Despite triumphal assertions from capitals such as Baghdad that ISIS has been “defeated” in Iraq and Syria, and that its self-professed Caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, is on the run, the organisation has, in reality, mutated into a form that is on the cusp of creating severe security challenges to the major powers, including India. In fact, this country has been given priority in recruitment efforts, in view of its (a) history, and (b) its large and technologically educated population. ISIS is a mutation of Al Qaeda and was formed in the aftermath of the 2011 “Arab Spring”, when the perception took root within the Wahhabi extremists that the traditional rulership structures in Arab countries were disintegrating, and that this was their opportunity to move to a higher stage of deadliness. Around $13 billion in cash and weaponry flowed during 2011-13 to those who were described by intelligence agencies within NATO and its allies as “freedom fighters”. The bulk of this went to groups that subsequently melded and outed themselves as ISIS. The assistance given to ISIS elements ensured the takeover of extensive territories in Iraq and Syria, especially during 2014. To date, these advances have not been fully rolled back, and as a consequence, ISIS has gained in traction and thereby won over several tens of thousands of committed fighters across the globe, with many more acting as auxiliaries and sympathisers. Among the reasons for its continuing lethality is the fact that to NATO and its allies, the Shia alliance (and its Russian partner) represents a bigger threat than ISIS, while to the regional partners of the United States, the Kurds are more deserving of attention by local militaries than ISIS. Turkey in particular has routinely assisted Wahhabi terror groups that are battling with US-backed Kurdish militias, thus far to no blowback from Washington.
IDEA OF ISIS
More than exploding across some regions of Iraq, Syria and pockets in North and other parts of Africa, a worrisome factor is that the “Idea of ISIS” is not only still strong, but is gaining in potency across the globe. The theology of the organisation is minimal in a scholastic sense, with the emphasis being on the celebration of cruelty and the sanctification of acts of sadism and terror. During 2015-16, the absence of a knockout blow against ISIS by the Obama administration led to a spread of the belief among impressionable minds worldwide that the organisation is the seat of power of the “Caliph”, who will lead the war against the “Crusaders”. As effective is the fact that the primary method of indoctrination and spread used by ISIS is the internet, especially the “Deep Web”. This still remains an attractive, and largely undisrupted, channel. Video and other radical content may have declined in quantity and frequency, as declared by some ISIS-watchers, but more than numbers, what counts for the organisation is the fanaticism of those still signing up, and this is building up. Al Qaeda used as cannon fodder individuals with some familiarity with theology, such as those who carried out the 9/11 mass terror attacks on the US. However, many of those involved in acts traceable to ISIS have in the past shown almost no interest in organised religion, and have thereby escaped the radar of security agencies until it was too late. Since mid-2016, when cyber interception of ISIS websites and chats intensified, the Deep Web has become the platform of choice for key associates and affiliates, as well as the use of extensively accessed websites, including those of a pornographic nature, where chat traffic could get lost in the flood of “adult” commentary, especially when disguised in language that does not reveal the meaning and intent of the chats and messages sent and received, usually by users who are operating from public internet facilities and are therefore difficult to track down.
MEANWHILE, IN INDIA
Some analysts have been quick to declare that the Idea of ISIS has not really found a platform in India due to the syncretic nature of Indian Islam and the centuries of Sufism that has fashioned the religion in India as an assimilated and subcontinent-centric faith. It has even picked up the concept of caste from Hinduism, with the “Brahmins” being the Syeds and the “Vaishya” being the Ansaris. However, terrorism is never about large numbers, except of victims. It is always the minority amongst the minority that drives recruitment. Since Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister in 2014, there has been a drive to portray not just him, but the entire country as being intolerant and disrespectful of its minorities. In view of the steady expansion of the minority population in India, as compared to its near-elimination in Pakistan, as well as the travails experienced by Hindus in Bangladesh, it is ironic that Dhaka and Islamabad are the two centres from where online rants about “Intolerant India” are most frequent. The expectation is that the spread of such beliefs will facilitate recruitment of gullible individuals into the ISIS network, especially those with a background in technology. ISIS is looking to improve the sophistication of its surveillance, control and destructive methods, and needs high-quality and highly committed brainpower to ensure this, which is again why India has been made a priority. In this country, the continued onslaught of ISI-sponsored (but Hindu-named) elements, inspired acts of violence such as “beef lynchings” etc., continue to feed into the global Hate India campaign of the ISI and its fellow travellers. This campaign is geared towards a widening of sectarian tensions and to instil fear in the minority community. The calculation of such elements is that even if 0.001% of 170 million Muslims in India radicalise to ISIS-Al Qaeda levels, India will have 1,700 recruits to extreme militancy. Given the small size of most of global ISIS cells, this number (once dispersed and organised) would be sufficient to cause more than a hundred thousand deaths through mass terror attacks.
