A section of the political class may not accept it but mounting radical resentment within the Indian Muslim community is a reality
After almost every jihadist attack, one hears loud sighs of relief from professional secularists and a section of the commentariat: Indian Muslims are different and they are not for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. They attribute this indifference of a good chunk of Indian Muslims to the multicultural ethos of the country. They refuse to acknowledge the subterranean support for jihadi objectives, and more ominously, the reality of a growing army of foot-soldiers for the cause.
Contrary to perceptions fed by the secular intelligentsia, India has a long tradition of propagating jihad. Shah Waliullah, an 18th century Delhi cleric, had played a key role in the radicalisation of Sunni Muslims and converting Muslims to the Wahhabi radical sect. It is said he had written letters to Ahmad Shah Durrani of Afghanistan inviting him to attack India to ‘save Muslims’ from Hindus. However, political compulsions have forced most political parties to ignore the growing trend of community members feasting on real and imagined grievances.
When Terror Sans Frontiers, Jaideep Saikia’s book detailing the link between emerging Islamist militancy in the Northeast of India and the demographic challenges in the region, came out in 2008, it was described by Yossi Shain, head of the School of Government, Tel Aviv University, as a ‘fascinating study’ that should be read by ‘all those who wish to understand similar developments in Europe and the Middle East’. The book is a clear-eyed assessment of the explosive situation unfolding in the region in the context of Islamist terror, especially in four Muslim migrant-dominated districts of Assam, among a people whose ideology and socio-religious worldview is usually informed by developments across the border in Bangladesh. Holding local politicians hostage by dangling the carrot of political gains, the unfolding developments have since been credited by other analysts as having intensified the cycle of violence between indigenous populations and the migrant population, severely hampering development and growth in the region, as prominently detailed in a subsequent FICCI report on terror and its economic and human costs in the region. ‘Securing the nation is critical to everything including the security of economic progress. The nation, like the body, has to be secured not from just miscreants but also immunise itself from viruses lurking deep inside the body,’ the report said.
Months earlier, in another state far away from Assam, the unidimensional secularism practised by certain parties had ensured the organisation of a massive civic reception in Thiruvananthapuram for Abdul Nasser Madani, a hardline Islamist facing around 20 cases, including incitement of communal hatred, disturbing social harmony and running a hate campaign. Madani had then been exonerated by a Special Court on charges of involvement in the Coimbatore blasts case of 1998. In a rare show of bipartisan unity, the Congress and Left, archrivals at the hustings, passed a resolution in the state Assembly demanding parole for Madani, thus pressuring the courts. Incidentally, it was Communist leaders who had handed Madani over to the Tamil Nadu police after the terror attack, asserting that he was a threat to communal harmony. The volte-face by the political leadership—in a state where Muslim votes account for almost a fifth of the total—came at a time when intelligence agencies had warned that the Kerala coastline had become vulnerable to the influx of resources and equipment for terror activity by groups operating in Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu. Kerala’s northern districts had been the fulcrum of vocal protests by Muslims outraged over the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad and India’s engagement with the US in the war against Iraq.
Kerala’s home minister at the time, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, had admitted in the state Assembly that illegal transfers of money by agents abroad was a whopping Rs 10 crore per annum business. The Kerala High Court had directed the state government to act against the source of Rs 40 lakh of hawala funds pushed into Kondotty village. Some of this money, the minister said, had been traced to outfits with links to anti-national forces that wanted a boycott of the national anthem—including the fatwa-spewing NDF, which promptly demanded similar soft treatment for its activists as for Madani. “Arab money channelled into India through charitable trusts still has no close monitoring and stringent laws that track and penalise. The US State Department country report on terror has been mentioning this lacuna in our laws and India’s inability, other than the Money Laundering Act, to come up with any new legislation to tighten the holes here,” says a security analyst.
