Has the Shifting Islamic State Threat Bypassed India?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cracked down on IS suspects at home, but India has opted not to formally join the US-led global anti-IS coalition (Image Source: US DoD)

Since first bursting into global consciousness in mid-2014 as they rampaged through Iraq – and later Syria – the militants of the Islamic State (IS) have looked to extend their reach eastward across Asia. The notorious jihadist group has since gone on to establish some form of presence in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. The group has also tried repeatedly to make inroads into India in recent years – but after a smattering of low-profile attacks and other IS-linked incidents threatened briefly to grow into something larger, this traction appears to have stalled.

India – a melting pot of cultures and religions encircled by terrorist-affected Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, and Bangladesh to the east – appears at first glance to be in an ideal geographical location for IS to infiltrate, with segments of its population ripe for exploitation with its extremist ideological mantra. Yet India has experienced very little jihadist activity since the emergence of IS four years ago, despite its large population of 1.3 billion, of which an estimated 180 million are Muslims. With the risk so-far averted and as IS weakens further as a global force, is India free from the latest jihadi scourge?

Background: concerns over IS-linked activities in India

The first signs of IS activity in India emerged in May 2014, when four young engineering students from Thane – near Mumbai – were reported by local media to have travelled to Iraq to fight with the group. Since then, two terror attacks in India have been linked to IS, amid sporadic reports of recruitment in some areas of the country. The first of these occurred in December of that year, when an explosion outside a restaurant in central Bangalore killed one person and left four others injured. Several men linked to homegrown militant group Indian Mujahideen were arrested but links between the suspects and IS could not be proven, despite speculation. A second bomb attack however was claimed by IS on 7 March 2017, when a powerful explosion ripped through a passenger train on the Bhopal-Ujjain line near Jabri railway station. The attack left ten civilians injured, and marked the first terrorist attack in India with definite links to IS. Police soon identified the perpetrators as belonging to a local jihadi cell spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, making at least seven arrests in the days which followed. The alleged mastermind of the attack – named in media reports as Saifullah – was killed during a siege at his home with elite police counter-terrorism officers in the city of Lucknow.

These attacks appear minor when compared to the scale of the marauding three-day gun rampage in Mumbai in November 2008, which left at least 174 people dead, including 20 members of the security forces and 26 foreign tourists. More than 300 people were also injured during the assault, which sent shockwaves across the country and is often referred to as India’s 9/11. The onslaught was carried-out by ten Islamist militants from the radical Lashkar-e-Taiba group based next door in Pakistan, harming relations and igniting concern from India over the alleged safe-haven provided to terrorists in Pakistan.

While the threat from across the border has been clearly visible since 2008, the internal risk posed by IS has in India remained largely hidden below the surface. The Brookings Institution went some way to exposing the magnitude of this threat in a report last year, documenting the number of reported IS sympathizers – consisting of recruiters, supporters, propagandists and suspected terrorists – present in the country. The investigation revealed that 142 Indian citizens were affiliated with the jihadi group in some way, with the annual figure increasing during 2013-2016 before levelling-out in 2017. It was revealed that the majority came from relatively prosperous states in the south of the country such as Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The report’s authors concluded that the number of IS-linked individuals was very small in comparison to other countries affected by the group. Based on this evidence, IS appears to have made little progress in swaying Indian citizens to its support its cause.

To what extent does IS pose a threat to India at present?

IS’ initial ambitions were to forge a concrete presence in the world’s largest democracy – the group even included India on a map of its desired caliphate back in 2014, and in some literature considered it part of its ‘Khorasan province’ encompassing the south Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Propaganda efforts also focused on India, with a video released in May 2016 threatening the nation’s leaders and appealing to India’s 180 million Muslims to either travel to the caliphate or launch attacks at home. The slickly-produced video – featuring an Indian ‘foreign fighter’ and allegedly filmed in the Syrian province of Homs – warned IS would come to India to avenge injustices committed against the sizeable Muslim-minority population. The man in the video – named as Abu Salman al-Hindi – referred to sectarian rioting in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 when more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by mobs in response to the burning of a train carrying Hindus. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accused of inaction as state governor at the time. The independence struggle in Kashmir was also mentioned as justification for targeting India, along with the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.

