Is Islamist Jihadist De-radicalization possible in South Asia?

News Bharati    19-Sep-2019   


Is Islamist Jihadist de-radicalization in South Asia is possible? Whatever attempts one may make, it is a virtual impossibility. Let none suffer from illusions on the above count.

Islamist jihadism has strong roots in South Asia. In India, it is spreading its roots and consolidation slowly and steadily. Former Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Joshi in his address in National Police Academy, Hyderabad, in 1993-94, prophetically predicted the “Islamic Threat Envelopment of India”.

After nearly 30-years militancy/terrorism, the spirit of jihadism has almost erased “Kashmiriyat” in Kashmir valley. Moreover, there is bitter struggle by Islamist jihadists to consolidate and advance jihadism at all costs in Kashmir valley aided and abetted by Pakistan Army and the ISI. The “Black Flags” of the ISIS are a routine feature in Kashmir valley.

Yet, some view that the evolution of Islamist jihadist movement is still in the embryo stages in India, what to talk of Kashmir valley. Today, a number of grassroots jihadists and sleeper cells are operating all over India, particularly in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, and Maharashtra and so on. If the jihadists are to be pre-empted from conducting terror atrocities, it is critical that counterterrorism strategies and tactics must be equally focused to “nip them in their bud.”

In addition to Pakistan-backed Islamist terror groups, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and AQ (Al Qaeda) in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have been attempting to make inroads since 2014. As per Institute of Conflict Studies, in 2018 across the country several terror sleeper cells have been neutralized. For example, in a major crackdown in Delhi and UP in December 2018, 10 cadres of ISIS-inspired module styled as Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam (Movement the War of Islam) were arrested. Also, 9 cadres were arrested in Thane and Aurangabad in Maharashtra.

Specifically, according to the SATP database, a total of 167 ISIS sympathizers/recruits have been arrested and another 73 persons have been detained, counselled and released, in India (data till April 7, 2019). Another 98 Indians were believed to have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to join IS. Of the 98 who travelled abroad to join Daesh, 33 are confirmed to have been killed. As per SATP experts, Islamist terrorism has been contained but not terminated.

It is naïve to believe that Islamist Jihadism in India and South Asia can be isolated from modern Jihadism phenomenon sweeping globally today. By conception, Jihad is the just war of Islam. The ideology of jihadism continues to radicalize, inspire and operationalize people to take up arms to achieve its utopian promises, particularly the unemployed youth.

Thorough understanding of the basic tenets of Islam is critical if one wants to attempt de-radicalization. The Arabic term “Islam: literally means surrender. The believer called Muslim accepts “surrender to the Will of Allah”. Allah is viewed as the unique God – Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer of the world. The will of Allah is made known through Qur’an, the book revealed by the God to his messenger – the Muhammad.

Next, the term ‘Jihad’ and its correct understanding are vital. It is derivative of the Arabic verb ‘Jahada’ which means ‘striving in the path of God’ Out of them is coined the term ‘Mujahid’ to mean ‘one who strives in the path of God’. By original conception of the Prophet, it extends between the higher forms of Jihad (peaceful means for peaceful purposes) to the lower form of Jihad (violence). For example, Jihad al-lisan means striving of the tongue, Jihad al-Qalam means striving of the pen and Jihad al-tarbiya means striving through education; Jihad al-shatan means struggle against Satan; all representing higher forms of Jihad.

On the other hand, al-Jihad al-saghir, the lesser form of Jihad, represents or legitimizes all forms of strife with other human beings through war, violence and so on.

Viewed in above religious context, the focus of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the epi-centre of Islamist global terrorism, is al-Jihad al-saghir, the lesser form of Jihad, in its offensive both in India and Afghanistan. None can blame Pakistan for what it considers vital to ensure national security interests. After all, it suffers from fundamental existential crisis from its inception in 1947 both from India and Afghanistan, but also from the Pashtuns, Baluchs and Sindhis.

For the ideologues of Pakistan, the existence of Pakistan is defined only in relation to Hindus – some Islamic scholars view Hindus as Kafirs or infidels (non-believers) whereas others reject such a view.

India is portrayed as a hostile neighbour. And, the Mullah’s in their Madrasas are exploiting the opportunity for the growth and consolidation of Islamist jihadism. Ipso facto, Pakistan has systematically inculcated hatred towards India and Hindus in their school text books particularly after 1970s and also in Madrasas.

