Islamic State Of Iraq And Al-Sham – Its Emergence And Impact On India

By Nehmat Sethi



1. On June 20, a bearded, black-turbaned middle-aged man clad in black religious attire, with a calm but resolute voice spoke from a faintly lighted balcony (or a mimbar) of a local mosque in Mosul. He announced the message of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a day after he was named the Caliph of the Muslim world. Until then a shadowy figure, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — often called “the ghost” by secret agencies — was much of a mystery to the entire world. By the time “Caliph Ibrahim” made his first public appearance on July 4, IS-controlled territory stretching from al-Bab in Syria’s Aleppo governorate to Suleiman Bek in Iraq’s Salah ad Din province, over 400 miles away.

2. Imprisoned in 2004 and let off as an innocent in December 2009 by the Americans, Baghdadi led ISIS to spectacular success in no time. With the release of ISIS five-year plan to liquidate borders and spread Islam from Spain to China (Andalusia to Khurasan), he has left the world guessing about his next move and sent shockwaves in the States in the entire West Asian region.

3. The threat posed by Sunni jihadis has been evolving for some time. Since the late-2000s, al-Qaeda affiliates have increasingly focused on establishing local bases of operations and acquiring and consolidating territorial control from which to launch more expansive attacks on what they call the “near enemy,” meaning local governments. While terrorist plots against Western targets have continued to emerge, the principal threat to Western interests today is posed by increasing instability within the Middle East, which jihadi groups have exploited for their own benefit. Today, this instability plagues the heart of the Middle East, stretching across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and encompassing the border regions of southern Turkey and northern Jordan.

4. In July, a group of four young men from Mumbai- the urban metropolis of India-left their pilgrim troupe visiting religious shrines in Baghdad, Iraq and changed routes to the northern city of Mosul to join the Islamic State. The flight of the Indian men to the war ravaging in the Levant points to a phenomenon which has already drawn in over 12000 fighters from 83 countries. It has, however, put India on a list of potential Jihadi risk that has intelligence and security agencies in Europe to Australia, America to Indonesia hitting the panic button, worrying on the threat that these radicals pose: inspired by weapons training and Jihadist acts and returning home to commit acts of terrorism.

5. Until now there was an understanding that Syria is geographically far from India and the conflict does not have any impact on the domestic matters of the country. India’s concerns had widely remained on the peripheries of energy security, oil, and natural gas deficit and the effect of the conflict on the 7 million labor force residing in the region that could impact the high remittances sent back home. The risk of foreign fighters first emanated in September 2013 when Syrian ambassador to India, Dr. Riad Abbas disclosed that Indian Jihadists were fighting along with rebels. The case of Tamil Nadu-born Singapore resident Haji Fakkurudin Usman Ali who is suspected to have joined militants from Islamic State and radicalized by Gul Mohammad Maraikar was underplayed by Indian security agencies, as both were non-resident Indians. But as recent details of 18 Indian men from Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu joining the ranks of ISIS as Sunni fighters emerged and one fighter reportedly dying in combat, the implications of the Islamic turmoil in the Levant appear to have drawn closer home, which India can no longer afford to stay out of– it will now be forced to draw new counter-indoctrination strategies to prevent people from volunteering in the war, engaging in terrorism and disseminating jihadist ideology.[ii]

6. The narrative of how Indian fighters have been drawn in the conflict is remarkably similar to the enrolment of other foreign fighters with the Islamist rebel groups, where online propaganda has been pivotal. These fighters typically belong from outside Syria, have no direct connection to the conflict, are in the age range of 18-29 years, often teenagers and a fair percentage of them are converts to Islam from non-Muslim majority countries. While ISIS is said to pay salaries to its militants, there are no direct benefits or visible material gains on offer for the Indian men to participate in the conflict.

7. Why, then, are young men leaving higher education prospects and well-employed jobs to travel to Syria to fight and be killed into a conflict which is not theirs, to begin with? Radicalization by local Islamic groups, social media propaganda on Twitter, Facebook, has created opportunities for curious young men to be inspired from Jihad, persistently drawing on a religious obligation to protect their faith, their fellow Muslims and to walk the path shown by Allah. The Syrian war is also the first modern war where fighters and supporters are using social media in real time to propagate, instigate and document the conflict. The analysis of French government on the foreign fighters as `disaffected, aimless and lacking a sense of identity or belonging’ can be applied to the Indian men as well, who see their life as dejection in the land of kaffirs. “I cried when I saw you all sinning, smoking cigarettes, taking interest, watching TV, indulging in illegal sexual intercourse, living luxurious lives, intermingling of sexes, not praying, not growing beards. These things will lead to you burning in the hell-fire,” wrote one Mumbai youth who has volunteered for the war in Iraq, in a letter left behind for the family. The letter points to the dejection in the land of the kaffirs but does not address the causes of such a dejection or lack of belonging.

