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How real is the IS threat? Even if it is notional, and the numbers are minuscule, does the idea of an Islamic State pose a larger threat than its actual presence in South Asia? And why are the State and Society refuse to accept the presence?

Conflict Reader # 34, 3 October 2017

Radicalism Project
The Islamic State in South Asia: Why are the State and Society reluctant to acknowledge?

CR Analysis

D. Suba Chandran
Professor
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

There have been multiple reports regarding the threat of the Islamic State in South Asia. While some present an exaggerated threat, others undermine and even poo-pooh even the idea of the Islamic State finding a foothold in South Asia.

How real is the IS threat? Even if it is notional, and the numbers are minuscule, does the idea of an Islamic State pose a larger threat than its actual presence in South Asia? The State: No “Organized Presence” of the IS The State in South Asia has been reluctant to even consider the possibility of the IS finding roots in respective countries. The State, though negate the IS presence within, it would consider the neighbours having the potential to attract the same. For example, Islamabad consider Afghanistan having potential for the IS to find its roots; similarly, New Delhi would consider Pakistan having the potential, and Dhaka consider the neighbouring Rakhine region in Myanmar likely to attract the IS.

It should be a separate enquiry why the State is reluctant to consider the possibility of IS finding its root in respective countries. This commentary focus on the threat of IS. In September 2017, in Pakistan a flag of the Islamic State was found flying and reported to the authorities. It was not found in any interior district, or a tribal Agency, where one would generally (and wrongly) assume that the threat of radicalization. The flag was found in Islamabad, the national capital and subsequently removed. This is not the first time, that an IS flag or its graffiti found within Pakistan.
The latest State response is: there is no “organized presence” of the IS within Pakistan. For the last two years, there has been a public debate on the IS threat. Militant leaders in Pakistan have made statements – individually and as a group owing their allegiance to the Daesh. Outside Pakistan, in Afghanistan, militants have being fighting under the banner of the Islamic State in Khorasan. In India and Bangladesh, there were reports of individuals owing their allegiance to the IS, and even some ravelling to the conflict theaters in Syria and Iraq.

Should the threat be considered serious, only if a militant group is organized?

Post Sleeper Cells: Changing Nature of Militant Threat

While the nature of leadership and organization of the militant groups has been rapidly changing, unfortunately, the State is yet to keep pace with the contemporary demands to understand the same. Perhaps, the State is spending more time in fighting and eliminating the present threat. Where is the time for the State, especially the police officials to prepare for the future threats?

The militant groups not only evolve, but also mimic the strategies of others. Suicide terrorism may have originated either in Palestine or in Sri Lanka; similarly, the idea of Sleeper Cells – may have been invented by the LTTE or al Qaeda. Today, other regions and groups are effectively using them. 

The idea of sleeper cells has totally radicalized the functioning of militant groups. One section does not know the other and work in compartments. Even if one cell is unearthed, the security officials will not know about another cell in the same city, because they work in isolation. It has not only cut off the parallel cells, but also the linkage between the cell and the leadership, once the task is assigned.

In this changed circumstance, if the State has to look only for a coordinated conventional threat from the militant groups, it would fail to secure the militant targets. While the above conventional threat from the militants would continue, the State will have to look for new strategies to fight the same.

Enter Online Radicalization…

One of the two recent developments in the recent years that make the IS even more lethal than al Qaeda is the phenomenon of online radicalization.

While al Qaeda mastered the art of using technology to carryout militant attacks (the highest point being the 9/11 attack), the Islamic State has an added advantage. To get radicalized, or get influenced, one does not have to visit a particular country, or get influenced by a radical clergy’s sermons by physically listening to him. All one needs is a smart phone and access to internet. One does not have to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight along with the Islamic State. Neither one needs a passport or the need to cross any national boundary. Social media is another advantage to the IS. Both Facebook and Twitter are being exploited to the full extent by the IS. One can sit next to rest of the family in front of the TV, yet get influenced by a radical ideology. One need not have a computer or visit a internet café. A phone will do. 

… and the Emergence of Lone Wolves and a Blue Whale Generation

The above trend has already led to another phenomenon - the emergence of Lone Wolves. Unfortunately, the society in South Asia is yet to understand that this could happen within their family. 

Be it a lone wolf influenced by a radical ideology, or an innocent kid get hooked by the Blue Whale Challenge, there is a failure in the society – especially by the parents to understand what is happening to their children. One cannot help to conclude that while blaming the new generation for getting addicted to computer, we have outsourced parenting to Ipad and Smart Phones.

How many lives has South Asia lost to the Blue Whale Challenge so far? Does anyone know where the game is being coordinated, except that there is a Russian connection? And how did our children come to know about it? Did they even visit the designer? Did the designer of the game know of his/her intended victim, except that he/she can manipulate the victim to even give his/her life? While we may know how many have given up their lives so far, we are far from finding an answer to the other questions. 

If the Blue Whale Challenge is one form of radicalization, so is the IS ideology. Both cannot be countered easily. At least not until now. Neither the Blue Whale nor a radical ideologue (belonging to the IS or otherwise) need an organized structure in South Asia. For the IS to succeed, it would rather prefer to be unorganized and remain nebulous. Hence, lack of “organized presence” of the IS in South Asia cannot be a reason for the State and society to lull itself into any false security. 

Countering the Islamic State If the threat is nebulous, how can it be countered? First, let the State not look at the threat in terms of numbers and organized structure. Even if there is a small group of lone wolves, they can wreck havoc on a particular day. Second, the IS threat has to be perceived more in terms of intention and opportunity, than the actual numbers. Is there an intention amongst a small number? And do they have an opportunity to get connected with the IS, or the radical ideology that sustains similar militant groups? The IS does not have to physically come to South Asia for any “campus recruitment”. For a Skype generation, which could work from home, does not need an office! 

Third, the society in South Asia - will have to look inward and strengthen its social codes. Sufism is its greatest strength; and there is a reluctance by the society to accept that it is under strain in the recent years, thanks to a radical ideology from elsewhere. On this count, the society is not very different from the State in perceiving the threat. Two giant Ostriches!

The above commentary was first published in the Rising Kashmir. The author is a Professor and Dean of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) Bangalore.

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