By Kabir Taneja*
More than seven million Indians call the greater Middle East region their home. There are more Indians here in New Delhi to worry about than the population of Finland, and the region is possibly one of the most hostile regions on the planet. Yet, our media discourse on the happenings in the Middle East is minimal, knowledge in public forums superficial at best, no Indian media outlet has a single reporter based in the region despite our affinity and progress towards India’s ‘Think West‘ policy.
Over the past few days, the Iraqi army has been preparing for what it believes could be the final showdown between government forces along with the assorted militias that support them, and the Islamic State (ISIS). The city of Mosul, about 400 km north of the capital Baghdad, and closer to the strongholds of Kurdish regions of the country are being prepared for the final assault to dismantle ISIS. It is believed the outcome of this operation could take anywhere between weeks and months, but as we have seen in the past, specifically in Afghanistan, years is also not an implausible scenario. “ISIS has dug in deep,” people escaping Mosul were quoted as saying. “This will take a long time. These guys are mostly Iraqis and they will not give up. People on this side of the river (Tigris) cannot run away to Anbar. They will have to fight,” said another.
Over the past few months, ISIS has lost large swathes of the territories it so easily took control of during the year of 2014, when it steamrolled through the lands and captured territory and people with gusto. ISIS declared Mosul as the seat of its supposed ‘caliphate’, from where the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his council run their operations of terror across the region and beyond. Whilst it is true that ISIS has lost a lot of territory over the past few months, many foreign fighters have abandoned its ranks and it is struggling to maintain the enigma it had created around the world, the fact remains that the organisation will probably never be completely dismantled. Like Al Qaeda in the post 9/11 world, ISIS may also disintegrate and seep into the various sectarian cracks of the Middle East as it continues to maintain and promote its vast propaganda machinery, both physically and via the Internet.
But just an operation against ISIS is not the issue here. Envisaging a post ISIS world perhaps cannot be done without taking into account the sectarian divisions that have been ripped open by the terror group over the past couple of years. For example, as noted journalist and author of The New Threat, Jason Burke has said, that the city of Mosul has “profound significance” for Arabs, Kurds, Shias and Sunnis all at once. Liberation for Mosul from ISIS may not, in fact, see an end of violence for the city’s citizens as these fault lines within the social fabric of Mosul may see intense friction between the above mentioned communities for control.
Even though Western powers, Russia and regional heavyweight Turkey are interlocked in a battle of controlling the outcome in which the war against ISIS and its regional byproducts, a political Marshall Plan for the region is the need of the hour. Russia is backing the Assad regime, the US, against the Assad regime is funding factions, that are often radical Islamists themselves, Turkey (a supposed ally of the US and member of NATO) went through a bout of supporting ISIS inclined groups in order to one-up their rivalry against the Kurds, and meanwhile it is the Kurdish Peshmerga that are leading many of the frontlines against ISIS. Confusing?
But, what happens if and when ISIS is marginalised into the crevasses of Middle East politics? How will the greatest, and most brutal jihadist complex to come up since 9/11 (even though its history predates that), and perhaps since the founding of Al Qaeda, thrive if ever attempts to dismantle it are declared successful post Mosul? The influence of ISIS can be distributed into two halves, the local Iraqi, Syrian fighters and the foreign fighters. As per many accounts, numbers of foreign fighters, particularly from Europe, have dwindled down significantly. However, despite ISIS a losing significant amount of territory in the recent past, reports coming from Mosul suggest the fighters’ will to defend the seat of the caliphate vehemently, and this phase of the war could be deep, long and bloody.
Mosul is also the place where thirty nine Indian workers went missing, reportedly taken hostage by ISIS, since June 2014. Subsequent reports, including accounts by one Indian who escaped the region and that particular group, suggests that the thirty nine people were executed. However, the Indian government has maintained that it has ‘credible intelligence’ that these people are alive.
The influence of ISIS in India has been limited. In March of 2014, one Gul Mohamed Maracachi, a thirty seven year old Indian man working as an analyst for a top technology firm was deported from Singapore after allegedly radicalising another Singapore national and helping the person to reach Syria and fight for the Islamic State. This was perhaps the first case of an Indian being associated with pro-ISIS activities. Beyond Mr. Maracachi, three other prominent cases of pro-ISIS Indian individuals have come to light. Twenty four years old Mehdi Masroor Biswas, an engineer from Bangalore who ran the popular pro-ISIS Twitter account @ShamiWitness, one Areeb Majeed from Kalyan, Maharashtra, who travelled to Syria to fight for ISIS and assorted cases from Kerala, where a spike has been observed in number of cases of alleged pro-ISIS conspirators. However, despite intelligence reports, it is perhaps not possible to tell if, and how many, Indians from the Middle East have joined or shown an inclination towards the Islamic State.
The real threat today is not from the ISIS occupying territory and people in Syria and Iraq, but the number of foreign fighters that have returned to their countries, undetected, and having tendencies and capabilities of orchestrating lone-wolf attacks. These attacks could get more visible in numbers, perhaps not in intensity and tactical efficiency, as ISIS loses further territory and figureheads. In September, the US confirmed that top ISIS spokesperson and chief strategist Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was killed in a drone strike, the effects of which were expected to be fairly damaging to ISIS’s command structure. The battle of Mosul may not be the holy grail of ISIS’s demise, the assault, while significant, is also a pitch for local elections in Iraq as well, which in turn is helping the current global narrative of Mosul being Islamic State’s last stand.
*The author is currently a Medienbotschafter Fellow. His areas of interest include the Middle East, Afghanistan, terrorism, defence and India’s energy security.