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Log in for this fight: why it's time India counters online jihad

India’s security establishment has enough to worry about on the terrorist front in West Asia. But it also faces a challenge in cyberspace, in the propaganda battle against those like LeT chief, writes Anirudh Bhattacharyya.

columns Updated: Jun 28, 2014 10:09 IST
India security,cyberspace,LeT

According to a recent report from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent more than double the number of hours per day sleeping as they did working. These results of the 2013 American Time Use Survey may not quite be particularly eye-opening for either the White House or Washington’s foreign policy establishment since they appear to have been snoozing as the terrorists’ takeover of a significant section of Iraq occurred in recent days. As a result, the Obama administration got a crash course in what happens when you’re caught napping at the wheel — you awaken to a nightmare.

In keeping with recent American tradition, in 2012 American President Barack Obama observed the war in Iraq was over. He may as well have crowed ‘mission accomplished’. In reality, what the American strategy in West Asia has delivered is best defined by the F word, fiasco, as Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, recently did.

Depending on which stylebook is utilised, the marauding barbarians now nearing the gates of Baghdad, are from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or alternatively, al-Sham, making it the ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant making it ISIL. Regardless of which acronym fits, what’s clear is that a style of brutality, associated with the Al Shabaab or Boko Haram in northern Africa, has burst upon a land that once was the seat of the ancient Mesopotamian civilisation.

But, given that the ISIS’ code is about a millennium out of date, the tools employed are updated. Just about three years ago, the Arab Spring that swiftly swallowed much of the region was partly driven by social media. Now its evil alter ego has sprung up.

Hijacking the #WorldCup hashtag, one handle linked to the ISIS tweeted a photograph of a severed head: “This is our ball, it’s made of skin.” They’ve posted videos on YouTube, calling youth to jihad.

Mindless minions have made their message multiply. One recent map of the ISIS’ caliphate claims included the entire Indian subcontinent. That map, curiously, included the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was taken from the video game set in the pre-World War II era, Victoria II. That’s probably an indicator of the demographic that’s attracted to the likes of the ISIS.

As social media becomes a broadband pipeline for terrorism recruitment, such groups attract those like a British teen, who uses al-Hindi as his nom-de-guerre. Or even another who goes by the scary sounding Osama bin Bieber.

This is yet another instance of the recent trend of making jihad cool, with rap videos and the allure of five-star jihad, with potential recruits being lured with photos of terrorists enjoying the comforts of captured mansions. There is also another seduction, that of ISIS’ jihadis going from home to home in occupied towns seeking comfort women. And, obviously, you can’t have social media standing without food porn or cat pictures, and even these have emerged on ISIS handles.

The ISIS also has a sleek online publication, aping Inspire, the magazine from droned terror chieftain Anwar al-Awlaki, which once carried instructions on how to use a pressure cooker to jerryrig a homemade bomb, the kind later used in the Boston Marathon terror attacks by the Tsarnaev brothers.

India’s security establishment has enough to worry about on the terrorist front that’s opened up in West Asia, less than 2,000 miles from New Delhi. From extracting trapped citizens, to concerns about Iraqi oil imports, there’s the prospect of this picture playing out in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal there, and an ISIS-clone Taliban on steroids backed by the ISI, taking over.

But it also faces a challenge in cyberspace, in the propaganda battle against those like Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, who has thousands of Twitter followers. India needs to be awake to the age of Internet-enabled conflicts going viral in the neighbourhood. The alarm has already sounded.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

He is the author of The Candidate

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jun 27, 2014 23:11 IST