Homeland Security

Emerging Threat of Grassroots Terrorism and Lone Wolf Actors in India
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 31.4 Oct-Dec 2016 | Date : 20 Dec , 2016

Grassroots terrorism which is defined as organisational de-evolution of terrorist groups into single actor or small actor networks is one of the recent phenomena witnessed in larger and older terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. In larger groups, this de-evolution is more of a compulsion rather than choice as the groups and its networks break down into small actor groups or networks due to counter terrorism measures. However, on the other hand, newer groups such as the Islamic State have adopted the concept of single actor or small actor networks intentionally.

Grassroots terrorism is a new phenomenon which has become the topic of a raging debate among the erudite, deliberating on terrorism. Two of the most eminent terrorism scholars, Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, found themselves at the opposing end of this argument on grassroots terrorism in 2008. Since then there has not been a closure to this debate. This paper attempts to draw a parallel to the grassroots terrorism in India, characteristics of which could be discerned by observing the local modules of the Islamic State which were discovered recently. This paper relies on open source information for analysis and arrives at a logical conclusion.

Introduction – Sageman Vs Hoffman

In 2008, Marc Sageman came out with a book titled “Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century”. This book actually set the stage for a debate which is still intense among the counter terrorism fraternity even today. Sageman, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer believed in the concept of diffusion. He believed that a handful of people or even individuals who are detached from the centralised core of Al Qaeda, are most likely to carry out future terrorist attacks and thus, are the most prioritised threat.1 Hoffman, a Georgetown University Professor and the author of book titled “Inside Terrorism”, took a contrarian view that the Al Qaeda is in a rebuilding mode in Pakistan and this resurgent Al Qaeda is the most potent threat.2 Hoffman’s scathing review of Sageman’s book led to disagreements between them as to the nature of threat. Both their opinions were only about Al Qaeda and with reference to the threat it posed to the mainland United States and hence, had a limited focus.

At least 27 Indians are confirmed to have travelled to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq…

Nevertheless, this debate brought to the table, the concept of grassroots terrorism which is perpetrated by a single actor and small actor networks. Grassroots terrorism is also known as “leaderless resistance”, a concept put forth by Sageman. According to him, the future threats may not arise from the central core of groups such as Al Qaeda, but by small motivated individuals who remain connected with like-minded communities through internet. And accordingly, small group networks or a single actor who perpetrate terrorist acts have become an integral part of grassroots terrorism.3

Interestingly, Hoffman opined that radicalisation, recruitment and training are managed by a terror group’s core which would be located inside lawless or failed states. On the other hand, Sageman had argued that terrorist cells would be formed within own communities but seldom be trained or organised in a systematic manner. Both these arguments appear to have found some ground in different countries factoring the birth of Islamic State. Both these exponents could not have predicted the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its radicalisation drive which had spanned across the globe at that time. While a considerable number of recruits from different countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State, other smaller fringe groups which have owed allegiance to the Islamic State, have decided to fight for its cause in their home country. There are at present, 25,000 to 30,000 foreign elements that are fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.4 On the other hand, 35 groups have owed allegiance to the Islamic State, vowing to fight for the Islamic Caliphate in their respective countries.5 Both these trends have been observed in India as well.

The Indian Scenario

At least 27 Indians are confirmed to have travelled to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Seven out of the 27 Indians including Shafi Armar, have been killed in action. Fifty per cent of the dead were members of the Indian Mujahideen. Sultan Armar and Shafi Armar from Bhatkal, Sajid Bada from Azamgarh were former members of the Indian Mujahideen who were killed in Syria fighting for the Islamic State. Others who were killed are Mohammad Umar Subhan and Faiz Masood from Bengaluru, Mohammad Athif Vaseem from Hyderabad and Saheem Farooque Tanki from Maharashtra. The status of the remaining 20 is still unknown. Additionally, numerous persons have been stopped from going to Syria and are already either under arrest or put through the de-radicalisation programme. Additionally, 21 persons from Kerala have been found to be missing since June 2016. Though their whereabouts are still unknown, it is believed that they might have travelled to Islamic State controlled territories.

