Understanding IS & Al-Qaeda in Kashmir: Tryst with ‘Branded Jihad’

In November 2017, the Amaq News Agency, which is directly aligned with the so-called Islamic State’s (ISIS) operations, announced the first attack in Kashmir by the terror group in which a police officer was killed in Srinagar’s Gulabh Bagh area. Three months later, ISIS has claimed responsibility for a similar incident, this time in the city’s Soura area after constable Farooq Ahmed Yatoo was shot dead in front of separatist leader Fazal Haq Qureshi’s house, reportedly by ‘freelance’ militant Isha Fazli who also had connections with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen.

ISIS on the Back Foot

On the sidelines, Al Qaeda (AQ), not one to be left behind, has also released a threat via social media that it will attack Indian and multinational corporate entities, looking to target strategic economic installations. Both ISIS and AQ statements have come within a short time of each other, a trend that was also witnessed in November last year.

The question of ISIS and AQ having a foothold in the Valley has no easy answers – it depends on the depth of understanding on the parts of both the Central and State Governments in Kashmir, on how both AQ in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and ISIS work, represent and function as global jihadist organisations. Firstly, India has had very few cases of pro-ISIS activities, as a proportion of its population. Kerala has been home to most of these, but including the southern state, the total official tally is at around 100 (unofficial counts may be higher as per different sources).

Since the geographical loss of its ‘caliphate’, ISIS has been erratic in its global discourse. It claimed, more than once, the Las Vegas shootings in 2017, which highlighted its desperation to maintain a losing narrative to sustain its global brand of terror.

Kashmir’s Militant Outfits Don’t Have Official Allegiance to ISIS

However, the events in Kashmir, despite the state police “confirming” the presence of the group, reveal that a broader perspective is required in understanding the workings of ISIS. For a permanent, valid presence, a group operating in Kashmir, or anywhere else, will have to pledge spiritual allegiance, or bay’at, to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, and only his (or his equivalents’) acceptance of the pledge would make that group an official part of the ‘caliphate’. For example, Philippine’s Aby Sayyaf group pledged bay’at in 2016, which was accepted by ISIS in a video message released by the Islamic State’s Al Furat news agency.

 No such event has taken place by any group in Kashmir; clearly, no group has an official allegiance to the Islamic State but has the mere ability to claim attacks in its name. 

With its fall, ISIS is increasingly taking advantage of the vast global propaganda system it created to keep its validity in place. Amaq agency and its releases aretracked by every global journalist and analyst following the conflict in the Middle East. For Amaq, and all that it releases, true or false, this is a captive audience it has cultivated. Reports quoting sources at the Home Ministry in New Delhi suggest Fazli committed the attack and pushed the claim by himself to the news agency, which then released it. This showcases the ease with which a jihadist can now use Amaq, and Amaq a jihadist, to accomplish a common short-term goal in a volatile place like Kashmir.

Kashmir – NOT the Battleground ISIS Is Eyeing

ISIS has a convenient and current brand value in Islamist extremism today, attracting jihadists to not just try and join the group, but to commit acts in its name at home – a strategy actively promoted by ISIS as it lost its self-proclaimed capital Raqqa and control over most major cities it had captured. Moreover, for ISIS, Kashmir as both a region and point of conflict makes very little sense to try and get involved in.

From an Islamic State perspective, (not geographically, but spiritually and theologically speaking), the fight in Kashmir is seen from the lens of the kufar (the Indian Army as the ‘non-believers’) and the Pakistani nationalists and patriots (LeT, Pakistan-sponsored extremist groups) who are engaged in battle for land and state but not the larger radical Islamic thinking towards a global order.

In the pro-ISIS narratives written by current and former fighters, Kashmir is seen as a battleground that the Islamic State is not particularly interested in.

The success of ISIS has ruffled the feathers of AQ as well. ISIS, of course, is the byproduct of AQ in Iraq, which was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on whose ideas the Islamic State was announced by Baghdadi in 2014. Zarqawi famously shunned AQ leader Osama Bin Laden to forge his own path to jihad, and since ISIS’s success, AQ has looked to regain its former strength and status.

In-Depth Understanding of ISIS’ Ethos & Working Needed

Slowly, AQIS has not only rebuilt its influence in places such as Syria, but has also gotten a boost by giving backing to outfits such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Former Hizbul Mujahideen militant Zakir Musa’s announcement by AQ as chief of AQIS based in the Valley was part of AQ chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s broad campaign to prepare a resurgence as the ISIS name dwindled. In January, Zawahiri in an audio statement labelled Baghdadi a “liar” and within the jihadist narrative, positioned AQ as a more pragmatic group that abstained from targeting civilians. The ideas of both ISIS and AQ in Kashmir need a broader understanding of the organisations, their aims, and intra-Islamist relations from a global jihad perspective.

ISIS claims that attacks require deliberation rather than taking them at face value, and Indian agencies and the government alike should look into understanding the processes and strategies of ISIS, which are intensive, manipulative and well-organised and executed – at times, even better than the counter-terrorism strategies of many states and governments.