rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has attracted terrorists and
militant-minded people from across the globe to the wars in Iraq and Syria.
Originally conceived by the Central Intelligence Agency as a front against
Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, ISIS quickly escaped its sponsor’s shackles and
threatened the very states that created it. Proven from the series of leaked
Defence Intelligence Agency documents, the support for and nurturing of ISIS by
the United States and its allies was a policy blunder of the first magnitude.
Before the west and Arab world realised what they had done, Islamist fighters from 125 countries converged on the Syrian and Iraqi platforms and joined the fighting to establish a promised Islamic Caliphate.
When ISIS first showed its hand in spectacular fashion in June 2014 with the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, armed militancy in Bangladesh had been brewing for six years, militancy in Kashmir was 26 years old, Pakistan had been supporting and opposing terrorism for 36 years, and Afghanistan had been at war for 36 years. South Asia is one of the oldest battlegrounds for terrorism with vast swathes of land under the virtual control of terrorist organisations.
Its increasingly sclerotic terror landscape got fresh breath and a suitably brutal ideology when ISIS captured Raqqa, Syria, declared it the capital of the caliphate and hoisted its flag. The Syrian civil war, in which diverse and contrasting powers participated, has contributed to the spread and strength of ISIS. In the initial stages of the Syrian conflict neither the west nor the Arab world gave much thought to the spillover impact of supporting an unethical regime change. The journey of extremists from various countries into the Syrian and Iraqi theatres was ignored principally because the front against Syria needed fighters. They neglected to calculate the consequences of the fires they were lighting in Syria. It was only a matter of time before they spread to safer shores. Soon ISIS- inspired attacks devastated Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Orlando, Jeddah, Dhaka, Medina and Nice.
A UNSC committee in April 2015 noted that more than 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries were in Syria and Iraq. It likened Syrian and Iraqi battlegrounds to an international finishing school for extremists.
Bangladeshi authorities and security agencies across the world try to ascertain
the background of the new terrorists and their possible affiliation with ISIS,
the world is failing to recognise the beginnings of another tragedy under its
nose, the reverse flow of ISIS ideology into their lands. The spread of ISIS in
countries whose fighters have participated in Iraq and Syria is a complex and
so far little debated subject. When extremists across the world made a beeline
for Iraq and Syria, the respective authorities tried to put a number on the
fighters going to join ISIS.
In South Asian countries, however, they did not bother to count how many of their people went to ISIS. Almost no thought was given to the possibility of battle-hardened ISIS fighters returning with their toxic ideology and in turn indoctrinating their friends and neighbours. There is still no coherent strategy in place to respond to this imminent reverse flow even as an exercise.
A United Nations Security Council expert committee in April 2015 noted that more than 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries were waging war in Syria and Iraq. Its report likened the Syrian and Iraqi battlegrounds to an international finishing school for extremists and warned about the consequences of the scattering of trained and violent ideologues across the world.
ndia, with its long and porous borders, young and impressionable Muslim population and proliferation of militant groups, is particularly vulnerable to ISIS. The outflow of Indian fighters to the ISIS theatres is not confined to the subcontinent. There are more than four million Indian immigrants in the Arab world and three million persons of Indian origin live in Africa, two regions that facilitate the safe passage of ISIS fighters into Iraqi and Syrian battlefields.
With a whopping 172 million Muslims India is a promising recruitment ground for ISIS. There is neither public soul searching nor any real effort to put a number on the people who have joined ISIS.
Less than a month before the fall of Mosul in 2014, a group of Indian youths disappeared from their suburban Mumbai homes, only to be spotted a little later on the Iraqi and Syrian frontlines. The much highlighted disappearance of the youths from Kalyan in the middle of May 2014 shook the government of India out of its slumber. It was only after they managed to get one back in December 2014 that investigators realised the extent of ISIS penetration. Until the interrogation of Areeb Majeed no one had tried to assess the ISIS threat. They changed their stand in May 2015 when the charge-sheet was filed in court. For the first time security agencies admitted that ISIS had plans to attack India.