8. The presence of foreign jihadists in Syria has increased the security challenges – both internal and external for India. The risk factor prevails largely from the military training, skills, wartime experience and radical discourse that the volunteers will undergo with the militant groups. In an audio released earlier in July, ISIS leader and Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi included India as one of the target countries where the rights of Muslims’ were violated and called all Muslims to fight for their rightful place and dignity. Intelligence officials fear the `target’ could mean the low-intensity conflict in Kashmir which along with Palestine and Chechnya remains high on the radar of Islamist extremists who have vowed for Jihad to liberate the Muslims here against the oppressors.


9. To analyze the emergence of ISIS and its likely implications on India.

The scope of the Study

10. The scope of the IRP would be to study the emergence of ISIS and its implications on India. The project would analyze the rise of Wahabist (Salafist) ISIS and likely emerging threats to India.

Methods of Data Collection

11. Primary. Open sources available on the subject in the library of Army War College, Mhow have been used as primary sources.

12. Secondary. Other sources of data for research include various journals, periodicals and articles related to the subject in print and through associated web sites.

Organisation of the Individual Research Project (IRP)

13. The IRP has been covered under the following sub-heads/ chapters: –

(a) Chapter – I Introduction

(b) Chapter – II ISIS – its emergence and rise

(c) Chapter – III ISIS – Implications on India



14. Wahhabism (Salafism). In Arabic language, it is pronounced as ‘Wahhabiyyah’ which is a puritanical type of Islam practised by the Sunnis. It is a movement initiated by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) who belonged to Uyayra in the Najd area of Saudi Arabia. He promoted a pure form of Islam by getting rid of the Muslim practices which he thought were impure and a wrong interpretation of Islam. It stresses on the uniqueness and unity of God. The first teaching is that of belief in Allah, that he alone is the believer’s lord or Kabb. The second affirms the unity to worship Allah alone. The third is the belief and affirmation in Allah’s names and qualities.

15. Intensely sectarian in its approach, ISIS advocates Salafi-Takfiri ideology, which can tolerate kufr or non-believers but not apostates. According to this philosophy, anybody who claims to be a Muslim but does not advocate true Islam, as is acceptable to the Takfiris, is an apostate. Anybody who has disagreements with ISIS is a potential apostate and worthy of execution. Going by its high quality publications put out in the past few months, which show the strength of the ISIS propaganda machinery, it would not tolerate apostates masquerading as Muslims. It would fight the tawaghits, the worst form of apostates, who have crossed the boundaries of Islam, and oust them from all Muslim States. As Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi underlined in his maiden khutba at Mosul:

“It was only a matter of time before the oppressive tawaghit of the Muslim world would begin to fall one by one to the swords of the mujahidin, who would raise the banner of tawhid, restore the hukm of Allah, direct the masses back to the prophetic manhaj of jihad and away from the corruption of democracy and nationalism, and unite them under one imam.”

16. ISIS follows an extreme interpretation of Islam, promotes religious violence, and regards those who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels or apostates (enemies).  ISIS’s philosophy is represented by the symbolism in the Black Standard variant of the legendary battle flag of Muhammad that it has adopted: the flag shows the Seal of Muhammad within a white circle, with the phrase above it, “There is no God but Allah”. Such symbolism has been said to point to ISIS’s belief that it represents the restoration of the caliphate of early Islam, with all political and religious implications. Over the years, IS fighters have frequently been heard proclaiming “baqiya wa tatamadad” (lasting and expanding). This statement represents IS’s fundamental modus operandi as an organization. Starting from initiation with 9/11 attacks, it is following a seven phase, time-bound program for establishment and expansion of Caliphate. The phases include period of 2000-2003 as the Period of Awakening, 2003-2006, the Period of Opening Eyes, 2007-2010, the Period of Arising and Standing Up, 2010-2013, the Period of Toppling Hated Arab Regimes, 2013-2016, the Period of Declaring Islamic Caliphate and 2016-2020, the Period of Total Confrontation leading to Definite Victory.

