Ibrahim Nowfal, 24, from Telangana. Muhammed Abdul Ahad, 46, from Chennai. Mehdi Masroor Biswas, 24, from West Bengal. Afsha Jabeen, 37, from Hyderabad. Just some of the Indians who at various times over the last two years were either detained by the police or deported back to India from West Asian countries for alleged links with the Islamic State (IS).
Investigative agencies estimate that around 300 Indians have been recruited by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan alone which has pledged allegiance to the IS. Thirteen Indians are fighting with the IS and more have been prevented from joining the organisation.
A far cry from 2013 when Muslim groups had been outraged at allegations made by the Syrian Ambassador to India that Indians were fighting with jihadis in Syria. A fry cry too from the days when it could be proudly said that Indian Muslims were insulated from global terror. The IS’s predecessor Al-Qaeda could hardly count any Indian among its midst even though jihadists from across the globe had flocked to it.
What draws the youth to the IS?
What is it that seems to be attracting the Indian Muslims – most of them educated and from fairly privileged economic backgrounds to the Islamic State?
Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan offers some insights in his new book ‘Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate’. While not referring Indians directly, his book addresses the phenomenon witnessed across the globe – the call of the IS is turning out to be far more seductive than that of any other jihadi or terror group, including its parent organisation, the Al-Qaeda.
The name itself – The Digital Caliphate – provides the immediate answer, something well known by now. The use of technology and social media has certainly helped the IS in its propaganda and recruitment drive.
But while Al-Qaeda and most other known terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba demonstrate a life of only battle and hardships, often far removed from modern civilisation, enacted only by men, IS is both more sectarian and inclusive.
Growing in Strength
IS holds territory and is steadily expanding, in spite of the various assaults on it. Losses in one place are quickly made up by gains in another. For more than a year it has been holding on to and administering a sizeable territory, dismantling the border between Iraq and Syria. It controls oil fields, earning revenue from oil sales in the black market.
Rabidly sectarian, adhering to the harshest interpretation of Wahabi Islam, in which not just non-Muslims and Shias but even errant Sunnis are considered apostates. Directing its fight against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (often considered heretical by most Muslims) – helped it to attract Sunni jihadis from almost 100 countries – as varied as Libya, Belgium, Chechnya, and Australia polarising the region further.
But IS is also simultaneously inclusive, which makes it an “emotionally attractive place where people “belong,” where everyone is a “brother” or “sister.”
What Explains the IS’ Clout?
- Indian investigative agencies alarmed by the rise in the number of youth willing to join the Islamic State (IS)
- The IS has deployed both technology as well as social media to its advantage
- Unlike the Al-Qaeda and other terror groups, the IS has been able to create a perception, that of offering a better life
- IS scores over other extremist organisations by being more inclusive and calling upon all sections of Muslims
For one, women play and are encouraged to play a significant role in it. While not in combat, they are assigned the role of caregivers, supporters, and a pillar on which the caliphate is being constructed, an image cleverly promoted on social media. Atwan writes: “A jolly home life is portrayed via Instagram images where fighters play with fluffy kittens and jihadist “poster-girls” proudly display the dishes they have created.”
The use of captured Yazidi girls as ‘sex slaves’ has also fueled the image of IS where sex and power is in abundance – attracting both men and women alike.
Its other powerful appeal is that it offers itself as the homeland for all Muslims – to which it invites Muslims to migrate to, enacting in the 21st century, the hejira - Prophet Mohamed’s flight to Medina – the promised land. In his inaugural address last year the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi had said: “…You have a state and khilāfah, which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership.
It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers.” This is unlike the Taliban which also experimented with an Islamic state but which was restricted to Afghanistan, or Al-Qaeda, which commanded its followers to train in its camp and then mount jihad in their respective home countries. In the latest issue of its Dabiq magazine the IS emphatically again makes the case for such migration because ‘Hejirah is an obligation from darul kufr to Darul Islam’.
Threat from the IS
The Islamic State has thrown a huge challenge not just to the West but to the international Westphalian order. It seeks to restore both Muslim and Arab pride by dismantling the old corrupt pro-Western Arab regimes and establish a ‘genuine Islamic order’. Arabia is the spiritual centre of the Muslim world and Arabs possess a special place in the Ummah.
In many centuries a transnational Caliphate is being spearheaded not by Turks or Mughals but by Arabs. Its brutal justice system is based on existing ones in the region. Each of its actions are backed up by some Quranic text or the Hadiths. And the longer it holds out, according to sources in Iraq and Jordan, the bigger its support base gets in the Arab world. But IS holds out the promise of the long elusive inclusive ummah where “Syra is not for Syrians and Iraq in not for Iraqis….the state is a state for all Muslims”.
Can Indian Muslims remain insulated from its call?
(The author is an award-winning independent journalist and researcher. This is the first part of a series on the Islamic State and the threat it poses.)