The Islamic State Since October 2019: The New Caliph and the IS’ Overtures Towards India

Credit: VOA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS as it is colloquially known, is now in its new major avatar. The terrorist faction, which purports a self-styled Islamic State, managed to regroup with much valour following the death of its highly revered Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in October 2019. It has now been over a year since the grouping chose its new Caliph, albeit without the ceremonial flamboyance that resulted in Al-Baghdadi’s coronation as the ruler of the much-feared Islamic Caliphate. The Caliphate occupied large swathes of the two Middle Eastern countries of Iraq and Syria in its heyday.

The Islamic State (IS) and Its New Avatar

The dreaded ideology of the modern Islamic State counted amongst its many evils a plethora of derelictions against the people of Syria and Iraq in particular, and all of humanity in general. Large numbers of abductions, enforced capital punishment, torture, humiliation, rapes, and sexual slavery were just some of the transgressions committed by the diabolical and gung-ho followers of the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s emphasis on India is largely through its already-established provinces in the South Asian region, with ISIS operatives running aground in several cities and towns. As of January 2018, the territory controlled by the ISIS in Syria and Iraq was reduced to mere pockets of eastern Syria and the Iraq-Syria border areas. 

The IS’ present-day occupations include small parts of Syria, with it having been completely ousted from Iraq and the city of Mosul from where Al-Baghdadi announced his ascension to the throne of the Caliphate. As per the United Nations, over 10,000 fighters of the Islamic State were active in parts of Iraq and Syria, as of end-August 2020. The Islamic State continues to utilise its diverse array of tactics such as gaining precise information on potential targets as well as targeting troop movements for surprise attacks through its radicals.  This is indicative of an undefeated but hurt franchise (in Iraq and Syria, at least) that is patiently waiting to push through new levels of despair and destruction on par with Baghdadi’s reign. The Islamic State may yet amass a huge number of fighters from the Middle Eastern region and globally, given that it is a high-profile magnet for fanatical jihadists.

The new Caliph of the Islamic State group is a former Iraqi Army officer, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, or ‘Mawla’. A statement was issued three days after Baghdadi’s death that confirmed the appointment of ‘Mawla’ as the new Caliph of the Islamic State. Having assumed the leadership of the wicked and sinful terrorist group on Oct. 31, 2019, the new Caliph has worked towards ensuring that the Islamic State retains its ferocity and vile stature in international geopolitics. The U.S. upped its bounty for information leading to the capture of ‘Mawla’ to $10 million in June this year, while the world grappled with the Coronavirus. ‘Mawla’ is also known to be a former American detainee, having divulged details on Al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq to the Americans more than a decade ago.

The present Caliph of the Islamic State was formerly a senior leader in the Islamic State in Iraq, or the ISI. He was responsible for the external operations of the Islamic State during Baghdadi’s reign. The Americans were quick to dismiss any primacy afforded to the new Caliph and described him as a ‘nobody.’ The group is as dreaded and feared as it was during the heyday of Baghdadi’s reign, with a report stating that Al-Qurashi is equally brutal, if not more, than the now-deceased Baghdadi.  However, the new Caliph has failed, so far, in recouping any territory in Iraq and Syria, much unlike Baghdadi’s 2013-19 crusade when the Islamic State’s sudden, shocking, and rapid expansion threatened the world as a whole.

The Islamic State group’s many geographically allocated splinter-states continue to remain operational. An intention to establish more wilayahs (Arabic for ‘province’) in the case of India has been reported in the media, with pre-supposed targets in the vulnerable southern Indian states, including the IS having explored the possibility of constituting a jungle-based wilayah. The Islamic State’s avowed jihad against India may yet encompass the maritime domain, with reference to the growth and spread of its many fledgling sanctuaries in terrestrial India.

The fundamental agenda of the Islamic State remains expansionist and revisionist, with India a designated target even owing to history as testimony. Two Caliphates in the 600s and 700s can be considered responsible for the initiation of what is now an all-pervasive modern Islamist jihad against India, and one that poses an existential threat to the country. The deaths of 39 Indian nationals in IS captivity in 2014 in the Badush prison in Mosul, Iraq, and the killings of police personnel in Kashmir at the hands of IS zealots operating in the Indian union territory were prime reasons for India’s newfound alertness to the IS group, as also was the global destruction unleashed by the IS group which created waves of grisly headlines.

A palpable rise in a seriousness that is increasingly beginning to define India’s harder and uncompromising stances against terrorism and extremism is all but gaining steam. The IS has notably used the COVID19 pandemic to give a fillip to its operations and contentions, although the IS has also been constrained by effective Coronavirus lockdowns worldwide. An attack in April 2020 on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) patrol unit was claimed by the Islamic State through its media arm, the Amaq news agency, just a few weeks after India enforced a nationwide lockdown due to the rioting Coronavirus.