Indian security forces dismantled an IS cell active in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh after a train bombing injured 10 civilians in March 2017 (Image Source: US DoD)

Despite these warnings, the lofty ambitions of maintaining a permanent presence on the ground and incorporating India into some kind of imagined IS super-caliphate have not even come close to being realised. Instead, the main threat has turned out to be from online recruitment and self-radicalization. As mentioned earlier, Kerala and other prosperous southwestern states have been worst-affected, with individuals and small groups of citizens becoming radicalized by extremist ideology disseminated online and through mobile platforms. Websites on the so-called ‘dark web’, social media sites and encrypted messaging apps have served as particularly useful mediums of communication for jihadis seeking to reach out to Indians. A single online recruiter – identified by intelligence agencies as Shafi Armar, or Yusuf-al-Hindi – has been linked to the majority of known cases of radicalization, while rogue Islamic centres and schools may also have played a role in providing a platform for extremist ideology. Radical preachers appearing on television and online platforms represent another area of concern for the authorities. The most prominent controversial preacher – Zakir Naik – has been accused by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) of encouraging unlawful activities and promoting religious hatred.

What measures has India taken to combat the threat?

Indian politicians have consistently denied that IS has an established presence in the country but have often warned of the seriousness of the threat posed by the group. In March, Home Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted the ‘radicalization of youth’ as a particular concern; but said India had so-far been successful in dismantling ‘modules that were planning to orchestrate terrorist attacks’ on its soil. Singh added that the ‘shift’ of jihadi networks linked to IS and al-Qaeda ‘from the Middle East to south Asia is a phenomenon which is of serious concern to India’. Singh also expressed confidence in the ability of the Indian authorities to combat the lingering threat, stating: ‘the Indian social fabric has not been affected by the emergence of IS – and I am sure this will not have any further impact in our country’.

This confidence appears to be well-founded, given the authorities’ record of cracking-down effectively on the activities of IS sympathizers. Several years ago, the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IIB) launched Operation Chakravyuh, designed to identify and entrap potential IS recruits online before they could be radicalized fully. Intelligence officers created social media accounts posing as IS recruiters, through which they interacted with more than 3,000 unassuming Indian youths seeking to join the global jihadi movement. The operatives were able to gather information related to the identity of the individuals concerned, which was then used to monitor and impose surveillance on targets and track the activities of emerging terrorist cells. It is thought that this initiative led to the arrest of multiple suspects before they were able to either travel abroad to join IS or carry-out attacks at home. The NIA and local police forces have also played a key role in conducting investigations and launching raids to arrest suspects. The Brookings Institution reported last year that 85 of 142 known IS suspects at the time had been detained. At least 11 others had been confirmed killed either while fighting abroad or during police operations in India, while many of the remaining 43 individuals were also reported to have been killed.

The national police and state intelligence services are also looking to improve their capabilities further, having recently taken part in a new two-day workshop with the EU aimed at countering radicalization online. The NIA has stressed the importance of closer global co-operation in this area, describing the internet and social media as ‘the main vehicles used by extremists and terrorist organizations to incite violence and sow hatred…and allow them to reach a far greater number of people than ever before’.

Future forecast: how might the threat from IS evolve?

Aside from the online sphere, several other areas of concern exist when it comes to IS in India. The decades-old conflict in Kashmir may be a particular weak spot, with IS-claimed attacks in the regional capital Srinagar last November and this February exposing the potential for a worrying new dynamic to the conflict. The attacks left two policemen dead, while a militant killed during the first incident was wrapped in an IS flag for his burial. While the attacks appear to have been isolated incidents, they indicate that a small number of IS sympathizers exist in the region, which some observers say could serve as a potential recruitment pool for extremist groups in the future. However, other analysts in the region argue this is unlikely due to the dominantly separatist nature of the long-running Kashmir independence struggle, while most of the armed groups active in the region are openly opposed to IS.