1999-2003: Initial Raising

17. ISIS has its origin dating back to 1999, when its founder Ahmad Fadl al-Nazal al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) was released from prison in Jordan. He was released from Jordan’s al-Sawwaqa prison after serving 5 years of a 15 year sentence for possession of weapons and being a member of the Bayat al-Imam—a militant organization founded in 1992 by the notorious Jordanian jihadi ideologue Issam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al- Maqdisi). Zarqawi then moved to Afghanistan, with a letter of tazkiyya (a personal recommendation) from then London-based Abu Qatada al-Filistini. He contacted al-Qaeda and got permission and a $200,000 loan to establish a training camp. He used this camp as a base for building his own jihadi group, Jund al-Sham which was soon renamed to Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (JTWJ). The group consisted of Palestinians and Jordanians and came to international attention for its plot to attack Amman’s Radisson Hotel in December 1999. JTWJ fought in Afghanistan alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban forces before shifting base to Iran and then to Northern Iraq in 2002.

2003-2004: Initiating Iraq’s Insurgency

18. By the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, JTWJ had established a small base in Biyara in the Kurdish province of Sulaymaniya—which was targeted in the initial U.S.-led air campaign. This proved to be JTWJ’s initiation into a conflict that would prove the worth as a militant organization.

19. JTWJ revealed its strategic intent in August 2003 with three significant attacks. On August 7, JTWJ detonated a car bomb—the first of the insurgency—outside Jordan’s embassy in Baghdad, killing 17 people. Then, on the 19th August, a suicide car bombing outside the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq killed 22 people, including the UN Special Representative in Iraq and finally, on 29th August the group targeted the Shi‘ite Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf with another suicide car bomb, killing 95 people, including Ayatol­lah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. JTWJ targeted coalition forces, but these attacks demonstrated its other targets – international community and Shias, which Zarqawi viewed as the chief threat to Sunni power in Iraq and the wider region. This three-pronged targeting strategy was with the objective to undermine occupying forces and starting a sectarian conflict.

20. Zarqawi’s writings reflected anti-Shia rhetoric – regularly quoted Ibn Taymiyya’s warnings – “They are the enemy. Beware of them. Fight them. By God, they lie.” In his final public address before his death on June 7, 2006, Zarqawi said, “The Muslims will have no victory or superiority over the aggressive infidels such as the Jews and the Christians until there is a total annihilation of those under them, such as the apostate agents headed by the rafida.”

2004-2009: Raising of ISI and Consolidation

21. JTWJ increased its attacks from 2004 through 2006, including the use of multiple suicide bombers in mass casualty attacks. The organisation was feared for the kidnapping and beheading of foreign hostages, beginning with American businessman Nicholas Berg in May 2004. In September 2004, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and the organisation was renamed as Tanzim Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, often simplified to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

22. Zarqawi’s relationship with al-Qaeda was fraught with tension, particularly because of AQI’s brutality and mass targeting of Shia civilians. This represented a fundamental difference of opinion between Zarqawi and his masters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Zarqawi thought society had been corrupted and needed cleansing through terrifying violence, al-Qaeda insisted on combating “apostate” regimes and avoiding, where possible, damaging the image of the jihadi project.

23. On 15th January 2006, AQI merged with five other groups (Jaysh al-Ta’ifa al-Mansura, Saraya ‘Ansar al-Tawhid, Saraya al-Jihad al-Islami, Saraya al- Ghuraba, and Kataib al-Ahwal) to form Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM), a coalition whose aim was to unite and better coordinate Iraq’s jihadi insurgency. After Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006, AQI appointed Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (Abu Ayyub al-Masri) as its new leader, and four months later the MSM announced the establishment of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq, or the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi being announced as its Emir. Al-Masri was given the title of Minister of War within the ISI’s ten-member cabinet.

24. The establishment of ISI reflected transformation of a insurgent group to a military-political actor responsible for governing territory. By late 2006, it had reached financial self-sufficiency, raising $70-200 million per year through a combination of ransoms, extortion, and oil smuggling. By early 2007, locally formed tribal Sahwa (Awakening) councils actively fought and defeated ISI in its controlled areas of Anbar province in Iraq. To this, ISI lashed out against rival Sunni insurgent groups seeking to rid themselves of Sunni influence. This was demonstrated on August 14, 2007 when 4 ISI car bomb attacks against Yazidi villages in northern Iraq killed nearly 800 people. Although by 2008, ISI succeeded in defeating Sahwa councils, the threat of ISI diminished. Even US lowered the reward on Masri from $5 million to $100,000.

2009-2011: Restructuring & Recovery

25. In 2008-09, ISI initiated reforms and trained itself again as a typical “terrorist” group. It shifted its headquarters to Mo­sul and reenergised its leadership, with power focused around Baghdadi. ISI reclaimed his membership of the Quraysh tribe which according to Islamic tradition would produce the next caliph. ISI also adopted initiated an information campaign aimed at re-emphasizing the legitimacy of their Islamic state project. By mid-2010, ISI was offering larger salaries than the government and recruiting Sahwa members. Baghdadi was killed along with Masri on April 18, 2010 and was replaced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, another Qurayshi.

