ISSN 2330-717X

Islamic State Hind Province’s Kashmir Campaign And Pan-Indian Capabilities – Analysis

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By Animesh Roul*

When Islamic State (IS) announced an Indian-based ‘province’ (wilayah) on May 10, 2019, IS effectively consolidated previously fragmented pro-IS jihadist entities under the IS Hind (IS-H) province banner. IS aimed to increase its recruitment and operational success in embattled Kashmir, which has a long tradition of Islamist militancy. However, IS also launched a propaganda campaign to have a broader pan-Indian impact. [1]

IS-H sought to unite diverse pro-IS Indian groups and individuals under its purview, including those from Kashmir to Kerala as well as those fighting alongside IS-Khorasan (IS-K) province in Afghanistan (indiatimes.com, October 4, 2016). All IS-inspired groups or units, including initial groups such as Ansaru Khilafa (Supporters of the Caliphate) in Jammu and Kashmir and Jundul Khilafa (Army of the Caliphate), eventually became subsumed under IS-H. IS-H’s opaque organizational structure notwithstanding, the organization was dominated by Kashmiri jihadists and has struggled to extend its influence throughout India.

This article explores the emergence and consolidation of IS-H and how Kashmir remains Indian jihadism’s epicenter both in terms of IS’ media and armed campaigns in the country.

Kashmir: The Epicenter of Islamic State’s Campaign

Since October 2014, IS has garnered support from Indian jihadist groups and individuals marked by a series of loyalty videos. One such early video pledge, for example, came from Karnataka-born Sultan Abdul Kadir Armar, who was a Lucknow Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama-trained Islamic preacher, former Indian Mujahideen leader, and head of the pro-IS Ansar al-Tawhid Fi Bilad al-Hind (Supporters of Monotheism in the Land of India). In October 2014, he urged Muslims to kill foreigners and Hindus and pledge their loyalty to Abubakar al-Baghdadi before he himself was killed in Kobani, Syria (Indian Express, October 5, 2014; Al Isabah Media/Archive, October 4, 2014; Indian Express, March 20, 2015).

It was, however, only in May 2016 that IS’ “Homs Province” in Syria released its first official video message, which featured Indian fighters and was called “Bilad al-Hind (Land of India): Between Pain and Hope” (Zee Hindustan, May 22, 2016). The video urged Indian Muslims to travel to Syria and Iraq and called for jihad to avenge atrocities against Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat, and Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, as well as for the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh by Hindu right-wing activists (Jihadology, May 19, 2016).

In July 2017, reports of IS outreach in Kashmir emerged when another cell called Ansarul Khilafah in Jammu and Kashmir used Telegram to disseminate IS propaganda materials along with bomb-making and attack manuals (Hindustan Times, July 18, 2017). IS’ first attacks against Indian security personnel occurred soon after in Srinagar, Kashmir on November 17, 2017 (Indian Express, November 20, 2017). Pro-IS militants also targeted separatist Hurriyat Party leader Fazal Haq Qureshi, who is pro-Pakistan but seeks a peaceful settlement with India and Pakistan, on February 25, 2018. Although Qureshi survived the attack, a policeman was killed in the gunfight. IS’ semi-official Amaq news agency claimed both these attacks (nationalheraldindia.com, February 27, 2018).

After these two attacks, on March 11, 2018, three pro-IS militants, Syed Owais, Muhammad Eisa Fazili, and  Mohammad Taufeeq, were killed in Anantnag area of Kashmir (Deccan Chronicle, March 15). India’s government and security agencies, which had initially denied IS’ presence in Kashmir, finally admitted that IS had a underground existence in the state. The Director General of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police also stated IS trendlines were a “worrying sign” (Statesman, February 27, 2018).

The Establishment of IS Hind Province

IS publications and Indian security agencies’ reports of jihadists’ arrests since 2016 made evident that Kashmir-based pro-IS elements, who still often called themselves Jundul Khilafa, were operating under IS-Khorasan (IS-K) province in IS’ organizational structure. [2] Therefore, it was unsurprising that following the March 2018 Anantnag encounter, India cracked down on the still embryonic pro-IS formations in Kashmir (India Today, March 12, 2018; Hindustan Times, June 22, 2018). In response, several attacks took place in Kashmir, including a June 16 operation claimed by IS-K targeting an Indian army checkpoint in Srinagar (Twitter/Terror_Monitor, June 18, 2018).

Later, in June 2018, a self-proclaimed IS “emir” in Kashmir issued an Eid al-Fitr message urging Muslims to carry out lone-wolf operations, with emphasis on vehicular attacks, and encouraging all Indian Muslims to support IS (SITE, June 18, 2018). Half a year later, pro-IS elements in Kashmir were again active when the Kashmiri spokesman of Jundul Khilafa issued a statement honoring the martyrdom of another Kashmiri fighter, who targeted Indian  security officials in Srinagar (SITE, September 10, 2018).

