One year since the Islamic State made low key announcement establishing new provinces in India and Pakistan, the group has expanded presence and claimed attacks in all countries of South Asia with dominant Muslim population, from India’s Kashmir valley in the Himalayas to Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Away from the spotlight in Iraq and Syria where it has escalated attacks and aiming for a comeback, the group is having a free run in South Asia.
The pandemic crisis has not deterred IS, instead it has upped its ante by carrying strikes on the US air base in Bagram and against the minority groups of Afghan Sikhs and Shias, owning the first attack in the island nation of Maldives and continuing low key attacks in Indian Kashmir. It has kept its propaganda machine running by launching a new South Asia focussed magazine Voice of Hind— the April edition carried a map of the sub-continent showing the group’s presence/affiliates in 6 regions surrounding India. And released slick videos to attract new followers in India and Maldives.
After losing the last territory of model Caliphate in Syria’s Baghuz in March 2019, IS has incentivized its losses to create a sustainable presence outside its main battlefield in Levant. There has been notable rise in operations in West Africa (Nigeria), South East and South Asia region, where it remains most active.
IS in the Indian Subcontinent
The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka April 2019, killing at least 320 people, was the first major jihadi attack ever to take place in the tiny island nation. It signalled that even if the group was defeated militarily, it maintained capability and influence to carry attacks in new theaters. The exact nature of IS’ involvement in the attack carried by National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ), the group formed by radical preacher and of the suicide bombers Zahran Hashmi, remains foggy. However, investigations have pointed out that at least one of the bombers was trained in Syria by the IS and the key bombmaker may have got training in Turkey.
The following month in May 2019, IS announced structural changes, reorganising the Khorasan province and establishing stand alone provinces for India and Pakistan. Experts warned that the rejig should not be merely viewed as a bureaucratic exercise, which the group is known to effectively maintain, and could result in renewed focus on attacks in the two countries.
Wilayah Hind and Pakistan
Since its official formation, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) has been the joint province for Afghanistan and Pakistan or what is popularly known as the Af-Pak region. It has always been headed by Pakistan origin emirs who are responsible for overseeing the operations, recruitment and facilitating growth. Till now, 4 of its emirs were killed and the fifth was arrested in Kabul in April 2020.
But despite drawing large cadre and senior leaders from the neighboring state, ISK has not operated exclusively on its own in Pakistan. It has relied on the strategic alliances or temporary collaborations with existing regional militant groups sharing common traits like Salafi ideology, seeking to establish a state based on Sharia to carry deadly attacks on ethnic and religious minorities and Pakistani state forces. It is not clear which local groups have been co-opted in ISPP. Till now it has claimed half a dozen attacks mainly concentrated in Balochistan — shooting of a security personnel in June 2019, a blast in Quetta market in August 2019, at a mosque in January, in Peshawar and Bajaur agency in May.
Prior to the announcement of Wilayah Hind, IS has had a dubious presence in the form of Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK), operating in Kashmir valley since 2017. But beyond online popularity, it lacked a solid substantial presence on ground. Some of the attacks claimed by ISJK were double claimed by members supporting the al Qaeda linked Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGH), raising eyebrows if the assertions were merely a branding ploy to mark its existence in the Kashmir militancy landscape.
ISHP claimed its first attack, killing one Indian policeman, 8 months after its existence in Kashmir on February 5. Two ISHP militants and one CRPF personnel were killed in a gunbattle after militants fired on a check post at Lawaypora on the outskirts of Srinagar. On April 7, it claimed the second attack on CRPF in Bijbehara in Anantnag district with machine guns and hand grenades which led to 2 deaths. In the official version, CRPF stated that one jawan was killed and another injured when a militant hurled a grenade at a patrolling party and ran away. It has continued low-casualty attacks on local police and military security forces.
Outside Kashmir, IS has tried to cash on the Hindu-Muslim communalisation and incite Indian Muslims to rise up in jihad against the nationalistic Hindu government. Attempts to make spectacular attacks in mainland India by recruiting local supporters have failed so far. Indian security agencies have been on alert and cracked down on modules before any attacks could be manifested. However, it is the presence of Indian nationals in the rank and files of ISK in Afghanistan, which remains a matter of concern for India. An estimated 100 odd people from Kerala have joined the group of which unknown numbers have died in combat against Afghan security forces or been killed in US airstrikes. The March attack on the Afghan Sikh community in a gurdwara in Kabul was carried by ISK’s Kerala origin fighter. IS thus maintains the ability to use the Indian national fighters to build a network, attract new recruits/followers, produce specific India centric propaganda material and develop necessary understanding of navigating the Indian landscape as part of its long term goals on India.
On his first official tour to India on February 24, as US President Donald Trump proclaimed to have “100 % destroyed’’ IS’ territorial Caliphate, the ISHP launched the first issue of its new monthly magazine, the Sawt al-Hind or the Voice of Hind entirely focussed on India and the Indian subcontinent. It has capitalized on the controversial citizenship legislation and the communal violence to chide Indian Muslims for failing to rise in jihad. A pro ISHP group on Telegram used one of the viral image of a Muslim man being assaulted by a mob, as a poster justifying retaliatory attacks. On April 11, IS linked media released a 4:01 minute propaganda video New Delhi, Today and Everyday.