2011-mid-2014: Emergence of Caliphate

26. In early 2011, with the Arab Spring in full flow, ISI continued the process of expansion. It escalated its military operations in Iraq, incorporating southern Shi‘ite areas and the Kurdish north, carrying out 20-30 attacks in multiple provinces, often within the space of an hour. For example, ISI militants carried out 22 coordinated bombings in Baghdad and 12 other locations across Iraq on August 15, 2011.

27. In July 2012, ISI initiated a 12-month campaign entitled “Breaking the Walls” with the objective of freeing its imprisoned members. It launched eight attacks on Iraqi prisons and liberated 47 senior ISI leaders besides approximately 500 prisoners.

28. ISI also placed increased focus on collecting and exploiting vast amounts of intelligence. This helped increase its influence across much of Sunni Iraq. Thereafter, in July 2013, ISIS launched a second 12-month plan, Operation Soldier’s Harvest which aimed at undermine the confidence of security forces through targeted attacks and intimidation.

29. On April 9, 2013, in a attempt to reign in Jabhat al- Nusra a Syrian militant organisation, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared it was an offshoot of ISI and would be merged into the expanded Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This new Syria-based ISIS force—composed largely of former Jabhat al-Nusra foreign fighters—began aggressively expanding across northern and eastern Syria. Thereafter ISIS denounced al-Qaeda and started extensive exploitation of social media to cause of controlling territory and establishing an Islamic state.

30. Although the emergence of an anti-ISIS front in northern Syria caused the group to lose considerable territory in early 2014, the setback was temporary. Having consolidated its capital in Raqqa, ISIS forces in Iraq exploited conditions in the Sunni heartland of Anbar to march into Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in January 2014. This marked ISIS’s renewed venture into overt territorial control in Iraq and set the stage for its gradual expansion in Anbar, particularly along the Syrian border. ISIS then began a concerted counter-attack against opposition groups in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor governorate in April 2014, focused along the Euphrates and Khabur rivers. ISIS’s operations in Iraq and Syria were becoming increasingly interrelated, with funds, fighters, and weapons crossing borders more frequently. It was under this emerging reality that ISIS-led the rapid seizure of Mosul on June 10, thereby inflaming the wider Sunni armed uprising across Iraq.

31. To underline their accomplishments and goals, as well as to attract a wider following, ISIS issued a series of coordinated media releases marking the start of Ramadan. The most significant of these was an audio recording, released on June 29 in five languages, that announced the establishment of the caliphate. On the same day the group published videos titled “Breaking the Borders” and “The End of Sykes-Picot” that showed the physical destruction of a land barrier demarcating the Syria-Iraq border and a militant touring a captured Iraqi border post adjacent to Syria. A July 1 audio statement in which Baghdadi celebrated the caliphate’s creation was followed by a July 5 video of his first public appearance as “Caliph.”

IS Military

32. By October 2014 IS commanded approximately 31,000 fighters and accumulated considerable territorial control. It possesses a number of weapons systems and vehicles, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, field artillery, self-propelled howitzers, and multiple-rocket launchers, as well as an assortment of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), anti-aircraft guns, and a small number of man-portable air-defense systems. At times, IS’s military has appeared administratively akin to a nation-state’s army, with units rotating between active frontline duty, days off in “liberated” areas and other deployments “on base.”

IS Finances

33. IS is touted as one of the wealthiest and financially self-sustainable terrorist organization in the world. The reported heist of 500 billion Iraqi dinars or $ 425 million has raised its assets from the earlier $ 900 million in June 2014 to the current $ 2 billion. The fall of Mosul, which saw the Iraqi army abandoning its uniforms, posts, and weapons in the hands of IS, has provided it with a huge cache of sophisticated military equipments. This includes unknown quantities of M114 Humvees, other armored personnel carriers and Stinger missiles, explosives and small arms and an unspecified number of M198 155m howitzer artillery pieces with a conventional range of 22km, which were originally provided by the US to Iraq.

34. Presently, IS’s finances are heavily reliant on oil and gas, but other resources are also being exploited, including agriculture, cotton, water, and electricity. The group is also known to operate an efficient kidnap-for-ransom operation. Even in areas not under its complete control, IS still maintains extortion net­works and protection rackets. IS units have also allegedly stolen antiques and sold them onto the black market. For example, one Iraqi intelligence official claimed the group had earned $36 million after selling 8,000-year-old items from al-Nabk, north of Damascus, in early 2014.

