Information available from open source media regarding pro-ISIS elements in India indicates that jihadist activities are being observed by intelligence agencies in a dozen Indian states.
This article will review the current jihadist threat to India from the Islamic State, or ISIS, as well as from Pakistan, which seems to be reviving militancy in Punjab.
Three days before the 27 July terror attacks in Gurdaspur district, a media report noted on 24 July that Punjab “is reportedly witnessing revival of Khalistan Movement”, basically a terror network backed by Pakistan.
This article will also argue that the Indian government and the judiciary need to put curbs on social media networks and the Urdu press to curtail pro-jihadist rationalisations.
While the French Revolution gave us the slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the post-9/11 reality of global jihad means that India must add a fourth component to the cause of human freedom: Security.
Indian Intelligence Reports
On 21 July, journalist Aman Sharma of The Economic Times reported that the Home Ministry would soon hold “a meeting with states to discuss the growing influence of ISIS in the country.”
Sometime in July, the Home Ministry prepared a note that aims to evolve a national Plan of Action against the “phenomenon of ISIS.” Sharma added: “intelligence agencies have raised concerns over indications of ISIS influence in at least a dozen states, including the sensitive state of Jammu & Kashmir.”
These concerns were flagged off by intelligence agencies, Sharma noted in his report, especially for “Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Jammu & Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh among a dozen states in this regard.”
According to the report, the July note observes:
“As per available intelligence inputs, very few number of Indian youth(s) have joined ISIS after travelling to Iraq and Syria. Further, intelligence/security agencies have foiled the plan of some youth(s) to travel to Iraq/Syria who are under counselling and monitoring at present. A certain number of ISIS sympathisers are also under surveillance by security agencies.”
As per the report, Home Secretary L.C. Goyal, working to evolve a national strategy on counter-radicalisation, expressed concern in an earlier note dated June 20 that “radicalisation of youth is increasingly becoming an issue of ‘serious concern’ in the government in the context of the ISIS.”
As the support of ISIS has grown worldwide over the past year, India is known to have some alert minds at the wheels such as National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. As per a media report, Doval who took a two-day trip to Kashmir on July 21-22 has called “a high-level security meeting of 10 states to discuss the ‘silent’ threat.”
The report also noted that former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Syed Asif Ibrahim, who is known for counter-radicalisation expertise, has been engaged by the government for a role in Kashmir. On July 24, another media report noted that “top-level representatives of 10 states including Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, which is reportedly witnessing revival of Khalistan Movement, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and the North-East Indian states, will be present” at the upcoming meeting of states on the influence of ISIS.
Indian Muslim Youth Joining Al Qaeda and ISIS
Speaking at a counter-terrorism conference in Jaipur, Home Minister Rajnath Singh had said on March 19: “Influence of the Islamic State on the Indian youth(s) is negligible as just a handful of Indian youth(s) have joined the ISIS and some have also returned after being persuaded by their families.”
At a public event in Assam last year, Rajnath Singh had said: “in such a large country, only 18 Muslim youths have been attracted to the ISIS.” Over the course of the past 12 months, Indian media reports about the number of Indian Muslims joining ISIS and Al-Qaeda or expressing support for them have put varying figures: four, five, six, 11, 13, 15, 25, 80, 100 and 300. This month, reports indicated that 11 Indians may have travelled to Syria and Iraq, joining the ISIS.
India is a large country of 1.23 billion people, which means that it will be always difficult for intelligence agencies to be present everywhere. While the actual figures of Indian Muslims joining ISIS may not be known, it seems that the number of Indian Muslims attracted to the jihadist call of ISIS could be between a few scores up to 300.
Indian Muslims who joined the ISIS followed several paths: four individuals flew directly from Mumbai to Iraq; one Kashmiri youth based in Australia went directly to Syria via Turkey; some youths from Tamil Nadu based in Singapore travelled to Syria; Indian youths from the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries joined ISIS.
