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ISIS in South Asia: Struggle for Survival Beyond ‘Khorasan’

Editor’s Note: This Terrain Assessment is part 16 of “ISIS 2020” – a series of briefings about the current status of the Islamic State by authors from different parts of the region. It is published by the Center for Global Policy’s Nonstate Actors and Geopolitics (NaG) program. Parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen were released weekly since April 28. To sign up for the ISIS 2020 newsletter, click here

South Asia, where more Muslims live than in the Middle East and North Africa combined, has long been an important focus of Islamic State (ISIS) recruiting, organizing, and violence. Early this year, the group fulfilled the prophecy of its since-slain leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who identified India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, amongst others, as target countries in his first public speech in July 2014 — by expanding its reach and organizing attacks in all the countries in South Asia with large Muslim populations.

ISIS continues to operate successfully from an active base in its Khorasan province in Afghanistan with a large cohort of as many as 5000 fighters, almost half of which estimated are foreign nationals. ISIS has even surpassed al Qaeda as a threat, despite the latter group’s being active in the region since the late 1980s, by asserting its presence with violence, aligning with local radical groups, and a southward expansion of operations from Kashmir to island nations in the Indian Ocean. Politically, however, ISIS is far from seriously planting roots in the region, and most Muslims in these South Asian countries find the austere Salafist-Jihadist ideology of the group to be abhorrent. Excluding the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK), ISIS does not have an emir or a leader in South Asia appointed by the core leadership in Syria and Iraq, nor does it have a sustained ground presence outside of Khorasan.

An analysis of local conditions, available resources, and government capacity in the six countries in South Asia with large Muslim populations shows that ISIS poses the greatest threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, followed by Maldives and Bangladesh, and finally India and Sri Lanka. Largely, ISIS in South Asia is concerned with recruiting for the Khorasan branch and thus seeks to leverage online networks and local politics to form cells and conduct sporadic attacks. While presently, the group’s South Asia branches do not represent a significant threat to regional security, ISIS’s long-term ideological leveraging of local conflicts could represent a future destabilizing threat to the region. 

Common Threat, Differing Risks

The dangers of ISIS’s actions are not uniformly distributed across the South Asian subcontinent. Rather, they are mainly associated with the Khorasan branch. The group poses the greatest threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries reeling from decades of wars, insurgency, weak governance, and political instability complicated by difficult topography.

Maldives and Bangladesh fall in the middle tier of these high-risk countries due to a growing number of radicalized residents, the threat of returning fighters from Syria and Iraq, and ready networks of Islamist militancy and criminal gangs (the latter being key for ISIS to advance its interests locally). While the Maldives has not experienced bloodshed, it lacks government resources and the institutional capabilities to effectively respond to the terrorist threat on its own.

India and Sri Lanka, where Muslims represent a demographic minority and are increasingly facing religious nationalism, violence, communal attacks, and the destruction of places of worship by dominant Hindu and Sinhalese groups, are experiencing the lowest threat level from ISIS of these six countries. Nevertheless, communal attacks in India and Sri Lanka have stoked anger and marginalized the Muslim community, driving a small number to turn to ISIS’s ideology to seek retaliation against majoritarian violence. Sri Lanka’s Easter attacks by local, radicalized Muslims partly stemmed from this marginalization and resentment. India, on the other hand, has so far avoided any ISIS-led plots, but the announcement of the Islamic State of Hind Province (ISHP) in May 2019 indicates that the group may aim to launch a violent campaign when conditions are ripe.

Outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where well-developed militant ecosystems offer an abundance of arms, recruits, and anti-state militant groups that may be used as proxies, ISIS may not be able to occupy and hold territory in South Asia. India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh are functioning democracies with relatively stable governments, territorial armies, and effective internal security mechanisms with experience in fighting insurgencies and radical extremist groups, which makes a long-term ISIS presence unsustainable. The Maldives could be an exception, as the possibility of hardliners taking over parts of its remote islands or organizing to overthrow the government cannot be negated. Among the Maldivian fighters in Syria and Iraq were members of criminal gangs linked to violent crime and narcotics trafficking. The vast, unprotected Indian Ocean could also develop as a transit alternative for extremists to infiltrate the shores of other countries.

