Counter-Extremism in India: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Beyond


Counter-Extremism in India: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Beyond

Bibhu Prasad Routray

25 Feb 2016

Concerns over the rise of Islamist extremism in India have been steadily growing, a trend that is reflected in the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Global Extremism Monitor for January 2016.

In a matter of months, the Indian government appears to have travelled a long way, from  playing down the ISIS' influence on its Muslim population, to actively pursuing the outfit's sympathisers in the country. In January 2016, around 20 men were arrested in several locations for planning to carry out terror attacks on behalf of the group. Joint collaborative efforts with Gulf countries, especially the UAE, have further resulted in the deportation of a number of Indian nationals who were subsequently arrested. And yet there are no visible signs that suggest the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been able to grasp the threat of religious extremism, some of which is externally inspired and funded, but a major part, clearly homegrown.

The January 2016 arrests of ISIS sympathisers, and those several other men belonging to al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in December 2015 from Delhi, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh, were projected as part of India's continuing success against global terror outfits. However, the landscape of religious extremism in India continues to be a source of serious concern, and the profile of those arrested points to an expanding threat, a development affirmed by the findings of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Global Extremism Monitor for January 2016.

Some 20 people were arrested under extremism charges in January 2016.

Prior to the January 2016 arrests, six Indians had died fighting on behalf of ISIS in Syria. In addition, about 30 men and women were either arrested or detained by the Indian security agencies for either attempting to join ISIS or demonstrating overt or covert sympathy for the group. Most of those killed and arrested were young men and women coming from affluent families literate in using the internet, pointing towards the dangers of online radicalisation. However, apart from the ring-leaders, most of the 20 arrested in January 2016 are from poorer backgrounds, and had little exposure to web-based radicalisation. This underlined that recruitment efforts on behalf of ISIS have expanded beyond literate and computer savvy ideologues, to include people who might be more likely to act as foot soldiers. In addition, the focus on drawing people from India to Iraq and Syria appears to have shifted towards supporting acts of terrorism.

It is possible to link the landmark ISIS declarations such as the founding of the 'caliphate' (June 2014), formation of the Wilayat Khorasan (ISIS' self-declared South Asia province) in January 2015, and launch of the group's 'Black Flags from the Islamic State' manifesto for conquering South Asia (December 2015), to apparent increases in the radicalisation of Indian Muslims. Attempts to join ISIS have grown in response to these proclamations. However, the radicalisation phenomenon also needs to be analysed as part of the growing attempts by extremists in India to exploit existing domestic religious faultlines.

In Kashmir, the efforts of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen to attract the local youths in the second half of 2015 has reignited a jihad invoking a religious divide between Muslims and Hindus. Growing alienation among Muslims, some of which is linked to controversial decisions by the BJP government in New Delhi such as the proposed creation of special townships for displaced Hindu pandits, has provided a context to an upsurge in well-planned terror attacks in the state. It has also manifested itself in popular gatherings at funerals of youths allegedly killed while in custody by security forces and in meetings attended by separatist leaders. A coalition formed between the BJP and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) in Kashmir has led to some of the PDP activists deserting the party, with some joining the militant ranks.

Extremist cells attempt to exploit the perceived anti-Muslim posture of the BJP.

Neutralisation of a number of AQIS cells in December 2015 reminded authorities of such groups' continuing effort to exploit the perceived anti-Muslim posture of the BJP. Cells are believed to have been established in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Delhi. Intelligence agencies further point at the existence of much a larger base of ISIS sympathisers in the country, who have managed to defy the efforts of the short-staffed intelligence agencies to track them.

In any event, the January 2016 arrests of ISIS and AQIS sympathisers bolster the BJP government's 'zero tolerance on terror' stand, particularly as the government is seen to have failed in preventing two major terror attacks in the state of Punjab (Gurdaspur in July 2015 and Pathankot in January 2016) during its tenure. The latter attack targeting an Indian Air Force station lasted for several days, and left seven security forces personnel dead. The government's attempts to push Pakistan, from where the attackers in both incidents are believed to have originated, to act on extremist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba have not been seen as very successful.

In addition to its diplomatic offensive against Pakistan as a source of terror attacks on Indian soil, dealing with the phenomenon of home grown religious extremism should become a priority for New Delhi. And examining how much the government's own acts of omission and commission is providing a context to the expanding threat must be a starting point.

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