India And Israel’s Counterterror Experiences And The Idea Of ‘Defeating’ Terror Groups – Analysis


By Kabir Taneja

Israel’s war in Gaza against Hamas, now in its fourth month of operations, continues to be anchored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advertised aim of ending Hamas both as a militant and political entity. Netanyahu has further vowed to “stand against the entire free world if necessary,” to defeat the group.

The terror attack against Israel on 7 October continues to play out as dozens of Israeli hostages remain under Hamas captivity in the fast-shrinking territory of Gaza. In a recent analysis, scholar and former soldier, John Spencer, argued that it is futile to compare the ongoing Israeli military campaign to other tactical fronts, from recent examples in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria to more historical ones, going as far back as World War II. Other scholars such as Leonard Weinberg and Arie Perliger estimate that 30 percent of terror groups ‘end’ with the capture or killing of the leadership. The hypothesis Weinberg and Perliger present to back their finding is that failure is the most common outcome for the intended political aims of any terror group. Meanwhile, other academics such as Joseph Stieb also warn against banking too much on history to look for lessons to learn.

Ending, or defeating, terror organisations is a contested idea. History has many measurable examples of terror or militant groups that have been degraded beyond viability, if not completely. While for Israel, groups such as Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hezbollah pose an immediate and direct threat, India sees parallels with the cross-border terrorism it has faced for decades from Pakistan-sponsored groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), amongst others.

India’s experience

Within India, home-grown jihadist groups such as the Indian Mujahideen (IM) and Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) have, in the past, created significant challenges. IM came into the limelight in the aftermath of the 2005 Delhi bomb blasts, which killed more than 60 and injured over 200 in some of the capital’s most crowded markets. The terror attack took place two days before the festival of Diwali, when public areas were at their busiest. Pakistan-based LeT took claim online under the pseudonym of Mahez-e-Inquilab, giving the impression that there is a growing trend of Indian jihadist groups building capacities domestically, while providing IM with plausible deniability.

However, to understand IM better (which is no easy task), it is vital to understand its roots in SIMI and the underlying political events that they hoped to build momentum around. There are two core events that jihadist groups in India continue to build narratives around even today: First, the demolition of Babri Masjid (mosque) in December 1992, and second, the Godhra communal riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002. While SIMI was banned by the Indian government in 2001 (which was temporarily lifted in 2008 due to a judicial intervention), IM was only banned in 2010.

SIMI was founded in 1977 in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh (UP), by a student of physics named Mohammed Ahmadullah Siddiqi, who later went on to pursue his Masters and Doctorate in journalism and media in the United States. The geography of modern UP is not new to extreme interpretations of Islam. For example, it is where the seminary Darul Uloom Deoband,  established in 1866, is becoming home to the Sunni Deobandi Islamic movement—a movement followed by the Taliban as well. On the other side of the spectrum, UP is also the place where Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomenei’s family temporarily lived as part of the then Kingdom of Awadh, ruled by Imamiyaa Shia Muslims of Persian origin, until its annexation by the British in the 1850s.

Siddiqi founded SIMI on an antithetical vision, to address biases against Muslims within Indian society and the country’s mainstream media discourse. However, in his own words, the SIMI he founded was “completely different” to what it eventually became known for, as the influence of other organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind took hold. IM, known to be formed out of a breakaway group from SIMI, took towards a more radical route. Like any old-fashioned militia design, to promote its causes, it mixed itself with organised crime to raise funds and gain access to arms. The Persian Gulf of the 1980s and 1990s was already a tinderbox of ideology, radicalism, and organised crime including those who were on the run from the Indian state. Within SIMI, groups were also slowly getting more entrenched into pan-Islamic causes, making the group attractive to others beyond just Pakistan.

In 1981, SIMI ended its relations with the Jamaat over differences in support for Yasser Arafat, the then-leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who visited India often. At least some factions within SIMI believed that Arafat was a Western stooge, and these differences along with a more public crackdown post-2002 pushed many young SIMI members to look for alternatives. This arguably provided an attractive pool of young ideologues for Pakistan-backed groups looking to fight in Kashmir and others who wanted to go a more independent way.