An intelligence community estimate is that only about 300 Indians have as yet shown “active interest” in ISIS, and that even fewer have participated in their campaigns. However, this is an underestimate. Ominously, ISIS-Al Qaeda’s social media campaigns have begun acquiring sophistication. The videos are of better quality and are released more frequently and over a broader geographical area than before. Such programs are winning recruits that are seldom from ultra-religious backgrounds. Indeed, many come from moderate family backgrounds, yet get drawn to ISIS because of the confidence and simplicity of its message. Also, clever use is made of standard religious concepts to change the import. These include:
Tawhid: which rejects democracy as it is a “man made” law.
Jihad: defined exclusively as an armed struggle.
Taqfir: the call to expel and expose unbelievers
Hijrat: Migration in the cause of jihad.
ISIS began its global campaign of terror four years ago by declaring itself as the first truly Islamic country since the medieval age. This assertion added to the belief among impressionable individuals bred on a diet of hatred and contempt for non-Wahhabis that the time had come for volunteers to undertake “Hijrat”, but not necessarily to ISIS-controlled territories. This has instead come to mean not physical, but “thought migration” to the concepts and commands of the ISIS leadership. As a consequence, ISIS is shifting its focus from concentrations in specific territories to small (sometimes a single individual) groups that are dispersed across the globe and get into a mode of readiness to carry out “Lone Wolf” (or “Wolf Pack”) attacks in target states.
The process of radicalisation across the internet includes:
(a) Online phishing: identifying those who are repeatedly making comments on violent posts or liking such posts, even though 99% attempts to recruit don’t work.
(b) Grooming a selected target via Telegram and through direct contact. Once trust is established, instructions are mostly on WickR, with messages self-destructing in one minute. Then the recruiter asks the target to produce a video or audio so that he can legitimately claim that the potential terrorist is an ISIS soldier. Thereafter, orders are given to attack in ways that have now been noted as the signature of ISIS terror strikes. The actual execution of the attack is usually through knife and vehicle attacks where guns are unavailable. While there is sometimes live streaming of terror attacks on Facebook, Periscope, Twitter etc., this is often dispensed with by fighters for fear of capture, even though the ISIS top command favours such methods as a means of demonstrating its continuing lethality. It has even claimed control for the recent Las Vegas shootings, but as yet no data has been released by US authorities about the internet surfing habits of the perpetrator or whether he had recently been in locations known to host clusters of ISIS facilitators and motivators.
A study of about 900 ISIS fighters’ data from online social media platforms was carried out six months ago by analysts based in the Middle East. The “likes” and “mentions” on tweets were tabulated in order to understand the influencers. The most influential of such hidden recruiters of ISIS were from the online world. The most important such recruiter was an Indian, based in Bangalore. The profile Shami Witness, was a major cheerleader at the age of only 20 years. 70% of those who went to Syria from all over the world relied on what Shami told them, only because he was continuously tweeting about the latest events. The presence of such individuals is why India needs to keep its resources focused on ISIS and Al Qaeda. Interestingly, less than 15% of jihadists in India, be they of the SIMI, Indian Mujahideen or other ultra-Wahhabi fronts, were educated in Islamic religious institutions. This trend is similar to that in the rest of the world, where numerous criminals and drug dealers, with zero association to religion joined ISIS and overnight became practitioners of terror and its plots, more because they were discards in regular European society and had no hope of resurrection.
HOW TO COUNTER THE IDEA
The idea of the self-declared Caliphate, even if ISIS gets subjugated in the territorial war, can be fought only with a better idea, based on tenets revealed in the Holy Quran. Such a move is of immediate relevance in India, where action needs to be taken before the Idea of ISIS gains in acceptance. Theology as preached by ISIS essentially posits that a Muslim is not a Muslim if he does not follow the organisation’s ultra-Wahhabi line. A grounding in the Indian practice of Islam can prevent Indian Muslims from straying to Wahhabism and Salafism. The need is to popularise the true religion in local languages, including Urdu, and not just allow the main vehicle for such dissemination to be Arabic. ISIS is conducting propaganda in 11 languages, hence the need to disseminate counter-content in Indian languages, so that the Sufi and moderate tendency continues to remain that of the mainstream in India, even while it is losing ground in Indonesia and seems to have largely lost the battle to Wahhabism in Pakistan.