This is, perhaps, a slightly over-long blog on the subject of tackling the threat from the ‘Islamic State’. It’s my piece titled “A Trident Strategy for Pre-empting Daesh from South Asia” just published in ‘Aakrosh: Asian Journal on Terrorism and Internal Conflicts’, Volume 19, Number 70, January 2016, and is reproduced below (but minus the footnotes available in the original).
It is best to know the kind of beast the Islamic State (IS), also known variously as the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS)/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Daesh, is before alighting on prophylactic solutions. Why prophylactic? Because the problem for India is more immanent than imminent, reflecting the fact that the attraction Daesh holds for Muslims in India (and the rest of the subcontinent) is attenuated, its cause not immediately resonating with them at the socio-cultural and religious levels (except insofar as it offers means of employment, howsoever dangerous, in the Gulf – more on which later).
The IS, it will be contended, is in dire straits and unlikely to survive the combined military onslaughts over time of a disparate but powerful coalition of countries determined to zero out the threat it poses and otherwise physically to eliminate it. But it is destined to die a slow death simply because all the countries and forces arrayed against it have conflicting regional interests and are yet to determine how to resolve them. This process is affording it a lease on life. So, if present trends are guide, the Daesh is unlikely ever to emerge as a danger to India. However, its “business model” of making the existing extremist Islamic terrorist/insurgency outfits in the subcontinent franchisees of the IS ideology, should cause alarm. These local groups, it will be argued, ride on Daesh’s notoriety, its ideology of battling the kafir West and secular governments, which is endowing their fight with a jihadist mission which, in turn, attracts more malcontents to their cause and extends their influence to South Asia.
Because this threat poses a complex challenge for a social faultline-riven subcontinent in general, and India in particular, it will have to be dealt with strongly and at various levels. A “Trident strategy” is articulated here, designed to shrink, preempt and eradicate this threat, with tailored foreign and defence policy measures, and a distinct internal security approach as the three prongs.
But first, let’s be clear about what the IS is not. It is not an Islamic movement with religious sanction, nor does it enjoy wide support in the Islamic world despite its leadership striving from the beginning to legitimate it as the vehicle to revive the 7th Century “Caliphate” of Abu Bakr. That was a time when the converts to the newly founded Islam faced persecution, and they had to be at their fighting best simply to survive and propagate their new faith in the Arabian Peninsula. The use of the “sword” then was both warranted and correct under Koranic law. Apparently, the IS leadership believes Islam and Muslims are once again under siege and that it is the duty of the faithful everywhere to rally to its standard. Except, the (late?) IS leader Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, under his nom de guerre – “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” in his attempt to mainstream the excesses of his outfit did the impermissible thing — he compounded the verses from the Koran and the Hadith to justify the use of unrestrained violence and the vilest methods to spread terror (beheadings, burning people alive, etc.). This has been denounced as entirely unIslamic under Koranic law and convention by reputed Islamic scholars, who are also unconvinced that the difficult situation the IS finds itself in with more and more nations joining in the effort to eraze it can, in any sense, be elevated as a war against Islam. This has undermined Daesh’s religious pretensions and the legitimacy of its appeals to the Muslim world (distinguished by innovative use of the social media) to help in its quixotic enterprise of creating a medievalist Caliphate in the 21st Century.
The Islamic State is the fallout of US President George W Bush’s criminally reckless policies circa 2001 – kneejerk reaction to the destruction of the Trade Towers in New York, for regime change in Iraq and Libya. West Asia was rid of the long entrenched dictators, Saddam Hussein and Moamar Gaddafi, true, but the US military interventions in these countries also fissured them along ethnic, sub-nationalist, and sectarian lines which the deposed strongmen had with rough and ready methods kept from fragmenting, resulting in many decades of stability in West Asia and the Maghreb. Besides the disaffected Syrian and Iraqi sunnis and Saddam’s soldiers who form the core, Daesh has attracted the floating population of religious mercenaries who bounce around from one trouble spot to the next, fighting for the Islamic cause of the day, and motivated first-timers from some 80 nations. This lot will not be easily weaned from the path of violence they have chosen.
Such “support” as IS has mustered in the sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, is due as much to empathy as fear inspired by the casual cruelty and brutality in implementing the shari’a and enforcing the Islamic way of life, with the slightest opposition or major infraction meriting summary execution. People considered “ahl-e-kitab” — but following the wrong “Book” (Christian Yazidis), or belonging to the “apostate” sect – shi’ite, or having different goals (Kurds seeking an independent state) are not spared.