This bizarre political correctness, with its underlying motive of cashing in on community votebanks, that politicians follow—whether in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal or elsewhere—in the name of secularism does not let them acknowledge the heightening danger of Islamist terror. Madani’s is a case in point: the Left, Congress and so-called ‘civil society’ found a cause célèbre in him. Several of these states have a sizeable Muslim constituency. In some cases, there is a political subtext of a quid pro quo of some sort between political leaders and anti- national elements.
At the end of last year, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval warned West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, after visiting the site of the Burdwan blasts, that north Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district had become a terror hub. Doval also handed over a list of 180 Bangladeshi militants hiding in West Bengal, adding that operatives of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) had been using the state as a safe haven for the past two years. The role of the Trinamool Congress, which has been suspected of JMB links in the Saradha scam, in the Burdwan incident when two members of the Indian Mujahideen (IM) had died allegedly while making an IED, has come under question.
That the home-based terror arc, supported by forces both within and across the border, had spread its net wide and deep even to Karnataka, apart from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, was already clear after the arrests of Yasin Bhatkal, implicated in the Bangalore stadium blast, and Abdul Karim Tunda from Nepal in 2013. When the UK government alerted the Indian Government recently about the web coordinates in Bangalore of an infotech worker from West Bengal who was putting out pro-ISIS literature that wooed youth to the ideology of the global terror outfit, it brought home more sharply the increasing possibility of self-radicalisation among Indian youth. That came on the heels of the questioning of two radicalised Muslim youth from Tamil Nadu who were distributing ISIS t-shirts and planning a trip to Syria to join it. Four young men from Hyderabad also headed that way, through Bangladesh, forced the Government to track social media to garner more information on the phenomenon.
The issue of Islamist terror, thus far relegated to the margins of mainstream national security concerns, came to the fore once again when Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the Qaedat-al-Jihad fi’shibhi al-Garrat al-Hindiya through a video released last September. The aim was to unleash terror activities in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar. Assam, Gujarat and Kashmir were singled out for activity, including the setting up of sleeper cells. In Jammu & Kashmir, where youth were seen waving ISIS flags openly, the Centre had demanded information from the state administration, which, under former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, tended to play the events down as driven by ‘misguided youth’.
Recent country reports on terror put out by the US State Department maintained that Al-Qaeda had by and large been ‘degraded’ as a security threat in the US. But the disintegrating Al-Qaeda, as intelligence agencies in Europe said in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher attacks in Paris, has been desperate lately to recruit fighters to beef itself up again in the wake of the rise of rival ISIS; either this, or, having accepted the emergence of this so-called ‘caliphate’, Al-Qaeda was now working in tandem with the latter.
In India, those concerns translate into local terror outfits recruiting people in the name of ISIS while pursuing domestic goals. The arrests of Tunda and Bhatkal made it clear that India would have to launch and streamline counter-terror operations in the region.
That the current Government was keenly aware of the peril of terror, homegrown as much as trans-border, was made clear when Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted as much in a New York think-tank address last year: “Terror has no borders and needs to be taken very seriously. I am sorry to say that some countries have not been able to understand the dangers of terror and continue to differentiate between good terror and bad terror. This is a worldwide phenomenon and our biggest challenge.”
Intelligence cooperation on terror between the US and India, initiated under former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s regime, accelerated manifold after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai in 2008, with information now being shared on a routine basis. Intelligence sharing on defence and security assessments with Israel, a key US ally, has also gathered momentum. This has led analysts to comment on a formidable US-Israel-India strategic counter-terror formation.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born writer and activist, captures the intensity of the danger against which such a coalition has to be built, thus: ‘After the horrific massacre [in Paris]… perhaps the West will finally put away its legion of useless tropes trying to deny the relationship between violence and radical Islam.’
