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ISIS eyeing India in comeback plan

Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 06, 2019

    Barely a month after losing all its territory in Syria to US-led forces, ISIS seems to be fast regaining its international notoriety as a major threat to global peace and security. After carrying out the horrific Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019 — which claimed 253 lives and left over 500 people injured — ISIS supremo Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi  made a video appearance last week to assert that the “fight is not over”. With an AK-47 rifle by his side, the 47-year old Baghdadi stated that the killings in Sri Lanka “were an act of revenge for ISIS’s defeat in Baghouz”, the last sliver of territory the group held in Syria before losing it to international forces in March 2019.

    With this video, Baghdadi wants to show that he has overcome the shock of having lost his Caliphate and can still launch a public relations offensive, which has been in shambles for several months. Released by its hideous media arm Al-Furqan, the aim of the video is to revive the demotivated and scattered forces of ISIS and its sympathizers around the world, by showing that the so-called Caliph still holds court (albeit without a Caliphate) and that terror groups from Mali and Burkina Faso are purportedly still willing to give him the oath of allegiance (‘bayah’).

    Baghdadi’s bluster

    In this respect, Baghdadi finds himself in the same position in which Osama Bin Laden found himself after the latter’s lair was destroyed by US forces in Afghanistan in 2001. Following the decimation of its base and the collapse of the Taliban regime, Al-Qaeda’s leadership became more of a receiver of assistance from allies and less of a provider of terror funding, weaponry and military training. Bin Laden also had to face internal dissent from within his top brass, with Abu Musab Al-Suri and Sayed Imam Al-Sharif alias Doctor Fadl parting ways.

    Thus, ISIS may have a lot to thank its allies in South Asia for its resurgence from near death and Baghdadi’s second video appearance after nearly five years may be an attempt to reaffirm his position as the undisputed leader of his transnational terror hub. It is interesting to note that Baghdadi issued a new strategic directive in his statement, in which he did not seem keen on reinstating the territorial Caliphate but called for the adoption of a more shadowy, unconventional campaign, on the lines of Al-Qaeda. Thus, the ISIS’ head honcho said: “We recommend to all of you to attack your enemies and exhaust them in all of their capabilities — human, military, economic and logistical — and in all matters. Our battle today is one of attrition and stretching the enemy.”

    Return of the legions

    However, the counter-argument to the ISIS not intending to reclaim the territory of its defunct ‘Caliphate’ seems to be coming from none other than the Pentagon itself.  A report released in early February by the US Department of Defense cites the commander of the US Central Command (USCENTCOM) answering a question about the impact of a U.S. troop departure on ISIS in Syria thus: “…absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory.” The report was read by many experts as contradicting President Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from Syria in December 2018, following his assertion that “we (the US) just took over 100% caliphate”.

    The absence of a political solution in Syria and the unpopularity of the Iraqi government among the Sunni community are the reasons for the continuing support for ISIS in the region. According to Syria’s Al Masdar news agency, increased terrorist activity by ISIS forces near the international highway between Baghdad and Damascus has forced authorities to keep the road closed. In late April, ISIS forces are also said to have reportedly killed 20 soldiers in a protracted engagement with Syrian troops in the Badia desert.

    There is also a growing threat of dispersed ISIS fighters returning to re-instate the ISIS proto-state. American military and intelligence assessments report that thousands rather than hundreds of ISIS fighters and planners seem to have slipped out of the caliphate and are still at large in the region.

    According to Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the ISIS/Al-Qaeda/ Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations: “We don't know how many have died. But we can assume that at least 50% survive. My personal guess is more.” CNN reporter Tim Lister cites intelligence sources claiming that ISIS fighters have slipped through Iran into the Pakistani province of Balochistan and into Afghanistan.

    In recent weeks, there has been an upsurge in ISIS-linked activities in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world. A day after the attacks in Sri Lanka, ISIS tried to carry out an attack on a state security building in Riyadh but Saudi forces foiled the attack and arrested all 13 suspects. ISIS is also said to have gained a foothold in Congo and the terror group’s news agency has claimed to have assaulted a military barracks in the area of Beni, killing eight people last month.

    ISIS focused on India

    The worrying fact, as Tim Lister puts it, is that ISIS is at present increasingly focusing on India. “Its propaganda suggests ISIS sees India as promising territory and is intent on aggravating Muslim-Hindu tensions there.” On April 30, ISIS named a certain Abu Muhammed al-Bengali as its new emir in ‘Bengal’ and issued a direct threat to carry out strikes in India and Bangladesh. “If you think you have silenced the soldiers of the Khilafa in Bengal and Hind and you are certain about that then listen we men are never to be silenced ... and are thirst for revenge is never to be faded away (sic),” the IS poster released in Bengali, English and Hindi reads.

    As the dust refuses to settle over the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, investigations reportedly reveal that the Sri Lankan Muslim preacher Zahran Hashim, who masterminded the attacks in Colombo, had already radicalized several Indian youths in different parts of South India. One of his suspected followers has been arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and has reportedly confessed to his plan to carry out a suicide attack in Kerala.  Although the young radical may not have met Zahran Hashim personally, it is believed that he may have been in contact with an IS module in Tamil Nadu.

    As questions are asked over how small Sri Lankan outfits — the National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) and a little known group, JMI — could have pulled off a series of highly sophisticated and coordinated blasts, ongoing investigations suspect the presence of a much wider network of unknown ISIS affiliates, extending deeper into India and Bangladesh.

    Far from over, the ISIS threat may have become deadlier internationally and seems more intent on exploring new pastures, particularly India. The need of the hour is for the country to stand united and for citizens from every community to support intelligence agencies in a national vigil against terrorism.

    Views expressed are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.