Since the debriefing of Majeed, Indian agencies constantly track the ISIS trajectory across the country through the use of Internet and attempts to profile potential recruits. But the challenge is huge considering that the outflow of Indian fighters from outside India is far greater than from mainland India. Immigrants in Middle Eastern countries are both joining ISIS and facilitating recruitment into the ISIS fold. India’s skewed relationship with the Arab world is only adding to the problem.
With a whopping 172 million Muslims, of whom the majority are Sunni and 35 per cent under 35 years of age India is a promising recruitment ground for ISIS. Western countries, ever since the onset of the Syrian struggle and the formation of ISIS, have conducted studies and employed experts to identify the “genetic code” of radicals and track people from their country making the journey to Raqqa. So they have reliable estimates of the numbers joining ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In India there is neither public soul searching nor any real effort to put even an approximate number on the people who have joined ISIS.
Indian agencies rely mostly on reporting from families about the disappearance of their wards to get an idea. They had no clue when the four Mumbai youths joined ISIS in May 2014. They got the information from the family of one of the boys. This is the reason for the mismatch between Indian estimates and claims by countries neighbouring Syria and Iraq about the presence of Indian fighters.
Estimates about the number of Indians who have joined ISIS vary. There is a discrepancy in headcounts about Indians who are in touch with ISIS recruiters through the Internet and modern means of communication. The numerous charge-sheets filed at various special National Investigation Agency (NIA) courts do not mention the number of Indian fighters under the ISIS banner. There is no official record either about the number of Indians participating in the Syrian and Iraqi theatres. Media reportage and leaks from intelligence agencies inform us about only 23 Indian who have joined ISIS. The Global Terrorism Index which maps terrorists across the world but relies on home governments for data believes just 25 Indian fighters are at the Syrian frontline. But these numbers look like a serious underestimate considering the proliferation of ISIS propaganda on social media platforms and the increasing numbers of NIA raids on ISIS hideouts in cities across India.
The charge-sheet filed in a special court in Delhi reiterated that ISIS sympathisers include “resident and non- resident Indians who have been indulging in identification, radicalisation, recruitment, training and finally transfer of Indian youths to countries including but not limited to Syria, Libya and Iraq”. Members of ISIS are using different channels/services available on Internet, telephones and one-to-one meetings for indoctrinating and motivating Indian Muslim youth.
Court materials do not mention the number of fighters but confirm a regular flow of resident as well as non-resident Indians to Syria, Libya and Iraq. High ranking cyber security officials and cyber experts working for various agencies admit that more than 100 Indian fighters are in Syria and Iraq. Siddhartha Dhar and Neil Prakash are two non-resident Indians from Britain and Australia killed by precision strikes in Syria. Despite their home contacts the Indian authorities did not include these terrorists while counting Indians in Iraq and Syria.
Publicly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers have praised Indian Muslims for their rejection of ISIS ideology but privately the government has been employing officials—from the Ministry of Telecommunications, the Computer Emergency Response Team, Intelligence Bureau, the cyber wings of state police and the National Technical Research Organization to track ISIS presence in India.
One analysis of social media data estimates that over 30,000 people in India are either in direct contact with ISIS or have been following the trajectory of the organisation. Considering the huge number of people showing interest in ISIS India lacks the capacity to monitor or restrict the flow of the organisation’s ideology. Periodical NIA raids across India are an indication of the extensive geographical spread of ISIS ideology.
Even as the NIA under the Ministry of Home Affairs raids ISIS hideouts in city after city, Union home minister Rajnath Singh is rubbishing his agency and claiming “in other parts of the world, ISIS is growing but that will not happen in India and that's because of the family values we have here”. Admitting the ominous presence of ISIS would not go well with his constituency and therefore the government is refusing to accept the seriousness of the threat.
ince Modi came to power, jihadists have bombed Burdwan and Bengaluru and armed attacks were orchestrated in Gurdaspur, Pathankot and at various army cantonments in Kashmir. A closer analysis of these incidents indicates a pattern and possible future strikes. All the attacks are the handiwork of foreign-linked militant organisations like the Student Islamic Movement in India, Indian Mujahideen, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Hizbul Mujahideen, Laskhar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. These attacks confirm fears of both competition and cooperation among international terrorist groups in India.