IS Media Strategy

35. An important facet of IS’s internal operations is its effective use of social media and exploitation of international media attention. IS had sig­nificantly outperformed any other militant group on Twitter until August 2014, when its entire Twitter structure was removed, possibly after a request from the U.S. government. After briefly transferring accounts onto an independent, more privacy-focused platform known as Diaspora, IS established a more stable presence on the Russian social networking site VKontakte. This, however, was eventually eradicated in September 14. IS has also operated several Android applications, including “Fajr al-Basha’ir” (Dawn of Good Tidings), which links to users’ personal information and releases officially coordinated group content via their accounts. An increased focus on English-language production since April-May 2014 indicated a shift toward promoting the idea of living within its new “Islamic State” at a more international level. The new Dabiq magazine—slickly designed and published in English—has incorporated subtle mechanisms to broaden IS’s recruitment base.

IS Governance

36. By declaring a state and announcing the restoration of the caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made IS’s ability to rule and govern. By breaking the boundaries established in the Sykes-Picott agreement, the ISIS aspires to restore the Muslim land where one is not recognized by nationalities but by his religious identity as a Muslim. IS controls territory which include multiple urban centers, and has managed to provide good governance. In Iraq, the group has benefited from being able to exploit widespread Sunni discontent with Shia-led governments perceived as repressive to Sunni rights. A popular desire for a workable and stable form of Sunni governance has provided IS with a vacuum to fill. IS is filling this vacuum with a combination of municipal administration (police, Islamic outreach, tribal affairs, recruitment and training, education, sharia courts) and aid-based services (humanitarian assistance and facility management). In doing so, IS has offered civilians much of what nation-state systems do, but with more intense oversight. Mosul has exemplified this reality. Having taken 24 hours to capture the city on June 9-10, IS released its wathiqat al-madina (charter of the city) on June 12, which in 16 points outlined the new law of the land. The implementation of a strict form of sharia law is clearly central to IS’s governance. This includes imposing the hudud (fixed Islamic punishments for serious crimes); enforcing the attendance of the five daily prayers; banning drugs, alcohol, and tobacco; controlling personal appearance, including cloth­ing; forbidding gambling, non-Islamic music, and gender mixing; and ordering the destruction of religious shrines, among other rules.

37. The imposition of the dhimmi (protection) pact upon monotheistic non-Mus­lims was started in Raqqa in February 2014 and in Mosul in July 2014. This has placed non-Muslims within a relationship of “protection” under IS, so long as they regularly pay jizya (poll tax) and abide by several other strict regulations, including not building additional places of worship; removing all visible signs of faith; not bearing arms; and not selling or consuming pork and alcohol. In practice, however, this “protection” has represented a demotion to second-class citizenship.

38. IS spends significant financial resources on providing social services. One of the first things IS does upon capturing a municipality is to take control of industries and municipal services and facilities so as to ensure what it perceives as a more efficient and egalitarian provision of services. Consistently, this has meant assuming authority over electricity, water, and gas supplies, local factories, and even bakeries—all of which lend IS total control over the core needs of a civilian population.

Regional or International Objectives?

“We are getting stronger every day in Sham and Iraq but it will not end there—of course, one day we’ll defeat all the taghut regimes and bring back Islam to the whole region, including al- Quds (Jerusalem).”
– Abu Omar, Islamic State fighter, June 2014

39. IS’s modus operandi is predicated on the expansion of its Islamic authority. Within the Levant or beyond, IS will seek to develop a support base before further expansion. Should it succeed in consolidating its “state” in Syria and Iraq, it would choose to expand in 2015 beyond its recently announced wilayat (provinces) in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Algeria.



“Nothing is more imminent than the impossible . . . what we must always foresee is unforeseen.”  – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

40. The Indian Muslim population has remained by and far inured from ISIS and such jihadi provocations. The reasons could be many:-

  • The secular nature of the Indian state that has long kept this threat at bay. The Indian Muslim has experienced more democratic, political and economic freedom, and opportunity and liberty and also exposure to media than possibly any of the Muslims inhabiting the geographical swathe extending all the way to Iraq.
  • The Indian government’s official stance in not joining any ‘crusade’ along with western countries like the USA and UK in operations against jihadi groups in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Operations conducted by these countries have led to collateral deaths of innocent Muslims. Had India joined the alliance of the West, would it have caused resentment among the Indian Muslim community.
  • The idea of a large Islamic Caliphate may not appeal to the Indian Muslim.
  • The problems in the Middle East/West Asia are wholly different from India. While in the Middle East jihad is driven by sectarian divide and extreme interpretation of Islam/intolerance against other religions, in India the issues are primarily of the separatist movement in J&K.

