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Indians are joining al Qaeda, not just IS, in West Asia

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.

worldpaper Updated: Jul 18, 2016 11:06 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times
An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration.
An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration.(Reuters)
         

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 Qaed a 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.

There is also the sense that Nusra offers the “purest form” of jihad as against Islamic State, 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.

Read: Don’t be in denial, north Kerala is in the grip of radicalisation

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.

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 Islamic State, 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.

Amarasingam’s work offers a crucial insight into the mind sand motives of the jihadis in Iraq and Syria at a time when a growing number of Indian families are grappling with the radical is at ion 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 sometime 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.”

First Published: Jul 18, 2016 06:24 IST

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