By M D Nalapat
Despite triumphal assertions from capitals such as Baghdad that the Islamic State has been "defeated" in Iraq and Syria, and that its self-professed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is on the run, the organization has in reality mutated into a form that is on the cusp of creating severe security challenges to the major powers, including the United States and India.
In fact, these countries have been given priority in recruitment efforts, in view of their large and technologically educated populations. Embracing a "recruitment lite" model that involves minimum contact and assistance from ISIS Center, the terror organization has made attacks directed against the globe's two largest democracies a priority. IS itself is a mutation of al-Qaida that formed in the aftermath of the 2011 "Arab Spring," when the perception took root within Wahhabi extremist clusters that long-dominant traditional rulership structures in Arab countries were disintegrating, and that this was their opportunity to move toward direct control of populations.
Around $13 billion in cash and weaponry flowed during 2011-13 to those who were described by intelligence agencies within NATO and its allies as "freedom fighters." The bulk of this went to groups that subsequently melded and outed themselves as IS. The assistance given to IS elements ensured the takeover of extensive territories in Iraq and Syria, especially during 2014. To date, these advances have not been fully rolled back, and as a consequence, IS has gained in traction and thereby won over several tens of thousands of committed fighters across the globe, with many more acting as auxiliaries and sympathizers.
Among the reasons for its continuing lethality is the fact that to NATO and its allies, in effect the Shiite alliance (and its Russian partner) is regarded as representing a bigger threat than IS. And to the regional partners of the United States, the Kurds are more worthy of military action than IS.
Toxic 'idea of ISIS'
More than exploding across some regions of Iraq, Syria and pockets in North and other parts of Africa, a worrisome factor is that the "idea of ISIS" is not only still strong, but is gaining in potency across the globe. A cousin of Nazi philosophy, the creed inverts cruelty as virtue and exalts the outing of sadistic tendencies within its followers. The theology of the organization is minimal in a scholastic sense, with the emphasis being on the celebration of grotesque killings and the sanctification of acts of terror.
During 2015-16, the self-willed absence of a knockout blow against IS in the Mideast by the Obama administration led to a spread of the belief among impressionable minds worldwide that the organization is the seat of power of a new "caliph," who will lead the war against the "crusaders." The primary method of indoctrination used by IS is the Internet, especially the "deep web." This still remains an attractive, and largely undisrupted, channel. Video and other radical content may have declined in quantity and frequency, as declared by some IS watchers, but more than numbers, what counts for the organization is the fanaticism and confidence of those still signing up, and this is building up with each terror attack
Al-Qaida used as cannon fodder those individuals with only a rudimentary familiarity with theology, such as the 19 who carried out the 9/11 mass terror attacks on the United States in 2001. However, many of those who have been involved in acts traceable to IS have in the past shown almost no interest in organized religion, and have thereby escaped the radar of security agencies until it was too late. Since mid-2016, when cyber interception of IS websites and chats intensified, the deep web has become the platform of choice for key associates and affiliates, as well as the use of extensively accessed websites, including those of a pornographic nature, where chat traffic easily gets disguised in a flood of "adult" commentary, especially when disguised in language that does not reveal the meaning and intent of the chats and messages sent and received. These are by users who operate from public Internet facilities and are therefore difficult to track down.
An intelligence community estimate is that only about 300 Indians have shown "active interest" in IS and that even fewer have participated in its campaigns. In the United States, the figure quoted is less than a hundred. However, these are underestimates.
Ominously, IS-al-Qaida's social media campaigns have begun acquiring sophistication. The videos are of better quality and are released more frequently and over a broader geographical area than before. Such programs are winning recruits that are seldom from ultra-religious backgrounds. Indeed, many come from moderate family backgrounds, yet get drawn to IS because of the confidence and simplicity of its message. Also, clever use is made of standard religious concepts to change the import. These include frequent references to:
-- Tawhid, which rejects democracy as it is a "man-made"law.
