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Indians in Iraq and Syria joining al Qaeda, not just Islamic State

Interactions between a Canada-based terrorism expert and jihadis fighting in Iraq and Syria have thrown up a hitherto unknown aspect of Indian fighters – many of them gravitate towards an al Qaeda affiliate and not the Islamic State, perceived as global jihad’s sexy beast.

world Updated: Jul 18, 2016 20:23 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
There are also very likely women and families who have left to go live under the so-called caliphate, says Amarnath Amarasingam (in picture), a fellow with George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism
There are also very likely women and families who have left to go live under the so-called caliphate, says Amarnath Amarasingam (in picture), a fellow with George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism(HT Photo)

Interactions between a Canada-based terrorism expert and jihadis fighting in Iraq and Syria have thrown up a hitherto unknown aspect of Indian fighters – many of them gravitate towards an al Qaeda affiliate and not the Islamic State, perceived as global jihad’s sexy beast.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow with George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism, has contacted close to 100 jihadis in the conflict zone since late 2014.

Of those, he has interviewed nearly 40, and about half a dozen were from India.

Amarasingam found almost all the Indians he interviewed had joined the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated to al Qaeda and fell out with IS.

“IS is the sexy topic for most people who are watching this stuff. And anyone leaving their home country to go to Syria, people just assume they’re going to join IS. But a lot of people are drawn to Nusra because it’s al Qaeda in Syria, it’s carrying the torch of Osama bin Laden and carrying the torch of the original movement,” Amarasingam told Hindustan Times.

Read | Jihad 2.0: How Islamic State has changed global terrorism

There is also the sense that Nusra offers the “purest form” of jihad as against IS, which is “a bit more theologically corrupted”.

According to the latest estimates, nearly 50 Indians have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with jihadi groups, including 21 cases that recently came to light in Kerala. At least six Indians have reportedly died. Another 25 were arrested while in Syria or on their way to the war-torn country.

“There are definitely Indians who have left to go fight with the IS. There are also very likely women and families who have left to go live under the so-called caliphate,” Amarasingam said.

“But it’s important to recognise that just as many or around the same number have left to go fight with a variety of different organisations that are active in Syria, such as Jabhat ul-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa and a lot of these other smaller movements,” he pointed out.

There are even those like one Indian who is “independent” and works with whatever group in the region can utilise his services at a particular juncture.

Watch | Exclusive chat with Amarnath Amarasingam

A top official of the National Investigation Agency said his organisation’s findings did not reflect those of the Canada-based scholar.

“There are indeed many groups in Syria. But our experience has been that most people from India, who have travelled Syria or wanted to, had their eyes set on the IS, not the other groups,” said the official, who did not want to be named as he wasn’t authorised to brief the media.

C Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank, said his interactions with experts and members of the Indian Muslim community who had tracked the movement of Indians to Iraq and Syria had revealed a sense of revulsion and unease with the extreme violence associated with IS.

“So some of these people who criticise the situation in Kashmir and Palestine and may be thinking of going to Iraq and Syria are also people who don’t subscribe to the extreme violence perpetrated by IS. It’s like a dampener,” Bhaskar said.

Read | Most Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are from Pakistan: Official

Amarasingam’s work offers a crucial insight into the minds and motives of the jihadis in Iraq and Syria at a time when a growing number of Indian families are grappling with the radicalisation of their sons and daughters and their decision to leave home to travel to the Middle East. He is also part of the Canadian Network for Research into Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS).

He said, “I do get the sense that more of them (Indians) are with Nusra than IS, I’m not sure why. I think a lot of this has to do with the networks they were involved with leaving Syria…Some of them were early enough that they did kind of spend some time with IS and then leave.

“I do get the sense a lot of them are drawn to the Nusra brand because they feel like Nusra is addressing the needs of the Syrians more than IS, which is killing Sunni Muslims, is after something very different. They feel like Nusra, to some extent, maintains grassroots support with Syrians.”

The Indians Amarasingham has communicated with are well-educated, having been to college, and all are young males in the 23-28 age bracket. “A lot of the guys are involved in daily fighting. They are on sentry duty, manning the frontlines.” At that time, they talk a lot more.

The Indians in Syria appear to be “influenced by” the Afghan and Chechen jihads, and by preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki. These are often not lone wolves who make their way to Syria, not individuals leaving randomly, but usually part of a like-minded group making the journey together or “friendship clusters”.

While the IS’s caliphate tries to attract women and families to showcase it as a “land of abundance”, that isn’t the case with Nusra. Its young men “are a lot more honest about the struggle of everyday life, scarcity of food, of water. This is seen through the prism of sacrifice,” Amarasingam said.

Also part of the sacrifice is leaving parents and families behind in India. “They always miss home but they downplay it and missing home is part of the sacrifice. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be meaningful,” Amarasingam explained.

Indians are “not a whole lot different” from others drawn to the conflict “out of religious conviction”.

“What is unique in a weird way is they maintain a kind of Indianness. Others are Muslims first. Indians offer their unique experience,” he said.

Amarasingham hasn’t heard of any of them seeking to return to India, as “a lot of them are there for martyrdom.” They also see Syria as the place that offers “the most rewards” in the afterlife.

“Syria is a draw because it’s seen as the greatest jihad, as a place where the most afterlife rewards are. It’s the biggest and most urgent fight they can be involved in,” is Amarasingam’s analysis.

Some experts have taken comfort in the fact that Indian security agencies have registered less than 100 cases of jihadis either travelling to Iraq and Syria or being detained on their way to the conflict zone even though the country has a Muslim population of about 180 million.

But Bhaskar said such figures shouldn’t be a reason for complacency. “IS or al Qaeda are global brand names and people are gravitating towards their affiliates but we shouldn’t be waiting for the lights to turn red only when we find out that thousands of Indians have joined these groups,” he said.

“Our numbers may be limited now but a group like IS has shown even 100 fighters can carry out attacks of a virulently sadistic nature.”