Areeb Majeed, one of the four Mumbai youths, disclosed after return that he counted 13 Indians at a terror training camp in Syria. Youths of Indian origin from the UK and South Africa are suspected to be based in Syria. Also, some of a dozen Indian Muslims who went to the Pakistan-Afghanistan region appear to have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State.
Rising Support for ISIS in Jammu & Kashmir
Of special importance is Jammu & Kashmir, which borders Pakistan.
Lt.-Gen. Subrata Saha of the Indian Army noted recently that during 2014: “There were five instances when we saw the flags (of ISIS) on display at different places, on four occasions in Srinagar and one occasion at Shopian.”
A string of media reports in June-July this year indicated that there is increasing support for ISIS among Kashmiri youths. On June 12, ISIS flags were hoisted during a protest following the weekly Friday prayers at a mosque in Srinagar as well as at another mosque in Kupwara district. On June 19, an ISIS flag was waved by a masked youth in a rally organised by separatists in Anantnag district. On June 26, ISIS flag was waved during a protest in Srinagar.
The act of waving ISIS flags is mostly of political nature and is continuing. On July 17 and 18, ISIS and Pakistani flags were waved during a protest in Srinagar against the house arrest of secessionist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. On July 24, the ISIS flag was shown in Srinagar.
In the past, Kashmiri youths waved Pakistani flags as a form of anti-India protest. But the Pakistani flag is being increasingly replaced by the ISIS flag in these protests which mostly occur after the weekly Friday prayers, and do not mean that these youths are essentially members of the ISIS. However, an Indian media report dated July 22 indicates that “32 youths were reported to have joined the ranks of militants” in Jammu & Kashmir this year, not necessarily with the ISIS.
Recently, a group of 11 Kashmiri youths who joined the Pakistan-backed terror group Hizbul Mujahideen this year released a video of themselves dressed in military fatigues and carrying guns. The video was shot somewhere in a forest in Kashmir. The ages of the militants range from 19 to 29; and ten of them have been identified by the local security officials.
As per a media report, the number of foreign terrorists in Kashmir is over 50.
Journalist Bashaarat Masood wrote in a July 26 report: “33 young men… have joined the ranks of militancy in the first six months of the year in the [Kashmir] Valley, taking the total number of its active militants to 142. Of the 142, 54 are foreigners, mostly from Pakistan, and 88 are local youths.”
Speaking on the Kargil Vijay Diwas – which marks India’s victory in Kargil on July 26, 1999 in the largest Pakistani state-supported jihadist war against India in recent times – Lt.-General D. S. Hooda, the chief of Indian Army’s Northern Command, told reporters that the ISIS was “creeping towards this side” in India from Pakistan. Hooda said:
“There are no large footprints of ISIS in Jammu & Kashmir. Yes, there are incidents of flag waving that we have seen. Is it a matter of concern, yes it is. Because ISIS is such an organisation with such radical sort of ideology and views that we should make sure that it doesn’t even get a hold.”
Lt.-General Hooda also noted that in recent years, the number of Kashmiri youths joining militancy was about five, six or seven per year, but this has now shot up. He further stated:
“There are reports that last year [in 2014], according to our intelligence figures, about 60 local recruits, mostly from south Kashmir, and this year, about 30-35 is the figure that we have [of youths who joined militancy]. The number is not that large that it will transform the security situation in Jammu & Kashmir.” “But obviously, it is a matter of concern when young people have now slowly again started picking up the gun because two-three years back, the numbers were single digit – five, six or seven – that was the kind of recruitment taking place”
There are other estimates indicating that about 100 terrorists were able to infiltrate per year into Jammu & Kashmir from Pakistan in recent years.
The ISIS threat to India is complicated because there is always a risk that the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), known for creating and nurturing terrorist groups to fight against Afghanistan and India, could rope in some of the ISIS-affiliated jihadists in Pakistan-Afghanistan region.