IS has so far managed economically to prop up its rule in the region it controls through various means – oil, dope and gun running, and the clandestine sale of Mesopotamian antiquities which it has made a public show of disfiguring and destroying. But it is the capture intact of Syrian and Iraqi oil fields and refineries that has provided it with a rich source of revenue. Daesh extracts oil, refines it, and sells it clandestinely to buyers in Turkey and eastern Syria. Further, its take-over of parts of the Syrian and Iraqi banking systems has permitted it to move money it earns, including through extortion, to launder it, and thus sustain the movement, keep the Daesh “government” functioning, public services running, and for paying the foreign fighters. Soon, however, the store of antiquities will empty out, the refineries and oil fields will be bombed, the oil convoys struck, the oil trafficking and other revenue sources ended, and the banking channels shut down. These are actions the anti-Daesh coalition of some 60 countries is belatedly taking. Once shorn of finances, IS will be unable to fend for itself, let alone grow and extend its influence.
The record of this so-called “caliphate” isn’t helped by its sorry record of incompetent administration and bad treatment of the people it lords over. There is a breakdown of civic amenities and public utilities. Mass discontent has increased owing to unreasonable and frequent hikes in the zakat tax extracted from the people. And, in the critical oil sector, technicians are not getting paid the promised higher emoluments. And, worst of all, the people are prevented from escaping the “caliphate”. Thus internal unrest is brewing. The al-Baghdadi cohort is finding that it is not easy, as a former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East Martin Indyk put it, “to fight the infidel [and] feed the people.”
Daesh is not faring much better on the battlefield either. The Kurdish peshmerga forces, in particular, are proving a difficult adversary, who have successfully wrenched areas from IS’ grasp. Further, the Daesh leadership is being systematically decimated with precision attacks by drones and special operations forces with the US, for instance, deploying 3,500 Special Forces to harass, hound, and hunt down IS fighters, and Russian long range Kaliber cruise missiles, and spetznaz taking out selected targets, and even China gearing up for seaborne anti-Daesh strikes. To this formidable list of adverse actions is added the devastating sea and land-based air campaigns separately mounted by several countries – Russia, France, and the US to augment the bombing sorties launched on IS concentrations and command hubs by the resident Iraqi and Syrian air forces. Facing offensives on multiple fronts Daesh is in an impossible situation. And but for the clashing interests of the big powers in the mix – Russia supporting the President Basher al-Assad regime, US and France backing the opposition sunni “Syrian Arab Coalition”, Saudi Arabia (propped up by the West) – the source of IS’ militant salafi-Wahhabi ideology, torn between distancing itself from Daesh and fighting the Shia, including Iran and the Houthis in Yemen, and Iran supporting the regimes of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iraqi President Fuad Masum, and all the shia elements across the board, with the backing of Russia and confronting the US, Saudi Arabia, and the coalition of 34-sunni Muslim nations Riyadh has cobbled together, the Islamic State’s economic and territorial base would long ago have been reduced to ruin, and its apex leadership eliminated.
Even so, the attrition of the Daesh forces is proceeding apace, demoralization has set in leading to the more non-serious, thrill junkies, and other amateurs abandoning the cause and deserting/defecting in droves. One thing is certain: IS’ days are numbered. But as the US intelligence agencies have warned President Barack Obama, unless the Daesh-is divested of the territory it holds the threat from it will persist. Alas, contesting the Daesh on the ground is what most external actors are unwilling to do. A land war, in some form, even if only with increased Special Forces, is therefore unavoidable, also because IS’ “moneymaking” potential is tied directly to the territory it controls.
The ‘Trident’ Strategy
The Daesh may or may not survive the coming onslaught, but the threat posed by extra-territorial Islamic movements generally and their nested ability to exploit a tense communal situation in India is not in doubt. Nor is their ability to offer different inducements to impressionable, middleclass, and educated Muslim youth, on the one hand, and unemployed/unemployable Indians from the lowers sections of society, on the other hand. Eroding Hindu-Muslim tensions will take some doing in a democracy where religious polarization is seen to fetch electoral dividend. But rules, procedures and laws will have to be amended and augmented, intrusive policing and monitoring measures introduced, and “surveillance blinders” taken off. This is what most liberal democracies — and India is no exception, are being compelled to do in the face of extremist Islamic movements, and their proven skills in mobilizing support through cyber and advanced telecommunications means. It is no surprise to find that an Indian, Sanaul Haq, aka Maulana Asim Umar, was chosen by the al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri to head the group in the subcontinent, spread its radical message, and recruit and motivate Muslims from Cuttack to Karnataka, a task he has apparently been successful in. According to Intelligence sources, some 150 men have to-date been persuaded to join al-Qaeda. Haq travelled freely in and out of the country, to Iran, for training in handling arms and explosives in Pakistan, without once being apprehended by Indian authorities. Haq was caught because of good intelligence, of course, but also because of hard local policing. The village police post in the event becomes as consequential as the beat constable in urban areas to sense something is amiss, follow up on the smallest rumour and the slightest hint of trouble, thereby nipping the problem in the bud. The importance of information bubbling up from the grassroots level and follow-up preemptive-preventive action cannot be overstated. Some state police have been in the forefront, taking initiatives as in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, where retired District Superintendents of Police have been “roped in” to profile potential Islamist operatives and sympathizers that has even netted Pakistani agents.
