“Why is there no storm in your ocean?”
After nearly 18 years of efforts to extend its jihad into India, an objective first proclaimed and justified by Osama bin Laden in 1996, al Qaeda issued a statement with this plaintive query directed at the Indian Muslim in 2014.
There is, today, a powerful political constituency – not of the Muslim persuasion – that appears equally bewildered by the failure of the Indian Muslim to respond in large numbers to new provocations from the Islamic State (IS, formerly, Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, ISIS, also Daesh).
Straws in the wind
Unable to reconcile reality with their preconceptions, and desperate to whip up a paranoid frenzy among the gullible about the “imminent threat” of mad Muslims joining IS to overrun India, these elements have been clutching at straws.
Indeed, one notable security expert recently argued at a public forum that “catching straws in the wind” was the essence of intelligence assessment and counter-terrorism response. They gather together every visible instance of possible or potential linkage to Daesh – a handful that has actually joined IS; another handful that has been detained or arrested while attempting to do so; fragments of chatter over the internet; a few posters, and occasional flag waving – to drum up the illusion of a grave, indeed overwhelming, threat.
Where facts or data do not support these constructs, it is argued that data is not everything; if no terrorist attacks linked to Daesh have occurred, they could occur; if there is no evidence that Muslims are planning to join Daesh in large numbers, they must be thinking of doing so; and if they are not thinking of doing so at present, they could think of doing so in future.
If reality will not yield to bigotry, it can be reinvented. One leading light, for instance, publicly voiced the obvious canard that at least 537 Indians had joined IS in Iraq and Syria, and more than 10 times this number were likely to be trying to do so – numbers that have never been seen in any source, credible or otherwise, anywhere.
These are not security assessments; they are simply measures of communal prejudice and hatred.
Perception vs reality
The reality is, levels of Islamist extremist terrorism – a movement that has thrived essentially on Pakistani state support – are at a low ebb at present. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 4,529 persons were killed across India in Islamist terrorist violence in 2001 – the worst year by far – including 4,507 in Jammu & Kashmir alone; 2015 saw 174 such fatalities in J&K, and another 13 elsewhere in India. Indeed, Islamist terrorist violence across South Asia has declined sharply. Even in Pakistan, the fountainhead of this malignant current, Islamist terrorism linked fatalities dropped from their peak at 11,704 in 2009, to 3,682 in 2015.
As for the "armies of Daesh poised to invade India", the reality is that just 23 persons have actually joined IS in Iraq-Syria from this country, of whom six have been confirmed killed, and two have returned to India. Another 26 have been arrested while attempting to travel to the war-zone to join IS, while some 30-odd individuals have also been detained, counselled and returned to their families. These are tiny numbers, especially in view of the population of over 175 million Muslims in India. Crucially, much of the information leading to these detentions has come from family or community members, indicating that, while a few individuals have certainly been radicalised, their families and the larger community are under no illusion regarding the nature of Daesh.
Much emphasis is also being laid on the fact that Daesh has already "arrived" in the Indian neighbourhood, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – and consequently its movement into India is also impending. The reality is, there is no significant change in these countries as far as the profile of terrorism is concerned, other than the fact that fragments of groups that were already operating there have declared their allegiance to Daesh – as many had earlier done with regard to al Qaeda when that group was the "flavour of the season". There has been no augmentation of capacities, no movement of resources, personnel, technologies or structures of command and control. Indeed, existing local movements have split and are engaged in fratricidal confrontations in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a result of this shift of fealty. These changing affiliations are only opportunistic posturing by weak local formations trying to secure prominence by declaring alliances with what is currently perceived as the most powerful jihadi formation in the world.
This assessment of Daesh is, itself, based on distortions and deliberate falsification. IS has consistently exaggerated both its excesses and its victories. The truth is, it rampaged across regions of disorder and its initial ‘conquests’ were of areas under the control of other non-state armed formations. Where it confronted state forces, as in Mosul, if found an adversary terrorised by the wide propagation of videos documenting tortures, crucifixions and mass executions, and unwilling to defend Sunni majority areas. The most dramatic instance of this was Mosul, where a state force of two Divisions (30,000 men), armed to the hilt with tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, attack helicopters and a more than sufficient arsenal of small arms, simply abandoned their weapons and fled in the face of a tiny rag tag bunch of under 1,500 Daesh fighters, who rode into town in open pickup trucks.
However, the moment IS hit the sectarian (Shia) and ethnic (Kurdish) faultline thereafter, its advances stopped, and the performance of Daesh fighters has been far from exemplary wherever they have met with any determined opposition.
The myth of Daesh power also augmented as an ever-expanding of coalition of Western and Arab states engaged in a half-hearted and ambivalent fight against the terrorists, even as it sought to provide the group, and various other armed formations, with operational spaces and capabilities to weaken the Assad regime in Syria. The Western air campaign against IS was accurately described by one American commentator as “a drizzle, not a storm”. To distant analysts, however, it appeared that Daesh had the capacity to resist the combined force of a global alliance of some of the most powerful nations of the world. This myth was exploded with the unambiguous entry of Russia into the fight in Syria, and the Daesh legend is quickly disintegrating in the face of a relentless succession of reverses.
The 'root cause'
While the sensational activities of Islamist terrorist formations tend to exhaust public attention, it is, consequently, far more important to look at the conduct of colluding states. It is the irresponsible adventurism of strategically retarded Western states and their regional allies that have created the conditions within which Islamist terrorism has flourished across the world – beginning with the Afghanistan-Pakistan – or AfPak – complex. In the case of IS, blind efforts to provoke regime change – in countries where the West had supported brutal and lawless regimes for decades – without any rational strategy to secure a transition to democracy, collapsed these states, or large parts of their territories, into what the jihadi ideologues have described as ‘conditions of savagery’, leading to the consolidation of the power of the terrorists. Despite the rising threat and incidence of terrorism, including attacks on the soil of the colluding states – the petty ‘great games’ of regional and global powers continue.
Daesh’s attractiveness to extremist fringe elements will progressively wane as the group faces defeat on its home soil. This will not, however, end the problem of Islamist terrorism. Some other group will crystallize, propped up by the same colluding states; and Pakistan’s terrorist proxies will remain the principal source of Islamist terrorism in India. These are challenges that India will have to deal with.
Far more insidious, however, is the tremendous challenge of Islamist radicalisation that has been knowingly neglected by successive regimes in India, including the present. There has been a proliferation of Salafist institutions – mosques and madrassas – across wide areas of the country, overwhelmingly funded illegally from abroad, which have been tolerated, even encouraged, by various state governments and by the Centre. Agencies have wilfully ignored the reality that they propagate Islamist supremacist ideologies that posit a fundamental and inexorable conflict between the people of Islam (strictly defined as those adhering to their specific interpretation of the faith) and all others. While hysteria is whipped up about the Daesh threat, nothing is said or done about this deeper and more enduring danger.