Posts Tagged ‘south asia’

Last in my catch up posting blast a more recent piece for Foreign Policy looking at a question that has been on my mind for a while which is the growing appearance of Central Asians and Indians in international jihadist attacks. The piece got some traction in the Pakistani press in particular who got quite excited about the focus on India as a source of terrorism including editorials in the Daily Times, the Associated Press of Pakistan, Express Tribune, while Capital TV interviewed me about it and I did a brief recording for the Ambassador’s Brief using Conversation Six platform with the excellent Sam Mullins. This aside, spoke to the South China Morning Post about China-Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL about China-Afghanistan, and earlier piece with Kyler about Incels for RSIS was reproduced by Eurasian Review.

Indians and Central Asians are the new face of the Islamic State

Terrorists from India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan were never at the forefront of global jihad before – now they are.

Raffaello Pantucci | October 8, 2020, 6:32 AM

Members of the Islamic State stand alongside their weapons, following their surrender to Afghanistan's government in Jalalabad on Nov. 17, 2019.

As white nationalists across the world have gained prominence through racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic acts, the world’s focus on terrorism seems to have shifted. Many experts on extremism now focus heavily on the far-right in its many incarnations as an important driver of terrorist threat. But this myopic approach ignores the dynamism that the Islamic State injected into the international jihadist movement, and the long-term repercussions of the networks it built. In particular, the Indian and Central Asian linkages that the group fostered are already having repercussions beyond the region.

This threat emerged most recently with the attack by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) on Jalalabad prison in early August. The attack showed a level of ambition that distinguished the group from many of the Islamic State’s other regional affiliates. Part of a bigger global push to do something about colleagues rotting in prisons, it was also a way of signaling how the group’s approach to freeing its prisoners differed from the Taliban’s. In ISKP’s eyes, the Taliban are in essence surrendering in their peace negotiations with the U.S. government. But the most interesting aspect of the attack was the roster of fighters involved—a multinational group that included Afghans, Indians, Tajiks, and Pakistanis.

While at first glance this seems unsurprising, the presence of Central Asians and Indians in transnational attacks is a relatively new phenomenon that reflects a shifting pattern in jihadism linked to the Islamic State. Some of the group’s most dramatic attacks—like the Easter 2019 Sri Lanka bombings, the attack on a Turkish nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, or the 2017 truck attacks in New York City and Stockholm—revealed jihadism’s persistent appeal to a global audience. Indeed, the rise of Central and South Asian cohorts to the front rank of attack planning is a development with potentially worrying consequences.

Jihadist ideas are not new to Central Asia or India. The civil war in 1990s Tajikistan that broke out in the wake of the country’s emancipation from the Soviet Union was an early post-Cold War battlefield which included jihadist elements. Fighters used northern Afghanistan as a base from which to fight in Tajikistan.

While most of the support for the fighting in Tajikistan emerged from communities in northern Afghanistan who went on to fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, some disillusioned fighters in the conflict ended up fighting alongside al Qaeda. And for a while, assessments of where al Qaeda would go after its ejection from Afghanistan post-9/11 focused on the Fergana Valley, a region spanning Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan that is home to conservative communities who have clashed with their respective capitals. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jund al Khilafah, the Islamic Jihad Union or various Tajikistani groups provided networks that helped Central Asians get involved in fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But these networks were relatively limited in their impact.

India’s history of jihadism goes back even further. The country was the birthplace of the Deobandi movement, a sect that was a source of ideas for the Taliban among others. And the conflict in Kashmir has long been held up by extremist groups as one of the world’s most long-standing unresolved jihadi conflicts. While most Kashmiris are nationalists furious at New Delhi, their conflict is one that is regularly adopted as a rallying cry by extremists who point to it as one of the many places where Muslims are being abused.

Yet notwithstanding this heritage, neither India nor Central Asia has historically produced many figures in the international jihadist movement, launching attacks far from their borders. Indians have stayed involved in networks in India, or occasionally Pakistan. Central Asians have shown up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but rarely farther afield. That is changing.