“Hate India”, more precisely, “Hate Hindu’s” psyche is so strongly embedded not only among Pakistan people, but also disgruntled and dissatisfied Muslim elements in India, which constitute the most potent threat to India’s national security.

Now-a-days, the central jihadi message is “Islam is under attack by the “Hindu’s, Hinduism and Hindutva”. Also, the ascendency of the strident right wing Hindu political party politically marginalizing pseudo secular political parties in India.

Be that as it may, there are many faces of Islam ranging from Sunnism, Shi’ism, Kharjism, Mutaszileh, Sufism, Ismailis, Ahemidias and Black Muslims to name some of the important sects. Their internal cleavages are as multiplexing and perplexing as is the case with other religions. Not all of them are sympathetic to Islamist Jihadism rise.

Let me briefly review the state of jihadism on the global plane and also in South Asian region including Afghanistan. Anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East is strong that it is the root cause for fuelling Islamist Jihadism.

And, Islamist Jihadism has never really been a monolithic movement as generally viewed as AQ and the IS-ISIS. There are many franchise groups and “lone wolfs”. Why the two main groups fight? Ideological divergence! The founder of AQ in Iraq, the predecessor of the IS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the current leader of AQ, Ayman al-Zawahiri, argued over strategy from the start. They are competing for leadership is different parts of the globe.

AQ’s ideology is a gradualist philosophy of "bin Ladenism". The long-term strategy is based on the assumption that it will be impossible for jihadists to overthrow Middle Eastern governments and establish a caliphate as long as the "far enemy" (the US and its European allies) are active in the region. The current AQ leader claims that fighting the US and its allies was necessary to awaken Sunnis. AQ historically rejected creating a caliphate. AQ has succeeded in fostering a network of self-sustaining jihadists globally. Initially, AQ-linked recruiters and preachers played an important role by sending individuals to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training and indoctrination.

The AQ group functioned as a de facto state within the Taliban Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, it survived the American assault on Afghanistan after 9/11 by moving its leadership and infrastructure to Pakistan where it thrived until 2009. From Pakistan, the AQ core planned and conducted attacks like the Madrid train bombing in 2004, a wave of attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia in 2003-06, and the civil war in Iraq led by Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, bin Laden’s lieutenant. The results were a wave of violence across the world.

With the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 and the emergence of the ISIS, AQ's power and influence weakened considerably. Unlike IS/ISIS, AQ has been careful not to alienate local populations. In 2013, AQ issued "General Guidelines for Jihad" which talked about a more restrained and community-based approach. In so doing, it acts as a local 'saviour' and positions itself as 'the good guys of jihad' as opposed to brutal thugs of ISIS. AQ brand name led to a number of existing jihadist factions to become franchise groups.

In recent years, AQ has been pursuing a strategy of quietly rebuilding and forging alliances with regional groups. Its branches include: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) formed in 2006; Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in 2009 in a merger of two offshoots of the international Islamic militant network in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) that operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, established in September 2014; Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) in Mali and West Africa; Al-Shabab in Somalia and East Africa; and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that controls Idlib province in northern Syria; and Al-Qaeda in Egypt.

AQ has made only limited progress toward its self-declared goals, and in some cases, has reversed gains. The US has not fled from the Muslim world. The U.S. troops are deployed not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, and in limited numbers elsewhere in the Muslim world.

In contrast, for the IS/ISIS, creating a caliphate is the end objective. Zarqawi’s vision of sectarian war and vicious violence against all enemies proved attractive to more potential fighters rather than AQs anti-U.S. focus. The core tenet of the ISIS organizational philosophy is its oft-repeated mantra, baqiya wa tatamaddad, Arabic for "remain and expand." The concept has helped the group withstand a series of significant losses, including the death of its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike, and deaths of subsequent leaders of the ISIS Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri. Its persistence is rooted in its firm belief that God favors, although sometimes tests, the group.

The IS traces its roots to AQ in Iraq, an offshoot of the terrorist group that attacked the US on Sept. 11, 2001. The Iraqi affiliate started an insurgency that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007, before it suffered defeat at the hands of American troops and local militias. By 2013, remnants of the AQ affiliate rebranded themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, was the architect to seize territory and declare its own state.

