India does not have real Muslims capable of jihad,” Mehdi Masroor Biswas reportedly told a police officer during an interrogation after his arrest in Bengaluru over a year ago. The typical ‘takfiri’ taunt to incite Indian Muslims is unmistakable in the statement of this young engineer, which belies his court plea against being a key ISIS (also called IS) operative on Twitter.
The former executive of a multinational company, Biswas had been broadcasting the ISIS’ terror missions and luring recruits to fight in Syrian and other Middle East theatres at the time of his arrest in late December 2014. Some analysts have since cited this statement to claim the growing frustration among most pan-jihadist organisations over their near failure in recruiting terrorists in the country.
According to this view, Indian security agencies and the media are overly obsessing the ISIS threat, sometimes at the expense of the clear and present jihadist danger posed by terror groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Lashkar-i-Toiba lurking just across the border that have repeatedly conducted some of the deadliest terror attacks on Indian soil. It is even argued that the ISIS is unpopular in the subcontinent because it regards all ‘muqallids’ (devout adherents of the four orthodox schools of Sunni Islam - Hanafi, Shafai, Malaki and Hanbali) as ‘murtad’ (apostates fit for execution), which puts most Indian Muslims in that category for the terrorist group. In fact, extremist Salafi-Wahhabi scholars of the ISIS’ extremist strain regard the Hanafi Maturidis (which includes the Deobandis and Barelvis that constitute majority of Sunni Muslims in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) as non-believers. In addition, the ISIS even regards the Quietist Salafis, like the highly puritanical and strictly apolitical Ahle Hadeeth population in the subcontinent, to be outside the pale.
In fact, this doctrinal clash between Salafi Arabs and South Asian ‘muqallids’ is nothing new. Its signs can be traced back to the Afghan-Arab war against the Soviets. In his book ‘Call to Global Islamist Resistance’, Al-Qaeda’s most prolific writer Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri notes that most Arab jihadists were derisive of the ‘muqallid’ doctrinal beliefs of the Taliban in the 1990s and were dismissive of Mullah Omar’s claim of the Taliban-held territory being an “Islamic emirate”. According to Al-Suri, many of the Arab Salafi jihadists considered the Taliban-held areas merely as a “safe haven” from where they could operate freely and they did not regard the Deobandi Taliban “emirate” as a suitable starting point for launching their cherished dream of a future Islamic Caliphate.
Thus, in his book (pp.844-45) Al-Suri states: “One of the astonishing things … is a statement made by one of those extremist Salafi-jihadists. He told me in one of our conversations that ‘jihad must be under the Salafist banner; its leadership, program and religious rulings must also be Salafist…If we should accept that non-Salafists participate with us in jihad, we only do so because we need them. However, they should not have any leadership role at all. We should lead them like a herd of cows to perform their duty of jihad.’”
Although Al-Qaeda’s top leadership (Bin Laden and now Al-Zawahiri) always sought to downplay these doctrinal differences, the emergence of the ISIS brought this internal dissonance to the fore like never before. In fact, the ISIS makes no bones about its dislike of the Deobandi Afghan Taliban and has been weaning away members of the Taliban to its Salafi Jihadist school ever since the death of Mullah Umar. It is also the reason for repeated clashes between the Deobandi JeM and the Salafist factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) having ISIS affiliations. Again in a recent propaganda video, the ISIS has declared top leaders of Darul Uloom Deoband in India as apostates.
The doctrinal differences between the two sides are deeply entrenched. Whereas the ISIS strain of Salafism espouses ‘tajsim’ (the concept that God has a body), all other schools of Sunni and Shiite Islam staunchly oppose the notion and declare it as fundamentally un-Islamic and blasphemous. For their part, Salafists oppose the acceptance of ‘tawassul’ by all other Sunni schools (seeking God’s intercession through reference to prophets and saints) as sacrilegious. With the Indian subcontinent continuing to be the haven of orthodox schools of Islam extant before the rise of Salafi-Wahhabism in the 18th- 19th centuries, the Salafist pan-jihadist resonance does not strike a chord among most Islamic sects in South Asia.
Contrary to the claims of most Islamophobes, ISIS is the most hated of groups among most Muslims around the world for several reasons. ISIS’ primary mission of targeting the ‘near enemy’ (Muslim nation states, populations and regimes, most of whom it regards as apostates) to gain territory, its disrespect for all other Islamic sectarian beliefs (even the ideologically akin Salafi extremist schools like the Surooris and parent organisations like Al-Qaeda), its goal of bringing about the so-called prophesised Islamic apocalypse (‘Al-Malhamal Kubra’) as a necessary precondition for achieving the ‘global Caliphate’ and its insistence that all Muslims recognise its hitherto unknown 44-year-old leader (Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi) as their temporal, military and spiritual Caliph makes it extremely unpopular in the Islamic world.
However, the claim that the ISIS threat is on the wane due to doctrinal or political reasons in the Muslim world is seriously flawed and misleading. Although the group has lost almost half of its previously held territories in Iraq and Syria, and is said to have about 18,000 militants in that region down from the earlier estimate of 33,000, it has at least eight affiliates — including in Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and now Bangladesh — that have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi as caliph. These groups have another 20,000 militants fighting under the ISIS’ banner. The group’s terrorist activities across Europe have seen an exponential increase in recent times.
In the Indian subcontinent, the ISIS is said to have developed close ties with Salafi Lashkar-i-Toiba in Pakistan and Jamaatul Mujahideen in Bangladesh. In the 13th issue of the its Dabiq online magazine, the head of the ISIS in Bangladesh Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif has claimed that the group is currently training fighters in Bangladesh and Pakistan to launch simultaneous attacks from both the western and eastern borders of India to create chaos in our country. The mouthpiece also claims that Kashmir will soon be overrun by the ISIS. Indian jihadi groups like the Indian Mujahideen (IM) have links to the group, with many of their members having joined the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and some planning their return to India. In fact, the Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (AuT), was formed in 2013 by members of the IM, ISIS and a Taliban faction, and pledged their allegiance to ISIS in September of that year.
Again through its social media campaign, the ISIS is radicalising impressionable minds through the Internet. Clearly, the virulent ideology and lone wolf attacks unleashed by the ISIS in the world will be difficult to contain even after the group is eventually destroyed and defeated.
The writer is Distinguished Research Fellow at the United Service Institution of India and is the author of the book ISIS: Race to Armageddon.
(This article first appeared on DNA)