India has always been alert to the state-supported jihadist organisations. At the March 19 conference, Rajnath Singh accurately diagnosed:
“The source of most terrorist activity in India lies across our borders. It is unfortunate that even after paying such a heavy cost for itself, Pakistan and its associates find it difficult to understand that there are no ‘good terrorists and bad terrorists’.”
The reference to “good terrorists” is generally not comprehensible to unsuspecting audiences in the Western countries, who come to misleadingly think that these are some “good” Taliban that Pakistan uses. However, for Indian audiences, it is clear that “good” are those terrorists which Pakistan uses to advance jihad against Afghanistan and India.
The fact that India has always been alert to the Pakistani state-backed jihadist threat does not automatically follow that New Delhi has also been meeting the challenge. The default Indian position has been to reach out for peace; its best example was Pakistani army ruler General Pervez Musharraf who masterminded the jihadist incursion into Kargil in 1999 and on whose watch the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks were planned. He was hosted in Delhi and Agra as if he was the envoy of peace. Musharraf is regularly feted by Indian journalists who lap him up for exclusive interviews as if he was a saint despite the overwhelming evidence against him for launching the Kargil war, arguably the biggest jihadist attack against India in recent memory.
Put Curbs on Urdu Press and Social Media Networks
While India has military preponderance to deal with the Pakistani state, the work of counter-radicalisation in India should involve the following: both the government and the Indian judiciary should stay alert to the use of social media by jihadist groups, as well as propagation of jihad and rationalisations of Muslim grievances by Urdu and other media outlets, both offline and online, accessed by Indian Muslim youths.
In his landmark speech in Birmingham on July 20, British Prime Minister David Cameron noted:
“as we counter this ideology [of Islamic extremism], a key part of our strategy must be to tackle both parts of the creed – the non-violent and violent.”
India must remain aware of the challenge of ISIS in the domain of non-violence as various Islamist groups seek to get a foothold in Indian Muslim societies through non-violent means.
During the post-9/11 years, it has been observed that the Left-liberal groups defended the terrorists’ rights to free speech. The Washington DC-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), to which this writer is affiliated, has highlighted through a series of research papers how jihadist groups are using social media such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Tumblr to propagate jihad, offer video tutorials in assembling bombs and recruit terrorists.
In the early days when ISIS was yet to make a mark, attempts by MEMRI to have the jihadist content on the internet removed was countered by officials from social media networks that it would be violation of free speech and was not humanly possible to do so.
In a January 30 essay published in Forbes magazine, Yigal Carmon and Steven Stalinsky of MEMRI argued the following:
“One can hardly imagine the development of the global jihad movement without the Internet. An entire generation of Muslim youth(s) has been and continues to be radicalized online by violent images and incitements to murder.”
“These [social media] companies should be questioned in a transparent framework, and must commit to tackling the problem of eradicating violent jihadi content from their platforms. It is time for the government to catch up to terrorist use of the Internet and create and enforce new laws to address this problem.”
A purely technological argument has also been offered: since most social media networks already use algorithms to prevent child abuse content from appearing on their websites, they must similarly prevent the publication of jihadist content through algorithms and proactive monitoring.
David Cameron’s call for a counter-radicalisation strategy also means that the Indian government must put curbs on media outlets, which promote Islamic extremism through non-violent means by offering justifications on the grounds of Muslim grievance issues.
This is especially important for India where a section of the Urdu press is engaged in rationalising the jihadist arguments against democratic governments as well as against liberal and reformist voices among Muslims.
Two examples from India’s Urdu press here are highly relevant. First, Roznama Urdu Times, a Mumbai-based Urdu-language daily newspaper, published a leading article by Muhammad Najeeb Qasmi Sanbhali in its issue dated December 26, arguing that Muslims being converted to Hinduism are justified to be killed. The article quoted Hazrat Ayesha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, as saying that the prophet had said: “if a person leaves his religion (of Islam), then murder him.”