Despite IS-H’s official formation in May 2019 with an inaugural attack claim to mark the occasion, the period surrounding that attack was unremarkable for the organization. IS-H otherwise conducted only several low-scale attacks targeting security officials, which may have been timed to coincide with and highlight their new presence (The Print, May 12, 2019; SITE, June 11, 2019). The nascent IS-H also suffered leadership losses due to existing schisms between militant groups in the region. Amid growing tensions between Pakistan-backed militants—such as Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—and pro-IS militants in Kashmir, a senior IS-H leader, Adil Ahmad Dass, who was previously with LeT, was killed by his former comrades in Anantnag on June 26, 2019 (Indian Express, June 29, 2019; Firstpost, July 1, 2019).

IS-H officially claimed its first attack in a gap of eight months in early February 2020 when its fighters targeted a paramilitary (Central Reserve Police Force) checkpoint on Srinagar’s outskirts (Zee News, February 5; kashmir.liveuamap.com, February 5). Later that same month, IS’ Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba claimed several previously unclaimed attacks in Kashmir (Al-Naba No. 221, February 13). Further, on April 7, IS-H claimed another attack on the paramilitary forces in Anantnag (The Week, April 8). Meanwhile, pro-IS-H al-Burhan media issued a statement threatening to target India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s counterterrorism agency called the National Investigative Agency (NIA), and Hindu right-wing organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (SITE, February 11).

After April, IS-H was weakened substantially in its Kashmir strongholds and even weaker elsewhere in India due to persistent counter-terrorism operations. The group only carried out several small-scale grenade attacks against security check posts in Kashmir in May and June 2020 (Business Standard, February 12; Zee News, September 4). Operational setbacks in terms of the deaths and arrests of IS-H fighters and a decreasing attack tempo, however, did not halt pro-IS propaganda. For example, pro-IS-H media group, al-Haqeeqah Media (Truth Media), released an online poster on May 22 to threaten attacks against Hazratbal Shrine, which is considered to be the holiest Muslim shrine in Srinagar because it contains Prophet Muhammed’s hair. However, IS considers “worshipping” this relic to be apostasy. Previously, al-Haqeeqah shared online posters threatening the Supreme Court building and the India Gate in Delhi and high-ranking officials, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (SITE, May 28; SITE, May 22).

IS Hind Province’s Pan-Indian Plans and Media Operations

Jundul Khilafa, which later reinvented itself as Ansarul Khilafa al-Hind and evolved into IS-H, had three official media units­ called al-Burhan, al-Qitaal, and al-Tazkirah, which spearheaded propaganda campaigns and promoted IS in Kashmir. [3] Al-Burhan media published al-Risalah (The Message) newsletter from October to December 2018 in Urdu and English and circulated two other issues in January and February 2019. The newsletter resembled IS’ flagship magazine, Dabiq, and sought to bridge the gap of communication between jihadists in Kashmir and ordinary Indian Muslims. Al-Risalah further addressed the turf war among Kashmir-based militants, such as HM, LeT, and al-Qaeda-supported Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, including their misplaced ideological goals and jihadist orientations. [4] Indeed, al-Risalah articles’ mentions battlefield sacrifices and tributes to slain members and criticisms against India and Pakistan triggered defections from existing Kashmiri militant groups to what soon became IS-H, which had Kashmir as its epicenter (Deccan Chronicle, November 22, 2017; Scroll, March 19, 2018; New Indian Express, June 5, 2019). [5]

After IS-H’s formation, IS’ Arabic-language weekly magazine al-Naba, Issue 221, further published a scathing criticism against India’s new Citizenship Act in February 2020 and blamed the Act’s passing on democratic institutions and anti-Muslim government policies (Al-Naba No. 221, February 13). Jundul Khilafa’s media houses, such as al-Qitaal, also engaged in propagating IS-H through its monthly magazine Sawt-al-Hind (Voice of India) distributed through Telegram. On February 24, Sawt al-Hind’s first issue was launched and called for jihad in response to rights violations against Muslims throughout India. It further urged Indian Muslims to “wake up and fight against the atrocities” committed by the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In addition, it demanded Indian Muslims to abandon peaceful protests and “rubbing shoulders with communists, atheists, Christians and secularists,” and to establish Islamic rule in India. The issue reproduced material from IS’ magazine Rumiyah’s first September 2016 issue, including tributes to slain IS-H fighters.

Meanwhile, Sawt al-Hind also quoted rival al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki’s now-famous line, “The caravan is moving, the more you delay in joining it, further, it will get away and the harder it will be to catch up with,” to invite al-Qaeda members to defect to IS-H (Sawt al-Hind, February 24). The second Sawt al-Hind issue, among other themes, exploited the COVID-19 pandemic and urged Indian jihadists to target security forces deployed on the streets “with a sword or a knife or even a rope.” The issue argued COVID-19 was a “force” of God (Allah) “to create chaos among the non-Muslim countries, including India” (Sawt al-Hind, March 25).

