Rise of ISIS: Should India Fear

It is disconcerting that the new Jihadis from India, as elsewhere, overwhelmingly belong to the upwardly mobile, middle classes, often from non-religious families. In other words, these are people who would be seen as successes in the modern, technological age. Here’s exploring the way forward for the nation in this scenario

The Islamic State (Daesh), more popularly ISIS, burst on the international scene with the dramatic capture of Mosul on June 10, 2014. This was the first time that any jihadi group had actually defeated a regular army in a battlefield and held territory. What made it even more impressive was that the ISIS fielded about 3,000 Jihadis against 30,000 well-armed and trained soldiers of the Iraqi army, and yet the battle for Mosul lasted barely a day.

Its next move was even more audacious — on June 29, it declared its emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, as the Caliph (Khalifa) of the global Muslim community (Umma) and called upon all Jihadis to declare their loyalty (bay’a) to him. Even as this is being written, the ISIS runs a proto-state over wide swaths of western Iraq and eastern/northern Syria, which at its widest is almost 700 kilometres across.

The ISIS has attracted around 20,000 Jihadis from around 90 countries to its ranks; the scope, scale and method of its operations makes it easily the biggest challenge to the Westphalian system in West Asia, and potential threat to countries far from its shores. ISIS has expanded in a limited way into neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan and has affiliates in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya. A number of freelance attacks have occurred or been attempted in European countries by returning Jihadis and by others inspired by ISIS success.

How did ISIS evolve in Iraq and expand into Syria that caught the local regimes and their supporters by surprise? As home to the second largest Muslim population in the world, should India be worried? And if so, what mitigating policies and tools should be employed to contain the risks?

Contrary to popular belief that it was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that led to the creation of ISIS (actually its predecessor Jund al Sham), its roots go back to 1999 when its acknowledged founder, Jordanian national Abu Musab al Zarqawi, supported by Al Qaeda’s money and Taliban sponsorship opened a Jihadi training camp in Herat (Afghanistan). Forced to flee the country when the US moved in to overthrow the Taliban, al Zarqawi was sheltered in Iran by the Government facilitated by the Afghan Jihadi Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Post-2003, he moved to Iraq and his group morphed into the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), changing its name a number of times. Though al Zarqawi was killed in a drone attack in 2006, his group only grew in size by merging with other groups, making strategic alignments with Baathists disenfranchised by the disbanding of the Iraqi army and attracting jihadis from different countries, often changing names to become ISIS by late 2006.

Toby Dodge, an authority on Iraq, makes the point that the post-2003 regimes failed across the three nodes necessary for establishing and maintaining an effective state. It was unable to ensure monopoly of coercion as corruption plagued the new Iraqi army, with offices on sale and ‘ghost’ soldiers on payroll to compensate for bribes paid. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also subverted the army’s chain of command to ensure personal loyalty. Second, the state was unable to construct the infrastructure necessary to deliver the services people needed largely due to the carving up of the state among different sectarian, ethnic, or religious groups, leading to personal fiefdoms and large-scale corruption.

It is this ‘privatisation’ of the state institutions that was responsible both for the failure to deliver basic services to the people and for the sectarian cleavages that are so rampant in Iraq. Revival of historical divisions as a factor for sectarianism is not borne by facts. Third, in such circumstances, the state could not create the ideational bonds that hold a nation together. With social cohesion absent, the state was unable ‘to develop legitimacy and authority through ideology’.

Therefore, though the AQI was beaten back by the American surge strengthened by the Anbar Awakening, where Sunni tribes were empowered to restore stability in their areas, it survived and ultimately rocked the Iraqi state very hard. Once the Americans exited Iraq, Maliki’s Government effectively disowned the Anbar militias, and then took on a hard anti-Sunni line forcing Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi to flee the country; he was later convicted in absentia and given the death penalty. The raid on Finance Minister al Rishawi’s house and his subsequent resignation was seen as the last straw, allowing ISIS Jihadis, secular Baathists and Sunni tribes to come together.

