On the face of it, the proclamation by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that it has established a ‘province’ in India appears to be a case of hollow propaganda and far removed from reality. It is true that the police in Kashmir have described it as ‘pure propaganda’, as reported by Al Jazeera. However, the director of the SITE Intel Group, Rita Katz, has said that the claim “should not be written off”. Though apparently seen as information hype, Indian intelligence agencies have been put on high alert.
On 10 May 2019, the Amaq news agency of ISIS claimed that the group has established the ‘Wilayah of Hind’. Amaq, however, did not elaborate on the geographical limits of the so-called province. Interestingly, the proclamation coincided with the elimination of Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi, a suspected operative of ISIS in India, by the security forces in an encounter in Shopian in south Kashmir on the same day.
A series of propaganda events unleashed by the ISIS after the Easter suicide bombings in Sri Lanka in April 2019 would be worth noting. First and foremost, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi re-emerged from his self-imposed isolation since 2014 and applauded the jihadists of Sri Lanka for avenging the ISIS losses at Baghouz. Thereafter, ISIS declared the new emir of the ‘Bengal region’, apparently targeting the state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The latest announcement in this series is the claim of an ISIS ‘province’ in Kashmir.
Although the terror outfit has had an ever shrinking ‘Caliphate’ of late, yet its ‘peripheral’ attacks outside its core area of the Middle East/West Asia have been on the rise, with a peak in Sri Lanka. For instance, in April-May 2019, ISIS reported three attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, claimed an assault on the Nigerian Army barracks in Borno, and released the video of an ambush on Chechen soldiers.
It is interesting to note that, in the context of the ISIS’s recent proclamation on Kashmir, analysts were also of the opinion that global jihadist groups have failed to exploit the Kashmir conflict, unlike conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The fundamental reason, as put forward byMohammed Sinan Siyech, in a paper in Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses published in May 2018 was that the Kashmir issue is primarily a territorial and political dispute as opposed to a purely religious/Islamist conflict. Furthermore, cross-border terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad are in opposition to the concept of a pan-global Islamic Caliphate. Consequently, ISIS has failed to establish its footprints in the Kashmir Valley.
Further, writing for the Observer Research Foundation in July 2018, Kabir Taneja espoused a similar notion insofar as the foothold or the lack of it of ISIS in Kashmir was concerned. But Taneja also cautioned the security and academic community against taking the ISIS threat too lightly. In his view, “[t]he threat ISIS poses to India, and South Asia in general, is as real as it is for any other major region or state. This does not come from an organisational pattern from the so-called caliphate or al-Baghdadi himself, but the ecosystem that has been created that allows open-source access to ISIS as a brand…….”
In a recent commentary, Adil Rasheed quoted Tim Lister while stressing that ISIS is at present increasingly focusing on India since it perceives the country as a promising territory given growing Muslim-Hindu tensions.
The emerging aspect in the post-Baghouz terror dynamics is the greater stress by ISIS in forging ties with local surrogate groups in Asia and Africa. Such a hypothesis has been agreed to by the former Jammu & Kashmir Director General of Police Shesh Paul Vaid when he spoke to The Wire in the wake of the elimination of Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi and the concomitant declaration by ISIS. Kashmir police officials are of the considered view that militants have no organisational link to the ISIS as such and are only motivated by their ideology. Nonetheless, Sofi’s relatives and friends asserted to the contrary. They said: “We don’t know the ideology of ISIS. For us every mujahid [jihadi] is our brother. They are fighting for our cause”. In fact, it didn’t matter to them whether the mujahids were with the Islamic State or some other group. This sense among disgruntled Kashmiri youth of being associated with the ‘mujahid’ has the necessary fallout in the form of being indoctrinated with jihadi propaganda. And ISIS has acquired a master craftsmanship in that domain.
In this backdrop, an extremely interesting bit of prediction has come up about Baghdadi. Zaid Hamid, a founding member of a threat analysis think tank, has said that Baghdadi could be in Afghanistan. Hamid’s understanding is based on the style of the bedding and pillows shown in the video featuring Baghdadi after the Easter suicide bombings. At the other end, Iraqi security adviser Hisham al-Hashemi has said that officials have narrowed the whereabouts of Baghdadi from 17 to a possible four locations. If true, then Baghdadi is moving or has moved toward the East, and hence is closer to India. ISIS had formed its Khorasan branch in 2015 to oversee the activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and neighbouring lands.
For the time being, it could be inferred that the ISIS top brass is under tremendous pressure. It is fighting for its very survival. And if Baghdadi has possibly moved toward the east, then the proclamation of an Indian branch flashes a note of caution for the security and intelligence agencies. Baghdadi, on the other hand, now desperately seeks local alliances of the variety of Zaharan Hashim of Sri Lanka or Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi of Kashmir. ISIS would continue to float its brand image of the global caliphate and be in constant search of ‘feudal support’ at local bases.
If the ISIS leadership were to shift eastwards, the entire terror network can take up a different paradigm altogether. A vanishing Daesh could turn out to be lethal, with splinters of violence emanating randomly in every possible direction. They may not be powerful enough to take on a conventional army, but a deadly combination of suicide bombers and lone-wolf attacks could be bothersome.
In addition, ISIS may clash with other terrorist outfits and more bloodshed could be on offer. This author recently spoke to a couple of Indian police officers who were of the opinion that India still remains vulnerable to external terror threats. In sum, South Asian security in general and India’s in particular is likely to face perturbation in the days to come.