First, a quick glance at figures.
So far, more than two dozen Indians, living in India and abroad, have travelled to the area controlled by the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), which covers large swathes of land along the border of Iraq and Syria.
Two of them, Areeb Majeed, from Kalyan, Maharashtra, and a 20-year-old girl of Indian origin living in Qatar, returned after spending time within the ISIS fold.
The first reported case of a person of Indian origin joining ISIS emerged from Singapore in 2013. After Singaporean authorities deported Gul Mohammad Maraikar to India, it emerged that they believed one of his alleged associates, Tamil Nadu-born Singapore resident Fakruddin Usman Ali, had joined the ISIS.
National security agencies believe that half a dozen operatives from the Indian Mujahideen (IM), who first travelled to Pakistan in 2008, after a crackdown by Indian forces, are now with the ISIS. Apparently, by 2011-12 the IM members had chafed at the control exerted over them by the ISI, the intelligence agency of Pakistan. Following their disillusionment, they decided to establish a direct link with the al Qaeda in Afghanistan and fight against the US forces there. Later, they found the ISIS even more appealing and joined it. Some Indian Mujahideen operatives active on Twitter have claimed to have travelled to the area occupied by ISIS, and unconfirmed reports state that at least two have been killed there. The surviving operatives themselves have also tweeted about the killing of their associates.
Reports state that about 40 Indians, in various stages of radicalisation, have been discouraged from joining ISIS. Of these, about six have been arrested by the police. The rest were counseled by senior police officials who took their families into confidence and advised the individuals against joining the ISIS. Despite its reputation for extreme sexual violence, some women too have been attracted to the organisation. At least four women of Indian origin including those who lived aboard were kept under observation on account of their activities to do with ISIS on the Internet.
“US authorities asked Indian agencies to keep a watch on a Muslim girl from Houston, who came to India to study, as they suspected she was an ISIS-sympathiser,” said a central counter terror official, who requested anonymity. “The Indian agencies didn’t find anything objectionable with her activities and she went back to the US as well.”
He added that another radicalised girl had been in contact with the 18-strong group of boys from Hyderabad, who were stopped as they attempted to leave the country to join ISIS. She was never arrested.
Only one woman, Afsha Jabeen, based in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, who was deported to India for running an ISIS propaganda and recruitment drive on the Internet, has been arrested so far.
While some individuals seem to have been definitely interested in joining ISIS, other much-publicised cases don’t stand up to scrutiny. The peculiar instance of a Hindu girl from the Delhi, the daughter of a retired army official, who threatened to join ISIS, is a case in point. Worried about her search history on the Internet, her father called in the federal anti-terror probe outfit, the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
The matter turned out to be one of thwarted love. “Her relationship with a Muslim boy didn’t get family acceptance and that seemed to be reason of her desire to join the Islamic State,” a home ministry official said. The girl, who had no connection with the ISIS, was enraged that her family disapproved of her relationship. Investigating agencies found nothing objectionable on her Facebook profile and only a few old tweets to do with ISIS.
So how do investigating agencies deal with ISIS sympathisers in India? Apparently, there is no standard operating procedure (SoP) and the approach depends on the case at hand.
“In comparison to many European countries, the number of Indians or even non-resident Indians joining or planning to join ISIS is very small,” said NIA chief Sharad Kumar. “It is a tribute to the resilience of Indian democracy, as well, that provides equal opportunity to everyone. But that doesn’t mean we are keeping our eyes closed. We are alert to the danger propped up by the emergence of ISIS,” he added.
On August 1, then union home secretary LC Goyal called a meeting of officials from 12 states where ISIS activities had been noticed. Representatives from the intelligence and anti-terror investigation agencies also participated in the meeting.
“The meeting formulated a national framework to deal with the threat posed by the ISIS. The contents of the framework were shared only with stakeholders for practical reasons.
While ISIS is a long-term concern for India, any undue publicity at this stage will be disproportionate to the actual status of its threat to India at present,” said MA Ganapathy, joint secretary (internal security) who participated in the meeting.
Nevertheless, the radicalisation of young Indian Muslims has been a growing concern for the country’s security establishment. Sources say keeping a watch on jihadi propaganda on the internet and involving community elders to wean away young minds from radicalisation are two important cornerstones to deal with threats from radicalisation and the ISIS.
According to sources, former Intelligence Bureau chief Syed Asif Ibrahim, now appointed special envoy for counter-terrorism and extremism, is currently preparing a counter-radicalisation programme in this regard.
“Almost all the boys and girls who joined ISIS or planned to join it were radicalised over the Internet” a terror investigator said. According to interrogators, Areeb Majeed from Kalyan, who went to the ISIS controlled area in May 2014 and returned to India in November after being wounded first started looking for ways to join the outfit by perusing Facebook pages. Social media helped Majeed to make contacts in ISIS and subsequently, to travel to Syria. “Besides, keeping an eye on the Internet and involving community elders, intelligence agencies will also have to develop capabilities to penetrate vulnerable educational institutes and communities,” says Ajay Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management.