The ISIS moved out of the traditional jihadi framework established by Al Qaeda. The latter declared that tyrants ruling Muslim countries (near enemies) were sustained in power by the US and the West (far enemy), hence the latter should be attacked. The ISIS has ignored the far enemy and concentrated on displacing the near enemy. Al Qaeda is all about Muslim victimhood and weakness; ISIS stresses immediate change guaranteed by Allah and victory. Al Qaeda uses individual acts of terror while ISIS conquers, holds and governs territory. Al Qaeda is non-sectarian but for ISIS, Shias and all non-Sunni sects are apostates who must be destroyed. Al Qaeda has independent affiliates; ISIS encourages ‘hejira’, the sacred duty of all Muslims to emigrate to ‘safe’ lands (the Islamic state) so that they could live in the correct manner and also help conquer more lands.

Four other facets of ISIS are significant. One, it glorifies brutality and extreme violence. This is both to demoralise the enemy and to inure potential recruits so that they accept it as a part of their future lives. Two, ISIS is not just a terrorist outfit or even an insurgency. It is both these as well as a regular light infantry. Its strength is surprise, mobility and long-term planning, for example, for a year or so before the attack on Mosul, ISIS carried out targeted assassinations of Iraqi army commanders in Mosul, attacked isolated checkpoints and penetrated Iraqi intelligence. Three, it is financially self-sustaining; at its height its revenues from extortion, local taxes, sales of petroleum products and of antiquities fetched it $3 million or so per day. This allows it to run municipal services in the areas under its control, supply of electricity and water, social services, schools and hospitals, subsidised bread for the elderly, rent control and a rigid enforcement of the Sharia. Four, unlike clunky propaganda videos of Al Qaeda and other Jihadis, ISIS productions are slick, topical and able to use social media very effectively. Till recently, Governments, and later media providers, had a tough time trying to control such use, but still ISIS was able to use Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to reach out to potential Jihadis besides actual tactical planning. An Indian, Mehdi Biswas, was running one of their twitter handles @ShamiWitness out of Bengaluru. Their e-magazine, Dabiq — named after a village of that name in Syria where according to traditional belief the end-of-time battle will take place — is professionally produced; in all likelihood Jihadis from Western nations are involved in ISIS media campaigns as it is tailored for native speakers of English, French and other European languages.

In Syria, ISIS had to use considerably different tactics. The breakout of civil war in late 2011 following President Bashar al-Assad’s strong-armed crackdown on opposition groups led many countries who called themselves ‘friends of Syria’ to try and set up a strong anti-Assad armed group, the secular nationalist Free Syrian Army (FSA). However according to Charles Lister, noted scholar of ISIS, since Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and the West had different agendas, the FSA remained a hobbled force.

Home-grown and foreign Jihadis stepped into this vacuum. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi sent an experienced Syrian field commander Abu Muhammed al Jawlani to set up what became known as the Jabhat al Nusra. It established itself by carrying a major terrorist attack in Damascus but then settled down to regular insurgency, which like ISIS, used suicide bombers to break enemy lines during combat. It captured substantial territory. However, differences on tactics with ISIS led al Nusra to align itself with Al Qaeda. While this ensured a regular flow of jihadi recruits from different countries, particularly neighbours, it also meant loss of financial resources. Al Nusra tried to compensate this by increasing kidnapping and extortion as well as by tactically aligning with other Jihadi groups but this wasn’t enough. Lack of resources affected its field operations leading many to abandon it for ISIS, which started operating directly.

For some time in late 2014-early 2015, it seemed that ISIS would overrun not just Government areas but also al Nusra and Kurdish territory, but since then there have been several reverses. However, ISIS’s superior networks, greater resources and dynamic recruitment efforts remain that it is the primary military opponent of the Assad regime, holding a number of Governorates.

Syria, like Iraq and Libya, is a country destroyed by outside interference compounded by authoritarian, corrupt and sectarian leadership, leaving Jihadis like ISIS very much on the ascendancy.

