Since independence in 1947, internal conflict in India has resulted in various forms of religiously motivated terrorism with specific features. In the past few years, the Indian terror threat context has had global organisations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) as leading actors.
For historical reasons, the jihadist threat in India primarily affects Jammu & Kashmir state, while Salafi groups seem to be less influential in the rest of the country. Although India is the world’s second country by number of Muslims (about 195 million, 15% of the population), only between 100 and 150 Indians have travelled to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to join IS (compared to between 800 and 1,000 of Indonesia, by way of example). These are very low numbers, if compared to the number of Muslims in India and the foreign fighters who have reached the Middle East from Europe and other regions of the globe. In any case, despite this Indian “anomaly”, the authorities do not underestimate the risks associated with the presence of IS and al-Qaeda cells in different areas of the country and their capacity to grow through propaganda (first of all via the Internet, which has contributed to the radicalisation of many people).
IS-tied cells have been identified in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Pune, while organisations include Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam (HuHi), active between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (AuT), the Popular Front of India (PFI), founded in Kerala, and Neo-Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (NJMB), which operates internationally. Lately, IS has tried to expand to South India, in particular in Kerala, where ties have been identified with the perpetrators of the Easter 2019 attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka, claimed by IS. According to the Sri Lankan authorities, the attackers had taken trips to Bangalore, Kashmir and Kerala for training and logistical support. A potential regional threat is therefore posed by the strenghtening of a network that seems to connect Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. As for al-Qaeda, it has been present since September 2014 with al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
However, recent data shows that Islamic terrorism has now a limited extent outside Jammu & Kashmi, thanks to effective operations by the Indian security forces and the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The various jihadist groups that were responsible for numerous terrorist operations in the past – in particular Indian Mujahideen, as well as IS and AQIS – have not carried out any significant attacks lately. The last major incident dates back to 7 March 2017, when ten people were wounded in a series of IS-claimed explosions at the Shajapur railway station (Madhya Pradesh). In 2013-2018, the deadliest attack took place on 27 October 2013, when Indian Mujahideen planned an operation in Patna (Bihar), killing seven civilians. For comparison purposes, in 2008 alone, there were ten major jihadist attacks (including the 26 November one in Mumbai, 166 dead) that caused a total of 352 fatalities. The reasons for the decrease in terrorist incidents in India are: more effective security force operations, the strengthening of the NIA – founded in 2009 after the Mumbai attack for counter-terrorism activity – and closer monitoring of groups and individuals through the Internet. This is coupled with India’s counter-terrorism cooperation with other countries (in particular, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Canada).
Since the Mumbai attacks in 2008, 2,688 people have been arrested for ties with Islamic extremism, including terrorist group leaders, Pakistani intelligence agents (Inter Service Intelligence – ISI) and Bengalese, Nepalese and Pakistani nationals; 249 arrests were made in 2017 and 312 in 2018.
Though the threat affects the whole country, and despite the fact that India is historically targeted by terrorist operations, jihadist attacks are currently mostly related to the insurgency in Kashmir, where several groups have been active for decades and are better organised than those operating in the rest of India; the main groups include Hizbul Mujahidin, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). The Indian security forces believe these organisations are used by Pakistan for a proxy war against India in Kashmir, and the number of new militants recruited for the separatist movement has increased in recent years.
The region has also been struck by the Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK), an offshoot of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). ISJK has close ties with the local Jundul Khilafah Kashmir group (supporters of the Islamic State in Kashmir). On 10 May 2019, IS referred for the first time to its new province of “al Hind” (Wilayat al-Hind) to claim an operation against Indian security forces in Kashmir and Shopian district. The region is also a base for a cell connected to al-Qaeda in Kashmir, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), established in 2017. On 23 May 2019, Zakir Rashid Bhat, better known as Zakir Mousa, was killed in the city of Tral (Pulwama district) during a joint operation by the local police and the Indian army. The death of Mousa was followed shortly after by the killing of the AGH spokesman.
Unlike the rest of the country, terrorist attacks have been steadily increasing in Kashmir since 2012, after a progressive decline from 2001 to 2012. In 2018, the number of fatalities increased to 451, the highest number since 2008, when 541 people were killed. For comparison purposes, 267 people were killed in 2016, while 358 in 2017. In addition, civilian fatalities rose in 2018 (86), the highest number since 2007 (164 dead). The most significant recent attack was performed in Pulwama on 14 February 2019 against an Indian military convoy (46 dead) and was claimed by JeM.
The recent increase in terrorist operations in Kashmir is partly due to the growing conflict between the groups historically operating in the region with a nationalist Islamist agenda (HM, JeM and LeT) and recent groups (AGH and IS affiliates), that instead pursue a transnational Islamist agenda, more in line with the goals of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The region is therefore experiencing something similar to what happens in other contexts where different insurgency groups clash (such as Afghanistan, with the war between the Islamic Emirate and the local branch of IS): terrorist organisations are increasing their attacks in order to gain advantage over their rivals and attract more funding and recruits. The growing tension between pan-Islamists and local Islamists has resulted in armed clashes, such as on 26 June, when an Islamic State militant was allegedly killed by three Hizbul Mujahidin militants.
In the coming months, terrorist attacks will likely increase in Kashmir, along with Indian security force operations against separatist militants.
As for the rest of India, the political and social environment – characterized by significant polarisation between the different religious groups – could pave the way for the further spread of Islamic extremist ideology, conveyed by IS and al-Qaeda. In light of the above, as Islamic State and al-Qaeda supporters are increasingly focused on India in their respective media productions, the country cannot underestimate the risk of asymmetric attacks by extremist lone wolves or, to a lesser extent, of more complex operations performed by more structured cells.