A major attraction drawing young men and women to jihadism has always been the idea of participating in a transnational religious movement and an epic global struggle. To focus only on a parochial local level misses the larger canvas of their narratives. This appears to be a gap that the Islamic State identified and filled.

A major turning point in Indian and Central Asian involvement in the global jihadist movement was Syria.

A cauldron that continues to draw people in, it is a clear and significant marker in the international jihadist story. The battlefield was one that drew in Muslims from almost 100 different countries and from every continent. This included Indians and Central Asians, though their experiences were markedly different.

The Central Asians integrated well into the conflict, serving alongside both Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. For example, Tajikistani former Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov rose to be a senior Islamic State commander. Large groups of Central Asians fought on the battlefield. In contrast, the few Indians who made it to the Levant had a different experience. Many received bad treatment at the hands of their Arab hosts, who tended to look down on them—reflecting the status of South Asians as poor laborers in much of the Arab world. This racism did not stop a significant number of Indians being drawn to the group, however. A more thriving community of Indian fighters made it to the conflict in Afghanistan to fight alongside ISKP there.

Since the Islamic State’s emergence, Central Asians have been involved in repeated attacks in Turkey, including the assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June 2016 and the high-profile massacre at the city’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, as well as attacks using vehicles that were driven into crowds in 2017 in Stockholm in April, and New York City on Halloween that year, as well as an underground bombing in St. Petersburg.

For Indians, the international role has been more limited, with Indians for the most part appearing in attacks in Afghanistan and in limited numbers on the battlefield in Syria. The attack on the prison in Jalalabad follows the earlier decision by ISKP to use an Indian fighter to attack a Sikh gurdwara—a place of worship—in Kabul. Seen as “polytheists,” Sikhs are regarded as an acceptable target by the Islamic State like many other religious groups, though the decision to use an Indian attacker likely reflected a desire by the group to highlight their connection to India in particular.


The Islamic State officially announced the creation of an affiliate in India last year but has been hinting about involvement in Kashmir for years. The group was likely in part rejected by local Kashmiris who have long seen foreign Islamists as complicating factors in their struggles against the Indian state. However, it now seems as though the group is quite openly talking about its involvement. Al Naba, the Islamic State’s regular publication, recently listed the martyrdom notices of three Kashmiris who had reportedly fallen fighting for the group. These individuals join the growing numbers of Keralans and other Indians who are now reported to have died or fought alongside the Islamic State.

While the absolute numbers are small, this is an entirely new trend. Indians involved in external jihadist attacks have until now been the exception. The few Indians who pursued jihad tended to do it at home in a limited fashion, often with links across the border to Pakistan. Only a few ventured beyond, like Dhiren Barot, a British-raised Hindu convert who was close to 9/11 organizer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and was ultimately jailed for a plot to detonate a bomb in the U.K. in 2005.

This is surprising, considering that India is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim community. However, today’s new generation of jihadists, is driven by a range of economic, political, and ideological factors.

Both Central Asia and India are home to large communities of young men who go and work abroad, sending home remittances that are a crucial pillar of local economies. It is often among these diaspora communities where radicalization takes place—for the Indians in the Gulf, for the Central Asians in Russia. In the COVID-blighted world, this workflow has slowed down, hurting economies, but also creating a pool of underemployed young men at home and abroad.

This comes in the context of a tense political environment. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advanced a series of policies promoting a Hindu nationalist narrative openly hostile toward Muslims. There has since been a notable uptick in jihadist propaganda toward India. In Central Asia, governments may not be stoking the same fires, but there has been an active pursuit of political opponents across the region. While there are numerous programs in place seeking to counter violent extremism, it is not always clear how effective they are, nor is it clear they are able to deal with problems of radicalization amongst diaspora communities.