The article, written in the context of the ghar wapsi (re-conversion) debate emanating from Hindu groups’ attempts at reconversion of Muslims and Christians, quoted verses of the Qur’an, hadiths (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), as well as sayings and practices of the Righteous Caliphs (the first four caliphs of Islam: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Khattab, Usman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib) to justify the killing of apostates, i.e. Muslims who leave Islam.
It should be mentioned that the killing of apostates is a major argument forwarded by jihadist organisations across the world, including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. The Urdu daily stated:
“In this verse [152 of Koran’s chapter Al-Araf], Allah has clearly ordered that an apostate be killed… In fact, the first interpreter of the Koran, Prophet Muhammad, has clearly ordered the killing of a person becoming apostate.”
The second example is that of Haftroza Nai Duniya, a mass-circulation Urdu weekly newspaper published and edited by former parliamentarian Shahid Siddiqui. The newspaper’s issue dated May 25-31, 2015 was devoted to the issue of “terrorism and Islam.”
Through a series of articles, whose authors were not identified, the Urdu weekly narrated a series of grievances, both historical from the era of Prophet Muhammad to the contemporary times, to indirectly inculcate in the minds of Muslim youths the same arguments that jihadist organisations are forwarding.
For example, the Haftroza Nai Duniya argued that jihad is essentially defensive in nature and all wars involving Muslims have always been due to aggression on the part of non-Muslims right from the days of Prophet Muhammad till the present times. By not naming the authors of the articles, Haftroza Nai Duniya sought to escape individual responsibility for the views expressed in them, but in such a situation it will be right to infer that those views are of the newspaper’s editor Shahid Siddiqui.
The newspaper published conspiracy theories such as these: American soldiers chopped off Osama bin Laden’s body into pieces and threw them on the mountains of Afghanistan as they were returning from the 2011 operation in Abbottabad; the “so-called Islamic terrorism has been born from the womb of American imperialism” and there is an “organised conspiracy from Hollywood to television serials” to facilitate American foreign policy in the Middle East.
It also posed a question and answered: “The Islamic State’s massacres: After all, who is mutilating the character of Islam?” – “There is only one answer: America.”
It should be mentioned that Islamic clerics routinely disparage Jews to advance grievances against the non-Muslim world.
Shahid Siddiqui’s Haftroza Nai Duniya justified the massacre of nearly 900 Jews of Banu Quraiza on Prophet Muhammad’s orders. It should be noted that the Banu Quraiza Jews had surrendered, offering to leave behind their wealth. If an Indian journalist deems it fit to justify the massacre of nearly a thousand surrendered persons, one is left wondering how he is different from ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who too beheads numerous surrendered Shias, Christians and gays in Syria and Iraq today.
Continuing Threat of Pakistan
As long as Pakistan continues to exist, India will continue to face a threat to its security. This is purely due to the ideological nature of the Pakistani state, currently being strengthened with American money and arms.
The July 27 terror attacks in Gurdaspur occurred even as the Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is engaged in recruiting youths from refugee camps of Burmese Muslims in Indonesia.
Indian youths should remain aware of the jihadist threat that is seeping into our society. However, they should also remain alert that jihadists seek to cause fear among masses. Jihadists will succeed if the people start acting with paranoia, thereby hurting the social cohesion of India and damaging relations between various communities.
While the security forces, intelligence agencies and police departments work to check the phenomenon of jihadism, counter-extremism will succeed only when Indians join hands and work to strengthen the country’s cohesion. On Twitter and other social media platforms, one sees Indian youths getting worried about the jihadist threat to India.
To the youths of India who are in the tempestuous age of teens to twenties: yours is an age when you should have fun, go to college and study, do fall in love but do not convert in order to marry, and work hard to succeed in life.
This will ensure that the Republic of India is secure for the next half a century and more.
Former BBC journalist Tufail Ahmad is the executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. Ahmad is the author of “Jihadist Threat to India – The Case for Islamic Reformation by an Indian Muslim.” He tweets @tufailelif