41. On the downside, it may be worthwhile considering some of these news headlines –

  • Tamil Nadu man first ISIS suicide bomber from India.
  • Tamil Nadu youth joins ISIS, family recalls his journey into insurgency.
  • Two arrested in Tamil Nadu Over Group Photo in ISIS T-shirts.
  • Mumbai man who left to join IS killed in Iraq.
  • Pak Taliban, ISIS Recruit 300 Plus Indians: NIA Dossier

42. All these news reports, if reliable, only attest that the influence of ISIS is increasingly touching and affecting more people and more parts of the world. That Indian jihadis have crossed over to the Middle East/Pakistan/Afghanistan to join jihadi battles may well be true, but their numbers is only speculation. The situation in India would be affected by two distinct phenomena; Saudi Arabia’s efforts to spread Wahhabism and Pakistan’s to cause internal disturbances/ terrorism in India. The government needs to institute effective monitoring methodology to assess/calculate/count the number of Indian jihadis crossing over.  However, these jihadis do not pose an immediate and direct threat to India. The threat from them will manifest later, if and when they return to Indian soil.

43. In a seminar on National Security held by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, a leading journalist said no major worry or threat in itself presented due to news of establishment Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Even Mr Narendra Modi, in his first interview as Prime Minister of India to a TV channel, responding to a question on the formation of AQIS, said it would be delusional to think Indian Muslims would respond to its call to launch jihad in the region adding that such ideas do injustice to the Muslims of India, who are ready to live for and die for India. Can we thus surmise, from the above statements, that all is gung ho, and there is nothing additional to worry about? Is there, behind all this, a lurking threat of change?

44. Missing Numbers. The Indian involvement in the Syrian war was first reported in 2013 but failed to trigger any alarm bells. Failure to keep a track on suspected Jihadi recruits may have spurred people from volunteering in the war. While western media has reported extensively on the phenomenon of foreign fighters, including the frugal numbers from non-Islamic countries like South Korea, Japan, Norway, Australia, documentation on the number of Indian Jihadists is missing from most of the intelligence reports as well data compiled by international terror mapping think-tanks, due to non-availability of information from the government sources. To begin with, it will be worth preparing a database of numbers of Indians involved in terror activities abroad. A policy based on empirical data and guesses will be ineffective and hamper serious intervention efforts by the security authorities.

45. Communal Security. While it is convenient to say that the Indian Muslim is secular and will not get swayed by jihadi propaganda, divisive communal politics are as expediently followed by political parties of all hues. Communal prejudice is becoming increasingly pervasive.  It has been reported that the notion of “love jihad” (that there exists an Islamist conspiracy to seduce Hindu women with a view to convert them to Islam) has gained acceptance even among a section of IPS officers through a debate on the subject on “Top Cop”, a discussion forum on Yahoo. Incidents over the past few decades, be it the Babri Masjid case in 1992, the 2002 rioting in Gujarat and the more recent 2012 communal violence against settlers in Assam, are often cited as triggers for terror attacks perpetrated by the IM. The 2005 Sachar Committee Report outlines the status of the Muslim community in India, underscoring their backwardness socially, educationally and economically. Economic and social deprivations significantly contribute to this divide. Regardless, Indian Muslims continue to maintain that they view themselves as Indian first, Muslim second. This is lucidly brought out in Hasan Suroor’s (former UK correspondent of The Hindu) book “India’s Muslim Spring- Why is Nobody Talking About it ?” Be that as it may, they are less immune to radicalization, as they face more and more contradictory moments.

46. The Muslim population in India are not a homogenous society and are divided into sects, sub-sects, and schools of thought. The threat from Pakistan is from its assumption of the role of a guardian for Indian Muslims. Its interference is a blatant instigation to Indian Muslims to rebel against the ‘Hindu Raj’ and a ploy to affect their psyche. A number of communal riots in India in Kashmir and at other places have resulted from encouragement and support from across the border. Pakistan’s continuous rhetoric, which is only going to increase due to the growing religious fundamentalism in that country, can be unsettling for the Indian Muslims and a threat to India’s integrity.iii

47. Dominated by the Sunnis, India Muslim population is also home to a large number of Shias. In fact, most Shias (between 68 percent and 80 percent) live in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India, and Iraq. Sectarian violence has so far remained absent amongst India’s Muslim population and the relations between the two sects have remained cordial. The reports of 25,000 Shia volunteers getting ready to fight against the Sunni rebels in order to protect the holy religious sites in Karbala and Najaf, is likely to create another faction of foreign fighters from India. The flight of Shia volunteers to Iraq could expose them to radicalization by Shia militia forces which could implicate the situation in India by driving the returning fighters to seek retaliation against the Sunni population. The theological and political anger that is currently keeping the Islamic world angry and in tumult could reach India through the radicalization of Indian fighters, resulting in sectarian violence involving a large Muslim population. The presence of Indian fighters in Syria and Iraq, therefore, remain worrying as it will draw India further into the existing conflict and bring the fears of sectarian wars closer home.

