The attack in Dhaka earlier this month and the news of twenty-odd “missing” Indians who possibly joined Islamic State have sparked a vigorous discussion on India’s preparedness to take on the threat posed by ISIS. These incidents have led to more questions than answers on the group’s presence, appeal and capabilities in the Indian subcontinent.
This piece is a preliminary attempt to engage with some critical questions that shape how Indian security and intelligence agencies assess and address this threat in the short-to-medium term. What place does India have in Islamic State’s operational strategy? Where do competing regional organizations targeting India, like Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), lie in Islamic State’s universe of friends and foes? And how significant are the linkages between Islamic State and India’s most important homegrown terror outfit, the Indian Mujahideen (IM), today?
“Go Big, But Stay Home”
With the group taking heavy losses in its own territories in Iraq and Syria, its spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s message in May encouraged “lone wolves” to pursue targets within their home countries. The call was not for all believers to head over to the expanding “khilafah” (caliphate) as per usual, but urge them to prove their allegiance by staying exactly where they were and inflict pain locally.
The spate of attacks since June, namely in Istanbul, Dhaka and Medina, are in sync with this shift in narrative. As Islamic State gets more and more desperate, we will see more such attacks.
Is India ready to manage this shift?
The approach now greatly depends on (1) our understanding of Islamic State’s operational strategy for India, (2) whether Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent are competitors or collaborators with Islamic State, and (3) in what ways India’s most active, indigenous terror group—the Indian Mujahideen—is contributing to Islamic State’s agenda.
India in ISIS’s Operations Manual
At the global level, Islamic State’s messaging concerning India focuses on Kashmir. Probing deeper by examining the recruitment video targeting India and interviews with its regional leaders in its mouthpiece Dabiq, ISIS makes threats against Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, and declarations to avenge atrocities against Muslims in Mumbai, Gujarat and Assam, along with highlighting the group’s all-encompassing hatred for the “cow-worshipping, pagan” Hindus.
As a territorial entity, Islamic State organizes its domain under “wilayat” or administrative divisions. So far, the group has declared one such division in the Indian subcontinent—Wilayat Khurasan, consisting of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Apart from this provincial unit, the group’s magazine Dabiq regularly features operations and fighters from a second area, simply termed Bengal (i.e., Bangladesh) often branded “the Khilafah’s soldiers in Bengal.” There is no specific mention of a separate administrative unit or chieftain operating from within India as yet.
Thus, in ISIS’s scheme of things, India lies vulnerably sandwiched between Wilayat Khurasan in the west and Bengal’s fighters in the east. Such a scenario facilitates guerilla attacks inside India from both sides.
In an interview to Dabiq in April, the “amir” (chief) of the Bengal faction laid out his two-step strategy for India. The first stage would require both Wilayat Khurasan and the fighters in Bengal to create “a condition of tawahhush [fear and chaos]” with the help of “existing local mujahidin.” The second stage would involve gaining territorial control of India, but only after “first getting rid of the ‘Pakistani’ and ‘Afghani’ regimes” in order to exploit their conventional capabilities.
Now, the second and final phase seems a very, very tall order. However, the first one—colluding with local elements to create chaos—is quietly underway.
Before exploring these indigenous elements, it will prove useful to study Islamic State’s attitude towards two major South Asian terrorist groups that target India: Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
Contempt for AQIS and LeT
It is well-established that there is no love lost between Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is firmly branded “a leader with no real authority” in the pages of Dabiq.
As one expert recently commented, Islamic State’s “special ire for Muslims” is what sets it starkly apart from its competition. Ironically, its closest competitor shares this sentiment. A senior AQ operative in an interview to the AQIS magazine Resurgence (summer 2015 edition) slammed Islamic State for “being built on falsehood . . . working for its own interests at the expense of the greater interest of the Ummah.”