The ISIS officially declared its “caliphate” in June 2014 and urged foreign fighters to come to the region to take up arms and attracted supporters who carried out attacks worldwide. At the height of its power, the ISIS had an estimated 40,000 recruits from 100 countries. The group’s propaganda reach grew with its territorial ambitions. In 2014, it began publishing a slick online magazine, Dabiq, to bolster support for its ideology and activities.

The ISIS carried out executions of local residents - gruesome crucifixions, mass beheading and stoning. It also targeted minority religious groups, including the Yazidi, taking hundreds captive and making sex slaves of women and girls. It also carried out a campaign to erase culture - destroyed churches, shrines and sites, including the ancient Roman city of Palmyra.

The ISIS also extended its reach into Europe to include: attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, and a hostage-taking two days later at a kosher supermarket; coordinated attacks on a nightclub and several cafes in Paris that killed 130 people in November 2015; attacks on the airport and subway system in Brussels that killed dozens; attack on a Christmas market in Berlin; a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France; an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England; two locations in London within three months; the Istanbul airport; a nightclub in Orlando, Fla.; and a San Bernardino, Calif., office building; and so on. However, in 2016, the ISIS lost ground. Yet, the group has continued to spread its ideology online and encouraged supporters to carry out attacks worldwide.

Unlike AQ, ISIS attacks any state it comes into contact with. In Afghanistan, for example, ISIS’ Wilayat Khorasan affiliate tried to distinguish itself from the Taliban by beheading a Pakistani soldier in January 2015, demonstrating that it was not beholden to Pakistan. ISIS subsequently boasted about the execution in its English-language magazine, Dabiq.

External factors including state sponsorship, sectarian violence and a power vacuum were more important to the ISIS recovery and dramatic expansion in the group's strategy and tactics. Unless these factors are taken out of the equation, the ISIS will have the opportunity to re-emerge as a challenge to the region and the world. This is largely because these franchises were independent groups before they ever adopted the AQ or ISIS name. And as a result, they have their own local leadership as well as existing support, finance and logistics networks. While a few franchise groups have received some help from the two core groups in terms of training or funding, such support is thus not key to their survival.

For example, the Syrian civil war created a power vacuum that swelled the power of jihadist militias. Syria greatly aided both the AQ/the ISIS by facilitating the flow of fighters, money and logistics through Syria to support the jihadist insurgency fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Later, the Syrian government released large numbers of jihadists from prison in 2011 to bolster Bashar al Assad's claims that the rebels were terrorists and to sow confusion and dissension in rebel ranks. Certainly, the emergence of the AQ-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and the ISIS later entrance as a combatant in the Syrian civil war, helped accomplish both goals.

Not to be left out of consideration are the grassroots Islamist jihadists – lone wolfs - who are either individuals or small cells that think globally but act locally. These grassroots factions continue to pose a significant threat in many parts of the world, and play an increasingly important role to the movement at large in terms of projecting terrorist capability.

In sum, despite the massive commitment of resources by the US and its allies, the jihadist threat persists, and there is no end in sight. Like communism, jihadism is a global phenomenon, and it is manifesting itself in a number of local insurgencies stretching from West Africa to the Philippines. In recent years, franchise groups and ‘lone wolf’ terrorists continue to fuel jihadist wars around the world.

History has shown the dangers of underestimating the ability of jihadist groups to rebound from devastating losses. They have done so repeatedly in places like Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mali and, of course, Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.

Viewed in the framework of South Asian geo politics and the dynamic and fluid situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan obdurate focus on “J & K as the Core Issue” and providing state sponsorship and fuelling sectarian violence through disgruntled and disenchanted Mullahs and political leaders in India, de-radicalization of Indian Islamist Jihadists lying low in sleeper cells is easier said than done, in particular, with B. Tech graduates and students becoming the flag bearers of the ‘Jihad-al saghir” in India.

The common refrain to combat a global insurgency is global counterinsurgency effort, which means efforts to defeat jihadist groups - to "clear", to "hold" and to "build" phases of counterinsurgency. Unless sustained de-radicalization holds the key to neutralize Islamist Jihadism, particularly erase/wipe out the “Jihad-al Saghir” from the mind sets of Muslims.