Al-Qaeda’s September video was released at a time when India was just coming to grips with the death of an Indian in Iraq who was fighting on behalf of the ISIS. He was suspected to be one of four youth missing from the country. In October, an Islamic State recruit from Kalyan in Mumbai, Areeb Majeed, was nabbed in Turkey and interrogated. Anti Terrorism Squad, National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) officials brought Majeed, one of four young men, back from Istanbul. Suspected of killing about 55 men, he told the officials that he had surfed close to 2,000 jihadi websites and radicalised himself. Officials also asked the US for information on the cyber trail from Majeed. Some 32 websites were blocked but subsequently unblocked.
Says a security analyst: “The possibility of ISIS radicalising and recruiting people from the country is a recent phenomenon, but it’s not widespread. The bigger fear is outfits like the IM recruiting in the name of ISIS and training Indian Muslim youth on the Af-Pak border. That could lead to ‘lone wolf’ attacks on public places and those of importance. Many key IM members, including Yasin Bhatkal, have already been arrested, dealing a body blow to the group. They could be looking to use the ISIS as a platform to regroup. An urgent no-holds-barred public discourse on Islamist terror is long overdue in this country.” Naxalite activity, he adds, is another threat to security in several districts. “But the threat of Islamist terror and its ability to disaffect and imperil societies countrywide is far bigger. The security costs will be heavy, as also the economic costs.”
Analysts agree that in the absence of a single empowered agency to counter terror, it becomes a disparate effort instead of a concerted one nationwide. Acts of terror are dealt with under ‘Law and Order’, which is on the state list, and this classification clubs a highly complex threat with other common crimes. “What we need right now in the current global and national context is a comprehensive review of both laws and infrastructure relating to internal security, with a view to tackle counter-terrorism forcefully,” according to the security analyst. “We need to urgently also relearn the definition of ‘terrorism’. Our nation’s security is not just threatened physically but also in the economic space and in the cyber arena, which governs sensitive information… In an age when the US defence forces’ Centcom website can be hacked [ostensibly by ISIS activists] and Sony Pictures is almost forced into millions of dollars of losses through wanton hackers, these are areas on which we need to focus our attention and expertise as sharply as possible.”
Bharat Karnad, a writer on security affairs, has pointed out in an article that India had a historic tradition of virtually burying its head in the sand when it came to security threats, including those from within, comparing it to the reaction of a stunned rabbit thrown as food bait in a snake pit.
Time is running out, however, and an ostrich position on Islamist terror is one that the nation can now afford only at immense peril to itself, say experts. “Indian democracy has to respect minority views but cannot overlook the danger from spreading Wahhabi values and ideas redolent of desert Islam displacing the syncretic and moderate Sufi Islam rooted in local environs; and the resulting virulence and violence has to be stopped at all cost. Unless it has a death wish, the Indian State cannot avoid the hard option of intrusive and intensive-extensive policing of potential hotbeds of Islamic extremism in the country, scrutinising financial inflows, installing undercover agents in SIMI and similar organisations, and apprehending, detaining and dissuading troublemakers. India cannot risk taking things lightly as a habit,” says a security official who does not wish to be identified.
“There are increasingly clear and present apprehensions over dangers and the impact of asymmetrical Islamist terror attacks in a country like ours with a huge Muslim population spread across regions,” argues a security official, “The fact is, our political leadership, cutting across ideologies, has to openly acknowledge that what was at first defined as a ‘deviant’ Islamist narrative derived from the Wahhabi tradition could well oust the mainstream narrative of Islam and subsume it, unless there is heightened alertness on all fronts—including preventive intelligence coupled with counter-radicalisation that involves the community leadership, spiritual and otherwise. In Egypt, in his New Year’s address, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi decried the growing phenomenon that has increasingly endangered the security of the entire Muslim umma worldwide. In many of the worst affected countries, the battle has been [between] terror-tinged interpretations of Islam and the mainstream narrative that dovetails with national interests.”