48. In addition, recently, Wahhabism is garnering support among India’s Muslim community, as a result of more than 20,000 preachers, in groups called Tablighi Jamaats, who visit India annually to address huge crowds. These people are invited by Islamic organizations like Tablighi Jamaat, Nizammudin Markaz, Islamic Research Foundations, Ahl-e-Hadis, and Jamaat Ulema-e-Hind. The Tablighi Jammat has steadily increased and widened its impact within the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala, UP, and Gujarat. The Tabligh currently dominates the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and a majority of the Waqf boards.

49. To obviate ISIS-inspired domestic events, India needs a dual strategy which deals with population/perception management, and simultaneously enhance India’s counter-terror infrastructure. The current trend of increasingly strident discourse on “disloyal Muslims” voiced in some quarters and the increasing frequency and rhetoric of the Hindutva elements needs to be reined in. Similarly, the propensities of fringe extremist elements within the Indian Muslim community to recklessly propagate their unsolicited opinions also need to be curbed. The PM’s assurance to adhere to the constitution’s secular values and his remarks in praise of the Indian Muslim community serve to allay those fears.

50. Return of ISIS Jihadi’s. Based on historical happenings, there are very legitimate reasons for India to be concerned. ISIS akin to infiltration of foreign fighters from Sudan and Jordan in 1990s could well use the Indian fighters in its ranks to engage in terrorist and subversive activities in Kashmir to hit out against India. The Indian fighters could also return back home and build up jihadist terrorist groups and networks, indoctrinating other young minds bolstering the militant groups in Kashmir. Although the conflict in Kashmir has largely been suppressed by Indian armed forces, the possibility of its revival through the radicalized returnees from Syria and Iraq remains high. In J&K, response to terrorist threats has been fine-tuned over the years. Security forces, especially the Indian Army, have been fighting terrorism or insurgency for over three decades and have reached a level of professional competence which enables effective countering of such threats. Therefore, any increase in jihadi terror in J&K can be expected to be effectively countered. However, in other parts of the country, there will be a need to review intelligence and security organizations meant to gather intelligence, anticipate, prepare for and foil such threats from manifesting. Preparedness of the central intelligence agencies, state security agencies, coordination between them and effectiveness of state apparatus in handling threats of terrorism will be of prime concern.

51. Veterans of the first Afghan jihad (against the Soviets in the 1980s) played a critical role in starting the Algerian civil war in 1991, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands. They were also instrumental in radicalizing elements of the Bosnia resistance to the Serbian regime in the 1990s. In more than half of the major terrorist plots against the West between 2004 and 2011, the attackers had been trained in Al Qaeda war zone camps. Like the West, India too has closely been on the radar of global terrorism and cannot underestimate the threat posed by the return of foreign fighters. The involvement of Indian men alongside the hardened militant group like IS has only upped the stakes for India to devise a more focused strategy to deal with the larger conflict in Syria. As IS expands its power and foreign volunteers continue to join the militant group, India has to maneuver carefully to establish links with the Assad government to assess information on the Indian fighters in Syria and devise a strategy to counter the threat posed by the training and experience which make them particularly dangerous and perhaps also join hands with other Western countries dealing with the problem of foreign fighters.

52. Recall the “Message to the Muslims of India: Why Is There Not a Storm in Your Ocean?” video released by the al Qaeda ideologue Maulana Aasim Umar who has now been designated leader of AQIS. To say these cries fall on deaf ears may be wrong.  The few terrorist acts which take place across the length and breadth of the country will find linkages to jihad. Jihadi organizations like IM and their sleeper cells operating and hibernating within India can be expected to receive motivation by such propaganda.

53. Foreign Policy. Given its Muslim population and its culture as well historical links with the countries in West Asia, India has been cautious in its approach so that its position on any political, humanitarian or military event is not misconstrued as being partisan or sectarian back home. Nevertheless, as the conflict in Syria draws India closer, India will need to rethink its foreign policy from traditional contours and draw contingency plans to ward off the transnational Jihadi threat. Or else, the day the foreign fighters importing the conflict back home in India will not be so far.

