Some recent comments made by party functionaries of the ruling Bharaitya Janata Party (BJP) of India on Prophet Mohammed led to an unexpected diplomatic crisis between Islamic nations and New Delhi. More than 15 Islamic countries from the Middle East and Southeast Asia released statements condemning these views. India rushed to contain the damage as diplomats released statements distancing the party functionary from the government’s stance.
Attempting to take advantage of this political fracas were Islamist groups, who have long strategised to try and operate amidst communal fissures in India, specifically Hindu-Muslim tensions on the back of BJP’s Hindu-nationalist political design. As soon as countries started to release these statements, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) also released one, deriding the statements made on Indian television against the Prophet and threatening terror attacks against Indian cities and states. The statement also attempted to instigate Muslims in India to take up a historical and cultural war, in what could be seen as a deviation from a narrative that has largely been ideological, now trying to encapsulate land and geography as well.
Prior to this, Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al Zawahiri, has also brought up Indian issues such as the Hijab row that peaked in March of this year, during one of his long and winding monologues released via video. Both IS and AQ propaganda outputs put the Hijab row on their covers simultaneously. Zawahiri, whose whereabouts up until 2021 were unknown, has returned in a more publicly visible avatar, releasing propaganda materials. Zawahiri’s ‘return’ coincides with the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, and the release of the United Nations’ assessment that relations between AQ and the Taliban remain close, despite the latter’s otherwise claims. The AQIS threat release gained widespread media coverage, piggybacking on mainstream outlets, and gaining significant mileage – exactly what such propaganda is designed to do. Interestingly, the AQIS statement was released in Urdu, English and Bengali, highlighting the potential of its origins via AQIS’s two strong regions of presence, Afghanistan – Pakistan and Bangladesh, the latter known to be an important point for the organisation’s fund-raising activities.
Both Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State have locked horns when it comes to online propaganda and the Indian space, without much success. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), IS’s wilayah in Afghanistan, released a 55-page long pamphlet targeting the Hindu-nationalist narrative, and interestingly, more than the Indian government, targeting the Taliban for cooperating and meeting with Indian diplomats in Kabul earlier this month. In this pamphlet, ISKP, more curiously, asks the apparently India-arm of the organisation, Islamic State Hind Province (ISHP), for it to “break silence” and “gear up”. This alone raises interesting questions: if ISHP is indeed a key and official part of IS’s global organisation structure, then why does ISKP seem uninformed of ISHP’s operational status?
More specifically, IS has had an aggressive pitch in trying to place itself in the middle of communal tensions in India and using this to wedge a further divide between the communities and attempt to radicalise youth towards its side. The first issue of IS’s India-specific online publication, ‘Sawt al Hind’ (Voice of Hind in English), was released during communal disturbances in the Indian capital in February 2020. Since then, IS’s propaganda has attempted to take claims of small attacks in Kashmir to propagate corruption within the Islamic ulema in India as and when Muslim community leaders called for the secession of communal tensions and promoted democracy and secularism.
While Al Qaeda and IS as transnational Islamist groups have a more global take on things, their main counterparts in India, specifically in Kashmir, such as Pakistan-backed terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have maintained a more pro-Pakistan posture, not deviating away from their main cause, which is Kashmir. This offline reality has been the antithesis of the online presence of AQ and IS in the most volatile part of India, ironically acting almost as a deterrent by disallowing space to transnational jihadist groups in the country’s most volatile conflict theatre.
However, despite an uptick in targeted propaganda, there have been no major data points to confirm that recruitments for IS or AQ have gone up. In fact, the number of Indians joining either of these groups overall remains negligible. From Indian examples, the biggest recruitment tool for IS was the caliphate itself, and the aim of moving into that geography drove a few dozen people to try and join the group between 2013 and 2017. With the disintegration of the caliphate, the number of pro-IS cases coming from India also rapidly declined despite online propaganda by the group and its followers maintaining a strong level of consistency.
Yet there remains big data and research gaps on the consumption of such propaganda by the masses. For example, AQIS releasing its statement in three languages, but not Hindi, which is the most spoken and understood one by both Hindus and Muslims in much of India’s densely populated northern regions raises interesting questions about their target audience. And while this is only based on anecdotal evidence for the time being, it appears that most AQ and IS propaganda in India has had very limited impact on local populations and communities, despite an overall failure – barring a few exceptions – to deplatform such content from the internet.
While we spend a lot of time studying the movement between online radicalisation to offline acts of terrorism, it is equally important to see online jihadism, terrorism and other forms of ideological violent extremism such as the far-right moving offline. Real-world events in communities and societies also use online spaces to scale up ideological battles and grievances. So while we know that terror and extremist groups use the internet and online platforms as their premier tools for distributing propaganda, ideological tensions already taking place on ground also use the internet to scale up such tensions, taking them from what could be a local grievance to a national debate.
It is already difficult to find IS India-related content on most platforms, including Telegram, as groups and accounts are taken down more efficiently today than ever before. This, despite the vastness of the internet itself, does act as a basic and effective deterrent, as most users of such platforms have very basic know-how of technology. However, those who seek out such content still do not have to work too hard to interact with extremist content online.
Finally, from an Indian perspective, a pointed response via counter-narratives, CVE programs designed for the internet, and other such actions find few takers within law enforcement agencies. While there is a school of thought that counter-narratives and CVE programs have failed to deliver the desired results, countering online radicalisation in large swathes of the developing world remains an under-studied and under-resourced discipline, even as internet usage rapidly increases in these parts of the world.