Before moving on to India, one can conclude that the rise of ISIS reflects a blowback to many countries that acted tactically, ignoring strategic considerations. Iran’s reflexive anti-Americanism led to it facilitating the rise of Sunni jihadism in Iraq, which today it is battling. Similarly, Assad allowed Syria to be used by Jihadis travelling to Iraq to battle the US army and the US-backed Iraqi regime. At present, Turkey has turned a blind eye, or is simply unable to control, to the use of its territory by the ISIS to run logistic networks, including the transit of recruits since it wants to weaken the Kurds, both Iraqi and Turkish.

The number of Indians who have joined ISIS is a handful, probably less than 20, with four having been intercepted before they could leave the country. This is commendable since even small European countries with miniscule Muslim population have sent more Jihadis. Muslim Indians in the dozens have joined local terrorist outfits like SIMI, Indian Mujahideen etc, but while Kashmir attracted foreign Jihadis, there were none from the rest of India. Or in Al Qaeda.

When India became an independent, democratic, secular regime, Muslim theologians did not know where to place India in their scheme of things — Dar-Ul-Harb (land of strife, i.e. non-Muslim) or Dar-Ul-Aman (land of peace or a Muslim land). They arrived at a new category, Dar-Ul-Sulah, a land of agreement because Muslims had full religious rights like the others, and had equal rights in replacing ‘unjust’ Governments through the ballot box. But there are no grounds for complacency. There are approximately 7 million Indians in the Gulf countries, many of them Muslim; the chances of some getting affected by the Jihadi bug will not be a surprise.

Similarly, most Muslims in India belong to the moderate Hanafi School. India is also home to two major Islamic theological schools of thought — Nadwa and Deoband. Hence Muslims in India have not needed to look outside for theological guidance. However, substantial flow of funds from Saudi and other foundations in the Gulf are pushing the Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies, with Deobandis being pushed into more extreme positions. There is also a strain present in and around Hyderabad that is not reconciled to its integration with the mainstream in 1948.

What is disconcerting is that the new Jihadis from India, as elsewhere, overwhelmingly belong to the upwardly mobile, middle classes, often from non-religious families. In other words, the very people who would be seen as successes in the modern, technological age. What then is the way forward for India?

One, engage more rigorously with the Gulf countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to UAE, the first such visit since 1981, was long overdue. These countries both supply the funds that have replaced traditional Islamic practices in India with more extreme ones that stress Muslim victimhood, exclusivity and gender discrimination. On the other hand, these countries most fear change and see the ISIS as threatening their stability. Intelligence cooperation, including in tracking cyberspace, is necessary to disrupt recruiting networks, fund flows and other lifelines that sustain extreme jihadism.

Two, try and change the emerging Wahhabi/Salafi narrative in Muslim communities by strengthening traditional behaviour patterns and practices. As noted scholar and reformist Sultan Shahin complains, the Indian establishment only engages with bearded mullahs even if they are obscurantists. Recognition of diversity from Muslims and the engagement with forward looking individuals and institutions would be a good start. The youth are keen to grasp the opportunities provided by an emerging India, and they are best placed to replace the narrative of victimhood and discrimination with one of participation and hope.

Three, this should be matched by keeping an open eye on potential ‘emigrants’, and families given the confidence that the state would work with them to de-radicalise these misguided youth with no stigma attached.

Four, many occupations like weavers and other artisans, where Muslims predominate, are faced with obsolescence. Employment and other reservation on religious lines would not solve this socio-economic challenge; programmes like occupational and individual-oriented training, venture capital funding etc would.

Five, faced with an avalanche of terrorist violence resulting in many civilian causalities, police under pressure have occasionally charge sheeted innocents who have been locked up for years before being released by courts for lack of evidence. Our legal and police system discriminates against the poor who lack resources and connections. Where police have acted with bona fides, mistakes must be accepted but where there is clear mala fide and injustice, restorative justice demands should not be ignored. The characteristic of a strong state is not random violence or arbitrary action but its ability to separate genuine mistakes from mischief. And for ensuring the rule of law where the powerful do not get away because of the culture of impunity.

India must take a larger view, build on its plurality and enable the growth of all its citizens irrespective of their religion, linguistic or other identities. Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas is the only way forward.

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