And there is the continuing question of what will happen to the fighters from these countries who went to Syria and Iraq. Some may try to come home, but others may end up fostering new networks which create problems elsewhere.

The danger is that there may be an increasing number of Indian and Central Asian links to plots outside their regions. Earlier this year, German authorities disrupted a network of Tajiks linked to cells in Albania and in contact with the Islamic State in both Afghanistan and Syria. They were reportedly under orders to launch an attack in Europe. Other Central Asian cells have been reportedly disrupted across Europe, and authorities in Ukraine have made numerous arrests of fighters fleeing the collapsing battlefield in Syria.

India has seen less such activity, though there were Indian links to the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter attacks. Like many violent Islamist extremists, a Southern Indian cell involved appears to have followed the sermons of Indian prominent extremist preacher Zakir Naik, whose speeches have helped radicalize numerous different jihadists around the world.

Most of the current attention on new terrorist groups focuses on the extreme right—something that is understandable given the deeply polarized political environment in the western world. But violent Islamist threats have not gone away, and are transforming. The story of Central Asian and Indian jihadism is one that has historically received too little attention. Emerging from domestic environments that are creating more opportunities for disenfranchisement and radicalization to take place, they are exactly the sort of threats which may slip under the radar until it is too late.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. Twitter: @raffpantucci

A new article for the South China Morning Post which seeks to offer a broader lens with which to consider the recent spate of terrorist incidents in South Asia. There is an interesting running theme of them all having global consequences, something that has now been made even more relevant by the death of Zakir Musa (AQIS head) and ISIS’s announcements of affiliates in Pakistan and India. Related to this story, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the Sri Lanka attacks.

Time for South Asia to more closely monitor regional terrorism with global reach

  • Raffaello Pantucci writes that growing regional anger must be kept from spiralling out of control and creating broader havoc
  • Recent terror attacks in Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Gwadar have worrisome implications for global security
Topic |   Pakistan

Slightly late posting of a new piece for the Telegraph which was written a little while back and finally got up last week. I am not in total agreement with the title chosen by the editors which explicitly suggests that the sectarianism was something linked to Kashmir which was not my intent. My point, which I hope the article shows, was to say that violence and militancy in South Asia tends to resonate in the UK.

Sectarian violence in Kashmir is increasingly spilling over onto the streets of Britain

An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016
An Indian policeman fires tear gas shells towards the demonstrators during an anti-India protest in Srinagar, October 4, 2016 Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters

 

Two of the world’s nuclear powers almost went to war recently to little notice in the UK. And yet the group accused of being the spark for the violence and the countries involved are ones with deep historical links to this country.

Violence in South Asia has a habit of resonating in Britain, be it in the form intra-communitarian clashes, terrorist violence or familial murder. And while it is unclear in what way the current clashes in Kashmir will resonate, Britain’s historical connection with South Asia mean that rising violence and sectarianism over there will have an impact here.

The group that stands accused of being behind the recent cross-border incursions from Pakistan into India that generated a violent ‘surgical’ response by India is Jaish-e-Mohammed (the army of Mohammed) a group established in the late 1990s by Maulana Masood Azhar. A long-standing jihadist and Kashmiri independence ideologue, Masood Azhar has a history of links to the UK.

In 1993, when he was involved in a precursor group called Hizbul Mujahedeen, he came on a fundraising tour of the UK, giving emotional speeches about jihad, raising money for training camps in Pakistan and recruiting young men to join his cause. His speeches were reportedly so stirring that women would take off their jewellery there and then to contribute to the cause. In 1999 he was released from captivity in India alongside Briton Omar Saeed Sheikh (a young man he knew from their time together in Hizbul Mujahedeen), an LSE graduate who went on to play an important role in his group and who currently sits on death row in Pakistan guilty of involvement in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange
Maulana Masood Azhar, Muslim cleric and leader of the militant group fighting in Indian-held Kashmir against Indian forces, arrives at Karachi airport in January, 2000, after being released by Indian authorities in a prisoner exchange Credit: Athar Hussain/AP Photo

On Christmas Day 2000, Masood Azhar’s group Jaish-e-Mohammed (which he founded on his release from Indian jail) claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Srinagar that was undertaken by a Birmingham born 24 year-old using the name Mohammed Bilal. In 2005 Masood Azhar’s brother in law, Rashid Rauf, another Birmingham-born lad, took Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer around al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan as they learned how to make bombs, recorded suicide videos and prepared to launch the July 2005 attack on London on behalf of al Qaeda.

