By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Islamist terrorist formations – global, transnational and Pakistan-based – despite relentless efforts over decades to create turmoil in India’s hinterland, have failed to gain any noticeable traction. In fact, the last major attack (resulting in three or more fatalities) by Islamist terrorists, outside Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), was recorded on January 2, 2016, when 14 persons, including the six attackers, died in an attack on the Pathankot Airbase in Punjab. No major attack has been recorded outside J&K since then (data till April 18, 2021).
However, during this period, 13 attacks (resulting in one death and 29 fatalities), where the role of Islamist modules has been suspected, were recorded. Two attacks have already been recorded in 2021. On April 7, 2021, the Ahmedabad Crime Branch arrested three persons for setting ablaze seven shops in the Kalupur area of the old city in Ahmedabad in Gujarat at the behest of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). The three arrestees – Bhupendra alias Pravin Vanzara (26), Anil Khateek (22) and Ankit Pal (22) – set ablaze the seven shops on March 20, 2021. During interrogation, Bhupendra told police that in March 2020, he got in touch with a person known as ‘Baba Pathan’ on Facebook and he was their handler. Premvir Singh, special commissioner, Detection of Crime Branch, Ahmedabad Police, stated,
With their arrest, we have come across a new terror module by the ISI where small criminals in India are lured by money and prepared to conduct acts of terror in order to cause financial losses to the country and disrupt internal security.
On January 29, 2021, a low-intensity device exploded outside the Israel embassy, though the explosion did not cause any casualties, and the embassy was not damaged. India’s counterterrorism agencies believe a domestic Shia terrorist cell planted the bomb, and was working under the direction of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force.
Earlier, one incident had been recorded in 2020. On January 8, a special Sub-Inspector of Police, Wilson, was shot dead by two suspected Islamic State terrorists at Padanthaalumoodu checkpost in Kanniyakumari District of Tamil Nadu.
Though Pakistan-based terrorist formations continued to carry out attacks in J&K during this period, the strict vigil of the Indian Security Forces (SFs) has thwarted each and every attempt by the ISI and its proxies to carry out any fatal attack in India’s heartland. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Indian SFs have, in fact, arrested at least 78 terrorism suspects (since January 2, 2016), belonging to Pakistan-backed terrorist groups, who were planning to carry out attacks in India, outside J&K, the most recent on April 7 (above).
Meanwhile, a vice-like grip on the activities of global terrorist outfits – the Islamist State and Al-Qaeda – has not allowed these groups to make any inroad inside the Indian mainland, or, indeed, even in J&K. SFs have succeeded in neutralizing almost all Islamic State-related modules in their incipient stages. According to the SATP database, 422 Islamic State sympathizers/recruits (222 recruits and 200 sympathizers) have been arrested in India since 2014 (all data till April 18, 2021). The National Investigation (NIA) is currently investigating 33 Islamic State module-related cases.
In the most recent development in one of these cases, on April 1, 2021, NIA filed a chargesheet against two suspected Islamic State sympathisers for their involvement in forming a group to further the activities of the global terrorist organization, in India. The case was registered by the NIA in September 2020.
The situation with regard to Al-Qaeda is similar. Over six years since the formation of its sub-continent branch, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent has also failed to make any visible impact. The parent Al-Qaeda had first turned eyes on India in 1996, without any success, but secured no success. NIA is presently investigating two Al-Qaeda linked cases. Case details of one of these cases, registered on September 11, 2020, indicate,
A group of Jihadi terrorists inspired by globally proscribed terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda consisting of more than 10 members mostly of Bengali origin and operating from different parts of country is planning anti-national / terrorist activities at several locations in India including but not limited to West Bengal, Delhi and Kerala. The group is headed by one Murshid Hasan @ Sofiq who is a Bengali speaking individual who has travelled to several places in Southern and Eastern India. He is inspired by the violent ideology of globally proscribed terrorist outfit, Al-Qaeda.
According to an April 9, 2021, report, a special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court sentenced Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) terrorist Rizual Islam aka Riyaz aka Sumon, to seven-year rigorous imprisonment in a 2017 case related to planning to commit terrorist acts in India. An NIA spokesperson disclosed that Islam, a resident of Khulna in Bangladesh, was convicted under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and the Foreigners Act. A fine of INR 36,000 rupees was also slapped on him. The Kolkata Special Task Force (STF) had registered a case on November 21, 2017, pertaining to the arrest in Kolkata, of five members of ABT, a proscribed terrorist organisation in Bangladesh.
Transnational groups like the Bangladesh-based Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) have also failed to gain any ground, as almost all their terrorist modules have been neutralized at the planning stage. NIA is currently investigating two JMB-linked and one ABT-linked cases.
Evidently, both the SFs on the ground and the agencies involved in prosecution have done remarkably well during last several years. As a result, Islamist terrorism has remained under check across India.
However, new challenges are emerging, as Islamist extremist groups struggle to gain ground in the country. In a worrying development, the Popular Front of India (PFI), which has remained a constant threat, has increased its activities in the recent past. On February 16, 2021, two PFI cadres – Ansad Badruddin and Firoz Khan – were arrested from the Kukrail trisection in the Gudamba area of Lucknow District in Uttar Pradesh. In their interrogation, they revealed a plan to trigger blasts to mark ‘Popular Front Day’ – the foundation day of their outfit – on February 17, 2021. Explosive devices, a pistol and seven live cartridges were recovered from the arrested duo. Indeed, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), in a statement filed in a Special Court for Prevention of Money Laundering Act cases, opposing the bail plea filed by PFI’s student wing leader K.A. Rauf Sharif, arrested in connection with a money laundering probe, asserted, “PFI has raised substantial funds to organise terrorist training camps, its related activities and to disturb communal harmony.”
Worryingly, PFI has a strong presence in Southern Indian states including Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and some parts of Andhra Pradesh. These are also among the states where the Islamic State has established some presence. On September 15, 2020, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) informed the Parliament,
Investigations by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) have revealed that the Islamic State is most active in Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
At present, of the 42 banned terrorist formations in India, 16 are Islamist groups and their affiliates.
Successes against the Islamist terrorists have also been facilitated, in part, by some augmentation in capacities for policing and intelligence. Significantly, the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS) software has now been deployed at 15,773 out of 16,156 Police Stations across the country, i.e., 98 per cent. Around 15,568 Police Stations are entering 100 per cent FIRs [First Information Reports] through CCTNS, i.e., 96 per cent of the total. Connectivity is available at 15,645 Police Stations i.e., 97 per cent. CCTNS National Data Centre is receiving data from 36 States/Union Territories. Data digitization of 39 million records has been completed, i.e., 91 per cent of the target total.
Further, reports indicate that the counter-terrorism grid of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is being expanded to cover 825 locations from the current 374 that work under the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC). Unnamed sources disclosed,
A total of 374 locations are presently on the network. In phase III, the network is being extended to 475 districts, selected in consultation with Directors General of state police. Out of 475 identified locations, 451 have been found feasible for providing connectivity, out of which 174 have already been connected. When completed, the network will cover 825 locations around the country.
Regrettably, however, the overall strength of State Police Forces remains abysmally low. According to the latest available official data, the police-population ratio (policemen per 100,000 population) in India stands at a low 155.78. The Force, moreover, remains largely ill equipped and ill-trained. Unless genuine attention is paid to addressing the existing lacunae in the security establishment, a residual threat from various terrorist formations, including Islamist terrorists, will always remain.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management