These organisations are working in tandem, if not together, to strike select locales at regular intervals. The Ansar-ul-Tawhid (AuT), an offshoot of Indian Mujahideen is exclusively aligned with ISIS since September 2014. The Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind is a further offshoot of AuT to organise ISIS sympathisers online.
When dozens of Indians from India or living in Middle Eastern countries travelled to join ISIS nobody thought the flow would start to reverse itself or that it could become a danger to national security and regional stability. Within no time, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan switched sides and ISIS captured vast swathes of the Afghan countryside. In the picturesque Helmand province, the opium belt of Afghanistan long dominated by the Taliban is being threatened by ISIS since January 2015. The Afghan Army’s 215 Corps is fighting a tough battle to counter ISIS influence in Helmand and to regain ground lost to the radicals.
In Nangarhar province, the Haqqani stronghold, many Taliban switched sides, joined ISIS and snatched two districts from Taliban control. The Nangarhar base is used by ISIS as a springboard to push deeper into the country. For the Taliban in Farah province, ISIS presents the worries of larger-scale defections. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, with a strong presence in Afghanistan, has already declared allegiance to the Islamic State making its spread horizontal in northern Afghanistan. ISIS has been recruiting fighters in Afghanistan since April 2014, one month before the formal inauguration of the organisation. Compared to a paltry US$50 per month offered by the Taliban to its average cadre, ISIS offers a whopping US$500, an offer many Taliban are taking.
The presence of ISIS in Pakistan is all too horizontal as 500 militants from the country travelled to the trenches of Syria and Iraq to assist the first batch of ISIS fighters. Data collected by Indian cyber security agencies put the number of Pakistani recruits at 1,500. Bangladesh, under constant ISIS-inspired attacks in the last two years, is another country facing the reverse flow of ISIS ideology. Dozens of Bangladeshis sneaked to the ISIS battlefield and when some of them returned to their country they brought its brutal ideology back along with them.
Indian jihadists who have joined the ISIS have been spreading their tentacles at alarming speed. If the NIA raids are any indication, the reverse flow into India has begun in right earnest. India is not only sending foot soldiers but is also host to ISIS Twitter account handles and provides other technical expertise that can improve the capacity of the group.
he government’s claim that it has contained terrorism thus far is a fable, as ISIS modules continue to be unearthed in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Kushinagar and Srinagar. Although Modi and his ministers have repeatedly dismissed fears of ISIS infiltration, the security agencies, especially the cyber security wings, are feeding government with real time information about ISIS activities in the country and its neighbourhood. In January 2016, Rajnath Singh summoned intelligence and investigative agencies from 13 vulnerable states to deliberate on ISIS’ trajectory in the region.
All the intelligence and investigative agencies are working on a map of radical ideology and the rate at which it is begin disseminated even as they monitor social media in their efforts to preempt possible attacks.
For the moment, they feel that it is not present in big numbers so the most likely danger is from lone wolf suicide bombing or shootings in popular places. But it is possible that they are being premature in their predictions, as a similar mistake about the Mumbai attackers of 2008 proved fatal for Maharashtra police. Barring the Orlando shooting and Nice truck carnage, none of the recent attacks across the world could be called lone-wolf terror. Rather, in all of these incidents the bombers and assailants were acting in groups and displayed clinical synchronism in orchestrating the terror plots.
A closer analysis of recent NIA raids across India provides some interesting information. First, in all these raids, the NIA apprehended groups of people not individuals or lone wolf ISIS sympathisers. The materials seized in the raids include scanning machines, to send the written oath of allegiance to ISIS headquarters at Raqqa; triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a chemical agent similar to the one that used by the Brussels airport bombers; and automatic assault weapons of the type used in the Paris carnage of November 2015.