That the Indian security consciousness was getting re-calibrated under new emerging pressures was clear in the case of the suspected Pakistani terror boat spotted off the coast of Porbandar, Gujarat, in the Arabian Sea. That was the culmination of sustained tracking by India’s National Technical Research Organisation of satellite phones both on and off the boat. Timely transcripts of these conversations resulted in an alert for the Coast Guard to intercept the vessel. Notwithstanding the questions raised afterwards on the motive of those aboard the suspect boat, a potential infiltration by sea was repulsed more than 350 km off the nearest shoreline.
This marked a stark contrast with the events preceding 26/11. Back then in 2008, ten highly-motivated terrorists traversed the high seas from Karachi, traded boats en route, and landed undetected on Mumbai’s Colaba coast in a dinghy. The horrifying events that followed brought forcefully home to India’s security agencies that the country needed to revise its maritime security consciousness. A specific alert from US agencies issued just three months before the attack had been ignored. The input had been shared with the then Maharashtra government, which temporarily alerted the targets, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, but had let its guard down by November that year. Even the coastal agencies failed to gauge the seriousness of the threat, with the result that a valuable tipoff fell through the cracks and cost 166 innocent lives, not to mention the property losses. Worse, it painted a grim picture of India’s preparedness and capacity to counter terror challenges.
The attack in the heart of India’s commercial capital was possibly the costliest lesson that the security establishment would learn: don’t take any information or intelligence warning lightly and share information across a grid, across agencies nationally. A cardinal rule was set: any input from any source must be shared with the multi-agency centre, the nucleus for intelligence collation, and passed on swiftly to law enforcement agencies as well as security forces guarding the land, sea or skies. Verification and authentication could follow later.
The lessons learnt then have ensured that now technical intelligence wings have their ears and eyes peeled for conversations and cyberspace exchanges for the slightest clue of a terror operation being planned. Alerts are issued whether or not the information is genuine: where true, it could pre-empt a subversive plot; and where misleading, it simply works to keep Indian agencies alert and the security machinery well-oiled, besides sometimes forcing terrorists to rethink their plans.
Though coordination among various security agencies remains the mainstay of the country’s anti-terror efforts, turf battles do break out from time to time. To sort out these issues and set a common agenda, the Government insists on regular morning meetings in New Delhi where the Home Minister, National Security Adviser and chiefs of security forces and intelligence agencies assess key terror inputs and decide on how to tackle them.
The topmost issues engaging the Central security establishment at present are the escalation in ceasefire violations along the Indo-Pakistan border, efforts by ISIS to woo Indian youth via social media, alleged plans by a group of SIMI activists to carry out a ‘bada project’ in India with the blessings of Pakistani agencies, and possible lone-wolf attacks by indoctrinated youth against vulnerable targets.
The escalated border firing in J&K is being linked to the presence of more than a dozen infiltrator groups from Pakistan. Helped by the cover of gunfire at night, the coming summer is expected to see heightened terrorist infiltration. The failure to catch up with SIMI men who escaped from Khandwa prison last year has only compounded the worry that a big terror plot may just play out.
The arrest of Twitter-happy ISIS enthusiast Mehdi Masroor Biswas from Bangalore and similar developments have alerted the establishment to the danger of cyber-induced terror and lone-wolf attacks. To counter this, the Home Ministry has ensured that schools and other educational institutions are adequately prepared; standard operating procedure codes have been circulated on how to prevent terror attacks, prepare counters and tackle hostage situations.
Sorrily enough, the efficacy of these efforts to deal with terror attacks can only be judged in real-life crisis situations. Whether all cracks in the country’s internal security infrastructure have been identified and fixed can never be known till it’s too late. The National Security Guard has undergone a massive revamp, and it has several regional hubs to cut travel time to an attack site. However, some key items on the anti-terror agenda are still pending, such as a dedicated counter-terror unit like the NCTC, which is now in the freezer, not to mention the tardy pace of the NatGrid project that proposes to interlink over a dozen separate databases.
Indians have every reason in the world to be worried. Very worried.