The jihadist threat in India: trends and outlook

In recent years, India has witnesses a sharp reduction in jihadist terrorist attacks (the last significant event dates back to October 2013, when the Indian Mujahideen group struck in Bihar state, killing seven civilians).

Better intelligence capabilities and more effective coordination between central and local authorities are just some of the factors explaining this decreasing trend.

However, the country has already experienced alternating periods of inactivity and resurgence of the jihadist threat, due to symbolic events or the balance of power being rethought between jihadist groups in the region. A potential rise in the jihadist threat should not be ruled out and underestimated, especially in the light of weak signs of growing activism of the main groups operating in the South Asian region. In addition, the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, together with the policies adopted by the current government, risks exacerbating the discontent of those population grups that are most exposed to jihadist propaganda; this would entail a higher risk of isolated actions or, worse, coordinated high-profile attacks.

The jihadist threat in India

Jihadism poses a significant risk to a country like India, given its history and the decade-long presence of various extremist groups. It was in the city of Deoband, in Uttar Pradesh state, that the Deobandi religious movement was born as a reaction to British colonisation and which many years later became a source of inspiration for the Taliban. The main security-related risks are posed by the long-standing independence movement active in Kashmir and the dispute between India and Pakistan over sovereignty over the region; such factors have been exploited by Islamist groups, which make the whole Kashmir isssue part of a global jihadist agenda.

In 2019, out of a total of 1,786 terrorist events of different kinds (the lowest number for several decades, down by about 15% compared to 2018), only 4% were due to jihadist groups or individuals (excluding Jammu and Kashmir, which accounted for 20% of the attacks and almost 50% of the total fatalities). At present, attacks mostly affect relatively ‘outlying’ areas of the Federation from an economic and political point of view (in addition to Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram states), and mainly target police forces and government assets.

Locations of the attacks that occurred from 1 January 2019 to 20 December 2020. Source: Jane's.
Locations of the attacks that occurred from 1 January 2019 to 20 December 2020. Source: Jane's.
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal

 

The last significant jihadist event dates back to 7 March 2017, when an IS-claimed explosive attack wounded ten people at the Shajapur railway station (Madhya Pradesh); the attack that has caused the most fatalities in the past few years dates back to 27 October 2013, when the Indian Mujahideen struck in Patna (Bihar), killing seven civilians.

However, India has already experienced periods of fresh resurgence in the past, especially following symbolic events like the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) in 1992, and the riots in Godhra (Gujarat) in 2002.

In addition to the decade-long Jammu and Kashmir dispute and India-Pakistani relations, further important security-related factors include the presence of large Islamic communities (India is the third state in the world by the number of Muslims, about 200 million, whose standards of living are in most cases very low) and the initiatives taken in recent years by the ruling Hindu nationalist party (Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP). The ideology inspiring the BJP, called Hindutva and based on the idea of India as a Hindu state, coupled with the Muslim minority’s discrimination complaints, make India potentially prone to the spread of jihadist ideas. In this regard, there have been several reports of Muslims lynched for eating beef, and minorities have on many occasions experienced restricted freedom of expression; such situations may be exploited by terrorist groups to push the younger sections of the Muslim community to believe that jihadist organisations are the only ones capable of ‘avenging’ injustice.

Nevertheless, more than five years after the creation of the IS caliphate and the birth of al-Qaeda’s branch in South Asia, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the jihadist threat is still latent, except in Jammu and Kashmir.

In this regard, for example, there is a small number of foreign fighters having left India to join IS fighters in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan: about 200 (a very low number compared to the Indian population and the number of foreign fighters from other Asian countries). Not surprisingly, many IS and AQIS propaganda videos complain about the low participation of Indian Muslims.

The fact that Indian Muslims are not so permeable to jihadist propaganda is partly due to their signfiicant heterogeneity. Despite the rhetoric of radical Hindu movements, Muslim communities are very different from each other and divided based on multiple aspects (theology, economic features, caste interests, disparities between schools of law and distinct languages ​​and geographical contexts). In most cases, Muslim communities therefore have their own aspirations, especially at a local level and far from the global demands of transnational jihadist movements, which are now popular with a small number of Indian Muslims only, mainly depending on the language used to convey their messages. In the early years, jihadists mainly used Urdu, but currently IS and AQIS also use the southern languages ​​(Malayalam and Tamil) to convey their goals and reach the largest possible number of Muslims. When IS claimed responsibility for the Easter 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka, Tamil was used for the first time, in addition to English and Arabic.

