Like the families in Kasaragod who left the country for the Caliphate, those who turn to alleged terror modules are also influenced by ISIS’s online propaganda. All Muslim organisations in the country, be it Salafi, Wahhabi or Berelvi or traditional Sunni, have strongly opposed ISIS’s violence and ideology. No madrasa is giving pro-ISIS sermons. Still, if Indians are attracted towards ISIS, it shows the power of the group’s online propaganda. ISIS has maximised its reach across the world by using various online platforms. ISIS sympathisers are present in encrypted apps as well as other social networks. They build the brand image of the Caliphate, contact potential recruits through the apps and then work on them. Even instructions to carry out attacks are given through social networks.
According to a 2015 report, ISIS was releasing an average of 38.2 unique propaganda events a day from all corners of the Caliphate, which is “an exceptionally sophisticated information operation campaign, the success of which lies in the twin pillars of quantity and quality.”
The production of high quality propaganda videos and other propaganda productions took a hit when ISIS came under attack in Syria and Iraq and its territories kept shrinking, but its members and sympathisers continued to spread the message of the Caliphate on online platforms.
This strategy has worked well for ISIS. The group managed to attract the highest number of foreign fighters to its core. The Kerala examples also underscore this point. Family members and co-workers of the arrested agreed that they were involved in ISIS-related online groups and discussions. Haris Ali, younger brother of Abu Basheer who hails from Coimbatore, said his brother was a member of a Facebook group and a Telegram channel that discussed ISIS-related issues. KH Nazer, State secretary of the Popular Front of India (PFI), a hard-line Muslim organisation, told me about the “dangerous propaganda groups and pages on social media” existing in Malayalam. One of the arrested youth from Kanakamala, the 30-year-old Safwan, was a member of the PFI and working as a graphic designer at Thejas, the Malayalam newspaper run by the organisation. “We expelled Safwan from the PFI after the arrest. There are concerns in the organisation that he was involved in some social media discussions on ISIS. We find it a breach of organisational discipline,” Nazer said.
Though the government and the social networking companies have repeatedly said that they are cracking down on ISIS-linked content, it is not easy to remove every tweet and post ISIS members and sympathisers leave, particularly in regional languages. For example, there are a number of Facebook pages and accounts that propagate the ISIS’s messages in Malayalam. One of such Facebook pages is called Ashabul Haqq. One article on the page says it is obligatory for Muslims to go to the “Caliphate”. Another one slams Muslim organisations in Kerala for not taking up arms and fighting the “opponents of true religion”. Yet another post, titled “Shed a kafir’s blood”, says “unless there’s no peace agreement with Muslims, a kafir’s (non-Muslim) life and property won’t be protected”. Yunus Saleem, Amir Ali, Abdullah Ibn Abdullah are some others on Facebook with accounts that have declared loyalty to Baghdadi and spread ISIS propaganda in Malayalam.
Besides, ISIS has also issued threats against India via Telegram. In March 2017, after Mohammad Saifullah, a suspected operative of ISIS-Khorasan was killed in an encounter in Lucknow, Al Hindi, a jihadist channel on the Telegram, exhorted Muslims to carry out attacks in India. “Brother Saifullah, From India, encountered by (Anti-Terrorist squad UP), May Allah accept this soldier of Khilafah from Land of shirk ...” said one post on the channel, according to SITE Intelligence Group, a US-based private intelligence company that monitors terror activities. “Muwahideen [monotheists] of India. Kill them, stab them, hit them with car, use guns, weapons anything you have. And make them weak, shed their (mushrik, murtdad) blood like water...and make your way easier to jannat...” read another post. Ahwaal Ummat Media Center, another pro-ISIS media platform, posted a graphic on March 14 depicting the Taj Mahal as a possible target. The graphic features a militant in combat fatigues armed with a rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade standing near the 17th century monument in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Another image of the Taj Mahal is featured with the words “New target” attached to it.
In the three years of its existence, ISIS has made only little inroads into India. Compared to Western countries from where hundreds of Muslims have travelled to ISIS territories, mainly Syria, only less than 100 Indians are believed to have left the country.
According to a study by Brookings India, 142 Indian citizens have been confirmed to have affiliated with ISIS. Of this, many have been arrested and several others were made to go through deradicalisation programmes. But still it is a matter of concern that the group is attracting Indian citizens. The number has also steadily grown over the years. If only one individual was confirmed to have affiliated with the group in 2013 – before the Caliphate was declared – the numbers grew to six in 2014, 35 in 2015 and 75 in 2016. In the first four months of 2017, 25 people have been identified.
It is unlikely that ISIS will have a direct presence in India. Even after its slain Khorasan chief’s declaration of support for jihad in Kashmir, ISIS failed to make any inroad in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state. But it will keep trying to attract young Muslims in India into its fold. This poses a security threat, given that ISIS has carried out lone-wolf as well as enabled attacks in several places outside its Caliphate. Western countries have even seen ISIS-inspired attacks – which means that the group does not even have to direct or enable an assault, but only issue a general instruction for sympathisers to take up arms and target civilians. And ISIS literature has clearly placed the “cow-worshipping Hindus” of India on its enemy list. In the southern city of Hyderabad, ISIS’s virtual plotters managed to create a cell and provide it weapons to carry out attacks in India, according to the NIA. Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, an engineer from the city who got attracted to ISIS literature while working in Saudi Arabia and later got in touch with Abu Issa al-Amriki, one of the group’s most influential cyber recruiters, told his interrogators that his initial plan was to travel to Syria. But when that became difficult, his handlers asked him to work for ISIS in India. According to their instruction he once travelled to Nanded in Maharashtra where he found a bag hanging from a tree near the Railway Division Office. When they opened the bag, they found two guns and ammunition.
Though this attack was thwarted after Yazdani’s arrest in June 2016, the incident suggests how ISIS operates in a country with strict gun laws and where it has practically no organisational reach.
The southern states, which are economically and socially advanced compared to their northern counterparts, appear to be high on ISIS recruiters’ target. Of the 142 ISIS affiliates identified by Brookings, 37 are from Kerala, “21 from Telangana, 19 from Maharashtra, 16 from Karnataka, 15 from Uttar Pradesh, six from Madhya Pradesh, five from Tamil Nadu, four from Gujarat, three each from Uttarakhand and Bengal, two from Jammu & Kashmir, and one each from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi and Rajasthan.” Kerala, the most-affected, is a case in point, given the State’s connectivity with the Middle East and the influence of Salafi Islam. Kerala may not have a Salafi-Jihadist tradition, but the evolution of the State’s reformist Salafi movements into Wahhabi organisations, aided and abetted by Gulf Salafism, makes it easier for Salafi-Jihadists to tap into its youth.
Excerpted with permission from The ISIS Caliphate: From Syria To The Doorsteps Of India, Stanly Johny, Bloomsbury.