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Kashmir militancy will be driven by IS ideology, says terror expert Rohan Gunaratna  

In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, Gunaratna spoke about how NRC can trigger radicalisation, and the need to improve relationship with Kashmiris to fight local resentment.

Amrita Nayak Dutta
Rohan Gunaratna at the conclave organised by Synergia Foundation in Bengaluru last week | Twitter @SynergiaImpact

Bengaluru: Militancy in Kashmir will be driven by Islamic State’s ideology and not by local groups, global terror expert Rohan Gunaratna has told ThePrint in an exclusive interview.

“Kashmir has already become an important theatre for Islamists. The militancy in Kashmir will be driven by the ideology of the IS,” he said, responding to a question on whether religious influence is growing on Kashmir’s militancy.

Sri Lanka-born Gunaratna was speaking to ThePrint Friday on the sidelines of a three-day conclave organised by Synergia Foundation, an independent Bengaluru-based think tank, to hold discussions on a wide range of security-related matters.

Gunaratna is a professor of security studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore.

Talking about the current lockdown in Kashmir, Gunaratna said he thinks that the Indian government should, at this point, improve its relationship with the people of Kashmir. 

That is the only way to keep stability and security in Kashmir, he said. 

Underlining the need for a robust community engagement programme to bring about peace and stability in Kashmir, Gunaratna said that from what he has seen in Kashmir, there is tremendous resentment among local residents at present.

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“And if this resentment persists, the population will become ripe for exclusivism, extremism and terrorism,” he said. 

‘No distinction between IS and Al Qaeda’

Responding to questions on the leadership dispute in IS and Al Qaeda, Gunaratna said the ideology of Al Qaeda and IS is almost the same.

“There is no fundamental distinction between the ideologies of these two groups. The difference is a leadership dispute between Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So when either of these two leaders are killed, these two groups will start to work together,” he said.

“It is a fight between the two personalities,” he said, adding that he does not see the dispute continuing beyond this leadership. 

Talking about the current relevance of IS after it lost its territories, he said while the IS had not been wiped out, its leader al-Baghdadi has certainly lost territory in Iraq and Syria. 

“They do not physically control the territory anymore after March 2019. But a month after IS lost that territory, they staged a deadly terrorist attack in Sri Lanka in April. That shows that territorial control is not important for them to remain a viable terrorist and extremist organisation,” Gunaratna said.

What is important to understand is IS’ capacity to mount operations inside and outside Syria and Iraq even when its military capabilities have declined, he said.

On withdrawal of American forces from Syria, Gunaratna said it would surely create a vacuum and that it is important for other forces to occupy that space, “otherwise terrorism will continue to remain a threatening factor in that region and beyond”.

He said after losing Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan is emerging as an alternative theatre for IS. “There are other important theatres where IS can base themselves and operate out, but the Afghan theatre is central,” he said. 

Also read: Islamic State, al Qaeda hunker down to rebuild in weaker countries

White supremacy versus Muslim terrorism 

Gunaratna said that white supremacy is emerging as a bigger challenge to western countries than Muslim terrorism, and it is a direct reaction to Muslim terrorism. 

“In future, governments will invest in both — to fight the current wave of Muslim terrorism as well as terrorism emerging from white extremist groups,” he said.

Gunaratna said he doesn’t predict any decrease in the threats posed by Muslim terrorist groups in the foreseeable future. “I also don’t see the threat from white groups diminishing. I see reciprocal radicalisation. A tit-for-tat. I see these groups will be in direct contact and they will fight each other,” he said.

‘IS ideology is strong, powerful and significant’ 

Talking about certain pockets in India getting influenced by IS ideology, Gunaratna said Indians have, for a long time, believed that Hindus coexist with Muslims and Christians, and this will be an antidote to extremism. 

“But the IS ideology is very strong, powerful and significant. A very small number of Indians have embraced this extremism as in the case of Sri Lanka,” he said.

He said the NIA is doing a good job in hunting those cells that operate on IS ideology. “NIA has seen how Sri Lanka did not act based on information and intelligence, and the devastating attack it suffered. It does not want to take any chance,” he said. 

However, NIA operations by itself is insufficient, he added. 

“There must be more work done, engage the Muslim community to get them within the Indian structure. Otherwise, they will be ripe for radicalisation,” he said. 

“Radicalisation today is dependent on what’s happening in cyberspace. Most of the recruitment is taking place in cyberspace, which has nothing to do with where they are located. But traditionally and historically radicalisation was in not in the south, but now we are seeing that the threat of radicalisation is spreading, and that is why you have seen these cases in the southern part (of India),” he said

Gunaratna said most terrorism seen these days is not IS-directed by, but IS-inspired, and to counter it, there must be a robust ideological campaign. 

“There should be a counter radicalisation and de-radicalisation campaign. There is a need for both. One is preventive, the other is curative,” he said. 

Gunaratna added there should be community engagement. He said that religious and education establishments should work very closely with the security and intelligence communities. 

“These structures have not yet been created adequately to fight the current wave of extremism and terrorism affecting the entire region. It is a regional problem. So, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal should all create these capabilities. Traditional security is by military law enforcement and intelligence services, but now it is important to bring community partners on board,” he said. 

‘NRC can lead to possible radicalisation’

Talking about a possible radicalisation of people in the Northeast in the wake of the controversial National Register of Citizens list, Gunaratna said threats from terror groups such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, which are essentially IS elements that emerged from Bangladesh, are spreading in all directions and that has to be addressed.

“It is a question of time. It will further spread. That is why cooperated collaboration with the neighboring countries is vital. India, of course, has cooperated very closely with Sri Lanka. But it is very important to maintain, build and enhance that cooperation with other countries too,” he said.

Also read: Islamic State and Zakir Musa group are sparring for supremacy in Kashmir — on Telegram


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  1. If this prognosis is correct, peace will prove elusive in Kashmir, as will the hope that increased prosperity is around the corner. Some of the things Shri Rohan Gunaratna is saying are common sense, ought to be self evident to all those of good conscience.


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