A recent statement from an Islamic State (IS)-aligned group threatening attacks in India and Bangladesh and naming its new 'emir' (chief) in 'Bengal' does not point to the IS' official presence in India or its ability to directly strike targets in these countries, but authorities must remain vigilant as more 'IS-inspired' attacks are expected.
The renewed focus on the IS threat in the Indian sub-continent comes after over 250 people were killed last month in Sri Lanka in the Easter Sunday suicide attacks, for which IS has claimed responsibility. Terrorist activity watchdog SITE Intelligence Group has also said that for the first time in over two years, the group has claimed credit for an attack in Bangladesh, where three people, including two policemen, were injured on Monday by a crude bomb in Dhaka's Gulistan area. A day after this attack, an IS-aligned group reportedly named Abu Muhammed al-Bengali as its new emir in 'Bengal' and threatened to carry out attacks in India and Bangladesh.
Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations, had recently warned about the dangers of IS-inspired attacks, despite the group losing its last piece of territory in Syria and Iraq. In an interview published in the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point's (The United States Military Academy's) April 2019 Sentinel publication, Fitton-Brown had said while IS was "not capable of directing complex international attacks" at the moment, attacks inspired by the group would still take place. "This is where the message is being put out online; the propaganda is saying, 'Go ahead and do these various things.' It's angry, radicalised individuals responding to something they're seeing online," he had said.
Despite its military defeat, the Islamic State's ability to inspire terrorism in different parts of the world has remained intact. The group is likely to make full use of it to fight the threat to its relevance. "After the loss of Baghouz, the Islamic State has collapsed as a geographical entity but it continues to exist as an ideological one," said Kabir Taneja, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and author of 'The ISIS phenomenon: South Asia and beyond'.
On March 23, 2019, US-backed forces in Syria had announced they had liberated the last area under Islamic State control in the village of Baghouz, declaring victory over the terrorist group and the end of its self-declared caliphate. With this, the group lost the safe space from where it could plan and direct attacks in the rest of the world.
Taneja said that inspired attacks were IS' best bet to maintain its relevance, describing it as "do it yourself" terrorism. "This will be IS' preferred methodology. They will be looking for opportunities. Expect more attacks, like the ones in Sri Lanka, across the world. IS is willing to accept any attack on any territory in its name in a bid to stay relevant," he added.
The threat is very real
India has seen an estimated 180 IS-related cases to date, according to Taneja. While the group and its affiliates have been unable to carry out any high-casualty attacks in the country, the threat remains ever present as demonstrated by the Sri Lankan bombers.
"There is no official IS presence in India," said Taneja. However, this does not mean that the terrorist group has not made any inroads here.
An analysis of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) releases, media reports and data collated by ORF's 'Tracking ISIS' Influence in India' project revealed that between 2014 and 2019 at least 113 individuals were under the scanner of agencies for being involved with IS to one extent or another. About 30 of them have been arrested, while others are under investigation, absconding, or have been killed.
Among the 13 states from where these IS suspects or operatives came, Kerala topped the list by a wide margin, with an estimated 43 such individuals in that state. Telangana was a distant second with nine IS members, affiliates or sympathisers. Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu stood third with six such individuals each.
The first full-scale IS attack in India was the March 7, 2017, blast on the Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train in Madhya Pradesh. Over 10 people were injured when a low-intensity bomb detonated. As the perpetrators were caught, the NIA described them as self-radicalised IS sympathisers. "They took bayat to ISIS and also attempted migrating (to Syria or Iraq) several times through Kashmir, Amritsar, Mumbai and other places," NIA spokesperson, Inspector General Alok Mittal, had said in an August 2017 statement on the case.
A recent high-profile NIA case also showed how an IS-aligned group could emerge. The NIA has been investigating the "ISIS-inspired module" styled as 'Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam' and its alleged members, having arrested 14 in the case between last December and April this year. The agency has said that a group of "pro-IS terrorists" had formed this "terrorist gang", which was found to be inspired by the IS ideology. The NIA claims it has credible information that the group was preparing "to carry out terrorist attacks targeting vital installations, sensitive locations and crowded places in and around Delhi/NCR". The agency also said the group, which had been operating from Delhi and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, had mobilised funds and procured weapons, ammunition and explosive material to prepare improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and bombs, and that its members planned "to carry out explosions and fidayeen attacks".
What about the new emir?
Being named as its emir by an IS-aligned group does not necessarily mean that al-Bengali has the IS top leadership's blessings. "It is very easy for a pro-IS group to declare an emir for a region and its allegiance to IS," explained Taneja. "IS is like a brand and associating with it can earn a group attention and prominence because of the imagery and reputation attached to it," he added.
But, the IS has rules when it comes to appointing senior leaders. "Any person who becomes an emir has to swear an oath of allegiance (known as bayat or bay'ah in Arabic) to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. And, their oath of allegiance needs to be accepted by the group's top leadership and Al-Baghdadi," said Taneja.
In a video released on April 29, Al-Baghdadi accepted the pledges of the Sri Lankans who carried out the Easter Sunday attacks, along with those of pro-IS groups in Afghanistan, Mali and Burkina Faso. Taneja contends that direct relations between al-Bengali and the IS' senior leadership are unlikely at the moment. "For one, where is the video of his bayat and the IS' acceptance of the same," he asked. Taneja also pointed out that there were two earlier instances in Bengal where a pro-IS group had unilaterally declared an emir without any actual association with the IS.