54. Indian Diaspora in the Middle East. The West Asia region, which includes 19 Islamic countries and is at the heart of the current conflict turbulence, is home to roughly 7 million Indians who are employed in varied fields. Many are poor and work as cheap laborers in Gulf countries that espouse the radical Wahhabist ideology and are central in funding the extremist Sunni rebels in the current Syrian war. Indoctrination of these vulnerable and marginalized laborers into militant activities and possible recruitment in rebel groups against financial gains cannot be ignored. Increased security at the airports, alerting and co-ordinating with Syria and Iraqi embassies, monitoring visa approvals and dubious local agencies, religious institutions that organize traveling to the Islamic countries and from where people may look to reach the borders of Syria and Iraq as jihadists, will help in alerting the authorities in advance. The four Mumbai youth had posed as pilgrims to tour Islamic religious sites, thereby giving a miss to the conventional security radar. Taking Muslim religious groups and communities in confidence will be pertinent to this policy wherein they can play a key role in highlighting the peaceful alternatives to violent Jihad and can talk out potential fighters from traveling to conflict zones. Fostering trust between local religious communities will help security authorities to receive information on possible mobilization and launch an intervention. Returning fighters are a treasure trove of information, which can be used to draw strategies to prevent individuals from volunteering to join militant groups.

55. Refugee Problem post-ISIS Growth in Pak. Considering ISIS’s distasteful reputation in its treatment of minorities, the sectarian groups in Pakistan are likely to either rival or surpass ISIS in brutality and inhuman behavior. This, in turn, could trigger off a mass exodus of minorities seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Implications for India emanating from the refugee influx severely undermines its security and economic prospects. While the Shias (17-25 million) might flee to Iran, the Pakistani Hindus (19 lacs), Christians (15 lacs) and Ahmadiyas (2 lacs) might consider India as the only alternative. Even if only 50 % of Pakistan’s minorities may seek asylum in India, it translates to 1.8 million.

56. The refugee influx into India has the potential of seriously undermining India’s march to economic prosperity & security stability. The ideal approach would be to ensure that the refugee situation is obviated. India needs to sensitise the International community & agencies about the impending humanitarian disaster that is likely to unravel as ISIS’s influence takes root in South Asia.  India also needs to secure firm commitments from the International community to compensate India’s generous asylum extended as a host country to combat the challenges of not only the requisite emergency aid, but also the development aid which would be needed. India should support US–Iran convergence or US-motivated initiatives by Arab nations to put boots on the ground to oppose ISIS. It would involve international efforts to rid Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar & the other Arab nations of the delusion that supporting ISIS would fetch tangible benefits.

57. Cyber Capabilities. The Indian government recently blocked more than 30 major websites to prevent the spread of Jihadi propaganda which has been pivotal globally in luring more than 15000 young men and women from 80 countries to join rebel groups like ISIS. The move remains a kneejerk reaction as the websites can be accessed through proxy sites. India needs to ramp up its cyber capabilities and resources to effectively combat ISIS presence in the virtual world from where it draws most of its foot soldiers. A proactive policy that pre-empts Indian youth joining up for the ISIS cause is as important as is a State policy which seeks a discreet & mature procedure to  rehabilitate our youth who succeed to escape from the ISIS dragnet.


58. Indian Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband has condemned the formation of AQIS, asserting that Indian Muslims would never be convinced by un-Islamic and false arguments of such organizations. Such proclamations by legitimate representatives of the Muslim community are important. Equally important is that the government and all political entities must engage in strategic communications while walking the talk on the issue of averring against divisive communal practices. That the foreign jihadi will be raging an intense battle in the Indian battleground does appear remote, though not, unthinkable. It is these events which will decide the course of growth or otherwise of jihad in India. If that does not happen, no matter how prepared the security forces are, how structured the organization is to tackle terrorism, it is the distant future, the future that can only be seen through the long lens of history, that we may not be able to predict. Irrespective of whether ISIS continues to expand or gets eliminated, its most visible impact on Islamic nations in South Asia is the inspiration that its radical elements derive from ISIS’s successes rather than any direct existential threat. The challenges to growing radicalization and preventing Indian Muslims from following the path of global Jihad will be the real test. An overarching national counter-terrorism strategy, including counter-radicalisation (preventing individuals from turning terrorists) and de-radicalization (dissuading radical individuals from violence) mechanisms, is urgently needed. India needs to be closely monitoring the situation as it continues to unravel; both in its immediate neighborhood as also in the Middle East. For India, the adverse economic consequences would rival the security impacts as both may occur simultaneously and not as a fallout of degenerating security situation. The possible Refugee crisis needs to be a major factor in India’s calculus as it deals with the Myriad problems arising as a consequence of the ISIS influence.

Formatted on 15th February 2019.


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