Indias Below Radar War

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A low key war against the Islamic State is underway in India, intelligence and security agencies trying to identify sympathisers before their online activities take on more dangerous overtones. BY PANKAJ PRASUN

Officially, India might be downplaying the threat from dreaded global terror group Islamic State (IS) with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh offering assurances like “culture and family ethos are preventing Indian Muslims from joining the jihadist outfit”. But for those involved in the daily, usually below-the-radar war against terrorism, say that IS chiefAbu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his men are trying to nurture “strategic assets” that they can use against India and Afghanistan.

Security and Intelligence sources say that IS has reached Afghanistan and Pakistan and is thus, at India’s doorsteps – even inside. Indian intelligence agencies have received alerts about attempts to target VVIPs and large gatherings like the Kumbh Mela. Modules and sleeper cells have been found in Maharashtra, Telangana (Hyderabad in particular), Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and even relatively remote Uttarakhand.

So far the National Investigation Agency (NIA) along with Anti-Terrorist Squads (ATS) of various states has detained or arrested over 30 Indians including a few who were deported from the UAE. They were mostly picked up on the basis of their “illegal” activities in cyberspace. The activities ranged from recruiting through indoctrination, attempting to form terror group and planning attacks on pre-determined locations.

The current spate of arrests of Muslim youth for their alleged terror activities started after Mehdi MasroorBiswas was picked up in December 2014 from his one-room rented apartment in Jalahalli, Bangalore by the city police. Agencies zeroed in on him following a report by the UK’s Channel 4, which revealed that the man operating the @ShamiWitness Twitter handle, who claimed to be a Libyan, was actually “an executive in Bangalore working for an Indian conglomerate”.

While the broadcaster concealed Biswas’s identity at his request, his name and photograph was ascertained from the Twitter handle @mario_greenly.

Biswas was recently denied bail by the NIA Special Court in Bengaluru, the presiding judge giving the order based on the charges against him and the severity of punishment for terrorist offences. Biswas was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly advocating terrorism, facilitating recruitment for terrorist activities and various other sections of the IPC raging from waging war against India to “making statements amounting to public mischief”.

BEYOND BISWAS

Biswas, as it turned out, was the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Sources in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) said, “Biswas’s arrest provided us several leads and when we worked upon them, we found that at least 23 Indian youth, a few among them were former Indian Mujahideen (IM) operatives had already joined the IS in Syria and Iraq”.

Most of those who have been arrested in recent times for their alleged involvement in terror activities, were put on watch by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), which functions under the National Security Advisor (NSA) AjitDoval.

“There were more than 100 such individuals, who were put on watch list by the NTRO. All the agencies including RAW, IB, NIA and ATSs coordinated well to bust the modules,” said a senior MHA official. “Since the NIA was formed, one thing was made very clear to the sleuths in all the agencies that they should not rush to arrest a person immediately after getting the tip off or lead. They should first verify and observe the activities for a while and then only make the formal arrest, particularly in cases involving local lads,” he added pointing out that the security establishment had learnt its lessons from the past when some youth from Azamgarh and Darbhanga, arrested on terrorism related charges, were later acquitted.

“Now we differentiate between ‘keeping a radical view’ and ‘planning and organizing an attack’. We make no arrest if we find somebody expressing a radical view, but we keep them under watch and once they cross the threshold we first detain them and only after preliminary interrogation, we make the formal arrest,” said a senior NIA investigator. He went on to add that it was only after this procedural change that “we are able to have a conviction rate of 95 percent so far”.

Meanwhile, the NIA has also sought assistance from social networking giants to track IS propaganda activities. They sent requests to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, KIK and Surespot, to obtain the data under Mutual Legal Assistance treaties.

According to intelligence reports, 23 Indians who joined IS have been accounted for and several others were stopped before they could leave the country. While six are reportedly dead, two have returned to India and 15 others remain with the ISIS. Many of them are in touch with their Indian handlers who are recruiting for ISIS. “Some of these handlers were active within the country and some are in the Gulf,” an intelligence official said.

A singular case was that of Afsha Jabeen, famous or notorious for her remark that “Baghdadi should be a role model for all Muslims.” She was deported from the UAE and arrested by the Cyberabad Police for her alleged attempt to radicalize youth by propagating the ideology of the IS. Afsha frequently wrote about Baghdadi on her Facebook groups and urged Indian youth to establish a Caliphate in India.

Security agencies have also been questioning four Indians from Kerala who were deported from UAE on suspicion they were trying to join the IS. Sources said they were in touch with an Indian in Syria. Three others were deported from the UAE for being in touch with the same person in Syria. They are now under arrest in India. The NIA also broke up a terror module comprising 14 persons spread all over the country. Five of them were picked up by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police has picked up five youth from Haridwar in Uttrakhand on the charge of plotting attacks on trains and during the ArdhKumbhMela.

NIA’S KEY ROLE

Till very recently, the IS influence in India seemed negligible. The terror group had some sympathisers but very few actually tried to join them on the battlefields. In fact, the number of Indians believed to be fighting with the IS in Iran, Iraq or Syria is under two dozen, small compared to the number of fighters that have joined the group from countries such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, France, Russia, Finland, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, and Australia.

The NIA has played a big role in the early detection of IS activities in India. The credit is not only to that agency but also the intelligence agencies that are working to a clear strategy. Working in concert, they have constantly monitored all propaganda being put out by the terror group. They have however, tried to limit the number of arrests, hoping timely action will act as a deterrent to other youth lured by IS propaganda.