On the other hand, at the start of 2016, the National Investigation Agency picked up around 25 operatives with links to the Islamic State in India. The suspected operatives were part of a pan-Indian network of Junood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind, the Indian arm of the Islamic State.

If the composition of the Islamic State modules in India is studied, there is a striking resemblance to a lone wolf pack…

In July this year, seven persons were arrested for planning to conduct terror attacks in Hyderabad. Ibrahim Yazdani, Ilyas Yazdani, Habeeb Mohammed, Abdullah Bin Ahmed Al Amoodi, Muzaffar Hussain Rizwan, Ataullah Rehman and Yasser Naimathullah were arrested by the National Investigation Agency in Hyderabad. Interestingly, this module was an independent and stand-alone one, without any links to other modules of the Islamic State in India, indicating no operational linkages.6 These arrests indicate a clear departure from an earlier trend of potential recruits from India, travelling to Syria and Iraq to the join the Islamic State. Tightening border controls and increased online surveillance, are the factors which may have motivated the recruits to form a localised cell in India.

However, the above Islamic State modules appear to be more loosely connected to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria except for the links with individual recruiters like Shafi Armar. The word “loosely” is intentionally used here as the cells are more or less made up of like-minded individuals who have no direct linkages with the parent organisation and have little or no training needed to carry out a terror attack. For instance, Shafi Armar who is the younger brother of Sultan Armar from Bhatkal, was the handler of this cell. Sultan Armar who was part of the Indian Mujahideen network, went on to start the Ansar-ut-Tawhid, the Indian arm of the Islamic State. After Sultan Armar’s death, the reins were taken over by Shafi Armar.7 Even Shafi Armar, investigators have found, was in touch with only eight out of the 25 operatives. Shafi Armar directly interacted with them through various online platforms. Surprisingly, all the operatives are greenhorns and have little or no training in terrorist tradecraft. Does this cell display the characteristics of grassroots terrorism? Interestingly, experts are of the view that grassroots terrorism is an emerging phenomenon worldwide which has not been observed before in India. Incidentally, India has only seen and experienced trans-border groups, domestic terrorist groups trained by transnational groups till date.

However, this highly motivated, self-appointed, like-minded group of individuals of the Islamic State network actually fit into the definition of what is termed as ‘grassroots terrorism’. None of the members had any tangible connection to the Islamic State, but were a part of a group where there was some level of contact with Shafi Armar. This aspect raises an interesting question as to whether India has witnessed grassroots terrorism on its soil. This network demonstrates certain key characteristics of grassroots terrorism such as being loosely connected, like-minded greenhorns and bonding virtually. More granularly, this network consists of cells which even resembles “lone wolf packs” as advocated by Raffaello Pantucci.

Single Actor and Small Actor Networks

Raffaello Pantucci, who conducted a study on typologies of Islamist lone wolfs, had identified and developed four typologies which could be useful to identify such a phenomenon, if any in India.8 Pantucci’s lone wolf typologies are:

  • Loners – Individuals who carry out acts of terrorism using the cover of extreme ideology though they do not have contact with extremist organisations.
  • Lone Wolves – individuals who carry out their actions alone without any physical outside instigation and who demonstrate some level of contact with operational extremists.
  • Lone Wolf Packs – Lone Wolf Pack is similar to the Lone Wolves, except that an individual is replaced by a group that becomes motivated by extreme Islamist ideology.
  • Lone Attackers – Individuals who operate alone, but demonstrate clear command and control links with groups with extreme ideology. According to Pantucci, unlike the Lone Wolves or Lone Wolf Packs group, these individuals have contact with active extremists, rather than loose online connections or aspirational contacts.

All the members hail from varied background without any ostensible militant connections earlier…

Pantucci’s lone wolf typologies naturally are arranged as a security continuum. On one end of the spectrum, you have individuals who act alone on their own as opposed to individuals who operate with strong outside operational linkages. Located in between are the other two, where operational linkages of either the individual or a group with hardcore terrorists are from weak to moderate.