Is there any indication that these people are forming networks to coordinate strikes across the subcontinent, as terror groups did in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul and Dhaka not so long ago? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
All the elements for coordinated strikes are present; a common brutal ideology, training manuals, chemicals, assault weapons and the field commanders to combine them in deadly fashion in more than one part of India. A unified command is in the making with outfits like Ansar-ul-Tawhid and Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind acting as central processing units. The most impressive of these is Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind, which over a short period of time has methodically build up a central unit, state units and city branches along with designated leaders.
India keeps telling the world that it has been successful in de-radicalising Muslim youth. Diplomats across the world are impressed with India’s so-called resilience and success in keeping ISIS ideology at bay despite the presence of a huge number of Muslims. They are very much interested to hear this story as they have failed in their efforts.
With its more than 9,000 registered madrasas and equal numbers or more unregistered Islamic seminaries, India is considered by the west as a model for de-radicalisation. It is far from the truth. In fact, the government’s de-radicalisation process is near non-existent. Although there is great debate on the subject, the process is bottom-to-top where affected families or community leaders approach the authority, not vice-versa.
Radicalisation takes time as it has to deal with the daily drudgery of life, community living, Sufi moderation and living in a plural society. Thus, social structure and geographical distance are against the immediate success of the reverse flow of ISIS ideology. In addition, there is the fact that prospective militants live in a world far removed from the brutal tensions that rule the lives of their Pakistani and Afghan counterparts. That makes them more reluctant to embrace the extreme violence of the ISIS creed and they are, incidentally, less fearsome than their jihadi cousins in the neighbourhood.
The security agencies are tracking more than two dozen preachers and recruiters from inside as well as outside India. The modus operandi adopted by ISIS recruiters is defying security agencies across the world.
This is the
reason Pakistan switched to using Pakistani terrorist groups in Kashmir after
its disillusionment with local talent. Reports from Arab intelligence agencies
from the ISIS frontline substantiate this argument. The reports suggest ISIS
feel South Asian fighters are “martially-disinclined”, “inferior to Arab
fighters” and therefore “less motivated towards Salafist jihad”. They are
suitable for suicide bombing and should be pushed to the first line of the
fight. Right now, Bangladesh’s politico-social topography is better suited to
welcome the reverse flow of ISIS fighters and ideology and that is why it is
witnessing a spurt in ISIS-inspired terror strikes.
Over time the infiltration of Bangladeshi militant groups into neighbouring countries and the spillover of their activities into the Indian theatre is all but certain. India’s diversity, long and hard-to-police border, and the vast potential operating area provides favourable conditions for both Bangladeshi and international jihadists and extremists.
By May 2016, the government informed Parliament, six cases had been registered involving 49 arrests of suspected ISIS militants. Since then a couple more cases were filed until early July 2016 but the government has steadfastly denied any cross-fertilisation of ISIS with the Communist Party of India-Maoist. Such a half-hearted understanding is dangerous as the interrogation of ISIS sympathisers reveals that the group’s global headhunters from countries like Sri Lanka, Philippines and Argentina are stalking Indian youth to lure them into ISIS.
The security agencies are tracking more than two dozen preachers and recruiters from inside as well as outside India. The modus operandi adopted by ISIS recruiters and planners is defying security agencies across the world.
ISIS functionaries communicate with prospective supporters and recruits through Darknet, Threema, Telegram, Signal, Silent Phone, Chat Secure and Pidgin, all of which are fully encrypted. Communication between ISIS militants and their sympathisers is not always through one app or one method. It is also run through multiple social media sites, different apps and communication systems to dodge security agencies.
