On August 2, 2016, Indian State Minister for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir sought to assure the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, that the international terrorist organization Islamic State (ISIS) has attracted "very few" youths from the country. This statement caused many to wonder whether the government is fully alive to the threat posed by ISIS.
Indian State Minister for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir addressing the Lok Sabha (Image: indiatvnews.com)
The "Very Few" ISIS Suspects
In reply to a question, the minister admitted that the number of these "very few" ISIS suspects stood at 54, and that this included only those misled youths against whom the country's National Investigation Agency, as well as the police in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, have filed cases. The minister then deftly introduced an addendum by mentioning nine other cases of "persons [who] have been reported missing from some parts of Kerala, who are suspected to have joined terrorist outfits like ISIS, but whose links [to these organizations] have not yet been established." According to some observers, the minister's response seems to have conspicuously overlooked the possibility of ISIS recruitment in the troubled Jammu and Kashmir region and in several other riot-prone states in north India.
But even the "very few" cases divulged by the government point to a steady increase in the number of individuals suspected to have been caught in the ISIS radicalization snare, compared to the much smaller number of cases that had been registered by government agencies until late last year.
ISIS's Doctrinal Offensive
The trend is particularly disconcerting in light of ISIS-related terrorist activities in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, and more importantly in the context of the deliberate ideological campaign that Salafis have been waging in the Urdu and Bangla blogosphere against the Hanafi Deobandi and Barelvi adherents of Sunni Islam in the subcontinent. This intra-Sunni doctrinal debate has been launched so that globalist Salafi-jihadist ideas find greater resonance among non-Salafi Muslims in the subcontinent.
Thus, the blogosphere in the subcontinent is abuzz these days with literature against the "muqallid" (jurisprudential conformism) doctrine of the more moderate Deobandis and Barelvi Muslims in the region, a hitherto unknown phenomenon. It should be noted that ISIS follows the "ghair muqallid" brand of Islam, which rejects adherence to the four orthodox Sunni jurisprudential schools - Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali- in spite of its Hanbali leanings.
This doctrinal dissonance has turned into a turf war, with ISIS trying to unseat the Deobandi Taliban from its position of influence in the AfPak region by weaning away its splinter groups. In the wake of this tug-of-war, the Afghan Taliban sent a direct message to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi last year, warning him that his fighters should refrain from encroaching upon the Taliban's insurgent operation. In August that year, the Taliban denounced a video showing ISIS fighters blowing up blindfolded Afghan prisoners with explosives, describing them as "horrific."
As a matter of fact, the clash between the Salafi Al-Qaeda/ISIS ideologues and the Deobandi jihadists in the subcontinent is not a recent phenomenon. Its signs were evident even during the Afghan-Arab war against the Soviets in the 1980s. According to Al-Qaeda's most prolific writer, Abu Mus'ab Al-Suri, in the late 1970s the Sunni jihadist movement was "a mixture of Qutbist organizational ideology, the Salafist creed and the Wahhabi call." In his book Call to Global Islamic Resistance, Al-Suri notes with consternation that, in the 1990s, the growing influence of Salafi hardline ideologues within the jihadist fold bred "partisan fanaticism" and led to "bloodshed, conspiracies and internecine fighting." He describes the Arab-Afghan jihadists as being derisive of the "muqallid" doctrinal beliefs of the Taliban and dismissive of Mullah Omar's claim of having established an "Islamic emirate" in Afghanistan. According to Al-Suri, many of the Arab jihadists regarded the Taliban as no more than a "safe haven" from which they could operate freely, and did not regard the so-called Taliban "emirate" as a suitable starting point for launching their cherished dream of a future Islamic Caliphate. He states (pp. 844-845): "One of the astonishing things... is a statement made by one of those extremist Salafi-jihadists. He told me in one of our conversations that jihad must be under the Salafist banner; its leadership, program and religious rulings must also be Salafist... If we accept that non-Salafists participate with us in jihad, we only do so because we need them. However, they should not have any leadership role at all. We should lead them like a herd of cows to perform their duty of jihad."
Although Al-Qaeda's top leadership (Bin Laden and now Al-Zawahiri) has always sought to downplay the doctrinal differences within the organization, the emergence of ISIS has brought the internal dissonance to the fore like never before. With the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, ISIS has gained more ground and influence in the region, which poses a new set of challenges for countries in the subcontinent.