Repercussions of a Flourishing Islamic State on India

Several attacks have marked the Islamic State’s mainstay in South Asia. The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka resulted in a shocking massacre that was deemed a national tragedy by Colombo. Numerous attacks have taken place in Pakistan which certify the Islamic State’s growing presence in the country. The Gurudwara attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier in 2020 resulted in the death of one Indian national. It was an Islamic State enterprise that undertook the attack, resulting in heavy damages to property and the deaths of several Sikh devotees. The suicide bomber involved in the attack was a Keralite member of the IS group. A recent attack on an educational institution in Afghanistan was also perpetrated and claimed by the IS, resulting in innumerable deaths.

With respect to India, a matter of immense concern is the growing threats posed by the demonic terrorist faction in several of its southern states such as Kerala and Karnataka. This was officially confirmed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to the Rajya Sabha on Sept. 16, 2020. From the southern states, a total of 122 suspected Islamic State militants have been arrested in India by the NIA, till date. Other states such as Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi, too, have borne the brunt of having witnessed Indian citizens eloping to IS territory after having found it to be a seemingly attractive proposition for their future deeds.

A couple in Delhi was arrested for links to the Islamic State, while recent times have witnessed a flood of arrests of IS operatives brazenly furthering their agendas in prime Indian cities such as the country’s capital. A special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court awarded life imprisonment to an Islamic State jihadi, Subahani Haja Moideen, for working with the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), a splinter state of the Islamic State group. While India’s law enforcement agencies remain committed to the eradicating the scourge of the Islamic State from the Indian mainland, the exceeding number of convictions in the past few years paint a worrying picture.

Concerns also remain high about the likelihood of new attacks on the lines of the Mumbai 26/11 massacre which adeptly utilised the maritime domain of India. States such as Gujarat, Kerala, and Karnataka profess to huge coastlines that are potentially vulnerable to audacious terrorist expeditions capable of more 26/11-style attacks. It would not be foolish to even rule out Pakistan supporting maritime terrorists and even pirates operating in east African waters to agonise India through new waves of radical maritime terror. Synonymity is present between Pakistan and the Islamic State, with the archetypal leanings towards a grander jihad against India all too prevalent.

Multiple statements by Indian leaders have repeatedly and routinely emphasized India’s uncompromising stand as regards the Islamic State, its proto-states, and its allies. The potential recourse by the IS to India’s vast and strategically exposed maritime domain remains to be fathomed. The possibility of the Islamic State’s homegrown Indian recruits working round the clock with their handlers in suspect countries to unleash a new wave of terrorism in India, with the maritime domain a convenient medium for the execution of gruesome attacks, cannot be ruled out or underestimated.

A Tough Road Ahead

The challenges that lie ahead are plenty, and are only piling. While India continues to deal with the Islamic State with an iron fist, the potency of the group poses threats of a multidimensional kind. The numbers are firmly etched in India’s favour as of now as far as convictions of Islamic State jihadists and militants is concerned. A wave of a quiet radicalism seeping the country’s leading states as well as the deaths of captive Indians and security personnel such as those on its west coast is leading to a ripe recruiting ground for the IS. This is raising alarm bells across the length and breadth of the Republic.

The residual jihadi shadow, which has been ubiquitous over India’s union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) for several decades, coupled with the possibility of the Islamic State employing its regional offshoots more forcefully against Indian security forces, paints a grim montage. Having formulated concerted and carefully envisaged plans, missions, and operations, the potency of the Islamic State Wilayah Hind, the Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (IS-JK) and the Islamic State-Khurasan (IS-K) remains strong.  The Islamic State Wilayah Hind was proclaimed by ISIS in May 2019.

India’s forces are seemingly overstretched by the innumerable non-state terrorist groups backed by reprehensible state machineries and mechanisms from its oft-mentioned western neighbour.  The twin threat posed by jihadists from the many branches of the Islamic State enforces the possibility of a more focused and direct liaison between the Syria-based ISIS and the IS-K, the IS-JK, and the IS-WH. While the redaction of Article 370 has considerably eased the weight on the shoulders of India’s security apparatus, the threats of local and foreign terrorists, and the possibility of Islamic State militants amassing in the as-yet disputed territory of Kashmir (which is officially, still, un-reclaimed by India) against India cannot be ruled out. Keeping the above in mind, the road ahead may be one that poses several challenges that will need to be overcome with strategic and tactical adroitness, and enhanced capacities and capabilities.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.