Given these conditions, ISIS’s objective is to use South Asia as a recruiting base for the Khorasan branch, to take advantage of regional socio-political turbulence to conduct periodic attacks, and to draw global attention to its campaign. Its strategy thus far has focused on a bottom-up approach to educate and familiarize regional Muslim populations with its brand of jihadist ideology through online propaganda; recruit radicalized youth and capitalize on existing networks of Salafist groups to form local terrorist cells; leverage foreign fighters in its cadre from these regions to maintain relationships between their native countries and ISIS; and orchestrate hit-and-run attacks using a combination of the above strategies. 

Playing Safe in Pakistan

Together, Afghanistan and Pakistan are known as the fountainhead of jihadism in South Asia, and they remain a safe harbor for regional terrorist groups. The Islamic State Province of Pakistan (ISPP) was formed in May 2019 with the apparent goal of providing operational autonomy from the Khorasan branch and gathering various factions of Pakistan-based militant groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (and its offshoot Jamaat-ul-Ahrar), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-ul-Adl, Jundullah, and Jaish-ul Islam, thereby attracting recruits by channeling local interests. ISPP has no foreign fighters and is reportedly headed by a former Karachi police constable and Tehrik-i-Taliban commander Daud Mehsud, who was moved from Afghanistan to the Pakistani province of Balochistan, from which ISIS-allied groups mainly operate. A relatively new entity, ISPP is believed by security experts and Pakistani authorities to be autonomous from ISIS’s central command and has claimed half a dozen small attacks, including shootings of security personnel and violence against Hazara Shiites.

The Khorasan and Pakistan branches have generally remained focused on local matters, avoiding wading into other regional conflicts. For example, although ISIS-affiliated Uyghur fighters threatened China with “rivers of bloodshed” in 2017, ISK and ISPP in their five years of existence have avoided targeting China’s regional interests, including China’s pervasive presence in Pakistan through its strategic infrastructure projects. The most significant attacks against Chinese assets and nationals have been the handiwork of the Balochistan Liberation Army and its various factions. Additionally, their choice of targets, especially soft targets such as minority groups, indicates a lack of capacity to carry out attacks against high-profile targets, instead focusing on targets that fit the frame of an ideological enemy and that are unlikely to invite the wrath of the military.

The Threat of Returning Fighters in the Maldives and Bangladesh

Following several failed attempts at suicide bombing and the stabbing of foreign tourists in the Maldives, ISIS publicly claimed credit for its first attack in  in April 2020. This attack involved the arson of five speed boats – unusual given the group’s trademark tactic of inflicting bloodshed. Regardless, the attack represents an unnerving development for the archipelago nation of 400,000 Sunni Muslims struggling with problems of violent religious extremism, social polarization, and debates around the identity of the country’s secular, democratic governance.

Government data suggests that approximately 1,400 Maldivians have been radicalized by ISIS and related groups. Of 423 Maldivians who tried to join terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, 173 were successful. Many also travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of the returnees, arrested in Turkey and Malaysia for attempting to travel to Syria, were later acquitted of planning suicide bombings due to lack of evidence. Until recently, Maldivian authorities have thus failed to curb radicalization, partly out of fear of offending religious hardliners. Moreover, Maldivian authorities have downplayed warnings of terrorist attacks abroad to maintain Maldives’ image as a safe tourist destination. The government of Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih has only recently admitted the gravity of the problem, revealing that a Maldivian ISIS member in Syria planned to blow up an airplane in 2017. Currently, the Maldives is taking a more aggressive stance in addressing religious extremism, apparent in its arrest of the U.S.-designated ISIS recruiter Mohamad Ameen, its sentencing of an ISIS fighter from Nangarhar to 21 years in prison, and its plan to repatriate 59 surviving ISIS nationals in camps in Syria in an effort to deradicalize and rehabilitate them.

