by Rachit Ranjan and Munshi Zubaer Haque
In recent history, the rise of terrorism as a policy instrument for both state and non-state actors has created an increasingly complex and nebulous national security mooring. So far, any concerted effort towards combating terror hasn’t resulted in an ultimate decimation of terror outfits or their respective channels. Rather, as the current trend indicates, it has resulted in many small offshoots, which have gained much visibility in the “global jihad” arena further amplifying the global threat perceptions attached to such outfits. The emergence of new terror blocs such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in the middle east coupled with a resurgent Al-Qaeda present a much bigger security challenge for the international community than ever before. Clearly, in times like these, lack of operational foresight and objectives will lead to catastrophic results. While, United States’ decision to execute air strikes on key ISIS posts is being executed with modest success, modern terrorism is in need of a more robust strategy, where all of international community will have a more pronounced and active role to play.
The International Centre for Study in Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) reported in January that the total number of foreign fighters in Syria/Iraq surpassed 20000 and managed to exceed the huge influx of foreign fighters during the Afghanistan Conflict in 1980s. It must be noted here that according to the figures from 50 nations, there are 130 fighters from USA, 600 from UK, 1200 from France who traveled to Middle East to join ISIS; incidentally, all these 3 nations are partners of the current global military coalition against ISIS under leadership of USA.
In the context of India, this number has been fairly low owing to a host of factors. Last October, Ajit Doval offered a rather simplistic explanation to the situation suggesting that ISIS attempts to lure young Muslims from India has largely been unsuccessful because of a system of strong family values prevalent in India, wherein parents have consistently reigned in on youths who appear to be going wayward. Mr. Doval is correct to an extent but in addition to strong family values, India has a very strong cultural and national identity that cuts across religious beliefs. Further, India has also experienced immense success in execution of de-radicalization programs. It is essentially a combination of these factors that has prevented a situation from spiraling out of control in India. Bharat Karnad observes that there might not essentially be a direct threat from ISIS either in terms of conventional military or a direct or a physical threat or an organized threat. To this extent, he believes that on account of the current threat perception, the situation appears to be containable.
Despite this, it needs to be noted that a pertinent threat remains to the national security architecture because of the presence of the strong Indian Diaspora in the Middle East. Moreover, a recent ISIS internal recruitment document accessed by US Today also reveals ISIS plans of attacking India in addition to their map, which shows India under the control of the Caliphate by 2020. While the Indian diaspora in this region contributes substantially to the Indian economy by way of foreign remittance, it has also been found on several occasions that they have funded a several activities related to terror financing. The high number of Muslim pilgrims from India who travel to Mecca for ‘Hajj’ has the potential of emerging as a nightmarish security threat. According to Brigadier Rumel Dahiya (Retd), it has been reported that ISIS has opened a Hajj cell, which aims to contact the pilgrims and identify the potential recruits among them. Evidently, if ISIS succeeds in its mission to recruit such pilgrims it can wreak havoc on the domestic security landscape. For example the attacks that have taken place in France, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the last month point out the increasingly diffused nature of terrorism in the global context which has seen manifestations in the form of regular lone wolf attacks. The relevance of India in this realm of terrorism comes with the cases of young and impressionable Muslims getting radicalized to join the ISIS and adopting the macabre of violent Jihad as the ultimate destiny of their lives. While the strategy of de-radicalization and parental supervision has worked as a counter terrorism response, it has only been able to treat the symptoms and not the disease itself. This begs the question as to what can be done by the government to strengthen the current counter-terrorism response to the looming threat of an ISIS incursion into Indian Territory?
Towards a Robust Counter-Terrorism Strategy
To build a comprehensive counter-terrorism response, the first and the foremost priority should be to distinguish ISIS from other groups like Al-Qaeda at the international level and groups like SIMI and Indian Mujahedeen at the national level. While groups like Al Qaeda have generally focused on pressurizing the government by sustained long term combat operations in various tiers of national security like in the case of recent conflict in Yemen, the Indian terror groups have sought to convey strong political stance against the government by an act of terror in the form of bombings in public places and destruction to life and property. Rasheed argues that ISIS has shown the caliber to challenge the global Westphalian state system by militarily gaining control of territories not limited to national borders and by establishing strong ruling authorities in those territories. Further using innovative methods the group has projected a revolutionary anti-thesis to the international political and economic system from an Islamist perspective, which has attracted disillusioned youths from across the world.