ISIS has also used these aids to organise terror acts by trained shooters. The Nice carnage, originally envisaged in 2009 by al-Qaeda trainer Abu Salih Al-Somali, proved that before the security forces stop or overpower lone-wolf attackers, they may achieve their target and inflict heavy damage in a specific area. Dealing with group attacks like Mumbai 26/11 or Paris November 2015 requires a high degree of police training and sophisticated deployment of special forces. South Asian countries lack this sophistication as well as the training to respond to disciplined militant attacks.
errorism today is global, the victims from many nations, and the impact often continental, as in Paris, Brussels, Ankara and Nice, but the response is always local or national. This approach towards response has outlived its utility and a more international approach is required. India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh need to join hands with other South Asian countries to contain terrorism. ISIS ideology does not distinguish in between a Muslim country and non-Muslim states. Countries with large concentrations of Muslims are always vulnerable to ISIS attacks but they would be easier to contain with strong, decisive domestic will and inter-country cooperation.
There is no contingency plan for ISIS-inspired group action in an Indian megacity despite 26/11. Battle hardened militants dosed on Captagon, the drug of choice for ISIS fighters, are a formidable proposition.
fighters, sympathisers and potential recruits are more likely to be part of the
elite. They are familiar with communications technology and particularly open
to militant interpretations of Islam. It is still a matter of puzzlement why
teenage Muslim girls from the West are ready to travel to Syria and Iraq to
become jihadi brides. The same is true of what actually motivates young people
from well-to-do families in South Asia with modern education to adopt a brutal way
of living and tragic death.
The government of India should not speak in too many voices. Modi rightly considers “terrorism the gravest problem of our time”. His home minister cannot hide behind illusory Indian family values that he thinks is preventing Muslim youths from joining ISIS. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar wanted India to participate in anti-ISIS operations under the United Nation’s banner but his view had few takers in the government. So India must set its own house in order first.
There is no contingency plan for dealing with ISIS-inspired group action in an Indian megacity despite 26/11. The attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot have exposed chinks in the armour and ISIS planners are unlikely to miss the casual Indian responses. Battle hardened militants dosed on Captagon, said to be the drug of choice for ISIS fighters, are a formidable proposition.
It is a combination of two drugs, theophylline and amphetamine. The combination itself is inactive in the body, but when the body breaks it down into the two component parts, each part becomes active. Theophylline is similar to caffeine and amphetamine is the main psychoactive ingredient.
Amphetamines produce feelings of pleasure and increased alertness, and they reduce the need for sleep and food. According to experts its effects make users feel “superhuman”.
“You're talkative, you don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you’re energetic,” says Lebanese psychiatrist Ramzi Haddad. It is said Captagon keeps them awake for days so fighters wedded to a brutal ideology could wreak havoc in a populous city.
ISIS’ success and its reverse run to far and remote countries is going to haunt security agencies for some time. Misuse of democracy by leaders, brazen and bizarre corruption in public life and concocted preaching of Islam by half-literate scholars jointly possess the potential not only to speed up the reverse flow of ISIS into South Asian platforms but also lead to direct action.
Hours after the Nice carnage of July 14, ISIS claimed ownership. Even the French authorities and Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the driver Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian immigrant, was radicalised. The Nice attack was unpredictable and therefore virtually impossible to stop, a characteristic of all lone-wolf attacks. A group act like the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka on July 1 was a replication of Mumbai, with the exception that the Mumbai attackers targeted multiple places. Therefore, India has a history of militant groups attacking populous and popular places.
The authorities have found a terrorist training manual titled “Terror Franchise: The Unstoppable Assassin” authored by al-Qaeda trainer Abu Salih al-Somali that inform us about his training for a terror strike. Among the operations he recommends are: a) assassination using (common or improvised) weapons or more effectively toxins (Cyanide, Ricin, Phosgene etc); b) seizure (hijacking planes, buses, trucks, remote civic hauls etc); explosive destruction of a major asset, usually accompanied by substantial loss of life; and unconventional operations (such as ramming rock filled trucks into high speed trains at rail crossings) etc.
Considering the chaotic and relatively slow Indian traffic system a Nice-like attack would not be easy to replicate, but it would be foolish to discount it altogether, or a variant, as it has the potential to kill and maim scores of Indians in any populous city. The reverse flow of ISIS ideology and the silent, private and suicidal radicalisation of Muslim youth is a new and difficult challenge and the security agencies are still feeling their way towards a modus operandi.