In March 2022, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) highlighted the story of Najeeb al-Hindi, the group’s latest recruit from the southern Indian state of Kerala, from its latest flagship publication, Voice of Khurasan, (Hindustan Times, March 11). The decision to feature an Indian in this publication reveals ISKP’s continued interest in attracting Indians into its ranks, the continued flow of fighters into Afghanistan from India, and the increasing importance given to Indians with regards to their roles within the group. This is significant if the trend continues, as there will be a possibility of seeing more Indians becoming active operatives of ISKP, which would then have implications within and beyond India and Afghanistan.
Indians in ISKP Suicide and Inghimasi Attacks
At the height of IS’ power in Iraq and Syria, the estimated number of Indians in IS was less than 200 members (economictimes.com, June 25, 2019). Some of them, however, have since joined ISKP in Afghanistan since its formation in 2015 by making the trip directly from India and also from other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran (The Hindu, August 28, 2021). Unlike previous reports which have noted that Indians were given only menial tasks within the group in Iraq and Syria, the ISKP experience for Indians has proven more meaningful (The Straits Times, December 1, 2014). In Afghanistan, Indian ISKP recruits have been given active combatant roles in major attacks and have been chosen as suicide bombers, including, for example, Najeeb al-Hindi, Abu Khalid al-Hindi, and Abu Rawaha al-Hindi.
Najeeb is the latest example of an Indian ISKP operative who was given an active role in a major attack. His story was featured in four pages in the second issue of the Voice of Khurasan. It noted he was a 23-year-old engineering student from Kerala and had successfully made hijrah (migration) from India to Afghanistan to join ISKP despite an array of difficulties. He was said to have been awaiting to attain shahadah (martyrdom). The highlight of his story was the sacrifice that Najeeb made to leave his newly wedded wife on his wedding night to volunteer himself for the inghimasi (guerrilla-style attack where the chances of survival are low) operation in which he was killed in Afghanistan.
Najeeb was not the first Indian to have been featured in IS publications. In June 2020, another Keralite, Abu Khalid al-Hindi, was featured in IS’ main newsletter, al-Naba. Like Najeeb, he made hijrah to join ISKP in Afghanistan and desired martyrdom immediately. Abu Khalid was chosen as part of a four-man inghimasi team that attacked a Sikh temple in Kabul on March 25, 2020 (The Hindu, March 28, 2020). He was said to have blown himself up, killing and wounding sixty people.
In October 2020, Abu Rawaha al-Hindi was also featured in the of Voice of Hind magazine. A medical doctor from Kerala, he joined ISKP and carried out a suicide attack on the Jalalabad prison in Afghanistan on August 2, 2020 (The Print, November 13, 2020). Another two individuals suspected to be from Kerala also took part in the same operation.
Several similarities existed in the portrayals of Najeeb, Abu Khalid and Abu Rawaha in these IS publications. All were stated to have actively participated in combat and high-profile suicide or inghimasi attacks and were portrayed as individuals with extreme religious devotion and zeal. Further, they sacrificed all worldly pursuits in search of martyrdom. This may represent ISKP’s attempt at attracting more Indians to join the group.
Why South India?
Although it may surprise some observers, southern India has seen the greatest number of IS-related arrests in the country (The Hindu, September 16, 2020). Tamil Nadu and Kerala are the hotspots, as opposed to the conflict-ridden areas of Jammu and Kashmir in the north. For example, in 2019, a 20-member joint Tamil Nadu and Karnataka-based IS cell calling itself “Al-Hind” had planned to establish an IS wilayah (province) based in South India and plotted the killing of Hindu government officials (Hindustan Times, October 3, 2020).
One reason for South India’s jihadist concentration is IS’ continued efforts at attracting South Indians through social media. IS’ various media channels continue to release propaganda targeted at South Indians with materials translated into South Indian languages, such as Tamil and Malayalam (ANI News, August 12, 2021). IS has also exploited local issues in South India to recruit and garner support, such as the recent anti-hijab controversy in Karnataka (The Week, March 15).
Ideology has also played a role. As opposed to carrying out violence locally like militants in Jammu and Kashmir owing to the indigenous nature of their conflict, South Indian IS operatives have been attracted to the utopian idea of living under IS’ Caliphate and carrying out attacks abroad (ORF, October 15, 2019). Further, apart from online radicalization, offline radicalization involving physical links to radical preachers is also a reason why South Indians are joining IS. For example, radical Indian preacher Abdul Rashid Abdullah was among the main recruiters for IS in Kerala and authored sermons that led many Indians to leave the country and join ISKP in Afghanistan (The Print, November 21, 2019).
Radical Islam in Kerala has also been linked to the Popular Front of India (PFI), an Islamist organization which has been banned by some Indian states (The Print, February 24). Several madrassas exist in Kerala that were found to be preaching Wahhabism (SSPC, October 30, 2021). A number on individuals who have been linked to these madrassas and the PFI have joined IS previously (Deccan Chronicle, November 2, 2017).
The final reason is linked to diasporic communities and international connectivity (ORF, October 15, 2019). South India has maintained long-term ties with the Middle East and especially the Gulf countries, with many people, especially from Kerala, making their way there for employment. As Indian IS members have mostly come from diasporic communities, many have capitalized on being in the Middle East to use those countries as a stepping-stone for traveling to the conflict zones where IS operates, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (The Print, February 17; The Indian Express, February 11, 2017).
Ever since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, its main rival, ISKP, has been revitalized in the South Asia region. Although primarily engaged in low-scale assassinations and IED attacks, the group still has the propensity to carry out high-profile suicide bombings as evidenced by the 2021 Kabul bombings and the March 2022 attack on a Shiite mosque in Peshawar. The case of Najeeb al-Hindi highlights that there are still South Indians among the ranks of ISKP members and the group has interest in recruiting more.
Owing to the large number of Keralites and Tamils overseas, the threat is not just localized to India. For example, Singapore has identified and deported several South Indian IS members in the past (Deccan Chronicle, September 19, 2017; The Indian Express, March 24, 2014). Kerala’s links with foreign terrorists also surfaced when reports suggested that some of the perpetrators of the 2019 Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, including its mastermind Zaharan Hashim, had visited Tamil Nadu prior to the attacks and had links to individuals in Kerala (The Hindu, April 28, 2019). Conversely, Abdul Rahman Al-Logari, who was the 2021 Kabul Airport suicide bomber, was initially sent to Delhi to carry out a suicide mission that failed (Republic World, January 2).
As a result, Indian and other nations’ security agencies must remain vigilant and constantly work together to mitigate this growing threat.