The police in the countryside are crucial as well to end the production of small arms produced by blacksmiths who have honed their expertise to an extent where, for the right money, they can replicate almost any rifle, carbine, machine pistol, and even the fast-firing Kalashnikov. The traditional artisans using backyard foundries have to be diverted to more legal activity. Foreign-origin small arms are also easily available for a price. At the heart of this illicit trade is an entrenched system of middlemen and arms traffickers, which uses the internet brazenly to peddle their wares, which is not presently prohibited by law! Unless this underground arms market is wiped out by stringent laws and policing, IS won’t have to worry about arming its cadres. It can just dial up the requirements!
The Haq episode, however, testifies to the need to seal the country’s permeable borders and tighten lax systems of passport applicant verification and of monitoring the travel of potential suspects, and of communications between the local/provincial police intelligence outfits and police agencies. Systemic reforms become imperative considering Daesh, which is attracting persons and groups previously pledged to al-Qaeda, has marked out India, along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as part of the “Greater Khorasan” province it intends to secure. IS’ newest manifesto – ‘Black Flags from the Islamic State’ makes plain its aim, for instance, to take down Narendra Modi — “a rightwing Hindu nationalist” leading a “movement of Hindus…who kill Muslims who eat beef.”
The three prongs of the Trident policy have to address the problem from the outside in, beginning with a proactive policy to ensure, firstly, that the returnees from the Gulf and expatriate workers on holiday do not insert extremist Islamist ideological virus into the Indian society. Secondly, that the flow especially of funds emanating from the so-called Islamic charities based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and even remittances from that region, be strictly examined as regards their use. Permitting well-off expats to construct residences is one thing; allowing them to build new mosques and madrassas to propagate Wahhabist values and thought is another thing altogether, and should be legally barred. Indeed, contributions by all Arab Charities and Foundations without exception and even by wealthy Gulf-residing individuals – citizens and non-citizens alike, should be legally required to be routed through official Indian channels. If feasible, this should be negotiated within the ambit of the 2013 Indo-Saudi security cooperation accord. Riyadh is under considerable pressure to stifle its salafi-sunni terrorist funding and would be amenable to an understanding for sharing sensitive information with New Delhi.
Expeditiously promulgated laws are needed to facilitate this, and bring all beneficiaries — individuals and organizations — of these Gulf monies and other Islamist sources anywhere in the country, under comprehensive surveillance, and to hold them responsible/accountable for proscribed use of these funds. This will require specialist cells in the Financial Intelligence Unit in the Union Finance Ministry and the Enforcement Directorate in the Revenue Department to focus on Islamist and Gulf money flows into the country, red-flag sources and recipients of these funds, and to concert in real time basis with a central organization set up as the repository for all incoming information and data from any and all sources.
Two factors are central to the spreading popularity of Daesh in the Islamic world. First is that Saudi Arabia and Saudi monies are primarily responsible for the proliferating madrassas propagating Wahhabi norms and salafi values of ‘desert Islam’ that IS expounds. Indicative of this connection is the extraordinary similarity, for instance, in the punishments the IS so ruthlessly carries out and what the Saudi law and order system follows. Secondly, the “soft power” pull of IS’ ethos and ideology has to be effectively countered. The cultural aspect of the jihadist milieu replete with “music, rituals, [and] customs” is not widely known. Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert, observes that this “may be as important to jihadi recruitment as theological treatises and political arguments” as it offers, he says, “its adherents a rich cultural universe in which they can immerse themselves.”
