Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

Islamic State’s India Dilemma

What does the Nangarhar jailbreak tell us about the terror group’s recruitment in India?

By Abdul Basit and Mohammed Sinan Siyech for
Islamic State’s India Dilemma

Kashmiri protesters hold Islamic State flags as they shout slogans during a protest in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Friday, May 31, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Dar Yasin

While claiming responsibility for the Nangarhar jailbreak in eastern Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)’s propaganda wing released photographs of 11 attackers, including three Indian recruits from Kerala. In six months, this is the second time that Indian radicals have been part of a high-profile attack in Afghanistan. In March, a pro-IS Indian militant from Kerala, Muhammad Anis alias Abu Khalid Al-Hindi, perpetrated the Sikh Gurdwara attack in Kabul. Later, Islamic State’s weekly newsletter, Al-Naba, carried a detailed profile of Anis. In February 2020, IS also started a monthly propaganda magazine, Voice of Hind, which exclusively focuses on India.

Interestingly, the first part of the audio message released by ISKP spokesperson Sultan Aziz Azzam after the Nangarhar jailbreak is in Urdu. This indicates that the terror group is trying to target the north Indian Muslim community to fuel fresh recruitment and radicalization. Generally, IS’s propaganda aimed at India has been in local languages spoken in south India such as Malayalam and Tamil, among others.

ISKP’s posturing indicates its continued interest and obsession with India amid growing communal spasms and political polarization.

Resilience of Indian Islam to Global Jihadist Propaganda

India has always been a puzzle for global jihadists when it comes to recruitment. The number of Indian radicals within the ranks of al-Qaeda and IS remains negligibly low. Even the social media revolutionization of jihadist recruitment and radicalization has not lowered the entry barriers for alienated Indian Muslim youth to participate in global jihadism. At its peak, IS successfully recruited over 40,000 supporters and sympathizers using the internet and social media platforms from 120 countries around the world. Yet Indians did not amount to more than 200 according to the most liberal figures.

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After the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent has been the birthplace of the largest number of non-Abrahamic religions in the world, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism, among others. The country is also the seat of two of the world’s most ancient and advanced civilizations, the Gandharan and Indus valley civilizations. These factors give Indian Islam unique syncretic characteristics, which over the centuries have cross-fertilized with other faith communities and belief systems. Anchored in historic political pragmatism, the ethos of Indian Islam is pluralistic and inclusive, and it rejects exclusion and conservatism. Furthermore, in the majority-minority context, India’s Muslim community has always invested in liberal-secular politics, which champions religious equality.

The declining utility of violent campaigns, particularly those of the global jihadist movements, in achieving political objectives, has been the most significant deterrent in keeping Indian Muslim youth away from jihadism. The politically savvy Indian Muslim population is a byproduct of the country’s secular-liberal norms and institutionalized democratic culture. Rather than jumping on the global jihadist bandwagon, they adopt established political methods within the democratic framework to register their demands and grievances.

The failure of global jihadism to achieve their utopian goals is not lost on the Indian Muslim population, notwithstanding aggressive propaganda both by al-Qaeda and IS. For instance, al-Qaeda has been reduced to the former shadow of itself, while its South Asian affiliate has remained a flop show since its formation Likewise, IS has lost the self-styled terrestrial Caliphate in the Middle East and its South Asian branches — in India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — have struggled to maintain their relevance.

ISKP’s Persistent Interest in India

By showcasing Indian fighters in prominent attacks in Afghanistan, ISKP is trying to dispel the narrative that Indians cannot succumb to radicalization. Furthermore, previous news reports noted that Indian radicals who joined IS in Syria and Iraq were often forced into menial jobs such as cleaning toilets. By highlighting Indians in such high value incidents, the group could also be trying to do away with this narrative of low importance accorded to Indians.

Finally, IS is trying to capitalize on the widening communal fault lines within India. Amid rising incidents of Islamophobia, lockdown of Muslim majority Kashmir, and the recent prayers held at the site of the demolished Babri mosque to inaugurate construction of a temple for the Hindu god Ram, Indian Muslims are facing growing insecurity. The discriminatory attitude of Hindu nationalists was visible in the demonization of Muslims as a supervector of COVID-19 despite several hotspots appearing across India. IS is trying to capitalize on these communal fault lines.

The opposition parties in India applauded the inauguration of Ram’s temple on August 5, coinciding with the date when Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status was revoked last year. IS will exploit this partisan behavior of the Indian opposition, particularly the Congress party, in whom the Muslim community has historically reposed its confidence. This theme has played out significantly in the Voice of Hind, with articles condemning Hindu right-wing figures, Muslim political actors, and opposition parties as well as the whole notion of Indian secularism and nationalism.

Vigilance Is Not Optional

In South Asia, Islamic State’s persisting interest in India despite its failures indicates that it is not willing to abandon its hopes for Indian Muslims. IS’s Indian branch alongside its Pakistani branch will likely be feeder organizations for its central presence in Afghanistan. As such, it can be expected that the group will keep chipping away at Indian Muslims. After all, even a few Muslims joining them can help the group lay out a more triumphant narrative.

Notwithstanding the resilience of Indian Islam in preventing young Muslims from turning to jihadism, IS’s persistent India-centric propaganda campaign should not be overlooked. Sooner or later, a new generation growing up in a more polarized atmosphere may forget the ineffectiveness of violence and therefore, resort to it either in India or by travelling abroad. Indeed, a recent U.N. report mentioned that Islamic State already has about 200 members in parts of southern India.

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India needs to be cautions and vigilant as it cannot rely forever upon — and inadvertently over-test — the resilience and revulsion of Indian Islam to radical influences or bank only on its law-enforcement response. This is even more important in the face of growing Islamophobic trends within the country

Abdul Basit is a Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore. He tweets at @basitresearcher. 

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Senior Analyst at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore. He tweets at @sinansiyechmd