With Iraqi cities falling to V and the Taliban storming the Karachi airport, the jihadist threat to India is getting real. Throughout history, bands of barbarians have defied established rules of conduct and invaded empires. In the 5th century, Germanic barbarians ransacked Rome several times, causing the fall of the Roman Empire under Augustus Romulus. In the 8th century, jihadists launched unprovoked invasions of Europe and India, led by Tariq bin Ziyad and Muhammad bin Qasim. On 9/11, barbarians unleashed airborne invasions of American cities. On 26/11, arriving by boats they fought for days in Mumbai. They are launching knife attacks in Chinese towns.
The barbarians use technologies of the day—swords, guns, boats, planes, GPS or Google maps. Around June 10, when jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ransacked Iraqi cities, they bulldozed a border post set up by Britain and France under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. In the jihadists’ imagination, maps are vital. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed speaks of Hyderabad, Junagarh and Kashmir in the same breath. Maps envisioned by the Taliban and Uyghur militants include territory from India to Xinjiang as part of Muslim lands, which Osama bin Laden stood to liberate. Jihadism is powered by maps.
Recently, columnists argued that Iran will gain from ISIS advances in Iraq, but history unfolds in unfamiliar ways. If the jihadists target Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, they could embroil Iran. Tehran is already involved in Syria and has nurtured terrorist groups like Hezbollah. With a professional army, Iran appears in good health, but decades of authoritarian-clerical rule have caused faultlines not all of which are known. What’s known is this: A suicide bomber attacked a meeting in Pishin in 2009; suicide bombings occurred in Zahedan in 2009 and 2010; suicide bombers exploded themselves outside a mosque in Chabahar in 2010. There are attacks in Sistan-Baluchistan by jihadists who recently seized Iranian soldiers, dragging them into Pakistan.
For several centuries through the World War II, wars were waged by states. Now, non-state actors, state-supported jihadists and self-acting individuals are instigating wars that cannot be fought with nuclear weapons. About 200 Pakistani jihadists are in Syria; some were seen recently with ISIS in Iraq in Pakistani attire. With the Saudi-Pakistan military alliance active in Syria, jihadism could fell Iran and then Pakistan. The jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are as agile as they are in Iraq and Syria. One idea unites them: jihad. Pakistani jihadists have also entered Myanmar and the Maldives, and connected to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) cells in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
Jihadists have been trying hard to target India. In 2013, al-Qaeda released a video which revealed its failure to recruit Indian Muslims. In the video, Asim Umar, who advises the core al-Qaeda leadership, lamented that the battlefields of Syria and Yemen “are devoid of Indian Muslims”. In a new video this month, Asim urged Kashmiris to join jihad, wondering who replaced Kalashnikovs with stones in their hands and warned that a squad of jihadists is marching towards Delhi. Jihadists are in surplus all over Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Indian Muslims are getting drawn into their fold. Over the past year, videos from a new terror group Ansar ut-Tawheed showed Muslims from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka training in Afghanistan.
Also, Pakistan’s ISI is nurturing hubs of Jaish-e-Muhammad, LeT and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Punjab. In the approach to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the following events occurred: in 2010, Abdul Wahid Kashmiri, who inherited the LeT’s leadership from Hafiz Saeed, emerged from a decade of hiding at a rally in Kotli; Mushtaq Zargar, among three militants India freed in the 1999 Kandahar hijacking, emerged in 2013 vowing to fight in India, Chechnya and Palestine; Syed Salahuddin, who once led a coalition of two dozen terror groups, is free in Muzaffarabad, awaiting ISI’s orders; Masood Azhar, freed along with Zargar, re-emerged to address a meeting in Muzaffarabad last January.
In 2010 when US pressure mounted for operation in North Waziristan, Pakistan army moved the jihadists to new sanctuaries in Kurram Agency. Pakistan earlier carried out anti-Taliban operations with no effect. The current operation in North Waziristan may be timed to push the jihadists into Afghanistan, as Pakistan will not touch the Mullah Omar brigades. When Nawaz Sharif was in Delhi, a youth in Pakistani Kashmir wrote on his Facebook wall: “For a week, foreign faces have begun to be seen on Kotli-Dhamol road, but today it became known these foreigners (non-Kashmiris) have arrived in Kashmir to wage jihad; hundreds of armed men have openly set up camp outside a mosque.”
One may ask if small bands of barbarians can succeed against mighty states. The answer: Yes and no. Yes, because jihadists succeed in situations created by local factors; no, because jihadists can be curtailed by resilient states. Nations fall when their internal cohesion suffers. Rome fell because it had become internally fragile due to misrule. The jihad by Kashmiris and the Indian Mujahideen is abetted by local alienation. Iraq’s cities fell because Baghdad squandered the achievements of the US troop surge and fostered anti-Sunni sectarianism. Conversely, the jihadists’ failure to launch attacks inside the US recently can be attributed to the competence of US intelligence and police forces, not the US foreign policies. Therein lies a lesson: build the cohesion of India.
Very soon, India will be confronting bands of barbarians, ideologically motivated by jihad, acting on their own, not necessarily supported by the ISI. India must protect its assets abroad and share intelligence with Israel, Iran, Afghanistan and China, but its focus must be at home: to prevent sleeper cells. The jihadist tide can be confronted by: Rapidly building a professional police force blind to influence, robust intelligence gathering to catch culprits instead of innocents, a fast-track justice delivery that engenders public trust. Every Indian must be told: There will be zero tolerance for Muslim jihadists, extremist Hindus, Naxalites, rapists or other tormentors of India.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC.