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India was of little value to ISIS. That’s all set to change now

Global jihad organisations like ISIS and al-Qaeda now believe they have a more ready audience in India for their brand of radicalisation.

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Indians can no longer be smug about the relatively few ISIS radicals it has had so far. A resurgent global jihad now has more reasons to be drawn to India than ever before.

The very fact that the ISIS has chosen South Asia as the region for staging its comeback, following the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka last month, raises many red flags for the subcontinent. A scorched ISIS is looking upon the large Muslim population in the country to replenish its depleted ranks.

In fact, ISIS’ subsequent announcements of forming a so-called ‘Wilayat Al Hind’ (a fictitious ISIS province in India) and the appointment of a new leader (a certain Abu Muhammad Al Bengali) to lead the charge against India and Bangladesh indicate the group’s sustained public relations offensive.

It may be easy for some critics to dismiss these announcements as bluster, but it would be unwise to entirely ignore the group’s stated plan and intent.

Also read: ISIS influence growing in South India, particularly Kerala: Social media monitoring firms

Doctrinal dissonance

For a long time, security experts believed global jihadist organisations (al-Qaeda and ISIS) were not so keen on targeting the subcontinent for a variety of reasons.

Being Salafi-Wahhabi in orientation, global jihadists had to engage in a turf war with Pakistan-backed Hanafi-Deobandi terror groups (like the Taliban) already active in the region since the 1990s, with whom they had fundamental doctrinal differences.

Thus, al-Qaeda could never subsume independent-minded Taliban into its Salafist fold, even though many of its leaders like Abu Qatada and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi did not accept the Taliban ‘emirate’ as Islamic due to doctrinal differences.

Even ISIS (which is even more hardline in its religious orientation than al-Qaeda) has found it difficult to convert Hanafi terror groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and Kashmir to its brand of jihadist Salafism. Global jihadist groups never found greater doctrinal discordance with potential jihadist allies in other parts of the world than they have in this region.

This is one of the main reasons why radicalisation of al-Qaeda and ISIS has not found much resonance in a largely Hanafi India, and is only more resonant in some southern provinces of the country, as well as in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, which have a sizeable Ahl-e-Hadeeth and Salafi population.

Also read: ISIS announces new province in India after 2 days of clashes in Kashmir

Narrative of ongoing ‘crusades’

Al-Qaeda and ISIS never found India as critical to their global campaign against the West-led international order. Since the time of Bin Laden’s fatwas of jihad in late-1990s, global jihadists identified ‘crusading’ Western powers as their primary adversary and have tried to gain religious legitimacy by projecting themselves as prophesied forces that would wage an apocalyptic war with the Christian West. India does not figure prominently in this narrative. Even, the recent Sri Lanka attacks were directed primarily against Christian worshippers and many Westerners staying in big hotels.

Moreover, apart from gaining recruits, India has been of little strategic value to global jihadists. From the beginning, al-Qaeda and ISIS have targeted failing states, preferably Muslim, to carve their own areas of influence from which to operate. Therefore, they have preferred to focus more on countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, etc. to spread their menace.

India’s vigilant security agencies, a largely law-abiding Muslim population and a strong secular social fabric have hardly allowed global jihadists any prospect of growth.

Also read: What Muslims in India say about Balakot, national security, ISIS and Kashmir

ISIS’ thin edge of the wedge

Taking cues from international media that have started to play up the so-called intolerance in Indian society, ISIS (as Tim Lister of CNN points out) feels tempted to test the fragility of Indian social fabric now. It feels India is fraying at the edges and may not withstand a fresh assault.

The terror group also believes it has a more ready audience in India for its brand of radicalisation, as young social-media savvy Muslims from small cities and villages come out of the atavistic Deobandi and Barelvi schools in much larger numbers. The resistance from Indian schools of Islam to the Salafi-jihadist discourse is thus easily breached, as ISIS can now directly reach out with its cutting-edge message of subversion in a communally fraught environment.

The situation in Kashmir is even more critical. There is a growing disillusionment within the Kashmiri population towards indigenous secessionist groups that have unsuccessfully led a 30-year long insurgency. Tapping on this resentment, the Jaish-e-Mohammad is training radical youth to a more advanced form of asymmetric warfare, which it has learnt from elements within the Pakistan military and its associates in al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The Pulwama attacks clearly point to a dangerous new form of terrorism in Kashmir, which bears the hallmarks of global jihadist operations. India can’t afford to overlook it.

The author is a Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

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  1. Bharat should be out of IS list coz the large Muslim community will have to bear the backlash in case of terrorist attacks from IS.

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