Since 2014, ISIS-Khorasan has been making inroads into India and Indian controlled Kashmir. Radicalized groups of Indian Muslims have been joining the ISIS ranks in droves in Afghanistan. ISIS central leadership has announced the formation of separate provinces for India and Indian controlled Kashmir, and yet officially, the Indians simply deny the significance of all this and blame all terrorism on cross border terrorism coming from Pakistan.
In March 2020, ISIS carried out an attack on a Sikh Gurdawara in Kabul that killed 25 worshippers. Investigations later revealed that one of the four attackers was an Indian national who was part of a 14-member group of young people from the Indian state of Kerala who arrived in Afghanistan in 2016 to become a member of ISIS-Khorasan.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and published a photograph of a man pointing his finger upward and holding an assault rifle, identifying him as Abu Khalid al-Hindi, one of the terrorists involved in the attack that killed 25 people. Indian media claimed that Abu Khalid al-Hindi belongs to Kasaragod in Kerala. Fourteen people who have been missing from Kasaragod are believed to have gone to fight for ISIS in Afghanistan in 2016.
The Indian government was becoming anxious with the flow of radicalized Indian Muslims towards Afghanistan, but till 2018, it was keeping its lips tight over these developments. The first public signs of anxiety started to appear in 2019 when the Indian government signed an extradition treaty with the government of Ashraf Ghani. In November 2019, the Ashraf Ghani government decided to extradite ten Indian members of ISIS back to India.
Radicalized groups of Indian Muslims have been joining the ISIS ranks in droves in Afghanistan. ISIS central leadership has announced the formation of separate provinces for India and Indian controlled Kashmir, and yet officially, the Indians simply deny the significance of all this and blame all terrorism on cross border terrorism coming from Pakistan.
These 10 Indians were among the 900 ISIS fighters who surrendered before the security forces in Afghanistan in 2019. The youths left India in batches to join the Islamic State in Khorasan Province in Afghanistan, and reportedly crossed over to Afghanistan on foot from Iran.
Reports in the Indian media indicate an intense crackdown against ISIS affiliated groups in India. Indian newspapers regularly carry reports about the arrests of ISIS members from different cities of India.
“With the arrest of three terrorists, owing allegiance to the dreaded terrorist organization ISIS, the Delhi Police on Monday claimed to have averted a ‘terror strike’ in the national capital and Assam. Police said that they have also recovered Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), similar to the IED used in the Ujjain train blast last year from the possession of the accused,” reads one of the reports in an Indian newspaper published in November 2019. “The terrorists have been identified as Ranjeet Islam (24) alias Ranjeet Ali, Mukadir Islam (22), Luit Zameel Zaman (24), all residents of the Goalpara district in Assam. Police said that the men in their early twenties were arrested after a joint operation with the Assam Police.”
The group’s organizational base in India traces its origins to the existence of several pro-Islamic State groups operating in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir. In July 2017, these supporters took the name “Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir” (ISJK), yet it was not until May 2019 that the Islamic State officially established a separate province in India. ISIS leaders and media managers try to portray ISIS as active in the whole of India, but mostly, ISIS operations are carried out in Indian controlled Kashmir.
Reports suggest that ISIS started making inroads primarily for recruitment from the Indian state of Kerala in 2014. As the profile of the Indian based ISIS network started to rise, the Indian security apparatus reacted sharply. In 2017 and 2018, two of the successive leaders of the ISIS Indian chapter were killed in operations by Indian security forces.
Indian security forces are not the only opposition ISIS was facing in Indian controlled Kashmir and the Indian mainland. Rival Kashmiri militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba also got involved in the assassination of those joining ISIS. Adil Ahmad Dass, a leader of ISIS in Kashmir, was killed in an encounter with Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters.
A large number of Indians associated with ISIS-Khorasan are still present in Afghanistan. However, due to the Taliban's rivalry with ISIS, the former is hell bent on eradicating the menace of ISIS from Afghanistan and might find it convenient to cooperate with the Indians in this regard.
TTP has recently developed serious differences with ISIS-Khorasan and there have been assassination attempts from both sides on each other’s leadership. ISIS-Khorasan has in turn accused the TTP of working on the behest of Indian intelligence. TTP accuses ISIS of serving the interests of Pakistani intelligence in killing TTP leaders.
The Indian government treats these developments as insignificant. In fact, the ISJK (IS Jammu and Kashmir) does not exist as far as the Indian official position is concerned. New Delhi’s narrative portrays militancy in Kashmir as a Pakistan sponsored movement, and the onset of global jihadism in Kashmir as an imaginary proposition. Different Indian officials have denied the existence of ISIS in Kashmir and in India. From multilateral forums to the Indian parliament, officials continue to blame Pakistan for cross border terrorism and refuse to acknowledge the existence of ISIS in India.
This fixation on Pakistan prevents the Indian state machinery from considering meaningful cooperation with Pakistan on counterterrorism efforts. At the political level, relations between the two countries are at their lowest ebb and in such a situation, meaningful cooperation on counterterrorism efforts are beyond the realm of possibility. This in itself is an extremely unfortunate reality. An objective analysis of security threats in Pakistan and India will easily lead to the conclusion that that meaningful cooperation in counterterrorism efforts between two states is an exigent need. Both Pakistan and India are facing threats from Sunni extremist groups like ISIS-Khorasan. In the past few years, there have been some rumors and reports about the security apparatus of Pakistan and India propping up rival militant and terror groups in the region. As an example, consider this: TTP has recently developed serious differences with ISIS-Khorasan and there have been assassination attempts from both sides on each other’s leadership. ISIS-Khorasan has in turn accused the TTP of working on the behest of Indian intelligence. TTP accuses ISIS of serving the interests of Pakistani intelligence in killing TTP leaders. But all these reports are not entirely credible.
The Pakistani and Indian states must realize that feeding any of these groups will prove to be counterproductive in the long term. By supporting TTP, India can achieve for itself the goal of destabilizing Pakistan, but the cost for India itself will be extremely high.
ISIS-Khorasan is actively pursuing urban terrorism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. No major terrorism attack by ISIS has so far been carried out in India. For India, the problem is a recruitment campaign among radicalized Indian Muslim groups orchestrated by ISIS. Indian Muslims can now be found among the fighters in Iraq, Syria, as well as in Afghanistan. If India wants to know what these radicalized and trained Indian Muslims could do on Indian soil on their return, it will be appropriate to take a look at the sectarian landscape in Pakistan.
Learning from each other is something that the two neighbor states ought to prioritize. Working together and cooperating with each other in order to ward off this threat is what is required. Diplomatic point scoring will not serve anyone well.