However, the possibility of a new jihadist ‘wave’ linked to the current situation of discontent and alleged marginalisation perceived by large sectors of the Muslim community should not be underestimated. In this case, the risk of attacks would mainly affect crowded places (shopping malls, metro stations, government buildings, hotels, bars and restaurants) within large urban centres representing India’s political and economic power, such as Delhi and Mumbai, but also other important cities (Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad).

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India as an IS target

The growing IS propaganda and ties with Afghanistan

Although the jihadist threat is effectively mitigated by the Indian authorities, the country is a major target of transnational Islamist groups. The fact that IS has not significantly attracted Indian Muslims explains the growing propaganda by the group, which in recent years has become more interested in Indian cities. In this regard, in February 2020, two IS-linked media outlets (Al-Qitaal Media Center and Junudul Khilafah al-Hind) launched an online magazine in English on India, called ‘Voice of Hind’ (Sawt-al-Hind). The magazine, which can be found on Telegram and the dark web, is aimed at Indian Muslims, who are incited to rebel against the government. The magazine calls on them to continue protests against the new citizenship laws promulgated in late 2019 and perceived by many minorities as discriminatory, and to avenge the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya; the magazine refers to the 32 radical Hindu militants that have been recently acquitted of accusations of criminal conspiracy in the destruction of the religious site. Moreover, ‘Voice of Hind’ urges Muslims to exploit the opportunity given by the Covid-19 pandemic, described as a ‘punishment of Allah’, to attack the police and the army enforcing the measures taken by the authorities to contain the virus. The magazine also criticises al-Qaeda and the Taliban and urges Muslims from Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and India to join IS.

Cover of the first issue of Voice of Hind.
Cover of the first issue of Voice of Hind.

In regard to the Ayodhya issue, IS has condemned not only the Hindu right – the main supporter of the destruction of the mosque and the construction of the new temple of Ram, a Hindu deity, on the land where the Islamic religious site stood – but also Muslim actors and politicians and opposition parties and the idea of India as a secular nation. In place of the mosque, on 5 August 2020, just one year after Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy status was revoked, the Indian authorities began construction of the temple dedicated to Ram. In this case, not only the BJP, but also the secular opposition, represented by the Indian National Congress, agreed to the construction of the Hindu site, despite an increase in existing tensions between the Hindu majority community and the Muslim minority.

The religious ceremony (attended by Narendra Modi) held before work began to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya (5 August 2020).
The religious ceremony (attended by Narendra Modi) held before work began to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya (5 August 2020).

A significant aspect that has emerged in the past few months is the activism of IS-linked Indian Muslims operating abroad, as evidenced in August 2020 by the attack performed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP), the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, against the Jalalabad prison (Nangarhar province) to free some of the group’s members detained there. 11 terrorists took part in the attack, including Afghans, Tajiks, Pakistanis but also three Indians from the group’s cell in Kasagord, a town in southern Kerala, a state where several Indian militants have left from to join IS in Afghanistan. In the first part of the audio message released by ISIL-KP spokesman Sultan Aziz Azzam to claim the Jalalabad attack, the language used was Urdu, which is indicative of the group’s plans to attract the Muslim communities of northern India, where this language is used, and enhance radicalisation and recruitment operations. Moreover, ISIL-KP used an Indian militant from Kerala for the attack on the Sikh temple in Kabul in March 2020, which is a sign of the group’s interest in promoting coordination between IS operations in Afghanistan and India.

Kashmir as a priority target

On 10 May 2019, IS officially announced the creation of two provinces in South Asia, in India (Wilayat al-Hind) and Pakistan (Wilayat Pakistan). About a year after the founding, between April and June 2020, the recruitment of fighters in the two provinces reportedly increased, welcoming Indians from various areas of the country and ISIL-KP veterans who fled Afghanistan after their defeats at the hands of the Taliban between 2019 and 2020. In addition, as a result of India’s more assertive policy in Jammu and Kashmir, the interest of Wilayat Pakistan and Wilayat al-Hind in engaging in conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir, where the Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK) is already active, is growing, and a collaboration seems to have been launched with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terrorist group with bases in Pakistan and for decades operating against India, which is said to have set up new training camps for the last affiliates of the two provinces of IS, about 150. However, it should be noted that, in recent years, there have been tensions and clashes between militant groups who have been active in the region for years as anti-Indian groups, such as LeT and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), who favour a pro-Pakistan policy aimed at achieving total control of Kashmir, and pro-IS militants, who aspire to pursue a transnational agenda beyond the interests of Islamabad. Such rivalry could recur in the future and curb IS action.