The third issue of Sawt al-Hind echoed the concept of Ghazwat-ul-Hind (Final Battle of India), which for the first time resembled the narratives pushed by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and its affiliated Kashmiri jihadist groups (Sawt al-Hind, April 22). Nevertheless, Sawt al-Hind regularly featured criticisms against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, including, for example, in Issue 2, which featured an article titled “Taliban: From Jihad to Apostasy” (Sawt al-Hind, March 25). Also notable about Sawt al-Hind was its broadening of the perceived geographical influence of IS-H, calling on Muslims in Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and India to join and wage jihad.

Subsequent Sawt al-Hind issues had dedicated pages on other South Asian countries and praised IS attacks, including for example, arson in the Maldives in Issues 3 and 4 and a “sorcerer’s” beheading in Bangladesh in Issue 7 (Sawt al-Hind, April 22; Sawt al-Hind, May 23; Sawt al-Hind, August 23). Similarly, the April 2019 Easter Sunday violence in Sri Lanka received mention in Sawt al-Hind Issue 3, with praise for the attackers’ “shedding the blood of Crusaders” and “glorifying the Caliphate.” Sawt al-Hind Issue 5 further distributed transcripts of IS official spokesperson Abu Hamza al-Quraishi’s audio statement in at least 14 languages, including Maldivian Divehi, Urdu, and Bengali (Sawt al-Hind, June 22). The magazine, whose ninth issue was released in October 2020, has continuously published jihadist interviews, honored slain fighters, provided news from Khorasan to Syria, and posted a gruesome image of the beheading of a French schoolteacher in October 2020. The most recent Issue 10 also carried an excerpt from the latest speech of IS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Quraishi, which urged Muslims to defend the honor of Prophet Muhammed, and mentioned incidents of blasphemy in the Indian Subcontinent and beyond (Sawt al-Hind, November 20).

Although Sawt al-Hind has insinuated a pan-Indian subcontinent orientation, neither Sawt al-Hind nor other propaganda from IS-H has highlighted pro-IS developments in southern India, such as Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, or Andhra Pradesh, where efforts were previously made to recruit for IS (One India, June 24). Sawt al-Hind magazine has nevertheless eulogized several suicide bombers from Kerala, who fought with IS-K, including Abu Khalid al-Hindi, who led the attack on a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul in March 2020, and Abu Rawaha al-Hindi, who conducted a suicide bombing at a prison in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in August 2020 (Sawt al-Hind, September 22; Sawt al-Hind, October 20). While these eulogies could be part of establishing influence for IS in southern India, they stand out as the exception, and not the rule.

Conclusion

A look at the messaging in Sawt al-Hind and attacks perpetrated by IS-H demonstrates that the group’s fighters and areas of operations remain primarily in Kashmir. IS-H’s reach elsewhere, such as southern India, is more questionable, and southern Indian jihadists may be even more inclined to join IS-K rather than IS-H. The various online pro-IS and official IS media outlets that are attempting to reach out to India’s Muslim minority throughout the country nevertheless suggest it is possible, but still not imminent, that IS-H will eventually recruit and operate in parts of India beyond its Kashmir bases.

*About the author: Animesh Roul is the executive director of the New Delhi-based policy research group Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict. The author acknowledges the support of Government of the Netherlands and the Global Centre on Cooperative Security for an ongoing research project on Transnational Jihadist threat in South Asia. Views expressed in the paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Centre or the Government of the Netherlands.

Source: This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 22

Notes

[1] For IS-H’s messaging outreach urging all Indian Muslims to join the Caliphate, See, “O Muslim Brothers of India”, Telegram Channel, @Al-Hindi, June 5, 2019; “So Where are You Going: A call to Muslims of India”, Sawt al-Hind, No.1, pp. 5-7. Also See, “Preparation of Ghazwat ul Hind,” Sawt al-Hind, No. 3, pp.6-8.

[2] See, for example, “Interview with the Wali of Khurasan,” Dabiq, 13, p. 53.

[3] Jundul Khilafa, “Clarification Statement”, August 5, 2018.

[4] Al-Risalah No. 4, November 2018.

[5] “Forward,” al-Risalah, Vol.2 (1), p.4.

The Jamestown Foundation

The Jamestown Foundation

The Jamestown Foundation’s mission is to inform and educate policy makers and the broader community about events and trends in those societies which are strategically or tactically important to the United States and which frequently restrict access to such information. Utilizing indigenous and primary sources, Jamestown’s material is delivered without political bias, filter or agenda. It is often the only source of information which should be, but is not always, available through official or intelligence channels, especially in regard to Eurasia and terrorism.

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