By Madhav Nalapat
24th Jan 2015
After months of soft-pedalling, intelligence agencies have finally accepted that ISIS is spreading across most of India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Seemandhra, Telangana and Maharashtra. In such a delay between fact and acceptance, they are following the same trajectory as their counterparts in the US, UK and France, who till late last year refused to take seriously reports that several hundred of their citizens were battling on behalf of the group in Iraq and Syria.
Although an official estimate of Indian nationals who have joined ISIS is exactly a dozen (five from Mumbai and seven from Hyderabad), officials now admit that this number has crossed into the four-figure range. "Families are reluctant to admit that their sons have gone abroad to join ISIS, for fear of police harassment and/or ostracism," a senior official warned. He added that in several cases, such individuals may have returned after thorough indoctrination, so as to set up cells within the country. A Mumbai-based police officer pointed out that Arif Majeed, who was among the four youths from that metropolis who left as a group to join ISIS, made up a cover story of disenchantment with the group, which quickly fell apart under questioning, thereby leading to his incarceration on suspicion of having been sent back to organise attacks against targets chosen by the terror organisation.
Interestingly, a suggestion that India join the military coalition against ISIS, mooted informally during the 27 September-1 October 2014 US visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was shot down by senior officials on the ground that such a move would result in young Indian Muslims joining ISIS. Clearly, a growing number are doing so, despite India thus far abjuring any action, other than making statements of support for the global anti-ISIS coalition. Some steps have indeed been taken by security agencies, such as blocking travel to Iraq of single males from a particular community, despite the fact that an intending recruit will most likely travel to Turkey, which has become as much of a safe haven for ISIS as Pakistan has been for the Taliban since the 1980s. However, thus far, no effort has been made to ensure that parents and guardians contact authorities in cases where they suspect that a member of the family may have been recruited into ISIS, nor is action being taken against the tens of thousands of individuals active on online internet sites justifying the actions of ISIS and calling for recruitment, except in a solitary case where the UK's Channel 4 outed a suspected ISIS operative, leaving agencies in India with no place to hide.
The ISIS publication Dabiq has an estimated two hundred and seventy thousand regular viewers from India, although many of these would have been drawn by curiosity rather than sympathy for the group. "We are at the same stage that the US and the UK were in March 2014, and France in September of that year, which is not publicly acknowledging the magnitude of the problem and still trying to put in place trackers and correctives", a senior officer complained.
Intelligence agencies in India believed till very recently that ISIS would go the way of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, neither of whom were able to attract a following in India. However, it is clear that in contrast, ISIS has been attracting a significant number of youths, many with higher degrees. More than theology, it appears to be the chance of exercising mastery over slaves which is drawing in recruits. ISIS cadres have life and death power over the subject populations in territories occupied by it, especially if these be Yazidi, Shia or Christian. Across the Arab world and in nearby Turkey, youths are getting attracted to an ideology, which is as potent and poisonous as Nazism was in Germany during 1927-43, before it became clear that Adolf Hitler was losing the war against the Allied powers.
Unfortunately, in its eagerness to protect the property of US and EU oil companies, NATO air-strikes against oil installations under the control of the terror group have thus far been avoided, with the result that as yet, ISIS remains in occupation of large tracts of land on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Tikrit and Erbil in Iraq, besides Ninwa and Anber on the Iraq-Syria border, besides more than a third of Syrian territory. Control over oil has given ISIS the funds needed to procure weapons and even to pay its staff. Because of NATO's policy of seeing both the Assad regime and ISIS in the same light, and refusing to join the former in battling the latter, a substantial part of Syria has become incubation hub for ISIS volunteers. Interestingly, several members of the group have sent their families to Turkey and Jordan for safety, and themselves crossed over as the "moderate opposition", only to rejoin the group once funds and weapons have been secured from credulous regional powers and their NATO allies.
ISIS is systematically working on recruiting youths within the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), where more than six million Indian citizens work (thereby rendering them susceptible to indoctrination). Apart from creating an ISIS Fifth Column in India, the group may, over time, create the same chaos within some GCC states as is now being witnessed in Syria and Iraq, thereby affecting the $40 billion in remittances that this country gets annually from its nationals in the GCC, besides the bulk of its hydrocarbon imports. That ISIS is already at war with India is a detail, which seems to have escaped the attention of policymakers in India, who have thus far resisted advice to join the coalition against ISIS in ways more substantive than verbal volleys of support, such as by conducting air sorties against the group or training the Iraqi military in counter-terrorism tactics.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known to be enthusiastic about crafting a transformational relationship with the US, which is why he broke with tradition and invited US President Barack Obama to be the guest of honour at the Republic Day parade, key sections of the bureaucracy remain in thrall to the Nehruvian concept of "non-alignment" and to Nehru's corrosive distrust of and disdain for the military. Such a hands-off approach to a global security challenge neglects to factor in the reality that since 11 September 2001, the principal focus of the US has been security, more than commerce, and that if India wants to ensure game-changing commercial advantages from its interaction with the US, a good way of ensuring such an outcome would be to become a core partner in the global security matrix, rather than remain a bystander. India has joined China in staying away from the military campaign against ISIS, even as Russia participates indirectly, by boosting the capabilities of the regime in Damascus, which too is battling ISIS.
The accelerating spread of ISIS across India has given the lie to those who believed that staying away from action in the field would insure this country from the cancer which has settled across much of the globe. Which is why voices are multiplying, calling for bureaucratic caution to be overcome so that India can join the military campaign against ISIS before the problem becomes so big that the role of ostrich becomes untenable.