The 221st issue of Islamic State’s (IS) al-Naba’ newsletter was perhaps the first time IS dedicated an entire page to India, with a picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Indian Muslims taking center stage. The timing was poignant, and perhaps unsurprising, with tensions in the country spiking over a controversial citizenship act (CAA) passed by the government and a National Register of Citizens (NRC) being planned, both seen as anti-Muslim and anti-minority measures by critics.
The al-Naba’ article highlighted that Indian Muslims opposing CAA and NRC were being labeled as traitors and that their loyalty to the homeland was being questioned. The article criticised the ideas of patriotism, nationalism and democracy, blaming these traits for the loss of Muslims’ land and money. It repeatedly derided the concept of a polytheist society and urged Indian Muslims to wake up and work towards a single Islamic rule. This line of propaganda is consistent with most jihadist literature ranging from IS to Al-Qaeda and beyond. What is new here is the pro-IS online ecosystem recognising an opportunity within Indian domestic politics.
India has had very few cases relating to IS radicalisation. With the Indian Home Ministry putting the number of cases at 155, the penetration of IS ideology and by association propaganda can be declared a failure, with Western countries such as France, Belgium etc. having comparatively many more cases. While IS is arguably relatively new, the likes of Al-Qaeda have also failed to successfully insert themselves in conflict theatres such as Kashmir over the years, which the al-Naba’ write-up also briefly mentioned.
On 24 February, in the midst of continuing communal tensions and violence in New Delhi, an online group identifying itself as a pro-IS entity called al-Qitaal Media Centre by Junudul Khilafaah al-Hind released the first issue of a targeted online propaganda magazine for India called ‘Voice of Hind’, or ‘Sawt al Hind’ in Arabic. Interestingly, the magazine itself was far from the generally high production quality of IS propaganda material we have grown accustomed to (including graphs, pictures, data presentations etc). The 10-page issue began by eulogising the few alleged IS fighters from India who have died, including one Huzaifa al-Bakistani, whose name (as a pseudonym) appeared in investigations conducted by Indian law enforcement as that of an online recruiter, followed by Shafi Armar (known as Yusuf al-Hindi), a former Indian Mujahideen member.
Interestingly, the issue itself did not directly mention the communal violence in New Delhi in February, despite the cover being from some of the protests during that time. It lead with the question, ‘So where are you going? A call to Muslims of India’. The issue asked Indian Muslims why they remain so placid, and featured photos of Indian Muslims celebrating the birthdays of Hindu gods as an example of the wrongs being committed by the community. The issue continued to not only chastise the current political dispensation in India, but also target those who stand by Indian Muslims from other religions. An entire page was dedicated to highlight the “disease of nationalism.” Interestingly, there was almost no mention of Kashmir, raising the question of whether this propaganda is targeted at Indian Muslims from the mainstream middle class.
The second issue of the publication, which was more visually appealing, was released a month later, on 24 March. The publication was mostly dedicated to generic IS propaganda around theology, with a few pages criticising the Taliban’s deal with the US, as well as an information page on the coronavirus pandemic, marketing it as Allah’s punishment against the disbelievers.
Around the time of the release of Voice of Hind, Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) changed the name of its online magazine Nawai Afghan Jihad to Nawai-Ghazwa-e-Hind, on the back of the narrative that the US has been defeated in Afghanistan and AQIS would now focus more on Kashmir, which has been under the world’s longest running internet blackout witnessed by a democracy. From an Indian context, both these publications promote two different brands of Islamist extremism, that are also often at loggerheads with each other, in the propaganda space.
Despite Kashmir being the traditional point of convergence for jihadist groups, in its first issue, Voice of Hind barely addressed conflict. It concentrated more on political upheavals, underlining a different approach which is more in tune with the realities of IS’ successes in India being mostly from outside Kashmir, from states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra etc. In fact, this is why much of the India-related pro-IS propaganda from 2014 onwards has largely been in English, and not designed vernacularly, since English is the most nationally binding mode of communication despite India having 23 major languages. Thus IS propaganda made for a global audience in English worked equally well in most South Asian countries.
India is home to one of the youngest populations in the world, and has a bigger smartphone market than the US with some of the cheapest 4G data rates in the world, making digital information dissemination and strategic communications vital tools for both state and non-state actors. India currently lacks policy in these areas, making cooperation between both central and state governments, communities and technology companies involved in countering extremism even more critical going forward.