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The CIA’s Strategic Thinking in Afghanistan: 1979 to 2021



Afghanistan has been a priority area for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since the 1950s as a result of the growing influence of the two adversaries, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China, which share borders with the country. This is evidenced by the declassified document NIE 53-54, which identifies Afghanistan as “highly vulnerable to Soviet pressures” territory, thus important to monitor.

The interest of the U.S. intelligence community was reinforced in 1973, when the Republic of Afghanistan was proclaimed after Mohammed Daoud Khan deposed his cousin, King Mohammad Zahir Shah, in a non-violent coup. Daoud’s endeavors to modernize the country came with the assistance of the Soviet Union and the United States, both trying to gain influence in this part of the world—respectively, to increase the influence of Communism and to create an American outpost on the USSR’s Central Asian border.

The situation deteriorated rapidly in the late 1970s, and the Kremlin organized a military intervention in the country, considering its technological supremacy sufficient to ensure a quick victory. This war, which lasted for almost ten years, had consequences for the modern world insofar as it led Islamic radicals to establish ties with the neighboring Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons, and to accentuate arms trafficking between Afghanistan and China via the Wakhan Corridor, giving rise to international terrorism, the most striking example of which is Al Qaeda and the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York City.

For all these reasons, Afghanistan has been a priority area for the United States, as evidenced by no less than 12,864 declassified CIA FOIA documents mentioning the territory. This article attempts to synthesize the CIA’s reasoning from the declassified documents from 1979 to the most recent ones, in order to understand this region of the world at a time when American troops are withdrawing and China is strengthening its military presence in the Wakhan corridor and beginning negotiations with the Taliban.

The Soviet presence in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and its consequences for regional powers and U.S. diplomacy

Far from confining itself to the Sino-Afghan relations, the CIA integrates its reasoning by taking into account all the neighboring countries, notably India, Pakistan[1] and Iran[2].In this respect, if the Agency gathers information on Soviet equipment and strategies, its attention seems to be focused on the possible domino effect on other nations in the region, and tries to determine what the consequences might be on bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan, its strongest partner in the region.


As such, the CIA targeted Iran in its 1980 report “Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis”. The report suggests that Teheran supplied military equipment to Afghanistan, seeking the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Iran also welcomed more than 100,000 Afghan refugees on its territory, which led to tensions between Moscow and Teheran at that time, with the Soviets going to the extent of characterizing some Iranian diplomats, including Sadegh Ghotzadeh, as “agents of the United States and China”[3]

Iran’s diplomatic position was therefore as follows:

  • All Soviet troops must withdraw;
  • The rebels must take part in the political life of the country;
  • The government in power cannot be recognized as legitimate.

However, Iran does not wish to see its relations with the USSR deteriorate because of Afghanistan and confirms its support for the Soviet anti-American and anti-Western European policy.[4]There were also tensions between China and the USSR on the Afghan issue, and, as such, Iran approached Huang Hua, China’s Foreign Minister, on the issue of Afghanistan during the Oslo conference on 12 June 1980. From this point on, it is clear that China has a stake in Afghanistan because Beijing has been pro-active in Pakistan and Iran to prevent the USSR from expanding into Afghanistan, as stated in another CIA report “Soviet Problems, Prospects, and Options in Afghanistan in the Next Year” issued five years later, stating “the Afghan issue has become more significant because of the growing Chinese role in aiding the Mujahedin.”


Another regional player, Pakistan, has interests in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to Balochistan[5]. This territory, divided between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, wants greater autonomy and has been in direct confrontation with Islamabad for several decades. As such, a strengthening of Afghan Balochistan leads to increased support for Pakistani Baluchistan, which in turn leads Islamabad to seek greater influence in Afghanistan to avoid Baloch separatism.

As mentioned in the U.S. intelligence reports, ensuring a Soviet presence in Afghanistan means being able to exert pressure on Pakistan, a country close to the United States, thus challenging the American presence in this part of the world. Moreover, control of Afghanistan provides support for Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan from Afghan Baluchistan, which means that Moscow would have an ally with direct access to the Arabian Sea if a pro-Soviet Baluchistan state were to be created. Although Pashtunistan is also to be taken into account, it does not seem to attract as much attention from the CIA because of the less pronounced autonomist claims as compared to Balochistan. In the end, the Afghan issue is interconnected with that of Balochistan and Pakistan, which explains its importance in the eyes of the great powers, then the USSR, China and the United States.