The NIA tends to move only when there is an indication that those under observation are now moving to join the group in the battlefields of Syria. The first step is to intimate their parents, elders or religious heads to counsel the young radicals. Usually this works and the strategy has had a fair measure of success so far.

But these are early days yet, the war against the IS will call for greater resources and sophisti-cation in detecting and identifying youth seduced by extremist propaganda. It’s a war which given the history of terrorism in India, may have no end.

Summary

  • The list of those sympathizing with the Islamic State or seeking to join it are low in India but may not continue to remain so
  • The National Investigation Agency and intelligence organisations are working quietly to identify those sympathetic to the Islamic State
  • Presently, official agencies are relying on families and religious elders to counsel and de-radicalise youth influenced by the IS
  • Indian intelligence agencies have received alerts about attempts to target VVIPs and large gatherings like the Kumbh Mela. Modules and sleeper cells have been found in Maharashtra, Telangana (Hyderabad in particular), Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and even relatively remote Uttarakhand

    The war against the IS will call for greater resources and sophistication in detecting and identifying youth seduced by extremist propaganda. It’s a war which given the history of terrorism in India, may have no end

    MUSLIM GROUPS REACT

    The detention or arrest of Muslim youth on suspicion of sympathizing with the Islamic State or wanting to join it, has upset some Muslim groups. Muhammad Salim Engineer, secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, recently warned that “These arbitrary arrests of Muslim youth in the name of ISIS is an organised conspiracy to malign Islam and Muslims and to get political benefits by creating hatred between Hindus and Muslims.”

    He was supported by other Muslim organisations including the Jamiat Ahle Hadees, Muslim Majlis e Mashawerat and All India Milli Council.

    In a statement a copy of which is with the Tribune newspaper,Engineer wrote: “Although the home minister and the prime minister refuted the possibility of IS making inroads in India last year, the security agencies have recently began arresting Muslims across the country on suspicion of allegedly having links with ISIS and Al-Qaeda” .

    He demanded that the police officers, who detain innocent youth deliberately, “must be awarded stringent punishment if these youth are acquitted later” and suggested that these youth “should and must be released within 6 months if the agencies are unable to prove any allegations against them’’.

    He also accused the government and security agencies of trying to create a climate of fear and anxiety within the Muslim community which would weaken the country.

    THE LURE OF AL-HINDI

    Mohammad Shafi Armar alias Yusuf al-Hindi is on the Indian terror watch list. An IS member who was reportedly in the heart of the IS war in Syria, he runs a sophisticated and vast propaganda network trying to draw young and disgruntled Muslim Indians into joining the IS.

    All potential candidates needed to do was visit his Facebook page and click “like”. They would get a message from al-Hindi who would set up a Skype account for the potential recruit with chat names like ‘GumnaamBhai’, ‘Crazzyboys’, ‘Janta’ and ‘Hindi Bhai’.

    Al-Hindi apparently prefers chatting on the social networking software Trillian and the conversation invariably focuses on atrocities on Muslims across the world. The last contact he had with operatives in India was as recent as January this year.

    He is also reported to have sent more than six lakhs thorugh the hawala route to one Muddabbir Sheikh, for financing terror activities in India. He is known to have orchestrated meetings in Tumkur, Mumbai, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bengaluru and provided banned web links to Md. Nafees aka Abu Zarrar on how to make improvised explosive devices. He is also known to send recruits to scout out secluded forest areas where they can be given jihadi training.

    Al-Hindi’s personal details are a little obscure although he is known to have said he belongs to Bengaluru, his father is dead and mother still lived in the city. He is fluent in Hindi and often tested his trainees in translating English to Hindi.

    The ones arrested in India were his “interns”, who were being groomed with virtually everything at their disposal: An organisational structure, physical training, finances and weapons and explosives training. Until Yusuf-al Hindi is neutralized, infatuated Indian youngsters will continue to fall prey to the IS. In other words, India has underestimated the IS potential to win recruits in this country.

    A SUFI APPROACH

    Rajnath Singh sought the support of the clerics in countering radicalization efforts so Muslim youth don’t fall prey to outfits like the IS

    Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh met select Muslim clerics at his residence last month and acknowledged a “lack of confidence” in the government among some religious groups. With NSA AjitDoval and IB chief Dineshwar Sharma in attendance, Singh sought the support of the clerics in countering radicalization efforts so Muslim youth don’t fall prey to outfits like the IS.

    But as a cleric remarked, “The problem is that behind closed doors, the minister talks about lack of confidence, but the government, instead of taking punitive action against communal loudmouths, actually rewards them.”

    Nevertheless, a body representing Sufi-Sunni Muslims All India TanzeemUlema-E-Islam (AITUI), recently claimed that the IS is “active” in India under “different names” and sought a ban on fronts representing such groups to prevent threats to national security. He made a strong pitch for “critical examination” of Islamic studies imparted across varsities in the country and sought the promotion of “Sufi content” to remove “extremist influence” on youth.

    “Terror activities are on rise in the world. We condemn it and assert the Sufi-Sunni Muslims are in no way engaged in such activities,” AITUI president MAH Qadri was quoted as telling journalists, adding: “But we want to highlight, the ISIS is active in India under different names. The ISIS front outfits are holding conferences and receiving funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for it. We want the Centre to ban all such outfits in view of national security.”

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