|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
The Bhopal-Ujjain train blast on March 7, 2017, injuring nine people is being heralded as the first strike by the Islamic State in India. It has now emerged that the members of this module inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), led by self-styled ‘emir’ Atif Muzaffar, had criss-crossed the country between February 2016 and January 2017 visiting various borders and contacting immigration agents in cities with international airports in search for an opportunity to exit the country and migrate to Iraq/Syria.
After forming a ‘core’ group of like-minded, IS-influenced youths in Kanpur in February 2016, Atif, along with Danish and Faisal, travelled to Srinagar, Amritsar, Wagah and Jaisalmer, exploring ways to exfiltrate to Pakistan through the land border and contacting travel agents to get a visa to Pakistan. Radicalisation and youth attracted to Islamic State is not a new phenomenon.
In January 2017, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) suspected few months back that the 22 Kerala youths, who had disappeared, may have joined the Islamic State training camp in Afghanistan. According to intelligence sources, the agency has got some leads on the missing people and the NIA believed that they were at Nangrahar in Afghanistan. There have been earlier reports of some Indian youth having joined the ISIS, some trying to join and others having returned disillusioned. The one’s returned may well be ‘sleepers’ which is recent tactics of returning volunteers to parent country for executing ‘lone wolf’/module-based terror attacks when directed to do so.
CEP works with governments exploiting the Internet to mobilise social media to counter extremist ideology by exposing the threat of extremists and mounting a global counter narrative. India needs similar public-private partnership to tackle this mammoth problem.
ISIS flags have been appearing in the Kashmir Valley periodically. ISIS logo T-shirts have been distributed by radical mullahs in South India. Recently, posters inviting youths to join ISIS surfaced in Bihar’s Rohtas district during March 2017. US intelligence has recently warned that the ISIS is doing active recruitment in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is hardly surprising because we have neighbour Pakistan who is continuously experimenting with mating different variety of snakes. Intelligence reports indicate that the ISIS and Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have joined hands under the tutelage of Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) with eyes on South Asia; Afghanistan and India in particular.
There is need for extra caution in a liberal democracy like India. In 2014, Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a Bengaluru-based executive, first discovered and reported by Channel 4 News of UK, confessed he was handling the pro-jihad tweeter “@ShamiWitness” for past several years. According to a former NSA more than 100 individuals are involved in Mehdi-like activities.
A National Investigation Agency probe shows that Indian Mujahideen (IM) cadres are tech savvy and have been using proxy servers and complex code to chat: exceptional knack for IT setting up e-mail accounts that disappear if they not accessed in 24 hours, proxy servers to camouflage geographical location, encrypted files and complicated code language; use of US-based Yahoo Inc, Paltalk Inc, Sophidea Inc and Hurricane Electric, plus providers in Nepal, Canada and Ireland; IP address of Nimbuzz chat traced to Pakistan Telecom Company Limited and others traced to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Nepal and India.
Asymmetry through non-war operation encompasses fields like finance, ecology, psychology, media, drug trafficking tech, etc. Such asymmetric approaches will invariably be used in conjunction others. In the US, a non-governmental initiative termed Counter Extremism Project (CEP) was launched in 2014 with Israeli assistance to confront the growing threat from ‘extremist ideology’. CEP seeks to refute social media messaging, compile world’s biggest database of extremist networks. The CEP would augment the US NSA already heavily committed albeit the NSA faced heavy criticism in recent times for snooping globally under the ‘Prism’ programme.
Participation of the private sector is also essential because of the magnitude of the issues involved. CEP has been launched as a private sector organisation that describes itself non-partisan in its efforts to combat extremism. Its goals include compilation of the world’s most exhaustive database on extremist groups and their networks, and places unmasking the funding sources for ISIS high on its list of immediate priorities.
Though the CEP is a non-governmental organisation, it works with governments exploiting the Internet to mobilise social media to counter extremist ideology by exposing the threat of extremists and mounting a global counter narrative. India needs similar public-private partnership to tackle this mammoth problem. Ironically, the radical Zakir Naik would have continued to preach hatred without Bangladesh pointing out to us Naik’s radical activities that came to light post the terrorist attack on a Dhaka café.
The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author.