Why did Kerala, one of India’s most advanced States, with high literacy levels, have the most number affected by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) outreach in India? “The answers are in fact rooted in migration, economics and religion,” writes Kabir Taneja in his book, The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia . Taneja, a fellow with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, tells the IS story from a South Asian perspective, bridging a vital knowledge gap in the rise and fall of the ‘Caliphate’.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS, announced the establishment of the Caliphate from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in July 2014. By that time the group had captured huge swathes of territories in Iraq and Syria. At its peak, the reign of Baghdadi’s Caliphate stretched from Der Ezzour in eastern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. The declared aim of the Caliphate was to expand its territories through military action and formation of ‘provinces’ across the world. As part of this campaign, IS units came up in several South Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. Taneja offers a holistic view, starting with the IS’ origins in Syria and Iraq and then goes into its leadership.
Taneja provides details of IS-linked activities in the region. The group has made a lasting institutional presence in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan’s political vacuum and divisive socio-religious landscape could, however, become a new ground for ISIS,” he writes. The IS has claimed responsibility for a couple of attacks in Pakistan, which “offers an intertwined military jihadist civilian complex to accurately place ISIS’s presence or influence.”
In Bangladesh, the IS claimed the July 2016 Dhaka cafe attack. IS posters and flags have been seen in Jammu and Kashmir. And the group attracted dozens of youth from India, especially from Kerala. “South Asia’s complex socio-political and socio cultural narratives remain an open door for ISIS’s marketable fantasy, more than an ideology,” writes Taneja.
But despite these complexities and a vast Muslim population in the region who are directly targeted by IS propaganda channels for recruitment, the group failed to make any major impact in the region, except in Afghanistan.
As for India, Taneja lays down a historical background of India’s engagement with West Asia, the source of the IS threat. He argues that India’s non-interventional foreign policy with its roots going back to the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) has allowed the country to build capacities in the region, while also prevent transnational jihadist organisations such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda taking institutional roots.
While this is true, what he could also have looked into is the character of Islam in the sub-continent, which is fundamentally different from the Salafi-Jihadist version that jihadist groups champion.
The chapter on Kerala stresses on the historical connection between the State and the Gulf and their ‘Muslim solidarity’. But this alone doesn’t explain why so many Malayalis were drawn to the IS network. ‘Muslim solidarity’ is not a problem in itself. But Taneja is careful when he says “much more empirical work needs to be done on modern jihadist groups.” “Terrorism has evolved, its study must follow suit,” he writes.
The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia; Kabir Taneja, Penguin Random House, ₹499.