ISIS attack threat: Why India should be afraid

A large section of the society is blissfully unaware of the danger posed by the Islamic State.

 |  6-minute read |   02-08-2015
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A recent document titled, "A Brief History of the Islamic State Caliphate (ISC): The Caliphate According to the Prophet" was recently found in Pakistan. The 32-page document, translated by a Harvard researcher, suggested that the next big Islamic State (ISIS) target in the region would be India. It suggested that the objective of the group was not merely to undertake an occasional terrorist strike in the country, but to wage a full-fledged attack against India, by uniting all jihadi groups in the region, under its leadership. This raises some pertinent questions regarding the nature, probability and intensity of the challenge at hand.

According to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings and a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hand with over 30 years of experience, "striking India would magnify the Islamic State's stature" and it is the "Holy Grail of South Asian jihadists". Riedel's assessment is true in terms of India's value as a target. However, there are distinct differentiating factors which must be borne in mind before taking this threat at its face value. First, the Iraq and Syrian examples clearly suggest that the ISIS achieved unparalleled success, which eventually led to its control over large areas in both countries. This was facilitated by support from the Sunni minority in Iraq, which felt dispossessed of power, prestige and influence within the governing structure of the country. It led to support from important Sunni leaders and members of former Iraq president Saddam Hussein's army. This gave the ISIS local support, money and professional military leadership to wage its war. Second, the control over vast territories, especially the oil rich region of the country, provided steady funding, making the ISIS the richest terrorist group in the world. Third, its spectacular rise became a rallying point for all fundamentalist and radical elements, who saw the ISIS as the true inheritor of the Islamic Caliphate. Fourth, the group mastered the art of exploiting social media and the internet and employed simple, yet powerful messages to attract fighters and supporters from across the world. This has reinforced the ISIS as the sole representative of believers the world over. And fifth, it succeeded in strife-torn states, which were unstable and failing. This allowed the ISIS to fill the power vacuum in specific regions of countries like Iraq, Syria and of late, some areas of Afghanistan.

If one were to relate these factors with the intended attack on India, it becomes apparent that India does not suffer from any of the vulnerabilities that the ISIS has exploited elsewhere. However, this does not suggest that the group cannot sustain a terror campaign, which unlike their modus operandi in Iraq, need not focus at seizing and controlling territory. Its strategy against India could be based on a different set of principles. First, the ISIS can become the fulcrum of terrorism against India, thereby focussing the combined energy of different groups under its umbrella. Second, it can be supported by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), thereby providing it a well-established intelligence and logistic network, in a symbiotic relationship. Third, the social media campaign by the ISIS is ideally placed to exploit alienated members of the society. This has already been witnessed to a lesser degree, in which a small number of people have volunteered to fight for the terrorist group in Iraq. This can potentially achieve sharper focus if it is brought to bear on Indian targets, especially in the immediate aftermath of communally surcharged incidents. Fourth, while India may be amongst the most challenging targets for a radical organisation like the ISIS, given the strong roots of liberalism, democracy and secularism in the country, from the perspective of the ISIS, this is a prize which could well tip the balance in its favour, not only in the region but also beyond. This could imply that the resources and energy likely to be employed against India will make the terrorist group amongst the most serious challenge faced by the country so far. Fifth, the ISIS has foreseen the possibility of the US and its allies standing alongside India. However, past experience suggests limited cooperation by the US against terrorist threats specifically aimed at the country. It is more likely that it will be India's fight for its safety and security on the basis of its resilience and capacity.

If this is the possible nature and magnitude of the threat posed, here is the logical query that begs an answer: is India prepared for the challenge? A fair assessment suggests both a "yes" and a "no". While India has a long experience in fighting different forms of insurgency and terrorism, this by no means suggest that we are ready for the next wave, especially because this could come with renewed intensity. Here are five areas of focus that could substantially raise the level of preparedness of India against the ISIS threat. First, it is important for realisation to seep into the national consciousness that alienation leads to radicalism, which in turn, provides fertile ground for recruitment of terrorists. Any action that fuels this cycle of hatred must become a cognisable offence and be dealt with severely, irrespective of its short-term impact.

Second, a large part of the preparatory work in the fight against terrorism is done by research analysts and intelligence agents, well before kinetic measures are applied. This must receive the necessary impetus through cross platform recruitment of specialists dealing with social media, big data analysis, terrorism finance and technical intelligence, to name a few. Third, the Gurdaspur terrorist strike has yet again reinforced the importance of decentralised and specialist counterterrorism capabilities. There are lessons, both positive and negative that the experience has thrown up in terms of reaction time, weapon and equipment profile, tactical capacities and perception management. This must be brainstormed and its benefits shared with all states which could well become the target of the next strike. Fourth, a large section of the society is blissfully unaware of the ISIS as a threat. It is very important to take on its challenge through a simple and appealing counter-narrative, which highlights and challenges the threat it represents. This remains conspicuous by its absence at present. Fifth, the government realises the threat of radical ideology and its adverse impact. However, it must also understand the limited ability of the state to fight the contagion. This can best be done by social groups, NGOs and student bodies, which can reach out easily to the population at large, as compared to state institutions. I have often realised that my children connect easily with their peers and each other when it comes to some of the troubling issues faced by them. Similarly, student groups are better placed to fight radicalism, rather than straight-jacketed thoughts coming from official pronouncements and press notes.

The ISIS may not be a serious threat at present. However, it certainly has the potential to destabilise the social fabric and rule of law in the country. We have often been found wanting in the face of internal security challenges. If the writing is on the wall with respect to the ISIS, this is one instance in which we might as well get our act in order, in order to neutralise the threat well before it gains disturbing proportions.

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Colonel Vivek Chadha Colonel Vivek Chadha

Colonel Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and author of Lifeblood of Terrorism: Countering Terrorism Finance.

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