In Bangladesh, where it has claimed series of attacks since 2015, the most prominent being the deadly siege at the Dhaka cafe in an upmarket diplomatic area, IS has been low-key but remains active. In April 2019, IS made its first claim in nearly 2 years, stating its militants detonated an explosive device on a group of Bengali police, in reality the Bangladesh security forces said it killed two militants linked to the cafe siege, after a raid at a tin-shed hideout which was filled with explosives. It claimed other strikes, the last being on February 29, all carried out on policemen, except one on Awami League office in Khulna. The Bangladesh front renewed its pledge of allegiance to the new IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in November 2019.
In Maldives, an archipelago located in the Indian Ocean, with a population of roughly 340,000 mostly Sunni Muslims that relies entirely on luxury tourism for revenue, the group chose to own an arson as its first ever attack as against its brand of sectarian bloodbath. On April 16, five docked boats were set on fire on Mahibadhoo island in the Alif Dhaal Atoll, with no casualties. Earlier on 6 February, a local cell stabbed (no deaths) three foreigners with knives in the name of the IS and while online followers cheered on, the group did not take responsibility. Both these attacks may appear less damaging on the surface but should not be ignored given the high numbers of Maldivian nationals who have joined jihadi groups in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last October, authorities arrested US designated Mohamad Ameen, a key IS recruiter mobilising fighters for Syria and Afghanistan. In November, Afghan forces found Maldivian nationals among the surrendered ISK fighters in Nangarhar. In 2018, another national Ali Shafiu, arrested from Nangarhar with his wife and children was sentenced by a lcourt in Maldives to 21 years imprisonment on terrorism charges and for joining IS. Pro IS media cell, Hakku media is dedicated for propaganda in Maldivian Dhivehi language and translates all the major material of the group, instruction manuals and videos. On May 2, it released a documentary film on Maldivian IS fighter Abu Ubaidah Ahmad Nishwan.
Foreign fighters in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, where it has the strongest base, IS has maintained momentum with deadly attacks although with less frequency. Since forming the new provinces in May 2019, ISK carried 14 operations till the year end. This year, it has shown signs of vigour with high profile attacks like rocket strikes on the Bagram airfield— US’s largest military site—four times since December, blast during President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration, the twin attacks on Afghan Sikh community in Kabul at the Gurudwara and on the cremation site, the abduction and grisly beheading of former intelligence official in the backdrop of arrest of ISK’s leader Aslam Farooqi and suicide bombing at a funeral in Nangarhar.
One of the major factors being cited for IS’s increased attacks in Iraq and Syria, amid the usual political and social instability, is the scaling back of the US led coalition’s counter-terror operations since seizing erstwhile IS held territories. The Afghan conflict theater is also expected to witness a similar scene of heightened terror activity upon the impending exit of US and NATO coalition troops.
IS’ presence in the region is made possible because in the last decade number of nationals from the above countries have joined the jihadi movement. Reports suggest that around 32 from Sri Lanka, close to 100 from India, approximately 170 Maldivians, and 40 Bangladeshis, travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the IS. As anti-IS military operations were in full swing, enthusiastic jihad followers and wannabe foreign fighters were advised against travel to Syria and Iraq and instead head to other bases like Afghanistan and Philippines. Although the group is weakened in Afghanistan after suffering military setbacks and loss of leadership, it continues to boast the highest number and diverse range of active foreign fighters. Estimates suggest ISK’s has between 4000 – 5000 fighters including 2,500 foreign nationals from Azerbaijan, Canada, France, India, Maldives, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. There has been a fear all along that these radicalised and trained fighters might return home one day to launch attacks, like the 2015 deadly Paris shootings. Evidence suggests that these overseas fighters have maintained communications links via encrypted platforms like Telegram for propaganda, recruitment of members, sending finances & resources for attacks etc.
IS has been eying South Asia region which has the highest Muslim population in the world from the time its slain leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Caliphate. With the help of the fighters belonging from the region in its cadre, the group has managed to exploit existing jihadi, salafist or criminal groups into its network, insert itself into local conflicts, and contexatualised local grievances into the global jihad framework to make inroads in the six countries of the region.
Investigations and arrests of IS followers suggest that members have used these networks for cross travel. Sri Lanka’s Zahran Hashim and Mohammad Mubarak Azaan are believed to have travelled to the southern region of India prior to the Easter attack. Ali Shafiu from Maldives, had travelled from Sri Lanka to Pakistan and crossed the border into Afghanistan. And the Indian IS followers from Kerala had travelled to Sri Lanka before heading to the Gulf countries and Afghanistan. Although it is too early to estimate whether IS will be able to sustain its multiple fronts in the region on long term, it has certainly renewed vigour for jihad at a time when the Indian subcontinent is undergoing socio-political transitions.
*Shweta Desai is an independent journalist and researcher, with interests in terrorism, jihad, radicalisation and armed conflicts. She is based between India and France.