The forces of Islamic State (ISIS) may be down and out in parts of Iraq and Syria they were controlling, but they have managed to spread their wings in other parts of the world, especially in South Asia. The Indian authorities have been well aware of their activities in India and even in the neighbourhood. All credit ought to be given to our intelligence agencies for keeping track of IS plots. They have been tapping suspect youth on Facebook through online right from the year 2014 when certain Mumbai youngsters left the country to join IS forces in Syria/Iraq to fight for their cause.
Even the Hyderabad police’s cyber wing has been closely monitoring dubious online activities and exchanges having the sole purpose of radicalizing young Muslims in the city. This has been the pattern in several states which led to arrests of some “radicalized youth”. This has had quite a deterrent effect.
During the past four years we have seen well-coordinated efforts by multiple agencies and their anti-terror units. Small wonder that NIA and agencies have managed to carry on pre-emptive strikes which could bust several planned operations of IS terror units located in Delhi, UP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad.
The Islamic State’s Easter terror blasts in churches and luxury hotels in Colombo ought to be taken as a wake-up call for the authorities in the South Asian region. It was not an isolated local act of a local terror group. Looking at the range and dimensions of Easter massacre, it is obvious that the whole operation was carried out with the help of outside terror forces – from India and abroad. In fact, Indian intelligence agencies have been tracking over a dozen persons from the two Southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala whose phone numbers have been traced in the Call Digital Records (CDRs) of Zaharan Hashim, the suspected mastermind behind the Sunday blasts in Sri Lanka. This is a very serious development which cannot be ignored.
The Indian Investigation Agency (NIA) is said to be on the job of finding out Hashim’s India links which could have a serious fallout not only on the security of our country but the entire region of South Asia. We have also to take into account the sudden surfacing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an IS video after five years. Significantly, this confirms that Baghdadi is alive and controlling the IS outfit’s operations. There were earlier multiple rumours floating about his death in air strikes.
Looking beyond, it is time India looked at the Islamic State’s threat not in isolation, but in a larger national and global perspective. It has surely lost its territory in Iraq/Syria, but not in its ideological and religious hold among its followers.
In 2014, it controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq – from the Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad. Its revenue then mainly came from oil production and smuggling, ransoms from kidnappings, selling antiques and stolen goods.
“I don’t think that defeat of the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria is not going to be the end of the ISIS challenge”. These are the words of Nicholas Rasmussen, a former senior director for counter-terrorism on the National Security Council. He also ran the National Counter-terrorism Center in the Obama and Trump regimes. “That is why many terrorism experts have urged care and restraint on the administration in making claims about defeat of ISIS. “The ideology underpinning the caliphate has reached far beyond Iraq and Syria”, opines Nicholas. And he is right.
Indeed, ISIS aim is to create an Islamic state that goes beyond Syria/Iraq. It believes in Sharia Law which is rooted in eighth-century Islam with a view to establishing society that reflects the region’s ancient past. It also may be re-stated that ISIS uses modern technological tools like social media to promote its policies and religious fundamentalism. We saw some of its radical postures even in Kashmir.
Incidentally, India did provide Sri Lanka with specific warnings about IS threats, even naming the group and its ring leader the days before the Eastern blasts. But there is too much of internal politics in the island-nation even concerning critical areas of security and intelligence information. It is for the Lankan authorities to set its house in order. What is highly regrettable is that at least 359 people lost their precious life in IS terror acts.
According to Rita Katz, co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, a terrorism analysis organization, “the Sri Lanka blasts were both sophisticated and well-coordinated”, which indicates training and assistance from ISIS, “possibly in one of the group’s bases in the Philippines or elsewhere in the region”. What is most worrying is the possibility of Sri Lanka becoming a “hub” for IS activities if we critically look at ISIS’s process of recruitment across South-east Asia. This could be a far-fetched idea but nothing can be ruled out amidst the existing complexities in the region.
What is imperative to remember that ISIS works strongly even at the psychological level, aiming at radicalizing potential recruits online. Our policy makers ought to take IS threats posed to India and South-Asia is “as real as it is for any other major region or state”.
According to an Indian expert who studied the subject in depth, “the internet remains the main propagator of pro-ISIS activities, and will continue to be one after ‘a complete defeat’ of the Islamic State. So, building capacity to tackle this is the biggest challenge facing India, South Asia and the rest of the world collectively. It is no longer only about ISIS, but new trends in terrorism that will be replicated by others in the future”, says the expert. Over to our mandarins in the South Block!