In the last week of July, USA Today reported that an ISIS document threatening war in India had been discovered in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Expectedly, this became big news in India. However, for the long-time observers of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State, this came as no surprise. The Islamic State had made its threats and intentions clear in June 2014, when social media accounts affiliated to it released maps detailing the group’s wish to expand the caliphate to Khorasan, a historic name for a region covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of India, and other surrounding countries.

While the group’s threat is significant, it requires some contextualisation. More than the sporadic waving of ISIS-inspired flags here in India, it is the Islamic State’s vast presence on the internet that poses a threat to Indian security.

For some years now, the militant group has used the web with a great degree of success to send out its message. It publishes an online glossy magazine called Dabiq to inform its members of its victories. On Twitter, it releases details of violence and murders, and indulges in pop-culture phenomenon such as mourning the death of Hollywood star Robin Williams. Its jihadists are even known to have launched an Android app to make sharing of information easier.

The threat of such propaganda being delivered to personal devices across the planet, bypassing censors and traditional check-posts, is something all countries are grappling with. But for India, the threat is perhaps bigger due to the near-absence of policies to counter it.

Recruits from India

The Islamic State’s internet reach in India became clear in 2014, when an investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 revealed that one of the group’s biggest propagandists, the Twitter handle @ShammiWitness, was run by Mehdi Biswas, an engineer living in Bengaluru. Before the handle was shut down and Biswas was arrested, @ShammiWitness had more than 17,000 followers and around 128,000 tweets.

The methodical media strategy of ISIS has been highlighted by American researcher Aaron Y Zelin in a paper titled “Picture or it didn’t happen: A snapshot of the Islamic State’s official media output." In the paper, Zelin underscores the systematic way in which the Islamic State approaches propaganda: this includes not just content on the web, but also the “viewing parties” and “media points” in towns and villages under its direct control in Syria and Iraq. On average, Zelin says, the Islamic State puts out 18 media releases a day.

So far, very few people from India have joined the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. The most famous case was of the four youths from Kalyan, near Mumbai, who abandoned their lives here to wage jihad with ISIS. More recently, reports say a journalist from Kerala who had worked in Qatar joined the group after coming into contact with its sympathisers on social media. On August 6, ISIS-affiliated social media accounts said former Indian Mujahideen member Mohammed Sajid, who hailed from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, died fighting for ISIS in Kobani, Syria. Some officials believe there could be more such recruits since the number of Indians who may have joined the Islamic State or its affiliates from their temporary residence in the Persian Gulf nations remains largely unknown.

Physical, online surveillance

Over the past few weeks, the Ministry of Home Affairs has held many consultations to draft plans to deal with the growing threat of the Islamic State. The fact that the Home Ministry is leading on this front, and not the External Affairs Ministry or the National Security Advisor, shows that the idea is to strengthen internal surveillance and counter-measures.

Already, physical surveillance by intelligence agencies is being tightened, such as by increasing watch on people’s travels to the Middle East. But the government simply needs to browse the internet a little more, especially the parts that aim to attract IS supporters. That is the only way the government can avoid finding itself in a situation where a foreign news channel first discovers that one of the most popular ISIS propagandists on Twitter is being run from the country’s tech capital.