The Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and its fallout on India

October 7, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

The Islamic State has invigorated jihadi establishments in South and Southeast Asia. It has shaken up the al Qaeda, so far occupying the spiritual pedestal of Islamist Jihad, spurring it to announce the formation of a branch in the Indian subcontinent. Apparently, the Indian subcontinent won’t remain unscathed with the contesting constituents of Islamist jihad locked in a battle of dominance.

Conventional assaults like in Iraq and Syria are, of course, inconceivable. However, something like the 2008 attack in Mumbai could definitely be attempted. A few basic requirements need to be met before any of these players think of enhancing their scale of operations in India. Boots available for deployment is one of them.

A sizeable number of young Indian radicals are fighting for the so-called Islamic caliphate. They would return imbued with the delusions of an extending caliphate and be available as the core nucleus for Islamic State operations in India.

The al Qaeda has links with the Indian Mujahideen and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). It understands local culture, has links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba – a major player with links to Indian groups – and has a deep connect with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

For operations in India, a base in one of its neighbouring countries is essential. Bangladesh is fighting extremism and may not be the best destination. Nepal is loosely administered and is already a convenient route for inducting jihadists, fake currency and narcotics. However, groups such as the al Qaeda or the Islamic State will definitely not get any official patronage. Myanmar is an unlikely destination with their Rohingya problem and the government’s response adequately serving as a damper. Sri Lanka and Bhutan do not offer much hope either.

The best bet is Pakistan. The ISI is perhaps the most experienced intelligence agency globally in conducting proxy wars and calibrating insurgencies in neighbouring countries. However, they will need to weigh the options of backing one or the other. The al Qaeda is an old partner, while the Islamic State has a more dynamic leadership and may just be able to push the pace in India. They could of course subdivide South Asia, leaving Afghanistan to the al Qaeda and providing a launch pad to the Islamic State in India.

Funding is a major issue. The Islamic State is flush with funds. Even if its oil trade is curtailed, it has enough from extortion, looting of banks, donor nations and high net worth sympathizers. The al Qaeda doesn’t have the means that the ISIS has. However, with the leadership of some countries taking into account the possibility of the Islamic State turning around and rocking their own citadels, the al Qaeda may earn greater empathy.

A lot will depend on the Indian response. With a tougher stance expected from the current ruling dispensation, the outlook is brighter. Finally, Indian security is best enhanced by a combination of pluralism and zero tolerance to terror. Eradicating terrorism in Kashmir is the starting point.

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