India is not immediately vulnerable to a threat from the Islamic State though the country’s increasing dependence on energy supplies from the Middle East could force it to take on a greater role in ensuring stability in the volatile region, experts said at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Friday.
Speaking at a session on the theme “ISIS - How to fight the beast”, the experts noted that India has traditionally not been a major recruiting area for groups such as al Qaeda and the IS but the situation could change if the dreaded group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shifted its focus to the country.
“India has not contributed much to the IS or al Qaeda,” said Cole Bunzel of the department of near eastern studies at Princeton University.
However, IS propaganda has described Indians leaders as “infidels” who oppress Muslims and any shift of focus to the country by the terrorist group “would make me worry”, he added.
Soli Özel, professor of international relations at the Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said India is expected to get 75% of its energy supplies from the Middle East by 2035 while the figure for China is likely to be 90%. This, he remarked, could lead to the two countries having a greater stake in the stability of the Middle East and make the region much more of a concern for both.
India was the world’s fourth-largest consumer and net importer of crude oil and petroleum products in 2013 and the Middle East was a major source of crude oil supplies.
Journalist Jason Burke, who moderated the session, said the nature of the threat from the IS to South Asia is “not very grave” though that could change if “radical Muslims” in the country pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and his caliphate.
“It is difficult to say what the chances of that happening are, (but it is not likely) to happen soon,” he said. Individual or lone wolf attacks too were more likely in the US or Europe than India, he added.
Responding to a question from the audience, Burke discounted the possibility of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence using the IS to target India, saying the agency had its “own people more amenable to influence than the IS”.
Joas Wagemakers from the Utrecht University’s department of philosophy and religious studies, said there is a possibility of Indian jihadis who were in the ranks of the IS returning to the country to carry out attacks though the probability is “not very likely”.
“India is in a relatively good position,” he said.
The experts said the best way for the world community to counter the threat from the IS would be to end its grip on the territories it has occupied.
The international community should “degrade the group territorially” and this can “most effectively be done in Syria”, said Bunzel. One way of doing this is by backing “alternative militant groups that don’t like the IS and are looking for backing”, he added.
Özel said the task would be easier in Syria than Iraq because the Shia leaders of Iraq had abused power and it will be difficult to “convince the Sunnis of Iraq to trust the Shias”.
Once the IS’ control of territory is ended, the world community will have to take on the “long process” of countering its appeal to Muslims, including Muslims in liberal societies of Europe who were linked to recent attacks such as the one in Paris, he said.
The removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “may be the right thing to call for” and the multilateral talks in Vienna could help address other issues, Özel said.
Wagemakers said the IS was different from other Islamic terror groups because it was the first one to actually control territory in the form of the “caliphate” it had established in parts of Syria and Iraq.
“The IS doesn’t say (it is limited to) Iraq and Syria any more. It really strives to be the caliphate that once existed and it serves all Muslims all over the world,” he said.
Özel pointed out that one of the reasons for the growth of the IS was that oit represented some form of order – though it “may not be pleasant” – following the collapse of the state in Iraq in 2003. “People turn to whoever is providing order,” he said.
Bunzel noted that the IS draws from “canonical Sunni scripture”, including an apocalyptic vision about the “End Times” though it doesn’t portray the apocalypse as something likely to occur “tomorrow”.