Recent Increase In ISIS Attacks In Subcontinent
Not surprisingly, the increasing influence of the Salafist brand of Islam has triggered a spurt in terrorist activity in the subcontinent. ISIS is said to have already developed close ties with the Salafi Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in Pakistan and Jamaatul Mujahideen in Bangladesh. In late July 2016, the Afghanistan government accused former LeT chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed of directing ISIS attacks in Afghanistan. In the beginning of the month, ISIS gunmen entered an upscale restaurant in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and held dozens of people hostage for hours, eventually killing 20 of them. In fact, that country has been rattled by a major wave of Islamist violence with a number of targeted killings of secularists, atheists and foreigners since 2013. Then, on July 8, 2016, two policemen and a woman were killed in a terrorist attack on an Eid prayer gathering in the country. 
Demonstration in wake of terror wave in Bangladesh (Image: News24online.com, July 18, 2016)
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In issue 13 of ISIS's online English-language magazine Dabiq, released in January 2016, the head of ISIS in Bangladesh, Sheikh Abu Ibrahim Al-Hanif, claimed that the group is currently training fighters in Bangladesh and Pakistan to launch simultaneous attacks from the western and eastern borders of India, in order to create chaos in this country. The mouthpiece also said that Kashmir would soon be overrun by ISIS. Indian jihadi groups like the Indian Mujahideen (IM) also have links to the group, with many of their members having joined the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and some planning their return to India, to enlist more recruits. In fact, the Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (AuT), formed in 2013 by members of IM, ISIS and a Taliban faction, pledged their allegiance to ISIS in September of that year.
The Looming ISIS Threat
With the number of suspected ISIS members in India and the subcontinent on the rise, as reflected even by the tentative data released by the authorities, the dreadful specter of this insidious monstrosity quickly getting out of control is a clear and present danger to the entire region. First, trained terror recruits returning from ISIS-held territories pose the close-term threat of perpetrating major terrorist operations, as well as the medium-to-long-term danger of establishing clandestine sleeper cells for sustained terrorist campaigns. Meanwhile, there is also the looming specter of home-grown terrorism, wherein jihadist websites provide inspiration and training for non-affiliated individuals or small groups to carry out lone-wolf attacks. ISIS has developed an intricate social media network (as exposed in the Mehdi Biswas aka Shami Witness case in 2014) and has posted guidebooks and manuals for concocting destructive explosives from household materials (as exemplified in the Boston bombings of 2013) and for using readily available means, such as vehicles, as lethal weapons (as manifest in the Nice terror attack this year).
In addition, there are many religious organizations and seminaries in the region that continue to be indoctrinated by extremist Salafi-Wahhabi ideologues and to receive funding from extremist donors in the Middle East. There are also millions of South Asian expatriates in Gulf states, who may bring back to their native countries the radical and extremist ideologies currently rampant in that part of the world.
Fighting Jihadism And Its Agenda
In light of the above, it is important for governments in South Asia to take serious note of the fact that jihadists are increasingly gaining a foothold in their respective countries and devise effective measures to combat the growing menace.
In the formulation of any counter-terrorism policy, it is necessary to take into account the collusion and competition between various Deobandi and Salafi jihadist organizations in the Indian subcontinent, as well as the growing Salafi-jihadist subversion by foreign elements of the moderate Sufi Islam practiced by the hitherto peaceable Muslims of the Kashmir valley.
The Darul Uloom of Deoband in India (the headquarters of the Deobandi school) should be urged to exhort all renegade Deobandi jihadi organizations in Pakistan to renounce the practice of terrorism, which is condemned by all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In fact, Darul Uloom Deoband should revive the stance of one of its greatest scholars and spiritual leaders, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, who in his celebrated book Al-Shahab Al-Shaqab denounced the Wahhabi doctrine as a "false belief" (aqaid-i-batil), particularly for its use of violence and takfir (the practice of accusing other Muslims of heresy). This Islamic school and its affiliate organizations should also make sure that they do not receive any financial or ideological support for their mosques and seminaries from countries or private patrons espousing Salafi-Wahhabi beliefs.
It should be noted here that the Hanafi Darul Uloom of Deoband in India has since its inception worked toward greater communal peace and amity. It voted in favor of a united India at the time of partition and against Pakistan's creation, and in 2009 issued a historic fatwa calling India dar al-aman (a land of peace where jihad is forbidden).
*Dr. Adil Rasheed is a distinguished research fellow at the United Service Institution of India, and is the author of the book ISIS: Race to Armageddon.
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