Secondly, sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims could also be a potential flashpoint. IS often looks to stir up such tensions in all countries where it operates, through its production of literature and audio-visual propaganda materials. A previous video aimed at India has disparaged Hindus as ‘worshippers of cows, trees and the sun’, while encouraging Muslims in the country to disassociate themselves from other religious groups. Prime Minister Modi’s alleged failure to take stronger action as state governor in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, along with the Hindu nationalist policies of the current administration, could also increase feelings of marginalization among disenfranchised Muslims and play into the hands of the militants. There also remains the dual risk of low-tech, small-scale lone-wolf attacks along with the threat of larger attacks from militants based across borders in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Such an eventuality has happened before, in Mumbai in 2008.

The need for continued vigilance against IS

India – as one of the world’s most populous and religiously diverse countries, located in the heart of a volatile region long-beset by problems related to Islamist militancy – has so-far been remarkably unscathed by IS. Yet as the group continues to lose territory in its former Middle Eastern strongholds of Syria and Iraq, it may yet attempt to open up new fronts to ensure its survival. This is less likely to be in the form of a fixed caliphate, but more likely something more akin to the loose global terrorist network developed by al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. As authorities around the world crack-down on the group’s activities, remote and long-volatile regions such as Kashmir may become an attractive option for IS. At first glance this appears unlikely, yet there is an existing precedent for such a scenario. Last year on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, IS was able to infiltrate and manipulate a decades-old insurgent movement that had previously been purely separatist in nature, to the point where it was able to take over and rule parts of a mid-sized city – Marawi – under the black flag of IS for almost six months. A similar scenario in Kashmir is just as unlikely; but can’t entirely be ruled out.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, along with India’s intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, will need to remain vigilant and on high alert even as IS’ global influence continues to wane. Although fading, IS’ ambitions for south Asia are not yet dead. Complacency at this stage from India – or any state around the world which appears to have avoided IS’ scourge – would be very dangerous.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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Poverty, violence and underdevelopment: tracing the history of India’s Naxalite conflict

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The Naxalites are present in large swathes of territory across rural central and eastern India, spanning an area which has become known as the ‘Red Corridor’ (Image Source: M Tracy Hunter, Wikipedia)

India’s Naxalite insurgency has been waged in remote central and eastern parts of the world’s second-most populous country for more than five decades, with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once describing it as India’s ‘’greatest internal security challenge’’. Since the late 1960’s the conflict has existed at varying levels of intensity, with the Naxalites periodically being fought back by the Indian military only to later re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with once again. As a product of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment in India’s inaccessible rural heartlands, the long-running insurgency has been particularly difficult for the security forces to tackle.

As an internal conflict, which receives little coverage in the international media, it is likely that few in the West will have heard of its existence. This article strives to fill this void and provide an overview of the Naxalite insurgency through investigating several key questions: how did it all begin? What have been the key developments and incidents over the last five decades? What are its core drivers? And lastly, what does the future hold for Naxalite-affected areas in central and eastern India?

The insurgency has its roots in the remote forests of West Bengal in 1967, when a left-wing Maoist group staged a violent uprising in the rural village of Naxalbari. This is where the term ‘Naxalite’ originates from, and has since been used to describe armed groups involved in the decades-long struggle against the State that followed. The original uprising was soon crushed by the security forces, however in later years the Maoists re-grouped and have since asserted control over vast swathes of rural land across central and eastern India, in an area which has become known as the ‘Red Corridor’, indicating territory in which the Naxalites are present.

The ‘Red Corridor’ stretches through multiple states including Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. Naxalite insurgents have been present at one-time-or-another in more than one-third of India’s 640 districts, whilst many thousands of people have died during the course of the conflict since the late 1960’s.