Presently there are no Indian laws and regulations to temper and contain the Wahhabist impulses of newly Gulf-returned residents and workers by extensive and intensive surveillance. Many states in Southeast Asia, for example, are finding that such returnees bring with them Islamist baggage such as “allegiance to ISIS and the mission to form an Islamic Caliphate” and constitute, as Singapore defence minister Ng Eng Hen said, “clear and present danger”. The larger issue Hen’s statement hints at is Daesh’s business model. Regional militant groups seeking a grander role for themselves and Islamic legitimization, and thus affiliate themselves with IS and its goals of achieving a Caliphate becoming, in the process, its franchisees. Daesh has created affiliates in southern and Central Asia by pulling many armed groups indulging in terrorism to its side by liberally dispensing cash and sophisticated arms, and in return has been pledged their loyalty. While Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has formally repudiated the IS and questioned al-Baghdadi’s claim to being the “khalifa”, some sections of TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in Pakistan, splinter Afghan Taliban groups, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and the Uighur freedom movement – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) operating in Chinese Xinjiang are very much part of IS. The Pakistani and Afghan affiliates have trumpeted their presence in South Asia with characteristic acts of brutality — a beheading in Zabul and the Safoora bus attack in May 2015. According to a Pentagon report Daesh is already “operationally emergent” in eastern Afghanistan. Unless serious remedial measures are instituted at the earliest, it is only a matter of time before militant Indian groups morph into IS affiliates.
As priority India, therefore, needs to fill a conspicuous void by designing legal and procedural instruments to ensure that (1) remittances and charitable funds from the Gulf region don’t end up germinating centres of Islamic extremism and jihadis, that end-use certification of these monies is made mandatory, (2) all madrassas in the country be brought under a licensing regime requiring prior due diligence by government with their secular curricula (including mathematics and science subjects “important for functioning in a modern society”) approved by the Human Resources Ministry, so that madrassas don’t turn into dens “deliberately educat[ing] students to become foot soldiers and elite operatives in extremist movements around the world” as has happened in Pakistan, After the Islamist attack on Rawalpindi school children in December 2014, Islamabad configured “a 20-point action plan” that includes the “registration and regulation of madrassas” of which there are some 25,000, even though only 2-3 percent of them are known to impart radical training. (3) Islamic seminaries too should be made answerable to the authorities and encouraged to join in a self-policing scheme to report persons, such as the al-Qaeda recruiter Haq (who, reportedly, has two doctorates from the Dar ul-Uloom), (4) detailed local police vetting should precede the issuing of passports and thereafter strict watch ought to be kept on who goes out of the country or comes back in, when, and for what purpose, to enable discernment of suspicious travel patterns.
To avoid the usual confusion about overlapping official jurisdictions of state and central agencies and the ensuing bureaucratic turf wars, a national anti-terrorism organization needs to be established. All information, intelligence, and relevant data, however collected and by whomsoever, will have to be forwarded to this particular entity in unprocessed form, and the processing and the eventual analyses by separate agencies at all levels be periodically compared and contrasted to pinpoint what works or doesn’t, and which reading of what information mattered, and how and why dealing with this or that terrorist outfit went wrong. This central organization should also be responsible for strategizing, coordinating, overseeing all counter-terrorist and anti-terrorist activities, for mounting covert counter-actions, and for tasking surveillance and policing moves, besides exercising oversight. The National Technology Research Organization (NTRO) should have the additional brief, if it is not so tasked already, with scrutinizing the internet traffic to detect tell-tale signs of radicalization and underway brain-washing of individuals, who can then be sequestered and “de-radicalized”. Existing programmes of psychological counseling have met with some success, and the IS cyber motivators and radicalizers involved have been apprehended. NTRO should also be technically enabled to monitor encrypted data in telecommunications and internet traffic, and to work with “meta-data” banks. Likewise, the local and state police should be armed with “roving wire-tap authority” with the proviso that all information so collected is immediately onpassed to the central organization. The central organization mooted here has far more to do than what was envisaged for the Anti-Terrorism Cell proposed by the Manmohan Singh government. Such a central unit will, as earlier mentioned, need to be on real time communications link with all intelligence, surveillance, policing agencies, and financial monitoring units at every level – municipal/panchayat level up.
Unless there is integrated functioning of the innumerable departments of state and central governments and coordinated use of of all government manpower and material resources of the state at all levels, the threat posed by Islamic State will be hard to neutralize. Already, there is evidence of Islamist organizations, such as SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) financed by expat-sourced/Arab monies putting down roots in previously communally harmonious surroundings in Kerala and coastal Karnataka. That SIMI members cut off a professor’s hand as “Islamic” punishment illustrates the extent to which the Indian state has failed to deter, preempt, and prevent IS-type culture from seeping in.
