Aside from a branch of fighters in the restive region of Jammu and Kashmir, India has largely been spared violence at the hands of fighters belonging to, or aligned with, Islamic State (IS). Similarly, many of the once potent terrorist groups operating in India have largely been dismantled in recent years. The country does, however, have its fair share of IS sympathizers and individuals who have traveled abroad to fight alongside IS in Syria and Iraq. Indian security forces have mostly managed to foil attacks plotted by IS sympathizers across the country over the past year.
During IS’ recent rebranding and string of announcements regarding new Wilayat (provinces), the group announced the formation of Wilayat al-Hind in May following an attack in Jammu and Kashmir. Perhaps the most shocking recent development regarding IS in India, however, is the revelation of tentative connections between radicalized individuals in Kerala State and the culprits behind the deadly Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
IS Connections and Radicalization in India
India has long struggled with a variety of terrorist organizations throughout the country, with groups adhering to a wide range of ideologies from radical Islamist groups to militant communist and Maoist groups. The relationship between Indians and IS has been relatively insignificant when compared to other countries in the region when looking at the per capita number of individuals who have travelled to join the group or the presence of official affiliates. IS, however, has gained a toehold in Jammu and Kashmir through local militants who pledged allegiance to IS, ultimately becoming Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK), an offshoot of the larger Islamic State-Khurasan (ISK) which at the time was primarily based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Outside of Jammu and Kashmir, however, there are not any areas as largely affected by armed violence and very few pockets of Indian Muslims adhere to more strict forms of Islam that fall in line with IS ideology. Although Muslims are a considerable minority in India, comprising around 13 percent of the population, it is the second largest Muslim community in the world. Given this fact, the number of foreign fighters, which is estimated to be in the low hundreds, is a very small fraction of the country and there is no indication of a rapidly growing support base. There are, however, a few worrisome trends that have developed in Kerala over the past several years.
Kerala police stated in 2017 that they believed upward of 100 individuals had joined IS in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria (India Today, November 11, 2017). Among the 100 were reportedly five families from Kerala who joined IS in Afghanistan in 2016. Additionally, militants hailing from Kerala have also been identified as fighting alongside ISJK, suggesting links not only to IS branches outside of India but also those far closer geographically. The cause for the disparity between the number of Keralites radicalized compared to those from more northern states is hard to pin down to a single cause, but among the reasons reported by Kerala police and locals are historical links to Gulf states and the high percentage of migrant workers subjected to a more conservative brand of Islam in the Gulf and even in the Maldives. Upward of 90 percent of Kerala’s emigrants travel to the Gulf, 38 percent to the UAE and 22 to Saudi Arabia.
Along with the high number of migrant workers has come an influx of remittances, accounting for a third of the state’s economy, and a steady rise in Salafist mosques and madrassas. The areas that historically had the highest number of emigrants and the largest rise in Salafist mosques and madrasas, such as Malappuram, Palakkad and Kasaragod, are also among the areas that have seen the highest number of foreign fighters and terrorism related arrests (First Post, June 21, 2017). Similarly, over the past several years they have also seen the most significant return of emigrants, despite remittances still rising, suggesting a higher than normal return of individuals exposed to a more conservative brand of Islam that more closely corresponds with that of IS (News Minute, February 9). According to accounts by locals, many spread their newfound conservativism to their families, neighbors, and disenfranchised youth. The return of a large number of emigrants has also placed significant stress on the economy. Meanwhile, there has been a more concerted effort by IS to recruit from southern India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives through propaganda published in Malayalam and other regional languages.
Sri Lanka – India Connection
In early May, Sri Lankan Army chief, Mahesh Senanayake, reported that some of the suicide bombers responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks had recently traveled to Bangalore, Kashmir, and Kerala for training or to make links with local groups. Meanwhile, India’s National Investigation Agency raided the homes of several individuals in Kerala, including Riyas Aboobacker from Pallakkad. Riyas had reportedly been following the speeches and videos of the mastermind of the Sri Lankan attacks, Zahran Hashim, for more than a year and was in contact with individuals who had traveled to Afghanistan and Syria (Economic Times, April 29). Riyas was also allegedly in the early stages of planning his own attack in Kerala.
It is unclear which of the bombers traveled to India and the exact nature of their trip but Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir are the most likely locations in which they might have found partners. Kerala was also placed on high alert after being warned that 15 alleged IS-inspired militants had left Sri Lanka and were bound for the Kerala coast (Times of India, May 25). The growing trend in Kerala has prompted the state’s police to establish its own Anti-Terrorism Squad to tackle rising fundamentalism and terrorist activity (The Hindu, May 28).
These revelations, along with the fact that India warned Sri Lankan authorities before the attack, indicates the possibility of an interconnected (even if only loosely) network that links militants from Jammu and Kashmir—where IS does have more solid ties—to Kerala, Sri Lanka, and beyond. These nascent connections coupled with links to foreign fighters as well as familial and migrant ties to Gulf states and the Maldives raises concerns over the possibility for more cross-coordination between recruiters, propagandists, and would-be terrorists.