-- Jihad, defined exclusively as an armed struggle.
-- Taqfir, the call to expel and expose unbelievers.
-- Hijrat, migration in the cause of jihad.
IS began its global campaign of terror four years ago by declaring itself the first truly Islamic country since the medieval age. This assertion added to the belief among impressionable individuals bred on a diet of hatred and contempt for non-Wahhabis that the time had come for volunteers to undertake "hijrat," but not necessarily to IS-controlled territories. This has instead come to mean not physical, but "thought migration" to the concepts and commands of the IS leadership. As a consequence, IS is shifting its focus from concentrations in specific territories to small (sometimes a single individual) groups that are dispersed across the globe and get into a mode of readiness to carry out "lone wolf" (or "wolf pack") attacks in target states.
The process of radicalization across the Internet includes:
(a) Online phishing: identifying those who are repeatedly making comments on violent posts or liking such posts, even though 99 percent of attempts to recruit don't work.
(b) Grooming a selected target via encrypted chat and message apps and through direct contact. Once trust is established, instructions are mostly on apps such as WickR, with messages self-destructing in 1 minute. After trust has begun to be established about bona fides, the recruiter asks the target to produce a video or audio so that he can legitimately claim that the potential terrorist is an IS soldier. Thereafter, orders are given to attack in ways that have now been noted as the signature of IS terror strikes. The actual execution of the attack is usually through knife and vehicle attacks where guns are unavailable. While there is sometimes live streaming of terror attacks on Facebook, Periscope, Twitter, etc, this is often dispensed with by fighters for fear of capture, even though the IS top command favors such methods as a means of demonstrating its continuing lethality. It has even claimed control for the recent Las Vegas shootings, but as yet no data has been released by U.S. authorities about the Internet-surfing habits of the perpetrator or whether he had recently been in locations known to host clusters of IS facilitators and motivators
A study of about 900 IS fighters' data from online social media platforms was carried out six months ago by analysts expert in the Middle East. The "likes" and "mentions" on tweets were tabulated in order to understand the influencers. The most influential of such hidden recruiters of IS were from the online world. The most important such recruiter was an Indian, based in Bangalore. The profile Shami Witness was a major cheerleader at the age of only 20. Seventy percdent of those who went to Syria from all over the world relied on what Shami told them, only because he was continuously tweeting about the latest events. The presence of such individuals is why India needs to keep its resources focused on IS and al-Qaeda.
Interestingly, less than 15 percent of jihadists in India, be they of the SIMI, Indian Mujahideen or other ultra-Wahhabi fronts, were educated in Islamic religious institutions. This trend is similar to that in the rest of the world, where numerous criminals and drug dealers, with zero association to religion, joined IS and overnight became practitioners of terror and its plots, more because they were discards in regular European society and had no hope of resurrection.
How to counter the idea
The idea of the self-declared caliphate, even if IS gets subjugated in the territorial war, can be fought only with a better idea, based on tenets revealed in the Holy Koran. Such a move is of immediate relevance in India, where action needs to be taken before the idea of IS gains in acceptance. Theology as preached by IS essentially posits that a Muslim is not a Muslim if he does not follow the organization's ultra-Wahhabi line. A grounding in the moderate practice of Islam can prevent Muslims from straying to Wahhabism and Salafism. The need is to popularize the true religion (rather than its extreme interpretation) in local languages and not just allow the main vehicle for such dissemination to be Arabic.
IS is conducting propaganda in 11 languages, hence the need to disseminate counter-content in multiple world languages. The fact is that the extremists are winning because of the Obama administration's willful failure to eliminate the territory controlled by IS when it had the chance to. Sufi and moderate tendency continues to remain that of the mainstream in India but these are losing ground in Indonesia and seems to have largely lost the battle to Wahhabi extremism in Pakistan, as also in several radicalized patches in the Middle East and elsewhere. Along with guns, what is needed to be deployed are ideas, and on this front, the Trump administration in the United States still seems to be searching for strategies.