This also explains why India is concerned about Afghanistan. Apart from the desire to strengthen its regional presence as China does, a conflict on Pakistan’s doorstep destabilizes the region since it strengthens the U.S.-Pakistan relations, being, therefore, detrimental to India’s relationship with the USSR.

All these reasons explain why Afghanistan is a neuralgic point as a zone which allows to ensure international ambitions, as in the case of the USSR it allows to destabilize Pakistan, ally of the United States, and hinder Chinese ambitions and the emergence of a communist power able to compete with the USSR[6].

The Soviet Union’s approach

In the eyes of the CIA, Moscow had the knowledge of insurgency and counter-insurgency practices, but was unable to implement it:

The Soviet have written extensively about problems that other nations have encountered in counterinsurgency efforts, but in Afghanistan have found themselves facing weaknesses and vulnerabilities”[7]

Attempts to adapt were observed on the ground, and the USSR substituted the use of Spetznaz and helicopters instead of tanks, which were not particularly efficient against insurgents. The CIA did not fail to add that “An effective military force for counterinsurgency operation should be light, specialized, and highly mobile: this does not describe the Soviet forces in general not the army which the Soviets have deployed in Afghanistan. [8]”

These shortcomings in adaptability are highlighted in several reports, in addition to overly heavy equipment and inappropriate training that leaves the specificity of the Afghan land out of account. In addition, the training of the Afghans who support the Soviets was insufficient.

In the end, the CIA observes that Afghanistan is, in Moscow’s eyes, an outpost towards other countries, including those of the Gulf, Pakistan and India. It is therefore the country’s position between Central Asia (the USSR) and South East Asia that interests Moscow, and the reason why China and the United States are not ready to accept the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A recurring fear has been of the construction of a Soviet airport in southern Afghanistan[9], but this was dismissed by the CIA, which mentioned that it would take at least three years to complete, requiring a battalion to constantly defend the site and the construction of a railway or infrastructure to connect it, which makes this an unlikely option.

Nevertheless, Moscow sees Afghanistan as a laboratory for its new military strategies and equipment. As such, the SU-25 Frogfoot, Vasilek mortar, several types of mines, and modifications of the MI-24 were being tested on the ground[10].

Despite efforts to adapt, the Agency stated in its 1985 report “Soviet Problems, Prospects, and Options in Afghanistan in the Next Year” that as long as anti-Soviet support existed in Iran and Pakistan, a resurgence of violence should be expected. Therefore, the Soviet military presence will have to be continuous over several decades, and a withdrawal will inevitably lead to the immediate return of combatants residing abroad.

The departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 left the country divided between socialists and religious fundamentalists who wanted to take over the country, but also led to a competition between the two countries wishing to take the place of the USSR to reinforce their regional and global influence: China and the United States.

Since the Afghans were equipped by Iran, the U.S., the USSR, and at least trained by China from Pakistan,[11] the country collapsed when the Soviet troops left, something that resulted in the increasing power of Islamists with connections abroad, as evidenced by the presence of Afghan Mujahideen in Nagorno-Karabakh (South Caucasus) at the beginning of the 1990s.[12]

Despite the withdrawal of Moscow, countries that could have replaced Russia, notably China, did not involve themselves in Afghanistan.

A chaotic and overlooked period of 1990 to 2001

The withdrawal of the Soviet troops led to a chaotic period in the region as a whole, particularly because of the absence of a Chinese involvement. Indeed, according to the CIA’s numerous reports, it seemed consistent to expect that Moscow’s withdrawal would lead to a substantial Chinese involvement.[13] However, Beijing did not wish to intervene militarily, nor did Pakistan or Iran, which resulted in a political vacuum in Afghanistan—hence the rise of radicals, notably the Taliban.

The post-Soviet Russia no longer shares a border with Afghanistan, which makes military intervention unlikely, despite the relationship between Afghan religious extremists and those in the North Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan), while the Central Asian countries are reluctant to interfere in Afghan politics by sending soldiers.

This lack of initiative led to the emergence of a new radical Islamic state. The Taliban emerged in September 1994 as a movement and militia of students (talib) from Islamic madrassas (schools) in Pakistan, who soon enjoyed military support from Pakistan.

Taking control of the city of Kandahar that year, they went on to conquer more territories until finally driving out the government of Rabbani from Kabul in 1996, where they established an emirate that gained international recognition from only three countries.