Pantucci’s narrative on a lone wolf pack is interesting consisting of three key elements – small actor networks, lack of external physical intervention and limited operational contact with active extremist(s). And additionally, small actor networks to some extent could also be identified by the levels of training and virtuality of the networks.9

If the composition of the Islamic State modules in India is studied, there is a striking resemblance to a lone wolf pack (Pantucci’s model), which could facilitate better understanding and assist in classifying them under grassroots terrorism for the following reasons:

Between January and February 2016, the National Investigation Agency arrested six operatives namely Mohammed Ahad, Mohammed Afzal, Syed Mujahid, Asif Ali, Suhail Mohammed, Najmul Huda from Karnataka, four operatives namely Mohammed Shareef, Mohammed Nafees Khan, Abu Anas, Mohammed Obedullah from Telangana, three operatives namely Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh, Khan Muhammed Hussain, Imran Khan Pathan, from Maharashtra and three operatives Mohammed Aleem, Nawazuddin Ali alias Rizwan, Abdus Sami Qasmi from Uttar Pradesh and Azhar Iqbal from Madhya Pradesh. All of them were arrested for planning to conduct terrorist attacks in India. These arrests closely follow the arrest of four operatives of the Islamic State in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, 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 also part of the Islamic State network in India. Apart from the above, some more individuals have been picked up whose identity is not known.10 All of them are religiously devout and motivated by the radical extremist ideology. This is the first reason they even started participating in online Jihadi forums. However, there are strong indications that they are self-motivated individuals who have strong inclination towards extremist ideologies.

The group had limited operational linkages with active extremists i.e., only with Shafi Armar, who is known to be an Indian Mujahideen member. There is no reason to believe that the cell members had contacts with anyone else apart from Shafi Armar. Once a handful of them were in established contact with handlers like Shafi Armar who used his nom de guerre Yusuf Al Hindi, the rest of the cell members who were local acquaintances of some of the members, were also roped in. Lack of or limited formal ties to the parent organisation, but subscribing to the larger goal of other movements, is a classic trait of a single actor or small group network similar to the ones found in Islamic extremists.11

Within the group, there are no hardcore trained elements. All the members hail from varied background without any ostensible militant connections earlier. In fact, a video to manufacture an improvised explosive device was actually forwarded by an Islamic State operator named ‘Gumnam’ (ostensibly an alias for Shafi Armar) to Nafeez Khan, one of the cell members from Andhra Pradesh. Nafeez Khan could not assemble the explosive device, but was planning to conduct test explosions in Narsapur forests in Medak district.12 And again, some of the cell members broke the cardinal rule of not meeting operatives of other state cells. For instance, small actor networks are highly compartmentalised and do not interact with operatives of other cells in the same country. However, Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh, Nafeez Khan and some others met at Tumakuru (Tumkur renamed) near Bengaluru on the pretext of taking up hiking, blatantly exposing their network, thus endangering it. These acts clearly show that members have not been trained in terrorist tradecraft, which actually differentiates a hard core cell from the greenhorns.

Their network is primarily virtual in nature. Online forums enabled them to meet with like-minded individuals without compromising their identity which gave them a sense of security. This virtuality is the key to the success and efficiency of grassroots terrorism. Stern and Modi’s seminal work titled “Producing Terror, Organisational Dynamics of Survival” is a substantive but rare addition to the body of literature on virtual networks, which has been able to bring out the distinction between virtual and non-virtual arrangement in a terrorist network. According to Stern and Modi, non-virtual networks spawn face to face and physical interactions as opposed to virtual interactions in virtual networks.13

Perhaps, the only divergent characteristic which runs contrarian to a small actor network is that this particular cell was organised functionally. Its command and control structure was well-defined, internally to say the least, with Mudabbir as its Emir, Rizwan Ali of Kushinagar, UP, as Naib Emir, Najmul Huda as military commander and Mohd Nafeez Khan of Hyderabad as finance chief. One plausible explanation could be that the cell members would have wanted some degree of command and control over their operations and hence would have envisaged this formal functional hierarchy. Again, there was an organisational informality, having no formal communication with larger and more organised terrorist groups. Given these, the fact that they have chosen to organise themselves as a formal organisation and function hierarchically, does not necessarily disqualify them from being considered as grassroots terrorism.


