M. K. Narayanan, For The Straits Times

The ISIS threat and India

Kashmiri demonstrators on July 18, 2014, holding up an ISIS flag during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza in downtown Srinagar, India. With the ISIS seeking to redraw the map of the region, and willing to take the help of re
Kashmiri demonstrators on July 18, 2014, holding up an ISIS flag during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza in downtown Srinagar, India. With the ISIS seeking to redraw the map of the region, and willing to take the help of regional terrorist franchises, India will be in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups. -- PHOTO: AFP

A spectre haunts Asia today, that of “new version” terrorism. Steeped in puritan Islam, and based on a mixture of Salafism and Islamist radicalism, combining the atavistic world view of Saudi theologian Abdul Wahab and Egyptian Syed Qutub’s nihilistic fanaticism, it has become a symbol of Islamist resurgence in a great arc from Syria to Pakistan.

In the battle for Islamic space and imagination, newer outfits like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – born out of regional warfare and Islamic fundamentalism – have gained the upper hand.

Terrorism now possesses a virtual state of its own, holding wide swathes of territory. It is flush with funds, and has an ever increasing number of battle-hungry fighters – including several from Europe, Asia and Africa.

Most analysts are guilty of teleological fallacy, in having pronounced the end of terrorism. A resurgent ISIS, very different from the Al-Qaeda of yesterday, with plans to set up a Proto State, is proving them wrong.

The announcement of a new caliphate and its revolutionary appeal to Islamic youth are, meanwhile, set to radically alter the topology of terrorism.

The caliphate, redolent with historical and emotive content, is attracting recruits from across the globe, and proving to be an irresistible magnet to those inclined towards “jihadi terrorism”.

The ISIS-promoted caliphate is set to become the world’s first truly terrorist state, with access to chemical, biological and, perhaps, even nuclear weapons. It is also about to demonstrate a new model of terrorist violence, in the way violence is employed to attain prescriptive goals.

Al-Baghdadi’s vision of the Islamic State is based on ancient Islamic history, and seeks to first consolidate and expand its rule in areas with sizeable Sunni populations, and only thereafter move to the phase of “global jihad”.

The central themes are “hijra”(migration) and bay’ah (allegiance), and Sunni Muslims everywhere are being urged to migrate to the Islamic Caliphate State and establish new ties of brotherhood between continents and communities of Muslims, to widen the ambit of Islamist jihad.

This presupposes implementation of the strategy in stages, prior to embarking on the “final battle”. Al-Baghdadi’s latest exhortation to his soldiers “to erupt volcanos of jihad everywhere” should, hence, be viewed as a more serious threat for countries with large Sunni populations, than to the West.

What is terrifying about the rise of the ISIS is that while 21st Century Terrorism was identified with lethal violence and for its ability to employ technology and use of global communications, 21st Century Terrorism (of the ISIS variety) will be remembered for the kind of savagery that it practises. The presence of many more non-state actors on the scene will raise levels of brutality in so far as individual actions are concerned.

Among possibilities in this regard are that: small groups of radical fanatics could indulge in variants of “leaderless jihad” of the Abu Musab-al-Suri variety; and that “demonstration killings” of the kind that have been seen recently in countries as far apart as Britain and Australia will go up. Support networks involving different Islamist entities will provide them effective cover.

India has every reason to feel concerned at the rise of the ISIS. A world dominion map earlier released by the outfit had parts of north-west India, including Gujarat, as part of the Islamic State of Khorasan, a caliphate that the ISIS seeks to achieve.

Given India's location, and the fact that the indigenous terrorist threat is influenced by events in its volatile neighbourhood, the danger the ISIS poses is serious. India’s earlier claim that no Indian Muslim was involved with Al-Qaeda or the Taliban is today no longer valid.

More and more Indian recruits – and far more than the mere trickle being mentioned – are joining the ranks of the ISIS. Jihadist activities within the country, fanned by inflammatory rhetoric (including open appeals to Indian Muslims to join in the crusade by Muslim youth the world over for the establishment of a caliphate), are on the rise. “Jihadism” is, today, being actively fostered via the internet, and recruitments effected via social media sites.

The sheer symbolism of an uber-Wahabhi model of Islam that ISIS represents is an added inducement for Muslim youth to join jihadi outfits. The presence of a sizeable Sunni Muslim population is another factor.

“New version jihad” is proving extremely attractive, for its strength lies in “spiritual purity” and “exclusionist puritanism”. Also not to be lost sight of is the impact created by the sheer audacity of the ISIS attempt to create a new caliphate – a near-recreation of the 8th century Abbasid Caliphate.

India again cannot ignore the possibility of Islamist radicals – patterning themselves on the lines of the ISIS – draining the reservoirs of discontent that still exist among segments of ordinary Muslims in the country, due to a variety of real or perceived grievances.

Already the reach of militant groups is increasing, and ISIS ideology has gained traction. Symbolism is a crucial element in this respect and the decision of ISIS to mint its own currency – the Islamic Dinar carrying the symbol of seven stalks of wheat (mentioned in the Quran) while another has the map of the world (a reference to Islam ruling the world) with words in Arabic “the Islamic State/a Caliphate based on the doctrine of the Prophet” – is bound to fire the imagination of Muslim youth.

India has for long been a key target of terrorist groups. With the ISIS seeking to redraw the map of the region, and willing to take the help of regional terrorist franchises that it has teamed up with, including the Al-Qaeda in South Asia, India will be in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups such as the ISIS.

For the ISIS, success in bringing parts of India into the caliphate would be a signal achievement.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer was a former national security adviser and intelligence chief to four Indian prime ministers.