Unlike some other movements, the Taliban had international ambitions and no military opponents at that time. The first countries to suffer were China with growing separatism in Xinjiang, Russia with rising terrorism activities and separatism in Chechnya supported by the Taliban, and Pakistan with the Balochistan separatists.

In the late 1990s, the United States had to intervene on the ground with its NATO allies following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. For the CIA, such involvement was necessary to ensure the security of American citizens—but also of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda was becoming more active (Osama bin Laden himself took refuge in Pakistan, underlining the growing influence of Al Qaeda in the country).

Some 400,000 Afghans died in internal conflicts between 1990 and 2001. In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power after they refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect of the 9/11 attacks.

The majority of Afghans supported the American invasion of their country. For the CIA, this intervention was necessary and could serve the American interests by providing an outpost on the doorstep of China and Iran, while strengthening the relationship with Pakistan. However, Washington will have to face the same problems as those faced by the USSR before it, i.e. entering into a fight knowing that it cannot lead to a total victory, as hardliners may take refuge in Iran and Pakistan using their Balochistan connections.

American intervention and the covetousness of Russia and China: 2001 to 2021

The American intervention in Afghanistan can be interpreted in several ways. For the American and Western public at the time, it was about protecting democracy and liberating the Afghan people. For the American intelligence, the presence on the ground was an opportunity to curb Chinese ambitions and ensure a presence close to Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Washington did not want to make the same mistakes, and the CIA’s analyses allowed for a more appropriate approach, particularly with regard to the equipment on site. However, given the return of the Taliban in 2021, it is quite possible to deduce that Washington was wrong in some aspects.

Light and fast vehicles, advanced technology, especially in all-source intelligence, inclusion of Western partners in the framework of NATO, the American approach still led to casualties: 2,312 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan have died and 20,066 have been wounded since 2001, but this is a very significant difference from the 15,000 Soviet soldiers who died in less than 10 years. However, like the USSR, the United States will not succeed in effective training of the Afghan troops, nor in developing a strategy of soft power in rural areas, which will help stabilize the country but not achieve total victory.

While the situation in Afghanistan has stabilized with the arrival of U.S. troops in 2001, it is more the international context and geopolitical changes that the CIA has been concerned about in a post-2021 Afghanistan.

During the 2001–2021 period, Russia has regained its great power status and, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is now in a position to provide protection to Central Asian countries, notably Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is now more active in far-flung countries such as Syria, suggesting that Moscow may once again be interested in Afghanistan 30 years after the Soviet withdrawal, especially given the links between the Taliban and Chechen separatists.

The second element to take into account is the rise of China, which is developing a more active anti-terrorist policy in Xinjiang and seems now able to take a firmer stance in the conflict in Afghanistan. Beijing has already enhanced its military presence in the Wakhan corridor with a military base in Tajikistan and may be interested in direct involvement in Afghanistan to secure the Xinjiang. In this context, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian announced at a press conference in 2021 that senior diplomat Yue Xiaoyong will replace Liu Jian as special envoy for Afghan affairs. Therefore, it seems plausible that China will actively interfere in Afghanistan in the coming years.

All of this suggests that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had to be an option not because the terrorist threat had been defeated but rather because the surrounding countries are now in a position to replace the U.S.

Towards a post-2021 Afghanistan or the strengthening of China

The CIA mentions the importance of Afghanistan since the beginning of the People’s Republic of China.[14]Since China and Afghanistan share a border in the Wakhan Corridor, every internal disturbance has repercussions on national affairs, including Islamic terrorism in the Xinjiang. As such, the relationship is a two-way street—if the threat of religious extremism spills over into China, Beijing is also able to destabilize foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In its 28 January 1982 report “China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection”, the CIA mentions the presence of Chinese military equipment in Afghanistan that originated not in the Wakhan Corridor but in Pakistan (e.g. 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns) and adds that several Afghan rebels are receiving military medical training in China. As such, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan is perceived as a threat by Beijing, which wants Moscow to withdraw and not engage in expansionism.

Although it has refused to interfere directly in Afghanistan, China wants to control the country to ensure the security of Chinese citizens in the Xinjiang. However, it was impossible for Beijing to take an active stance during the Cold War, as Moscow considered itself the sole legitimate representative of Communism the region. In the 1990s, China was not ready to take an active position in a changing space with unpredictable new countries in its periphery (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). In the 2000s, it was the United States and NATO that took an active position in the region, leaving China in the background once again.