Click to Buy: IDR Oct-Dec 2016


Grassroots terrorism which is defined as organisational de-evolution of terrorist groups into single actor or small actor networks, is one of the recent phenomena witnessed in larger and older terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. In larger groups, this de-evolution is more of a compulsion rather than choice as the groups and its networks break down into small actor groups or networks due to counter terrorism measures. However, on the other hand, newer groups such as the Islamic State have adopted the concept of single actor or small actor networks intentionally.

Characterised by its virtuality, loosely organised, platonic relationship with the parent or other operational modules, grassroots terrorism has taken the global community by storm. The fact that the countries around the world are experiencing more attacks from grassroots terrorism consisting of lone wolfs, single actor or small actor networks, compared to attacks from traditional terrorist groups, clearly demonstrates the lethality, effectiveness and threat from grassroots terrorism.

In India, groups such as the Islamic State have attempted to build such models. The Islamic State modules though may not closely align with the textbook definition of grassroots terrorism, still emanate certain key characteristics such as compactness of the group, lack of formal training and more importantly, limited operational linkages with the parent unit. Factoring these into account, traditional countermeasures may not be effective against this grassroots terrorism in India. While the global community is pre-occupied with debating threats from groups such as Al Qaeda and more recently the Islamic State, the phenomenon of grassroots terrorism perpetrated by small groups or loosely connected individuals, pose a potent threat to the global community. The autonomous and virtual nature of the model is the key to the success of grassroots terrorism. The above two characteristics mitigate the risk of detection and facilitate building a perfect ecosystem for small actor network or in some cases, for even individuals to perpetrate acts of terror.


1. Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Pres, 2008).

2. Bruce Hoffman, “The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism: Why Osama Bin Laden Still Matters,” Foreign Affairs 87 (2008)

3. This article considers small actor networks, single actor lone wolfs as an integral part of grassroots terrorism as both of them do not display characteristics such as formal organisation, structured hierarchies and organised command and control as displayed by larger traditional terrorist organisations.

4. Foreign Fighters, An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq,  (The Soufan Group, 2015), http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf. (accessed on 31st August 2016)

5. Information on 35 global affiliates of the Islamic State available at Intel Center, http://intelcenter.com/maps/is-affiliates-map.html(accessed on 31st August 2016)

6. Unlike traditional terror groups, the two Islamic State modules neutralised so far do not have any operational linkages between them.

7. Even as this article was taking shape, there has been reports in the mainstream media that Shafi Armar may have been killed in a US drone strike.

8. Raffaello Pantucci, A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists, (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2011), http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/1302002992ICSRPaper_ATypologyofLoneWolves_Pantucci.pdf (accessed on 31st August 2016)

9. Small actor groups, most of the times lack formal training compared to hardcore elements who are well-trained.

10. Reports indicate that the NIA had picked up 25 suspects. However, names of only 21 suspects are available in open source publications. These arrests are exclusive of the arrests made by other state police forces while stopping people from travelling to Syria and Iraq.

11. Audrey Heffron Casserleigh, Jarrett Broder, and Brad Skillman, “Organizational De-Evolution; The Small Group or Single Actor Terrorist,” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology 6 (2012)

12. Marri Ramu, “Nafeez Chose Narsapur Forest for Blast Trials,” The Hindu, January 25, 2016.

13. Jessica Stern and Amit Modi, “Producing Terror, Organisational Dynamics of Survival,” in Countering the financing of Terrorism, ed. Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert (London: Routledge, 2008).

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
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 subject matter expert on terrorism and terrorism financing, He is the co-author of Terror Funds in India (Lancer 2017). He is author of upcoming books on Islamic State in South India and threat financing in India.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

One thought on “Emerging Threat of Grassroots Terrorism and Lone Wolf Actors in India

  1. Very Well Written Article Bala Sir. I hope that your thinking will inspire the policy makers and we should also work as an individual to identify such potential threat.

    I will like to here from you that what are the ways by which we could help to beat such potential threat to society.

More Comments Loader Loading Comments