In India, the average Indian Muslim often lacks an in-depth understanding of Islamic history and nuances of Islamic jurisprudence, making them fair game for the narrative of violence espoused by ISIS. While the current government engagement with the Indian Muslim community has projected a strong counter-narrative, there is a burgeoning need for the government to have stronger surveillance and monitoring of online media content on internet forums and blogs, which may require extensive data mining exercises. As a sustained measure, the government also has to build better expertise in decryption of information in middle-eastern languages, particularly Arabic in order to develop stronger capabilities of signal intelligence gathering. In the recent cases where Indian citizens have been stopped from traveling to Middle East to join the ISIS, the suspects have been found with a lot of online literature published by the ISIS. Therefore, the government has to make a prudent choice by categorizing all such types of websites and blocking any form of access to these websites from anywhere in India for the common citizenry unless and until an individual is authorized by our intelligence agencies to do so for journalistic, academic and research purposes.
Questions may arise on the individual’s civil liberty to freely access knowledge without supervision of intelligence agencies, but in the interest of national security, it is imperative to curtail such rights in a reasonable manner. The travel by any Indian citizen to Middle East, including for religious pilgrimage by Muslim community must only be allowed after a thorough and detailed background check. Since a large number of Muslims from India travel for pilgrimage to Mecca, the state Hajj Committees in India ought to be involved in the process of background check of the pilgrims in coordination with Hajj cell at Ministry of External Affairs.
Further, the communication made by any Indian, residing in the Middle East, with their relatives, friends and professional contacts back in India should be monitored strongly and any incidence of homecoming by such an expatriate must be subjected to compulsory checks by local police authorities. Moreover, as an immediate measure the government ought to designate certain conflict zones in the Middle East, such as Ar Raqqa province in Syria as a “No-Go zone” for any Indian citizen similar to the measures taken recently by the Australian Government. Any Indian citizen traveling to those areas without prior official permission from Ministry of Home affairs or an Indian diplomatic mission abroad should be made liable to prosecution. Special consideration, in this case, should only be given to an Indian citizen who would travel to these conflict zones for humanitarian purpose, such as volunteer with the Red Cross.
A rather ambitious but possibly executable approach should also look at combating the ISIS through covert actions such as cultivation of sources within the organization, or conducting covert operations with surgical precision to stop their expansion into Indian Territory from contiguous areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have been noted for the presence of the ISIS or its affiliates in the light of recent security incidents. According to Bharat Karnad, the country also has a huge responsibility to initiate proactive and pre-emptive measure to tackle radicalization of young Muslims by terror groups through policies aimed at inclusive development and mainstream orientation as opposed to a one-dimensional approach geared towards de-radicalization.
Boots on Ground?
Military intervention may not be a realistic agenda for the Indian government and India mustn’t exercise ‘boots on the ground’ as an option because it will have serious repercussions for India in the domestic and international political sphere. Further, as argued by Brig. Dahiya, there are doubts over India’s military capabilities in comparison to the international actors, despite her capability of expeditionary force projection. Hence, the real thrust of counter-terrorism response by India would be on intelligence sharing, processing and analysis which would require proper coordination between Union and State Governments apart from regular coordination between the Union Government and the other international partners, while pursuing soft strategies of community outreach and de-radicalization of the detained suspects at the same time. ISIS must be treated as a quasi-state organization and in any form of warfare with another state military force ought to be the last resort. For now, India must act expeditiously in developing a robust counter terrorism strategy premised on intelligence, inclusiveness, collaboration and outreach in order to secure itself and effectively degrade the capabilities of such terror outfits.
About The Author:
Rachit Ranjan: Rachit Ranjan is a lawyer by training and specializes in international trade and investment policy. He has previously worked at the WTO and the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, in the area of international trade law and policy. He has also worked as a lecturer at Jindal Global Law School where he was attached with the Centre for Trade and Economic Laws. Rachit holds an LL.B. degree from National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and an LL.M. from Berkeley Law, California. He has been published previously by The Economic Times, Business Standard, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Global Policy and TheBricsPost.
Munshi Zubaer Haque: Munshi Zubaer Haque is a Strategic Affairs Researcher at Oval Observer Foundation.He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from University of Calcutta and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Jamia Millia Islamia,New Delhi.His research area primarily includes international security and his research interests include Terrorism,Insurgency and Politico-Military conflicts in Afghanistan and in the MENA region. In the past, he has worked as a researcher with SE Asia and Oceania Center at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses(IDSA),New Delhi, where he primarily worked on monitoring political and security developments in SE Asia and Oceania with a focus on defence relations in SE Asia in multilateral frameworks such as ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting(ADMM),the response of ASEAN member states to IS(Islamic State) and other security related issues.