In addition, while for most Kashmiris the main focus of the dispute is still a demand for independence from the central power in Delhi, the conflict is regularly described by jihadist groups as a further illustration of the abuses suffered by Muslims, adding to the injustices denounced in other areas globally. Various political and civil society organisations in Kashmir continue to see foreign Islamists as a complicating factor in their efforts against Delhi, but at the same time the difficulties experienced in the last year between Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian government, linked to the revocation of the territory’s autonomy, could foster an increase in IS influence. However, a complicating factor in the Wilayat al-Hind’s plans is the significant presence of Indian security forces, numbering around 950,000 army, paramilitary and police personnel.

IS attempts to expand into India

Together with Jammu and Kashmir, South India is the main recruiting ground for fighters who have joined IS. Wilayat al-Hind intends to exert a ‘pan-Indian’ influence as much as possible, merging the various jihadist affiliations that refer to IS throughout the country. Intelligence attention is largely focused on the states of Kerala and Karnataka, where a major problem is linked to the growth of educational institutions that promote extremist teachings. However, according to the authorities, IS is also active in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

According to a report published by the United Nations in July 2020, the 26th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, the states of Kerala and Karnataka are allegedly affected by a significant presence of IS militants, between 150 and 200 membersHowever, the Indian government has denied these numbers, despite the fact that the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s counter-terrorism agency, has actually identified terrorist cells in early 2020, arresting 17 militants, claiming that Wilayat al-Hind, as of late 2019, was planning to set up its own province in the forests of the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, as well as further north in the states of West Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra. These areas are considered suitable for the training of militants and for providing them with a refuge after the attacks, thus adopting a strategy already implemented by the Maoists in recent years. The areas identified by the security forces were located near the town of Kolar and in the district of Kodagu in Karnataka, in Jambusar in Gujarat, in Ratnagiri in Mahatrashtra, in Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh and in Burdwan and Siliguri in West Bengal.

In addition to these cases, in October 2020, NIA arrested two suspected IS members in Bangalore who were implicated in the radicalization of young Muslims and in financing their travel to Syria and Iraq. Also in October 2020, Sidhik Hul Aslam, one of the founders of Ansar-ul-Khilafah, a group which emerged in 2016, affiliated with IS and based in Kerala, was arrested in Delhi in connection with planned terrorist attacks in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Counter-terrorism operations in 2020. Source: Jane's.
Counter-terrorism operations in 2020. Source: Jane's.

Further recent events confirm that the jihadist threat cannot be underestimated. On 21 August, an alleged IS militant was arrested in Delhi and, according to the authorities, was planning an attack in the capital. Security forces found improvised explosive devices and a firearm during the arrest. This case was followed by other Indian police operations carried out in two separate areas of the country on 19 September, with the arrest of nine suspected al-Qaeda militants in the states of West Bengal and Kerala. According to Indian intelligence, the terrorists were planning attacks in various parts of the country, in Delhi and in major urban centres. In addition, on 3 October, police detained four suspected militants in the capital and confiscated guns and ammunition. According to the authorities, the detained terrorists were again planning attacks in the capital. The last major incident took place on November 16, when two suspected militants of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) group, operating mainly in Jammu and Kashmir, were arrested in the Kale Khan area of Delhi, with the subsequent confiscation of arms and ammunition. In this circumstance, security forces suspected a possible attack in the National Capital Region, which includes Delhi and areas in the proximity of the states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

In addition, during the course of the year, several Media supporting Wilayat al-Hind disseminated propaganda material containing threats of attacks. In February 2020, al-Burhan Media released an advertisement in which it identified NIA, the external intelligence agency (the Research and Analysis Wing – RAW) and the far-right Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as targets. Later, in May 2020, al-Haqeeqah Media, a media organ close to Wilayat al-Hind, threatened attacks against the Supreme Court and the India Gate in Delhi, as well as against high-ranking politicians, including the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Jihadist activism and the risks associated with India's post-pandemic socio-economic environment

Therefore, it is not possible to rule out the possibility of operations throughout the territory of India, mainly attacks by so-called ‘lone wolves’, who could act, for example, during the protest demonstrations which frequently take place in India, or during the frequent clashes between religious communities. The IS, which uses the internet and social media to spread its ideology, has published several propaganda videos and, in the case of India, as in other contexts, has incited attacks with bladed weapons (daggers, knives), attacks with vehicles and arson (especially during protests or riots).

