Lengthening shadow over South Asia

The terror attacks in Bangladesh are proof of the Islamic State’s inroads in the neighbourhood. It is time India acknowledged that the threat is real

July 22, 2016 01:24 am | Updated 01:26 am IST

Illustration: Surendra

Illustration: Surendra

Two >terrorist attacks in Bangladesh during July confirm what has long been suspected, viz. the deep inroads radical Islamist and Salafist elements have made into South Asia. There is reluctance to mention the word IS (Islamic State) — the >government of Bangladesh remains in denial even now, despite the many attacks that have occurred. Neighbouring India cannot, however, afford to adopt this ‘ostrich-like’ stance, and must acknowledge that India, along with Bangladesh, is a vital target for the IS. In the expanded state of Khorasan, Kashmir, Gujarat, north-west India and Greater Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh) figure prominently.

Differences rather than similarities Much has been written about the two terror attacks in Bangladesh. Comparisons have been made between the July 1 terror strike on the >Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka and the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. There are, however, more differences than similarities. The November 26, 2008 terror attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai were carried out by a contingent of highly trained Inter-Services Intelligence-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba elements, after an extensive reconnaissance of the targets over several months. It was a calculated attack on India’s financial capital. The Dhaka attack, on the other hand, had IS fingerprints all over it, including the grisly manner in which the killings of so-called “crusaders” and “Hindus” were carried out.

>In a video immediately after the Dhaka attack, the IS warned of more such attacks on “crusaders” and “crusader nations”. It also carried an ominous reference to the role of Bangladesh as the battlefield to establish a “Cross Border Caliphate”.

The >Eid Day attack on a prayer congregation at Kishoreganj (July 7) was intended to warn the faithful to avoid so-called “apostate” Muslim preachers such as Maulana Fariduddin Masud. The latter’s crime was that he had led the fatwa campaign against IS militancy. If after all this, Bangladesh and India do not see the writing on the wall, then woe befall the two nations whose combined Muslim population could be far larger than that in any other nation on earth.

Not reading the many signs Warnings have been aplenty but seldom heeded. Since late 2014, Bangladesh had witnessed rampant attacks on religious minorities and critics of Islamist extremism. Foreigners have been singled out for attack, alongside Hindus, Hindu clerics and even some Buddhist elements. Salafist preachers had a secure clientele among Bangladesh’s educated youth. Combined with online propaganda, a conducive climate for the IS existed.

In April this year, the IS journal ‘Dabiq’ carried a piece setting out their “goals” for Bangladesh. In this, Bangladesh was mentioned as “strategically important for several reasons” and providing a location from which to expand future operations into eastern India. Targets for attack included Christian missionaries, Hindus, Shias and foreigners in general. Failure to heed this warning proved costly. India, however, remains the prime target, and it is not understood why the authorities here are reluctant to acknowledge the degree of IS penetration among Indian Muslims. Enough evidence exists about IS-related activity, including recruitment: in West Bengal, parts of eastern India, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu on the east coast, and coastal Karnataka and Kerala on the west coast.

The situation today is very different from the 1980s and 1990s, when India could claim that the Afghan jihad had little appeal for Indian Muslims. Today, Salafist ideas have deeply penetrated the psyche of many younger Muslims otherwise well-integrated into Indian society. It is well-known that Islam has five pillars, but it is said that the IS has a sixth pillar — a virulent form of nihilistic fanaticism which it projects as ‘jihadism’. The truth is that the IS today has the largest appeal for, and is perhaps the fastest-growing militant force among Muslim youth.

The discovery in June this year of an >IS module in the heart of Hyderabad city, engaged in >experimenting with preparation of TATP (triacetone triperoxide) explosives , is clearly a dangerous portent. TATP was the lethal explosive employed by the IS bombers in the >Paris attack (November 2015) and the >Brussels attack (March 2016), and demonstrates not only the reach of the IS but also its ability to transmit knowledge about using easily available chemicals to produce highly incendiary explosives. Members of the arrested module were highly educated, and included an electronics engineer, all committed to the idea of an Islamic Caliphate with links to a mother module in Syria.

An outfit far from finished Western propaganda about a decline and possible demise of the IS can be highly misleading. One has only to list the many serious incidents involving the outfit — reported from different parts of the globe in recent months — to disprove this claim. In 2015, the IS carried out two spectacular attacks in France, viz. the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris killing 12 people, and the attacks across Paris in November which killed more than 120 people. In October, the IS was suspected to have been responsible for downing a Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula. In the same month, it was suspected of carrying out two suicide bombings at a peace rally in Ankara that killed more than 100.

In 2016, apart from the violence in Bangladesh, the IS carried out a string of suicide attacks in the first half — >Brussels airport in March (killing over 30 people) and >Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June (killing over 40 people and injuring over 240). The latter attack had an eerie resemblance to the Brussels attack. Baghdad city has been its major target, with several hundreds killed — the deadliest being the July 3 bombing in which nearly 300 people were killed and many more injured. Even Saudi Arabia has not been spared, with IS suicide bombers striking at Medina and two other cities during the Ramzan period.

Concerns regarding ‘lone wolf’ attacks by IS ‘returnees’ are genuine. However, the IS has also graduated to a higher level, and now boasts of possessing a mature ‘clandestine network’ to carry out its agenda. These networks can work independently or under ‘advice’, and accelerate attacks globally. Intelligence agencies believe that IS ‘sleeper cells’ now exist in several countries of Europe, including France, Belgium, Germany, the U.K. and Italy, and in many Asian countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

The ideological appeal The real threat posed by the IS is not so much its capacity to engage in violence, but in its pervasive appeal to Muslim youth. As ‘true fighters’ committed to the ‘supremacy of the faith’, they are succeeding in their effort to penetrate the minds of Muslim youth. The IS is able to attract an ever-increasing number of recruits, and several come from highly educated and even elite backgrounds. Social dynamics and manipulation of social media have also brought about certain sociological consequences. This, together with online propaganda and media projection, is producing an entirely different type of radicalised youth. The holy grail remains the Caliphate, which has ignited the imagination of Muslim youth. Many more nuances can, however, be seen in the big picture that the IS projects today.

The IS has its own version of the Islamic State of Khorasan. It, however, tends to see the battle not in geopolitical terms but one of winning and securing the minds and hearts of Islamic youth, specially the more educated ones. Countries with large educated Muslim populations like Bangladesh and India are, hence, at risk.

Inadequate understanding of the true nature of the IS does pose a major challenge, including to security authorities. The IS is a distinctly different type of terrorist organisation. Existing methods to counter radicalisation are unlikely to succeed. The attraction of IS notions of ‘spiritual purity’ can prove irresistible. For a country like India, with a large pool of educated Muslim youth, the threat is thus real.

If IS activities proliferate, an increase in both bigotry and sectarian violence can be expected. If such attitudes gain ground, both majority and minority populations would be at risk. Increased sectarian tensions, and violence due to misplaced IS propaganda, will almost certainly disturb the equilibrium that currently exists among Muslim communities here, as also the peace and equanimity that exists among all sections of the population. India has thus every reason to feel concerned at the rise of the IS.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

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