But intrusive/interventionist policing, surveillance, and monitoring programmes and methods in a democratic India will, per force, require overarching parliamentary oversight, be permissible under a system of laws and, in order to gain currency among Indian Muslims involve inputs from civil society groups and representative Muslim organizations in shaping them. This is a prudent thing to do because, as a finding from a recent study reveals, “terrorists are more likely to spring from countries that lack civil rights.” This brings us to the consideration of the sorts of people drawn to IS. According to an interviews-based investigation by the Washington-based National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, seekers after status, identity, revenge, redemption, responsibility, thrill, ideology, justice, and death (which last category involves persons who have “suffered from a significant trauma/loss in their lives and consider death as the only way out with a reputation of martyr instead of someone who has committed suicide”) are drawn to extremist Islamic groups extolling violence and martyrdom.
However, Indian Muslim community leaders rule out all reasons why the youth are attracted to radical Islamic causes except the quotidian one of seeking “livelihood”. This is not unrelated to the employment opportunities IS ostensibly offers. In 2014, Daesh’s English language magazine, Dabiq, advertised the movement’s “need more than ever before for experts, professionals and specialists who can help contribute to strengthening its structure and fending for the needs of their Muslim brothers.” It is not hard to understand why such job offers attract educated Indian Muslims. They promise a kind of “political engagement”, joining notions of religious “duty” with earning one’s keep that, as the record shows, motivates many Indian Muslim professionals. “More educated people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in politics, probably in part because”, as a study by two Western scholars concludes, “political involvement requires some minimum level of interest, expertise, commitment to issues and effort, all of which are more likely if people have enough education and income to concern themselves with more than minimum economic subsistence.” But educated or illiterate, Indians who reach Iraq find they are considered not martial enough, are discriminated against by the dominant Arab clique in Daesh, and end up doing menial tasks. Disillusionment sets in as does the yearning to return home. After all, grappling with the kafir may be alluring, cleaning toilets is not. But these returnees should be treated as valuable sources of knowledge about the command structure of IS, how it operates in war and manages the areas it occupies. Information and intelligence so collected and collated will then have to be injected into police and military plans to counter Daesh, with the arrangement for continuous updating of this information.
The foreign policy and military prongs are equally important considering that IS has entered the subcontinent in a significant way and will be subdued only by forceful means. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has voiced the BJP government’s readiness to get involved against IS even in a “peace enforcement” mission as long it is under the United Nations aegis with proper sanction from a UN Security Council resolution. This is an advance because while UN “peace keeping” missions were always acceptable to New Delhi, the “peace enforcement” role was anathema to it. Islamabad has been more cautious. The Pakistan Defence Minister Khwaja Asif has made an argument that applies to India too. “We will not take part in any [anti-IS] conflict”, he has said, “that could result in differences in the Muslim world, causing faultlines present in Pakistan to be disturbed, the aggravation of which will have to be borne by Pakistan.” But Islamabad’s serious apprehensions about entering the lists against Daesh is coupled with the resolve, according to Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, that “even a shadow of IS would not be allowed” to fall on his country. While it will be wise to be guided by Khwaja Asif’s reasons for desisting from a distant military deployment, New Delhi will have to show Gen Raheel’s fortitude as well and define the tipping point when armed intervention becomes necessary. Such a tripwire should logically be the degree of the physical proximity of the IS threat to the homeland. The complication here is the likelihood of Daesh exploiting a somewhat fraught communal situation in the country, which is a daunting prospect. China has defined the participation of ETIM Uighur fighters in IS as provocation for it to send a missile cruiser to the Levantine coast to jointly strike Daesh targets with Russia.
But what can India reasonably do? In the wake of their Bangkok meeting and the forging of a personal relationship between the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan, Ajit Doval and Lt. Gen. Naseer Janjua (Retd) respectively, it may be no bad thing for New Delhi to begin talking about contingencies featuring IS in South Asia where collective action may be contemplated. Even if nothing substantive transpires, the fact that the BJP government embarked on an initiative to jointly deal with a common menace will be a confidence and security-building measure (CSBM). As part of such CSBM, involving the Kabul regime of President Ashraf Ghani is a natural next step because the IS threat, unless stopped, will first gather momentum in Afghanistan.
In this context, an all arms expeditionary Brigade-sized force will have to be readied for instant action, including air transport and sea-lift with offensive and defensive protective air and naval cover, able to operate independently under sovereign command but with contingent cooperation with the US, Russian, and local country forces active in the war theatre. As national security threats are best addressed far from home, India better be prepared.