The subcontinental manifestation of AQ—Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent—is also viewed by Islamic State as colluding with Pakistan. As seen in Dabiq: “In India, they [AQ] are the allies of the nationalist Kashmir factions whose advances and withdrawals are only by the order of the apostate Pakistani army.”
It is also important to note here that unlike LeT, AQIS has yet to prove itself a credible threat in India. Hence, unlike in the Middle East or Afghanistan, plans to manipulate the rivalry between ISIS and AQ is not an idea worth investing in just yet.
When it comes to LeT, Islamic State also demonstrates strong contempt for the group and its handlers, the Pakistani army and intelligence service. In an interview with Dabiq, the chief of Wilayat Khurasan minces no words in criticising the “apostate factions and agents” of Pakistan.
Mentioning LeT by name, he then shares his disapproval of how the group’s members “proceed in accordance with the orders of the Pakistani intelligence.” The Kashmir-focused group’s lack of control over any territory is also viewed as a huge negative by Islamic State.
It would be worth examining how and, more significantly, where this rivalry between ISIS and LeT could play out. Some discussions predict its likelihood in parts of eastern Afghanistan.
An ISIS Feeder Group: Indian Mujahideen–Linked Faction
Returning our attention to the indigenous terrorist elements most active within India, Indian Mujahideen has topped this list ever since its rise to notoriety in 2008 with a slew of strikes across the country. The trajectory of this local entity, it now seems, is directly linked to the future of Islamic State in India.
IM is proving to be a successful feeder for Islamic State. More specifically, a certain splinter group of the organization: Ansar ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (Supporters of Monotheism in the Land of India), or AuT.
This faction broke away from IM due to its growing frustration with its bosses (the Bhatkal brothers, Riyaz and Yasin) and their Pakistani handlers in the ISI. Eager to gain combat experience, its members left Pakistan for Afghanistan, ultimately reaching Islamic State. Their story was confirmed by one of the Indian fighters featured in the propaganda video.
The leader of the group, Shafi Armar (alias Yusuf al-Hindi), was based within Islamic State and, until his alleged death by a U.S. airstrike in April, led not only the recruitment of Indian fighters but also directed attacks within India through local modules.
This second stream of local operatives organized themselves as Junud-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind (Soldiers of the Indian Caliphate), or JKH. This group was set up under Armar’s orders once it became increasingly difficult for large groups of Indian fighters to travel to Iraq and Syria unidentified.
Mapping this local landscape leaves us with a few questions. For instance, who are the key figures guiding Indian recruits since Armar’s alleged death in April? Secondly, how complete was AuT’s falling-out with the Pakistani intelligence service? Would an “alliance of convenience” still prove useful to the India-based JKH?
The Threat Is Local
The counter-war in India has to now be prioritized against Islamic State, the ideology, rather than Islamic State, the territorial entity.
This demands a quick shift in the strategies already employed by security agencies in Indian states as well as the central government. The principal focus should revolve less around the few “misguided” citizens who primarily engage online and proceed to the Middle East, and more strongly around the Indian operatives who choose to hang behind, using existing virtual and offline networks to create chaos in the homeland.
A secondary focus should remain on intercepting those returning from the “Khilafah,” better trained to orchestrate an attack inside India. In the sole propaganda video that Islamic State has released targeting India, one of the six featured jihadists vowed to return to avenge atrocities committed against Muslims. As Islamic State loses territory in Iraq and Syria, desperate fighters returning home to continue the struggle is a very real possibility.
In time, this would also indicate a change in the dominant profile of the average ISIS recruit inside India—not the youngster plotting to head abroad, inspired by the caliphate’s way of life, but the one who is willing to do the groundwork and the heavy lifting to execute its ideology within India. This recruit is willing to patiently organize, plan and execute targeted strikes with a resolve more tenacious than the former.
And these ISIS-inspired recruits continue to rely on local networks to survey targets and access weaponry and explosives. The focus very much remains on disrupting these networks while probing and mending grievances at home.