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Islamic State has not arrived in India because its ideology has no takers

Finally, the hysterics have some nominal satisfaction. After two and a half years of bombast and declarations of the 'Khorasan Province', purportedly including India, and the orchestration of near-continuous panic in the media over every discovery of alleged or real 'Islamic State (IS) links', presumably knowledgeable commentators have now announced triumphantly, "IS is here". And all this on the basis of an appallingly botched operation in which an entire 'module' has been discovered and neutralized, with no loss of life on the part of the targets - the passengers on the Bhopal-Ujjain Express - which is dubiously being attributed to IS. A particular constituency of 'experts' would have us believe that the IS has established its presence in 21 Indian States, and that, as its diffuse and ostensibly "infectious ideology proliferates across the globe", it puts all 'Muslim minds' at risk.

This is all contrafactual garbage. As regards the IS presence in 21 Indian States, this is a complete and irresponsible invention with no supporting basis in reality, and is likely inspired by a purely partisan communal agenda. As regards the 'IS ideology', there is not a single element here that has not been actively around for decades. The Lashkar-e-Taiba has pursued this ideology for over two decades, under the protective umbrella of the Pakistani State, as have other Islamist terrorist groupings acting on the directions of the Inter Services Intelligence. Al Qaeda has seen India as a target of legitimate jihad at least since 1996, and has secured no traction among Indian Muslims. There is, indeed, no distinction between al Qaeda's ideology and that of IS. The differences between the two groups are tactical-strategic. IS was originally the Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad in Iraq, and thereafter Tanzim Qaiadat al Jihad fi Bilad al Rafidian (also known as al Qaeda in Iraq) under the leadership of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, after it declared fealty to al Qaeda. It was Zarqawi's decision to pursue a takfiri line and target 'heretical' sects within Islam as a priority that led to a breach with al Qaeda, resulting in the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS, subsequently IS) and the Jabhat al Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al Sham), with the latter remaining loyal to the al Qaeda leadership.

IS' intrinsic appeal is not in any unique elements of its ideology, but, as with al Qaeda at its zenith, in its operational successes, including its overrunning of large territories in Iraq and Syria, as well as dramatic slaughters it has orchestrated or catalysed in the West (often greater carnage in other regions, including North Africa and South Asia, fails to evoke comparable 'inspiration'). This appeal, certainly among a tiny fringe of deviants, has also been augmented by the gloating projection of acts of appalling (but far from unprecedented) cruelty through the internet, as well as a relatively sophisticated understanding of cyberspace both for propaganda and recruitment.

The sheer incompetence of the Bhopal-Ujjain Express blast and its 'low yield' in terms of casualties should suffice to demonstrate that the IS outreach into India has failed, despite over two and a half years of sustained effort and provocation. The problem with the exaggerated assessments of IS threats is that they rely on tenuous, often one-sided, connections, and fail to recognize the core of what an affiliation with IS would actually mean: the transfer or augmentation of operational capacities and capabilities, or of resources, or of clear lines of command and control, or combinations of these. In the absence of such a transfer, from a security perspective, there are no grounds for any change in threat perception. Accessing IS material on the Net, the possession of IS flags, scribbling IS slogans, or even sending photographs of an incident to "someone in Syria", does not constitute 'affiliation' with IS, though it certainly demonstrates such an aspiration.

It is useful to remind ourselves of the actual magnitude of the IS manifestation in India, rather than succumbing to paranoia and communal prejudice. While documentation of all cases has not been possible, an estimated 60 Indians are believed to have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to join IS, of whom at least eight have been killed in the fighting there. Further, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 82 persons have been arrested or detained in connection with IS activities within India since 2014 (till March 10, 2017). This is the sum total of documented IS 'influence' in India, in an estimated Muslim population of over 180 million.

Crucially, there have been disgraceful attempts, once again, to reduce the entire issue to partisan politics, linking a terrorist incident to an apologetics based on 'Muslim grievances'. Prominently, Congress leader Digvijay Singh argues that IS' attraction is sourced in "continuous persecution and injustice to Muslims", presumably under the present Bharatiya Janata Party regime. But if terrorist incidents and mobilisation are indices of persecution and injustice towards Muslims, then one must conclude that such persecution and injustice was far greater under the preceding regime, when Islamist terrorism and networks were far more rampant than they now are under the present regime - an assessment with which Singh is unlikely to concur.

There have also been the usual homilies about intelligence failure and the need for greater alertness and responsiveness on the part of the intelligence and enforcement apparatus, but these display an evident ignorance of the realities of the ground. Indeed, the agencies have been extraordinarily - and one may suggest, uncharacteristically - vigilant with regard to the incipient IS threat. The arrests reported till date, with just this one low grade incident reaching slipshod fruition in more than 33 months of sustained panic over the imminent and overwhelming 'arrival' of IS in India, are a clear demonstration of counter-terrorism successes, despite the widely known deficits and deficiencies in the national and state intelligence apparatus.

There is also insufficient understanding of the degree of anxiety and concern that currently affects the Muslim leadership, including dominant conservative religious formations, not only with regard to IS and its representation of Islam, but the wider global jihadi movement. Despite the fact that prominent institutions and ulema have spoken out repeatedly and explicitly against IS and broader movements of Islamist terrorism (including, for instance, the November 2015 fatwa against the IS signed by as many as 1070 imams and ulema across India), the prejudice that a potential jihadi lurks in every Muslim continues to dominate the mindset of a wide section of society, including political formations that have a vested interested in demonizing the community.

If counter-terrorism is to be effective, it must be reality based. The accuracy of our assessments will define the success of our policies and practices. Imagining and fighting bogeys cannot make India safer.

(Published: DailyO March 12, 2017)





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