India’s Blind Spot on ISIS

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The terrorist group Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) or, as it likes to call itself, the “Islamic State,” has managed to attract Islamist fighters not just from the Middle East but all across the world.

According to data released by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), a London-based think tank, would-be jihadists from countries as far away as Australia and Norway have joined the ranks of the ISIS, which recently announced that the territory it controls, greater than the landmass of the United Kingdom, is now a “caliphate” led by the group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

According to ICSR, most of the overseas fighters populating the ranks of the ISIS have come from Tunisia (3,000 plus), Saudi Arabia (2,500 plus), and other regional Gulf members. However, the organization also notes that Western countries are also rapidly adding to the ISIS numbers, with France (around 700) and Britain (around 500) leading the pack. Even China has figured prominently, with more than 100 jihadists of Chinese origin thought to have fought with ISIS. According to latest estimates by America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the terror group may have up to 30,000 personnel under its command across Iraq, Syria, and possibly even beyond that.

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However, one region where the influence of ISIS and its recruiting propaganda seem to be minimal is South Asia. According to the data, even Pakistan, which has become a safe haven for militant activity, has contributed only around 300 known fighters to the ISIS. From Afghanistan, a meager 25 people seem to have joined.

In late August, reports of the death of one Arif Ejaz Majeed, a civil engineering student from suburban Mumbai, while fighting for the ISIS in Iraq hit the front pages of Indian newspapers. Majeed was reportedly part of a group of people on a pilgrimage to Iraq before he disappeared, and was last spotted in Mosul before his death, allegedly in an air strike. Two others from Mumbai had accompanied him. Majeed became the first confirmed Indian-origin casualty in the Iraq crisis from the side of the ISIS.

India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) had already been alerted to the growing instability in the Middle East and the ripple effects it may have on Indian society. According to reports, an NIA dossier alleged that more than 300 Indian youths had been recruited by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the ISIS, which are now working together. While details beyond this dossier are scant, a similar dossier from the same agency made an appearance in the media some months back, revealing that some members of the now dismantled Indian Mujahideen terror network were going to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regularly to train and fight.

The fact is that very little known as to whether Indians have actually gone and joined the ISIS in any capacity. There are two problems in developing the necessary data: First, local agencies have a vast region to cover both geographically and population wise to gather information; and second, more than 7 million Indians live in the Middle East, and no data is available on whether any of them may have joined the ISIS in Iraq or Syria, or have joined, fought and then returned home.

The ISIS has highlighted India as a target in its grand plans. Propaganda videos calling for fighters with subtitles in languages such as Tamil, Telugu and other languages have cropped up as part of the group’s well-orchestrated social media presence.

The NIA within India has highlighted the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh as places where radicalization may take place and from where people may look to reach the Middle East as jihadists. This list of states has been further condensed into a list of cities, which has yet to be made public. In March this year, Singapore deported Gul Mohamed Maracachi Maraicar of Tamil Nadu for allegedly radicalizing a native of Singapore, Haja Fakurudeen Usmal Ali, who went to fight in Syria. Further investigations had revealed that jihadists had try to recruit college students in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai. Recently, Indian agencies have also been investigating unverified reports of a man originating from Tamil Nadu being part of a suicide bombing mission in the Iraq-Syria region. Again, though, details remain elusive.

The recent arrest in Hyderabad of three individuals allegedly planning to go to Iraq and fight with the ISIS highlights the challenges. While the three people in question were arrested in Hyderabad, they originally hailed from West Bengal, a state not earmarked for investigating ISIS-related radicalism. Still, these cases remain rare.

Some fighters may look to return to India. Jihadists from the West have made multiple trips from Europe to fight for the ISIS, and return without major difficulty. The possibility of returning jihadists poses a grave challenge for the Indian security establishment.

India’s allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are very much at the center of the Iraq and Syria theatre both politically and economically. New Delhi has strategic ties with both Riyadh and Doha. While only limited information is exchanged with Qatar, India has established a solid intelligence relationship with Saudi Arabia, and this could help New Delhi tackle the issue of jihadists who have fought for the ISIS and are now trying to return home.

The fact remains that the number of Indians involved in global jihad is negligible. Indian Muslim scholars have come together in the recent past to condemn ISIS, and the recent announcement by Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri that Al Qaeda is setting up “branch” in India was widely ridiculed, with many calling it a PR stunt to counter the global attention that the ISIS is getting.

In a recent question from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about the Al Qaeda threat, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “if anyone thinks that Indian Muslims will dance to their tune, they’re delusional.” However, these positive factors in India’s fight against radicalization do not mean it should let its guard down against terror groups such as the ISIS. A good first step for India, aside from shoring up intelligence efforts with its Gulf allies, would be to legally ban the group as countries such as Indonesia and Germany have done.

Kabir Taneja is a journalist covering Indian foreign affairs and energy sector for The Sunday GuardianThe New York Times (India Ink), TehelkaThe Indian Republic and others. He is also a Scholar at The Takshashila Institution.

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