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The shadow of terror: 2019 Easter Sunday bombings showed how IS regroups by co-opting local affiliates

Islamic terror groups in the Af-Pak region are deemed to be as credible as the support that they receive from the deep-state in Pakistan. It is pertinent that the main accused in the Kabul gurdwara attack is Aslam Faroqi, a Pakistan national based.

Written by C. Uday Bhaskar |
Updated: April 14, 2020 9:56:10 am
Dead bodies of victims lie inside St. Sebastian’s Church damaged in a blast in Negombo. (AP/File)

Last year, on Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka was subjected to a vicious terror attack by suicide bombers. The death toll exceeded 250 people, including foreigners. A local group, the National Thoweed Jamaat (NTJ) and its leader, Zahran Hashim, were identified as the perpetrators. The Islamic State (IS) swiftly claimed responsibility and described the bombers as “Islamic State fighters”.

For India, the presence of sleeper cells and modules in the country that have links with Islamic jihad groups is an abiding internal security challenge. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was speculation about the degree to which al Qaeda had been able to make inroads in India.

In recent years, the focus has shifted to the IS. The creation of an IS-Khorasan (IS-K) in early 2015 with a visible presence in Afghanistan-Pakistan, seemed to suggest that the group is now targeting South Asia. The propaganda disseminated by the IS has made extravagant claims about its agenda and the group is now on the regional security radar.

The recent terror attack on a gurdwara in Kabul (March 25) was also claimed by the IS. The IS released a photograph of one of the perpetrators brandishing an assault rifle and identified him as Abu Khalid al-Hindi — the suffix indicating that he was from India. Investigations indicated that this terrorist was Mohammed Muhsin (28), a resident of Kasargod in Kerala, who went to the Gulf in 2018 from where he is believed to have joined the ranks of the IS in Afghanistan.

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How serious is the IS as a security threat to India and the South Asian region? According to India’s leading terrorism think-tank SATP (South Asia Terrorism Portal), 99 persons from India were confirmed to have joined the IS in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Of these, 48 are already dead and 35 have since returned.

Last October, the NIA disclosed that it had arrested 127 IS sympathisers from across India since 2014, and the highest number of 33 were from Tamil Nadu. Nineteen persons were arrested from UP, followed by 17 from Kerala, 14 from Telangana, 12 from Maharashtra, eight from Karnataka, seven from Delhi, four each from Uttarakhand and West Bengal, three from the erstwhile J&K, and two persons each from Rajasthan and Gujarat and one each from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. This degree of granularity is testimony to the close watch the Indian security agencies are maintaining concerning the IS and one may conjecture that close intelligence cooperation has been established within and beyond South Asia.

The pattern that now obtains is that countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have their own internal surveillance in place to monitor the activities of the IS-K. One characteristic that merits notice is the inverse relationship between the exaggerated claims made by the IS-K about its profile and reach, and the efficacy of the group by way of human and material resources.

In its most virulent phase (2016-17), the IS projected itself as a de-facto state in West Asia. It has since been militarily decimated and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi neutralised.

The IS has demonstrated a proclivity to re-group by co-opting or merging with credible domestic affiliates, even if they are little-known. The Sri Lankan NTJ is case in point. In Afghanistan, the IS-K has sought to position itself favourably in the factional tussle, and the Kabul gurdwara attack is seen as part of this murderous strategy. Islamic terror groups in the Af-Pak region are deemed to be as credible as the support that they receive from the deep-state in Pakistan. It is pertinent that the main accused in the Kabul gurdwara attack is Aslam Faroqi, a Pakistan national based.

Afghanistan Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief, had perceptively noted that the IS-Khorasan presence in Afghanistan is “an intelligence game played by some of our neighbours”. India and the other affected nations will have to strive individually and collectively to foil such nefarious designs.

The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

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