During 2020, there were three major episodes of religious clashes in the country (two in Delhi and one in Bangalore). Following the events that took place in the capital in February 2020, the police arrested an IS-affiliated couple, accusing them of inciting protests against the citizenship laws that had just been approved by parliament and of aiming to carry out mass killings in crowded places. After the Bangalore clashes in August 2020, an individual suspected of being linked to Wilayat al-Hind was detained for questioning. In addition, in Bangalore, NIA arrested a militant believed to be associated with ISIL-KP and linked to operational cells in Delhi.

The emergence of a new generation of jihadists cannot be underestimated in India, especially in the context of the ongoing social and economic crisis triggered by the government’s adoption of drastic measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 infections. According to data released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrank dramatically between April and June 2020 (-23.9%), while between July and September it contracted by 7.5%. The situation is expected to improve slightly between October and December, when an increase of 0.1% is expected. The RBI forecasts a GDP contraction of 7.5% in the analysis for the current financial year (which ends on 31 March in India), but according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the GDP contraction could be even more significant (-10.3%)

Source: International Monetary Fund
Source: International Monetary Fund

unevenly. Industrial production, infrastructure and construction sectors remain well below pre-pandemic levels. Demand for steel, cement and electricity, a key indicator of a possible industrial recovery, remains low, highlighting the precariousness of the economic environment.  In the next few months, the worsening of the socio-economic situation could lead to a generalised increase in discontent with the government. This could result in the erosion of the consensus that enabled Modi’s BJP’s clear-cut victory in the most recent general elections held in 2019. The economic crisis would affect in a more significant way the economically disadvantaged social layers, such as the Muslim communities.The pandemic, besides causing economic damage and widespread dissatisfaction, could, therefore, accelerate some dynamics already existing in the Indian context, such as the social tensions between the Hindu majority community and the Muslim minority. This situation could be exploited by IS.

Risks associated with the return of thousands of workers from the Gulf due to Covid-19

Foreign remittances are a key source of income for many Indian families. The ongoing pandemic and the consequent restrictions adopted worldwide are also significantly affecting this indicator: according to the World Bank’s estimates, the value of remittances could drop by around 23% in India (the Indian diasporic community numbered around 17.5 million in 2019, according to the United Nations World Migration Report 2020).

In particular, the shutdown of many economic activities in the Gulf countries has already forced around one million Indians to go back home, with the possibility of a further increase in the coming months. According to an estimate published in May 2020 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), around 6 million jobs were lost in the Gulf countries, most of them carried out by migrants. As far as the Indians are concerned, radicalization phenomena very often occur among the diaspora and Islamic communities in the Gulf countries, so the extremely difficult economic situation could contribute to accentuating these dynamics (both in the host countries and on Indian territory).

Many of the young workers who have returned home come from Kerala, where IS has recruited most of the Indian foreign fighters and where jihadist propaganda is progressively growing.

This situation, if not effectively handled by the local and national authorities, could foster widespread local discontent, with possible repercussions for the security situation in Kerala and the rest of the country.

Short to medium-term outlook

Signs of a potential increase in the jihadist threat:

  • Increase in counter-terrorism operations in the main urban centres;
  • Growing jihadist propaganda activity (including in the local language), mainly aimed at the most disadvantaged communities in the country;
  • Increase in operations by IS-affiliated Indians in Afghanistan, a sign of the organisation’s plans to strengthen ties between operations in and outside the Indian subcontinent.

 

Factors potentially entailing a higher threat level:

  • Deteriorating economic situation, with particularly serious repercussions for the most disadvantaged communities;
  • Further increase in the Hindu nationalist rhetoric embraced by the government, in an attempt to regain support within traditionally supportive environments;
  • Return of hundreds of thousands of Indians (many of them are Muslim) from the Gulf countries due to the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic;
  • Increasing diplomatic tensions with Pakistan over the Jammu and Kashmir issue.
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