The Naxalites describe themselves as a left-wing Maoist movement, which has dedicated itself to fighting for the basic rights of indigenous tribespeople and the impoverished rural population, whom the Naxalites contend have been neglected by the central government for decades. In particular, they claim to represent local concerns over resource redistribution and land ownership. The Naxalites view India as a capitalist, semi-colonial and semi-feudal state, and ultimately seek to establish an agrarian-led ‘communist society’ by overthrowing India’s elected government through a protracted armed struggle.

In the later years of the 20th Century the insurgency was assumed to be in decline, and took the form of an under-the-radar low-intensity conflict. However, it gained significant traction in September 2004 when the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was founded. It was established following the merger of two of India’s most prominent far-left groups: the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (People’s War) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India. By 2011, the Naxalites had grown in strength and commanded around 20,000 fighters in rural areas, who has armed themselves through raiding police bases in remote locations. In 2013, the Indian Government estimated the total number of Naxalite fighters to be around 11,500, in addition to 38,000 fighters in the Jan People’s Militia armed with basic weapons such as bows and arrows. The Jan Militia are thought to provide support to the armed wing of the Naxalites – known as the CPI-Maoists People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) – and are known to have participated in attacks.

In 2009, the Indian Government launched its largest ever anti-Naxalite offensive, which involved 50,000 troops and thousands more police officers. The large-scale military offensive was known as Operation ‘Green Hunt’, and consisted of co-ordinated raids across the worst-affected states. The initiative was successful in eliminating prominent Maoist leaders and gaining control of rebel-held territory. As a result of the operation, the Naxalites were pushed deeper into their isolated jungle strongholds, yet have retained an ability to carry-out high-profile attacks and kidnappings. The Government has pledged to crack-down even harder unless the rebels renounce violence and enter peace talks; however, this appears to be an unlikely prospect.

In the period which followed the Government offensive, the number and severity of Maoist attacks increased, with the security forces representing the most frequent target. In April 2010, rebels ambushed paramilitary troops in a remote forested area of Chhattisgarh state, killing 76 soldiers in what was the worst-ever Maoist attack on state security forces. The Naxalites have also waged a sustained campaign of smaller-scale attacks, having regularly been involved in minor skirmishes with security forces and incidents across the affected states. The most commonly used tactics have included destroying infrastructure, blowing-up railway tracks and raiding police stations.

The most notorious Maoist attack of recent years came on 25 May 2013, when insurgents attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress leaders in the Darbha Valley in a remote area of Chhattisgarh state. The politicians had been returning from a rally, after which they were travelling through the region in a heavily-guarded convoy of up to 25 vehicles. As the convoy reached a deeply forested area, it was blocked by trees which had been deliberately felled by the Naxalites, who then triggered an IED before Maoist fighters hiding in the surrounding forest opened fire, killing 27 people. Among those killed were high-profile politicians including former state minister Mahendra Karma, Chhattisgarh Congress leader Nand Kumar Patel and senior Congress leader Vidya Charan Shukla.

At the height of the insurgency in 2009 it was reported that 586 civilians were killed during the year, along with 217 insurgents and 317 members of the security forces. Whilst the insurgency appears to have decreased in intensity since then, there were still 300 fatalities attributed to the conflict in 2016, according to the IISS Armed Conflict Database. The security situation has improved in several of the worst-affected states, however the Naxalites still retain presence in the most remote areas and still have the capability to launch attacks against the security forces.

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A 2009 operation by the Indian military pushed back the Maoists into remote jungle areas; however they have continued to launch attacks against security forces (Source: Mannat Sharma, Agencia Brasil)

The Naxalites have sought over the decades to build a wide base of popular support in rural areas, through pledging to address socio-economic problems such as governance failure and caste-based discrimination, whilst opposing land acquisition. The Naxalites have established their bases in impoverished communities in mountainous and forested parts of southern, central and eastern India. These areas are home to around 84 million indigenous Adivasi people, many of whom lead a traditional lifestyle as subsistence farmers, trapped in extreme poverty and living with a lack of basic services. These factors have been essential to the continuation of the Maoist cause, and the lack of basic amenities such as healthcare, education and clean drinking water have provided the Naxalites with an aggrieved community from which to recruit fighters and enjoy wide support.