Similarly, Bangladesh faces the threat of returning foreign fighters and overseas jihadist fighters, with an unknown number returning from Europe, North America, and Australia and joining jihadist groups. Many of these fighters possess dual citizenship status and thus may circumvent state surveillance, as was the case with Bangladeshi-Canadian resident Tamim Chowdhury, who masterminded the 2016 Holey Café massacre in Dhaka. Recently, another ISIS member with dual citizenship, Saudi-born Motaj Abdul Majid Kafiluddin Bepari, was arrested in Dhaka after fleeing from Turkey. Bepari was accused of “planning sabotage … to establish a caliphate by displacing the government.” Bangladeshi nationals are also involved in the ISK as foot soldiers and hold leadership positions, such as Dhaka resident Mohammad Tanweer, arrested by Afghan intelligence agencies in April 2020 for his role in orchestrating confidential communications between ISIS leaders.

After the spate of attacks in 2016 that placed Bangladesh on the list of ISIS’s deadliest terrorist strikes, authorities cracked down heavily on radical extremism, detaining over 14,000 people in an attempt to identify suspected militants. The Bangladeshi government also sentenced the convicts of the Holey Café attack to death. Thus, the group’s network in Bangladesh has been partially severed. ISIS in Bangladesh, in an apparent change of tactics, has consequently shifted to sporadic lone wolf attacks in the form of small-scale bombings against police forces. The group maintains an active front of its members that present the possibility of regrouping in the country. While authorities continue to maintain that ISIS has no presence in the country, ideologies promulgated by al Qaeda’s Ansarul Bangla Team and ISIS have garnered widespread acceptance among the existing Islamist militancy network in Bangladesh. Domestically, the Ansarul Bangla Team is considered more successful and dangerous by comparison due to its long presence in the country and its history of previous attacks against prominent writers, bloggers and LGBT activists.

Targeting Kashmir, India, and Sri Lanka

Even before the announcement of ISHP, ISIS had been unsuccessful in coordinating an attack in India due to its well-protected borders, its internal security structure, and its alert intelligence agencies. India’s vast Muslim population of 182 million — the third-largest in the world — has also played a role by outright rejecting ISIS’s ideology. Small numbers of suspected supporters have been detained, and small cells have been dismantled by security forces before any operations could be conducted. The group has therefore sought to focus on militancy in Kashmir, where its brand has more acceptance, since 2017. But there as well, ISIS has a greater presence in the online sphere than on the ground.

Presently, the Kashmir militancy is dominated by Pakistan-backed groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Hizbul Mujahideen. Despite the brand appeal of transnational jihadist groups and the financial resources they may command, both al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups have failed to capture any ground in Kashmir on the basis of their narrative alone. ISIS has sought to discredit Pakistani separatist groups and al Qaeda-aligned Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind for misdirecting conflict in Kashmir away from the path of jihad to establish a shariah-based state by focusing on nationalist goals of separatism.

Nevertheless, ISIS’s influence in the region remains limited. There are fewer than 15 militants linked to al Qaeda and ISIS, and they generally suffer from various logistical challenges such as inadequate resources, lack of weapons and support of an overground workers network who take care of basics like securing hideouts, funding, transportation, and food. ISHP has thus adopted hit-and-run tactics with small arms and low-level explosives against security forces, limited to the capital town of Srinagar and its surroundings in Anantnag. In its first attack there, one paramilitary personnel was killed and ISHP lost two of its own militants. In its second attack, ISHP claimed its fighters fought with machine guns and hand grenades, resulting in two deaths. Officials, however, stated that one soldier was killed and another injured after militants hurled a grenade and ran away. The group continues to exaggerate accounts of its bloodshed on low-casualty attacks for online attention.

