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Guard up: Does brutal Islamic State pose a threat to India?

A whole new approach and new methods will be needed to cope with terrorist group which banks heavily on social media and the internet to spread its message.

ht view Updated: Feb 04, 2015 20:42 IST
Rezaul H Laskar
Rezaul H Laskar
Hindustan Times
Islamic State,Muath al-Kasaesbeh,India security

From being almost unheard of in India a few years ago to becoming a group that has horrified people with its brutal execution of hostages, the latest being the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, the Islamic State has emerged as one of the most powerful and dreaded terrorist organisations.

But just how much of a threat does it pose to India, especially after its move to appoint a new commander for Khurasan, the historic name for the area encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and parts of India?

In October last year, when information had already emerged about small groups of young men from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu going to West Asia to join the ranks of the group, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had said the threat from the IS or al Qaeda was not so great that it couldn't be dealt with by India.

"Right now we are very closely monitoring (the situation) and I don't think that the threats are of that magnitude from either one of them which we are not in a position to cope (with)," Doval said at a security conference in Delhi.

READ: Islamic State video claims captured pilot burned alive

But intelligence officials and security analysts say there is now an urgent need for India to keep its guard up and closely monitor the activities of the IS and groups that are aligned to it, especially in neighbouring Pakistan.

Ever since it emerged in mid-2014 that four young men from the Mumbai suburb of Kalyan had joined a group of Shia pilgrims and gone to Iraq to fight with the IS, evidence has mounted of radicalised Indians, including women, trying to make their way to West Asia to join the terror group's ranks.

One of the four youngsters from Kalyan, Areeb Majeed, was wounded in fighting in Syria and brought back to India by intelligence operatives after he surfaced in Turkey. Majeed has told security officials that he had seen at least 13 Indian men at a terror training camp in Syria.

Last week, Turkey deported nine Indians, including women and children, because officials suspected they were trying to go to Syria to join the IS. On January 16, security officials arrested 32-year-old Salman Mohiuddin in Hyderabad airport over fears that he was flying out of the country to join IS.

"The problem is two-fold: keeping track of all methods being used to radicalise and recruit Indians, and the threat posed by Indians who may return to the country undetected after being trained by the IS," an intelligence operative, who did not want to be named, told Hindustan Times.

"Right now, people are talking about the men from Kalyan and those who have been arrested before they could reach Iraq and Syria. But there could be others who evaded the net and made it to West Asia to join the IS," the intelligence operative said.

Keeping track of recruitment methods, security officials said, includes monitoring websites and social media platforms usually used by jihadi groups to disseminate propaganda. "We also need to zoom in on the reasons why some people are going to join IS--is it just bravado, or were they radicalised on the internet, or were there other local factors? This will help us come up with better counter-measures," said a security official who did not want to be named as he wasn't authorised to speak to the media.

In December, the role of social media in promoting the activities of groups like the IS became evident when police in Bengaluru arrested 24-year-old engineer Mehdi Masroor Biswas for allegedly running the influential Twitter account @ShamiWitness. The account had become a hub for propaganda. Biswas was charged for cyber-terrorism offences and crimes against the state though officials said they believed he did not have direct links to the IS.

Intelligence officials and security analysts agreed that India could not afford to let down its guard even though the IS did not pose an immediate threat to the country.

"These militants cannot take over our country or our government but it requires only 10 militants to carry out a spectacular attack like the one in Mumbai to change the course of foreign policies of countries," said Tufail Ahmad Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute who specialises in tracking jihadi movements in South Asia.

"The threat from the IS could become very real if comes via Pakistan. There are already indications that the IS has established some footprints in Pakistan and the Inter-Services Intelligence could co-opt such a group for targeting India," he said.

Last week, the IS named breakaway Pakistani Taliban leader Hafiz Saeed Khan as the "wali" or governor of Khurasan. The move came barely four months after al Qaeda announced the formation of a new wing for the Indian subcontinent. Both al Qaeda and IS have launched a push to gain a foothold among Pakistan's numerous terror groups.

"There are also reports that small groups of cadres of Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have gone to Iraq to join the IS since 2011 and 2012. IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also spent time in Afghanistan and reportedly the border regions of Pakistan," Ahmad said.

Though India has had experience of dealing with threats from Pakistan-based terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed for more than two decades, a whole new approach and new methods will be needed to cope with organisations like the IS which banks heavily on social media and the internet to spread its message, said Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies.

"Many of us don't understand the reach and impact of current communication technology, especially the impact of social media, which is the new way of provoking cognitive responses. The target obviously are youth who may be unemployed but aware--young men in small towns who may be affected by events such as 'ghar wapsi' but feel they cannot respond," he said.

"So though the IS may not be a tangible or direct threat right now and it may not have crossed the median, the government will have to keep a close watch on all these developments," Bhaskar said.

First Published: Feb 04, 2015 12:49 IST