Diplomatic Licence Comment

Is the war against the IS India’s war?

"The Islamic State has claimed that its Caliphate represents Muslim populations everywhere, and its targeting of people from the U.S., France, Jordan, China and Japan indicates that it does not see a difference."  

At a recent counter-terror conference in Jaipur, which included experts from about 25 countries, the most prominent discussion was on a unified global response to the threat from the Islamic State (IS). “The problem the world faces is that while the bad guys think global, the good guys still think national, sometimes still departmental,” said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar. “Encouraging a ‘whole of the world’ approach in countering terrorism is one of the major goals of Indian diplomacy.”

The tenor of the discourse was significant. When one participant asked if the IS is as much a threat to India as it is to some other countries, he was fiercely challenged. When he asked whether India should join the coalition of troops on the ground against the IS with or without a United Nations mandate, he was openly called an “apologist for the IS”.

Not a uniform threat

A less heated consideration of the issue must prevail over what exactly India’s role in the “global war on IS” should be, if sending troops is indeed a possibility. To begin with, the theory of a global war suggests that the threat to all countries is uniform in nature. The IS has claimed that its Caliphate represents Muslim populations everywhere, and its targeting of people from the U.S., France, Jordan, China and Japan indicates that it does not see a difference. Yet, on the ground, the ‘target populations’ are very different, with varied motivations.

While the threat in the U.S. and Europe comes from immigrants who have settled in these places in recent decades, in South and Central Asia, the Muslim populations are indigenous. In West Asia, many of the populations from which fighters are joining the IS were already fighting against their governments. And in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, those who migrated to IS territory received no opposition from their governments, which were already at odds with the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. Therefore, while the motivation for all of them may have been the desire for an Islamist jihad, the factors influencing them are entirely different.

In particular, there is a difference between India and other countries. According to government figures, 27 Indians are confirmed to have travelled to IS-held territories, 200 are under watch, and about 18 have been charged with attempting to join the IS in India (not counting 30 recent detentions on which details are awaited). The figures for Indians joining the IS are low enough to be statistically negligible (less than 0.00004 per cent) compared to the rest of the world. In the 44 countries tracked by the U.K.-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and the Central Intelligence Agency, India finds no mention. A Brookings Institution study of online supporters of the IS on Twitter also found the numbers of pro-IS tweets out of India too negligible to include in its survey. Last year, Twitter shut down 1,25,000 accounts for “threatening or promoting terrorism”, mostly IS-linked accounts reported by governments worldwide. According to Twitter Transparency reports, the Indian police and government agencies have asked to shut down only about 50 accounts from 2014 onwards. These include cases of terrorism, but also of harassment, stalking, threats and abuse.

These statistics should certainly not give the impression that India has nothing to fear. But they must be seen in relation to the threat perception at present, so as to guard against an overreaction. If India were to consider sending troops under the U.N. flag to IS territories, as Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said it could, what would be the human costs of such a venture over the benefits? Tied into that calculation is whether India is prepared to face the backlash of terror attacks, either in the country or on Indians based in West Asia. These could be particularly heightened given the broad-based support the IS has found with terror groups in Pakistan.

What global war on terror means for India

Finally, it is necessary to understand just what the idea of the “global war on terror” means for India. If India were to believe that the war against the IS is part of the global fight against terror, is the reverse true? Are countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — which have included Pakistan in their coalition against the IS but also profess cooperation with India on terror — at all likely to pay more than lip service and offer more than a few dozen deportations to India? Why is it that the U.S. has carried out hundreds of drone attacks on areas in Pakistan from where strikes are launched on International Security Assistance Force soldiers in Afghanistan, but has never suggested striking those who threaten India? Instead, it is more likely that these countries will ask India to exercise restraint after attacks.

A case in point is David Headley. While his role in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks was amply clear to U.S. investigating agencies, it took years for them to allow Indian investigators to interrogate him, during which time Headley struck a plea bargain so he wouldn’t face the death penalty or be extradited. Even though Headley’s cooperation in allied investigations was a part of that plea bargain, U.S. authorities delayed granting India his deposition, and not before the Mumbai court hearing him was forced into pardoning him. Perhaps this is really the key to the conundrum described by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval at the conference when he spoke of the global response to terrorism since the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. Why is it, he asked, that 15 years after countries have signed on to the global war on terror, terror casualties are 320 per cent higher than in 2001, terror groups have spread to areas they have never been in before, and states have spent enormous figures on fighting terror?

The truth is, the global war on terror will be India’s too only when the terrorists who wage war on India are also seen as threats to the countries which seek India’s support.


(The writer was an invitee to the counter-terror conference in Jaipur on February 2 and 3, 2016, and was hosted by the India Foundation and Government of Rajasthan.)

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