The worst-affected states also happen to be the location of large quantities of India’s valuable natural resources, such as coal, iron and copper. However, few benefits from this resource wealth accrue directly to local people, and many rural residents do not share the Indian Government’s vision of top-down capitalist economic growth. These issues have created widespread resentment, and have contributed towards feelings of exclusion and marginalization amongst a large proportion of the impoverished rural population. Many citizens living in areas of Naxalite influence lack the education necessary to pursue alternative opportunities, and have seen little benefit from India’s rapid economic development.

In the last few years however, there have been encouraging signs of change and hope in the ‘Red Corridor’. The Government appears to be paying increasing attention to the affected areas, and has pursued a two-pronged strategy for change based upon the defeat of the rebels and the initiation of development projects. The strategy has been implemented one small step at a time: as rebels are pushed back from an area, construction companies move in under armed guard to begin laying down roads. The approach seems to have been effective, with one local official telling news agency Al-Jazeera: ‘‘we have found that wherever we have built roads, Naxal presence has diminished.’’

The provision of hard infrastructure may pave the way for the construction of hospitals and schools, and will likely result in greater economic development whilst allowing previously-isolated communities to feel more integrated. As a result, support for the Naxalites may begin to falter. However, concerns have been raised that a recent resurgence in mining by large corporations in areas now considered ‘safe’ from the Naxalite threat, could stoke renewed resentment amongst the local population and cause support for the Maoists to increase once again.

Amidst the long and continuing struggle between the Naxalites and the Indian state, the impact on civilians living in the zone of conflict has often been forgotten. For six decades, they have been victims of violence and counter-violence, and have seen little positive change in their living conditions. Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of committing violence and using tactics of intimidation.

Many tribal people have waited more than 50 years to be compensated for land which they were forced to hand over to the Government soon after India’s independence from British control. Displacement has also continued in order to make way for resource-based projects, from which local people receive few tangible benefits. Villagers have experienced intimidation from corporations’ private security personnel and also from state security forces. Voices of dissent against the government are often silenced, and there have been numerous reports of torture and abuse at the hands of the police, suffered by local people accused of supporting the Maoist cause.

The Maoists themselves – despite claiming to stand up for the rights of indigenous people – have also been known to react violently towards people suspected of not supporting their agenda. The majority of civilians reported to have been tortured or killed by the Naxalites have often been branded as police informers. Civilians therefore have to live with the dual fear of being persecuted by both sides; they are effectively trapped in the middle of an intractable conflict which appears no closer to a resolution than at any time in the past.

The future remains uncertain for the people living in areas affected by the Naxalite conflict. If recent improvements to the situation in some states are to be taken advantage of, it needs to be ensured that the ‘‘resource curse’’ – which has long plagued under-developed areas (not just in India, but across many of the world’s developing states) – does not materialize in light of renewed resource extraction by large corporations. The development concerns of local people must be addressed in order to undermine support for the rebels in the long-term, and to ensure that India’s rural population begins to experience the benefits of India’s remarkable economic growth.

Past evidence suggests that the adoption of purely militaristic strategies has been largely ineffective in combatting the insurgency. Moving forward, a more diverse and multi-layered approach to the problem is needed. This approach must recognize the complexities of the conflict and do more to address its underlying causes through determined and sustained initiatives, rather than simply eradicating the symptoms through military offensives. Greater dialogue is needed between all stakeholders, along with greater recognition of the rights of people living in poor rural communities. If lasting socio-economic progress can be achieved and livelihoods can be improved, then one of the world’s longest-running conflicts –  which has for decades halted progress and development across large swathes of rural India – could finally be brought to an end.