A year prior to launching his attack, Mohammed Siddique Khan attended a training camp in Pakistan at which a group of radicalised Brits learned how to make bombs and shoot guns. At night the young men would entertain themselves reading Masood Azhar’s tracts to each other around the campfire.

Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006
Rashid Rauf is escorted by police commandos during his appearance in court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2006 Credit: Mian Khursheed/Reuters

South Asian militancy and violence has resonated in other ways as well. In 1984 a pair of Kashmiri men living in Birmingham murdered the Indian Deputy Consul General in retaliation for the jailing of one of their leaders in India. And more recently there have been sectarian murders which have more in common with intra-ethnic hatred in South Asia than anything in the UK.

The murder of Jalal Uddin in Rochdale in February was done by a pair of angry young men, one of whom subsequently ran away to Syria to fight alongside Isil, who thought Uddin’s practice of taweez, turning pieces of the Koran into amulets, was blasphemous. A month later Bradford cab driver Tanveer Ahmed drove to Glasgow and brutally stabbed shopkeeper Asad Shah to death, apparently angered by videos he found online of Mr Shah suggesting he was the prophet.

While in the Uddin murder there was some evidence that the men had absorbed Isil ideology, it was also clear that the men’s anger against Mr Uddin’s behaviour had a deeper root. Mr Shah was a member of a minority Ahmaddiya sect, and while it seemed as though Mr Ahmed was angry about specific videos Mr Shah had put of himself online, the fact of his Ahmaddiya background played substantially into the narrative around his murder.In many ways, both the Uddin and Shah murders were a product in part of sectarian hatreds that have their roots in South Asia. The Ahmaddiya community is frequently persecuted in Pakistan, with senior figures often calling for them be declared apostates. The practice of taweez is equally controversial amongst conservative Muslims who believe the worship of amulets is a form of idolatry. Most disturbingly as Mr Ahmed was sent down to life imprisonment for the murder of Mr Shah, supporters in the public gallery chanted “god is great.” In the wake of both deaths, there were public conversations amongst Britain’s Muslim community about the practices the men were accused of being involved in, and the degree to which they might be considered properly Muslim.

Looking beyond the problem of violence and conflict with neighbouring countries, militancy and crime within the country, one of the biggest problems Pakistan currently faces is rising sectarianism. In 2010, two Ahmaddiya mosques in Lahore were targeted with bombs leading to almost 100 deaths and over a hundred injuries. On March 27 this year a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Easter celebration in Lahore killing 75. Both attacks were claimed by militant groups and were targeting minority communities in the country. Visiting Pakistan late last year, a security official told me how one of the number one security concerns his country faced was “sectarianism.”

Seen in this light, the Shah and Uddin murders are echoes from South Asia. Narratives from the region regularly appear on Britain’s streets, be in the form of political protests marching along Whitehall, religious or political murders or terrorist plots – often linked through long-standing networks and communities that tie the UK to South Asia. Now we are seeing sectarian murders.

Politicians and militant leaders from the sub-continent have long noticed and profited from this proximity of the now long-settled South Asian communities in the UK and the sub-continent and used it as a source of fundraising and support. Violence over there tends to resonate here. And while it will be impossible and incorrect to try to cut this umbilical cord linking us together, greater attention needs to be paid to understanding how this connection is evolving.

The danger otherwise is the gradual importation of escalating violence from South Asia to the UK’s streets.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists