Following the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nupur Sharma’s remarks denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, several Muslim countries in Asia registered strong protests against India (The Hindu, June 6). The Indian Muslim community also protested in several cities, resulting in a tense communal environment (Hindustan Times, June 11). Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) tried to exploit India’s communal fault lines as a result. Both groups threatened revenge attacks in a bid to attract fresh recruits and make inroads in India (Zee News, June 16). Indeed, ISKP targeted a Sikh Gurdwara in Karte Parwan, Kabul, in a “revenge” gun-and-bomb attack on June 20, killing two people and injuring seven others (The Hindu, June 19).
In recent years, AQIS and ISKP have been trying to outdo each other in the discursive space over India by reaching out to different demographic groups of the Indian Muslim community. However, Indian Muslims, despite prevalent tensions, have frustrated the efforts of these groups to win recruits or spread their networks (Observer Research Foundation, August 21, 2020). For instance, AQIS and ISKP are continuously commenting on salient political events in India, such as the ban on wearing the hijab in educational institutions in Karnataka, Nupur Sharma’s insulting remarks against the Prophet, and the situation in Kashmir. However, AQIS and ISKP’s renewed focus on India has not found much traction in India, where communal tensions continue to revolve around local dynamics.
The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan and Jihadists’ India Obsession
Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, both AQIS and ISKP have increased their India-focused propaganda. Both groups are trying to capitalize on Indian Muslim political grievances, which have increased in the past few years, to gain sympathizers.
AQIS Efforts to Grow in India
The US exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power have rejuvenated global jihadist propaganda against India. AQIS started positioning itself as an anti-India group when the US-Taliban deal was signed in Doha in February 2020. In March 2020, AQIS changed the name of its monthly Urdu-language propaganda magazine from Nawa-i-Afghan Jihad to Nawa-i-Ghazw-e-Hind (changing “Afghanistan” to “India”) on the grounds that the war in Afghanistan was won after the announcement of the US withdrawal, and it was time to focus on India (The Print, May 30).
Since then, India has prominently featured in both al-Qaeda and AQIS propaganda material and videos of Ayman al-Zawahiri. For instance, al-Zawahiri’s April 6 video criticized the hijab ban in Karnataka. Furthermore, he praised the hijab-wearing student Muskan Khan, who defied a bullying Hindu mob that was wearing saffron scarves and chanting the Hindutva slogan “Jai Shri Ram” through raising her fist and shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (The Print, April 6). Al-Zawahiri urged Indian Muslims to “avoid being deceived by the pagan Hindu democracy of India which, to begin with, was never more than a tool to oppress Muslims.” He stated, “It is exactly the same tool of deception the true nature of which was exposed by France, Holland and Switzerland when they banned the Hijab while allowing nudity” (WION, April 6).
ISKP’s India-Centric Propaganda
Similarly, ISKP has expanded the scope and intensity of its anti-India propaganda in recent years, but a particular surge is discernible following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan (Terrorism Monitor, May 6). For instance, before the Karte Parwan Gurdwara attack in Kabul, ISKP warned in a video that it would carry out attacks in major Indian cities to avenge Sharma’s insulting remarks against the Prophet. The video also featured some ISKP attacks, such as the August 2021 suicide attack on the Kabul Airport and the March 2020 suicide attack on Rai Sahib Gurdwara in Kabul (YouTube/ Swarajya, June 16). After the Gurdwara attack, a pro-Islamic State (IS) social media channel released a three-minute video titled “Khorasan Province: the Graveyard of Murtadeen (Apostates).” The video maintained that ISKP’s attack on the Gurdwara targeted Hindus and Sikhs as revenge (WION, June 19). Similarly, ISKP has published a 50-page document on Nupur Sharma’s controversial statement (The Indian Express, June 15).
Just before AQIS decided to change the name of Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad to Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind, Islamic State in Hind Province (ISHP) released an India-focused English language magazine Sawt al-Hind (the Voice of Hind). The magazine focused on growing Islamophobia in India, human rights violations in Kashmir, and oppression against Indian Muslims (Observer Research Foundation, January 6). After that, ISKP also launched an English-language magazine, the Voice of Khorasan.
ISKP’s propaganda, including the Voice of Khorasan, is translated into Hindi and Malayalam, among other regional languages. The translation of ISKP’s propaganda in Malayalam was done under a well-thought-out strategy. It aims to target the South Indian state of Kerala, where ISKP made inroads in 2015–2016 (Terrorism Monitor, May 6). Several families from Kerala traveled to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province to join ISKP. Likewise, ISKP has been vocal in its criticism of the Taliban for accepting humanitarian assistance from India, meeting Indian officials in Kabul, and assuring India of complete security to reopen the Indian embassy (Hindustan Times, June 16).
India’s Significance for Global Jihadist Groups’ Regional Franchises
Both AQIS and ISKP, in addition to latching onto sensitive issues concerning the Indian Muslim community, have tried to justify their India focus under the Ghazwa-e-Hind (Conquest of India) narrative (The Print, October 19, 2019). Other anti-Indian militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), have also used the same narrative. However, AQIS and ISKP spearheaded the exploitation of this jihadist doctrine in the post-US withdrawal scenario from Afghanistan (Economic Times, March 3, 2019).
Similar to ensuring a footprint in the Middle East (home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina) to justify the claim to the global Islamic caliphate, ISKP and AQIS need to have some form of presence in India to rationalize the Ghazwa-e-Hind doctrine. India is home to 200 million Muslims, who are at the receiving end of the Hindu nationalist BJP’s discriminatory policies (Centre for Land Warfare Studies, January 31, 2021). Hence, it is important for both AQIS and ISKP to be vocal about developments concerning the Indian Muslim community and to try to create inroads in the country. Separately, India is South Asia’s largest state and shares borders with almost all South Asian countries. Any claim of a presence by ISKP and AQIS in South Asia without a footprint in India would be unfounded.
Another linked but separate aspect of AQIS’s and ISKP’s obsession with India is the search for a great villain or enemy state after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since 9/11, the US presence in Afghanistan was the main driving factor for radicalized would-be-jihadists in different parts of the world. Prior to 9/11, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan worked as a main catalyst for the jihadist recruitment. The presence of an overwhelming enemy like India in a regional jihadist theater helps global jihadists groups maintain their cohesion, justify their violence, and fuel their recruitment and funding (Observer Research Foundation, January 11).
Thus far, AQIS and ISKP’s efforts have been frustrated by the Indian Muslim community’s lukewarm response. In contrast, the two groups have created deeper networks inside Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Local issues such as the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 and the 2002 Muslim pogrom in Gujarat have radicalized sections of the Indian Muslim community and resulted in the formation of outfits like the Indian Mujahideen (Terrorism Monitor, May 6). However, global jihadist groups have struggled to capture the imagination of the Indian Muslim community. Likewise, these jihadist groups have struggled in Kashmir where local jihadist groups dominate the rebel landscape.
The preference of the Indian Muslim community to look for political avenues available within the Indian democratic and constitutional framework has undermined AQIS’s and ISKP’s efforts to grow in India. The Indian counter-terrorism authorities’ efficacy in pre-empting AQIS’s and ISKP’s overtures also account for these groups’ failure to create a foothold in the country. However, in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment and with a prevailing polarized communal environment in India, this dynamic can change for the worst. As long as the grievances persist, the potential for these groups to spread their tentacles to India will remain.
Abdul Basit is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. His research focuses on jihadist militancy and extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.