The crackdowns against IM, technically, continue to this day. And herewith lies the challenge. Because of their loose, fluid hierarchies and even looser ideological and political aims, dismantling these ecosystems may well be a forever process. In 2022, the Indian government banned the Popular Front of India (PFI) under its Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (1967) for having links with terror groups. PFI, founded in 2006 in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is accused of having links to SIMI, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, and the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic).

IM alumni and member of other terror outfits from India have also made their mark in foreign theatres such as Afghanistan. For instance, Asim Umar, who went to Pakistan from Sambhal in UP in 1995 to join Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), eventually became the emir of Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). He was emir since its creation in 2014 and was eventually killed in 2019 by US–Afghan forces.

IM cadre have also been known to have joined ISIS, which is a Salafist group, compared to IM’s more Deobandi anchoring. Scholar Vikram Rajakumar highlights that such an arbitrary shift in ideology towards ISIS by the IM cadre is a pivotal moment in how jihadist groups in South Asia, particularly India, have behaved in the past, which is not particularly aligning with foreign terror groups. Much like in other countries, ISIS and its caliphate, at its peak in 2015-16, broke norms to attract fighters from across the world.

In his 2011 book, Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within, journalist Shishir Gupta highlights in the text’s final chapter that while IM as a group may not be prevalent any longer, its cadre continue to be part of broader terror activities, often aided by Pakistan, and geographically located across West and South Asia, from Arab capitals to cities such as Karachi and Lahore. Ultimately, Indian security agencies continue to fight IM and SIMI as ‘ghost’ organisations, or ones where only the name is left, but core ideologues and members have dispersed into other groups and entities (or as individuals, contractors, freelancers, and organised criminals).

Ultimately, the policies that worked for India’s security establishment are what scholars Seth G Jones and Martin C Libicki conceptually highlight under ‘policing’. A slow and protracted approach under law-and-order operations brought many pro-SIMI and IM cases in front of the courts and eventual prosecution. Very few cases were military in nature. This was as much of a strategy decision as one driven by the fact that the state could not be seen as going to war against a large section of its own population. Similar thinking has also been adopted by the Indian security establishment against Left-wing terrorism, which also encompasses parallel political tracks and even space for rehabilitation via surrender-based policies in exchange for clemency and employment. Tactical operations, when needed, are conducted by semi-militarised (paramilitary) police forces instead of the traditional army.


While Israel has very different geographic realities, strategically, tactically, and even historically, its current trajectory of annihilation of Hamas exclusively through military means may well be untenable in the long run. Proscribed terror groups such as Hamas are condemned globally; they benefit, specifically after 7 October, from successfully wrapping their narratives around ideas of ‘revolution’, and ‘de-colonisation’, amongst others. This is not much different to militancy in the Indian state of Kashmir, where terror groups market themselves as messiahs against the state, but primarily have their own aims towards power and control. In (relative) comparison, India’s 2019 counter strike in Balakot, Pakistan, as retaliation to the Pulwama terror attack a few days earlier was aimed at resetting the escalation ladder in New Delhi’s favour (successfully). Terrorist-initiated incidents in restive Kashmir, as per government data, have come downfrom 228 in 2018 to 43 as of November 2023.

Finally, the Israelis do not need sermons from others on how to conduct counter-terror operations or build a securitised state despite their own failures on 7 October . But considering the commonalities between Israel and India regarding their experience with Islamist terror, a significant takeaway for the former would be to reassess, or clarify, how it defines a “defeat” of Hamas. This can be contextualised with the Indian experience of dealing with repurposed groups repeatedly mobilising around the same ideology or domestic grievances. In short, even with the hierarchical decapitation of Hamas, it is likely that the group would resurface in another avatar and once again use the Palestine issue as the most convenient political and ideological incubator.

  • About the author: Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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