Until now, ISHP has been unproductive in its attempts to rally supporters to embrace its more transnational cause of building a caliphate. Rather, many of the militant groups active in the region have remained committed to more localized grievances and maintained their goal of armed resistance against the Indian state. While presently, ISHP is a leaderless movement with no name to attract recruits, its dynamics may change if it can recruit a Kashmiri leader, based in Afghanistan or Pakistan, to provide guidance and leadership.

Currently, the militant landscape in Kashmir is dominated by Pakistan-based Islamist groups that emerged after the separatist uprising in 1989. The largest attacks against security establishments in the region, such as one in 2019 in Pulwama that caused 45 deaths, or one in Uri in 2016 that killed 20, were carried out by these separatist groups, to which India responded with cross-border air strikes. Anti-Pakistan groups thus find it difficult to take root in the region, and it appears they have little acceptance beyond social media spaces. Consequently, if ISHP was to bring its sectarian brand of jihadism to the region, it would likely face massive criticism from locals — Kashmiris under ISHP would not willingly target Shiites, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs.

In other words, Kashmiris fighting for separatism are not interested in shifting their ideological goals toward establishing a Caliphate and identifying its enemies. In the 1990s, Pakistani Islamist groups briefly hijacked the movement to impose extremist ideology, leading to the exodus of the Hindu Kashmiri Pandits, the closure of cinema halls, the kidnapping of foreign tourists, and an Islamic dress code. However, the movement no longer has mainstream acceptance, and Kashmiris have thus far indicated their fight is for local goals, not global ones. 

As for Sri Lanka, since the Easter Sunday bombings, no major ISIS-related developments or plots have emerged. Currently, the exact nature of the group’s involvement in the attack, which was carried out by the National Tawheed Jamaat formed by the radical preacher Zahran Hasmi (who was also one of the suicide bombers), remains unclear.

Conclusion

The real concern of ISIS branches in South Asia, besides sporadic terrorist operations, is the long-term impact of the group’s ideology on local politics, which has inspired countless nationals from the region to travel to jihadist fronts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Taking cues from al Qaeda, ISIS has adapted its global narratives to local contexts. For example, frequently released videos of fighters, as well as ISIS official publications Dabiq, Rumiyah, and al Naba, regularly include references to South Asian countries. Further, in February 2020, ISIS launched a monthly magazine, the Voice of Hind, dedicated to South Asia affairs and published in languages including Hindi, Urdu, Dhivehi, Bengali, Tamil, and Malayalam. 

It has used the favored jihadist prophecy of Ghazwa-e-Hind to encourage supporters to fight in other regions of the subcontinent; featured attacks in Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh; criticized Kashmiri separatism; and featured profiles of slain fighters from the region. Evincing its regional adaption of a global jihadist ideology, the inaugural edition of Voice of Hind focused on the new constitutional changes in India, the controversial citizenship law, and the impending National Register of Citizens that could fundamentally alter the citizenship status of up to 7 million Indian Muslims.

ISIS has latched onto this political development to build a narrative admonishing “misguided” Indian Muslims for following “civil laws and democracy,” instead exhorting them to embrace jihad, as “only shariah, implemented in its purity in the shade of Khilafah [Caliphate], can now save you.” With the help of local fighters and groups in the region, ISIS has managed to attract existing jihadist, Salafist or criminal groups into its network, align itself with local conflicts, and repaint local grievances as a global war. Although it is too early to estimate whether the Islamic State will be able to sustain its multiple fronts in the region in the long term, it has certainly renewed, in some, a vigor for global jihad at a time when the Indian subcontinent is undergoing historic socio-political transitions. It is critical to track this online propaganda momentum, in order to assess the extent to which it will translate into violence in the physical space. At the moment, the threat is peripheral but proving to be persistent.

Shweta Desai is an independent researcher and journalist based between India and France. She tweets at @BeingBum.

Amarnath Amarasingam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. Amarasingam is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, and an Associate Fellow at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology. He Tweets at @AmarAmarasingam