberal).
Hence, in the light of aforementioned analysis, I would like to propose that ISIS can make excellent use of the said congenial factors both; domestic and foreign. Our law enforcement machinery and more importantly our intelligence corps must get into gear to take specialized measures to counter such destabilizing forces.
On the lines of NYPD, HUMINT (Human Intelligence) must be increased in order to find out the trends of radicalization and preempt the potential terrorists. In fact, National Radicalization Index must be developed which should measure the radicalization levels on the basis of indicators like online access to Jihadi materials, arrivals of Wahhabi and Deobandi religious scholars, changes in dress patterns, behavioral attitudes, foreign tours to the Middle East and Pakistan etc. Specialized Intelligence Task forces/Groups should be created in states to track and vigil the activities of illegal migrants. Better surveillance on the Indo-Bangladesh border is definitely a must, besides proactive efforts to bust sleeper cells. The state intelligence agencies which are in a defunct state and are headed by incompetent officers must be upgraded and improved in terms of technical capabilities and the skills of personnel manning such agencies.
To conclude, I would emphasize that the fight against ISIS is primarily a fight against Wahhabi/Salafi ideology, an ideology rooted in extremist violence. Hence, counter-terrorism measures will have to strengthen liberal variants of Islam like Sufi/Barelvi schools. Rather than stereotyping the entire Muslim community, we will need to strengthen the moderates and reformers in Islam. Nuanced intellectual discourse in religious seminaries, public forums, and universities will be the strongest weapon in the fight against Islamic terrorism.