In recent times when ever people questioned me about the effects of violence in Afghanistan on India, my stock answer alluded to turbulence of any form always leading to ‘ripple effect’. So, is the turbulence in West Asia, in the form of the rise of the extreme radical group the Islamic State likely to have a ripple effect on India? Much was written on this in mid-2014 by analysts but subsequently interest has been on the wane. The question is, whether the physical distance of West Asia from India provides India enough safety or does ideology have no barriers in today’s increasingly flat world? Is ideology by itself a serious enough threat to India’s already complex internal security?
Interesting questions to examine nine months after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and now simply the Islamic State (IS) came into effect as a major entity in the turbulent region of West Asia. A review of where IS stands today in terms of effectiveness as a threat may be a suitable start point. IS has much territory under its control, a large financial corpus and funds flowing from oil and other business in which it is indulging, including extortion and ransom. It has reasonable quantum of military wherewithal, although not fully tested as yet against a well-organized conventional force. Ground based military operations against it are only partially succeeding with repeated attacks and counter attacks. In terms of irregular warfare capability it has sufficient foot soldiers, ranging from estimates of 10,000 to 30,000. It has successfully established some modicum of administrative control over its territory with the assistance of the former Iraqi Generals and administrators. Its ideology appears to be drawing recruits from the Islamic world although in lesser numbers now, with better emigration controls. Western recruits, however, continue to attempt flocking to it through clandestine methods, attracted by skewed romanticism. Its ideology is evidently radical to the extreme and its sense of justice is virtually depraved enough to be labeled inhuman and unfit for the modern world. The Caliphate has not been taken too seriously except drawing the support of an odd cleric; by and large clerics have not endorsed the IS but neither have they completely shunned it, keeping alive options in a way.
In spite of all its negatives it is attracting the young, Muslims and others. The reason is that it is using social media effectively and the youth read no news, no long drawn analyses or results of battles. It is attracted on the basis of illustrative evidence of violence and cryptic messages which convey little. Cases of disenchantment are many; once they witness the life in IS camps and cities. So it is more of a come and go recruitment with execution of some who try and escape. This disenchantment is not going to lessen. However, the established nations from where the flow of human resources is taking place have perhaps not sufficiently exercised themselves in countering the perception through the very media which the youth reads and digests – social media.
Militarily, while the current air campaign is helping in keeping the IS bottled up in its existing territory it is unlikely to make such a dent unless much more focused aerial action is taken against its assets from where finances are flowing into its coffers. Similarly control and monitoring of the sources which buy energy from the IS has not been established, for unknown reasons. Ideologically and in terms of influence and symbolism about its reach the IS has as yet been conservative. Although it is now a bigger entity than the Al Qaida, it has chosen to restrict itself physically to its territory, consolidate and avoid targeting objectives far and wide. While this may be its strategy, it has been brought about because of the greater visibility it chose to exercise unlike the Al Qaida which remained invisible and less propagandist. The greater visibility has won it synchronic support from Al Qaida’s surrogates; the Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabab in Somalia, Taliban and TTP in Af-Pak, besides unorganized elements in the West. In all probability, the IS will attempt to keep its territory militarily secured. It will concentrate on spreading its ideology through surrogates, networks and social media. Its target populations will be youth, disaffected minorities and clergy and it will attempt to attract attention through the romanticization of extreme violence. The Gulf diasporas remain vulnerable more because of the proximity and easy availability of less educated and easily influenced segments from the subcontinent.
So, how vulnerable is India to the spread of IS influence and how could such influence manifest into anti national activity. On the face of it a few things need to be remembered. Firstly, India’s Muslims are a minority although the largest minority anywhere in the world. Minorities have two tendencies; one, to shun anything which will disturb their status quo and make them vulnerable and two, look towards any element of security. Secondly, it is not easily understood that IS ideology is radical to the extreme. India’s Muslims are divided into 13-14 percent Shia with almost the complete majority of the rest being moderate Sunni. This type of ideology does not appeal to even those who may be counted as radical among the majority Sunni community. It does not rule out the possibility of a few lone wolves getting influenced just as it has happened in the recent past. Thirdly, Indian Muslims are vulnerable to rabble rousing as much as any segment. A clarion call by a maverick cleric can rouse passions. It was seen, uncharacteristically with the Shias, when supposedly a lakh of them signed up to travel for the protection of the Shia shrines in Iraq. Nothing anti-national there but none understood the need for visas, travel documents etc; only the passion drove them. Therefore passionate calls can arouse sentiments but unlikely that these can convert into anything remotely anti-national. Fourthly, the danger lies in as much as it lies anywhere else, in the possibility of influence by some returning members of the diaspora from the Gulf. In such cases there is no internal compulsion just the desire to connect with the larger Islamic community which mistakenly may be considered sympathetic to the cause of the IS. Fifthly, India’s secular credentials work overtime against such influence. Poverty in India is shared by people of all faiths and is unlikely to be a cause for adoption of radical ideology. If anything, it is poor education, lack of worldly wisdom, and poor parenting which could influence some youth and that too through the medium of unrestricted social media. The IS employs images of violence, weaponry, other warlike equipment and symbols such as flags and slogans to motivate the less educated and psychologically vulnerable youth who access this in private and discuss in closed groups.
The existing known Islamic terrorist organizations within India have not given any call for support thus far. The feasibility of adversaries exploiting through proxies may exist but to a lesser extent given the fact that there is considerable concern for such activities even within Pakistan. There would be a realization that ideological spread of this kind does not respect boundaries. Nevertheless, it does call for a higher level of awareness, intelligence at the lower levels, especially in smaller towns, parental control and monitoring. What the intelligence agencies, which have handled this quite professionally thus far, need to do is to ensure that they send messages which wins the confidence of parents and encourages them to report possible cases of emerging influence over their wards. If parents sense that police cases are going to involve the traditional disappearance of young men there will be a complete loss of confidence.
The few isolated cases of raising of IS flags by small groups of youth in parts of the Kashmir Valley should not lead us to believe that there is mass support for such an ideology. The romance of doing something different and something silly always appeals to youth. However, it does call for sending messages across all forms of media and through Friday sermons, counseling of parents and identification of vulnerable youth. On its part the Central Government needs to establish a vigil at points of exit from the country, adopt a pro-active counter propaganda campaign and involve the Muslim clergy itself in sending messages across to the youth. Returnees from the Gulf region may require a special vigil within acceptable democratic norms and behavior. The experience of Indian Muslims refusing to join the Al Qaeda is itself reassuring but must not lull anyone to think that Indian Muslim youth are not vulnerable. Scourges are irrational by nature and such situations must not necessarily be assessed by application of rationale alone.