The election of Joe Biden marked a change in the American military posture with the announcement of the withdrawal of troops with a final date of September 11, 2021. At the time of writing, Afghanistan seems to be returning to religious tensions and the comeback of the Taliban leaderships in national politics, which suggests that the situation going forward will be similar to that before the 2001 U.S. intervention. Beijing will then be in a position to decide whether to interfere militarily or to continue to control only the Wakhan Corridor from its base in Tajikistan.

The CIA has not yet declassified any recent documents on China’s activities in Afghanistan, but the CIA World Factbook (the CIA news aggregator) seems to be paying considerable attention to the return of the Taliban. Moreover, a U.S. Department of Defense report issued in 2020 mentions the Chinese presence in the region via Tajikistan.

There are parallels between the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan and that of the United States. In this respect, both tended to underestimate the importance of transmitting knowledge to local troops and police forces, who remain dependent on Moscow and Washington to ensure the country’s security, which results in a return of extremism as soon as the foreign troops withdrew. In contrast to Moscow, the U.S. deployed more light vehicles, including the Humvee, M1117 and International MaxxPro, which shows a break with the Soviet approach but remains a strategy of containment more than anything else.

Will Afghanistan’s future be Chinese? This is the legitimate question asked by specialists and inhabitants of the country itself, many of whom fear the return of the Taliban. Without a doubt, the presence of the USSR and then NATO has been a success insofar as these two groups have made it possible to stem the progression of terrorism for more than two decades, to the benefit of China (Xinjiang) and the other neighboring countries (Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran).

The intensification of religious extremism in the country will have repercussions on the neighboring countries. If Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan can count on Russia to provide a response in case of a major crisis (the CSTO), the fear is more consequential for Pakistan, a nuclear power, which for its part could be influenced by religious extremism and lead to an even more consequential conflict with India.

In the end, China now seems the most likely actor to take a position in the conflict in 2021. It remains to be seen whether Beijing wishes to engage in a conflict that the USSR and NATO had difficulty in controlling before it, or whether it wishes to confine itself to controlling the Wakhan Corridor and economic influence with the New Silk Road.

  1. Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1985), Pakistani Attitudes Toward Afghanistan
  2. Central Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  3. Central in Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  4. Central in Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  5. Central Baluchistan is an arid desert and mountainous region in South and Western Asia. It comprises the Pakistani province of Balochistan, the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan, and the southern areas of Afghanistan, including Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Balochistan borders the Pashtunistan region to the north, Sindh and Punjab to the east, and Persian regions to the west. South of its southern coastline, including the Makran Coast, are the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.
  6. Central In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s China experienced a rapid economic resurgence and began to become a plausible alternative to the Soviet communist model.
  7. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  8. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  9. Central Central Intelligence Agency (1983), Afghanistan: Potential for Soviet Airfield Construction
  10. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  11. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1982), China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection
  12. Central Michael Taarnby (2008), The Mujahedin in Nagorno-Karabakh: A Case Study in the Evolution of Global Jihad, Real Instituto Elcano
  13. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of intelligence (1985), The Soviet Presence in Afghanistan: Implications for the Regional Powers and the United States. National Intelligence Estimate NIE 11/37-85
  14. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1982), China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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An Underdeveloped Discipline: Open-Source Intelligence and How It Can Better Assist the U.S. Intelligence Community



Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) is defined by noted intelligence specialists Mark Lowenthal and Robert M. Clark as being, “information that is publicly available to anyone through legal means, including request, observation, or purchase, that is subsequently acquired, vetted, and analyzed in order to fulfill an intelligence requirement”. The U.S. Naval War College further defines OSINT as coming from, “print or electronic form including radio, television, newspapers, journals, the internet, and videos, graphics, and drawings”. Basically, OSINT is the collection of information from a variety of public sources, including social media profiles and accounts, television broadcasts, and internet searches.

Historically, OSINT has been utilized by the U.S. since the 1940s, when the United States created the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) which had the sole goal (until the 1990s) of, “primarily monitoring and translating foreign-press sources,” and contributing significantly during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was also during this time that the FBIS transformed itself from a purely interpretation agency into one that could adequately utilize the advances made by, “personal computing, large-capacity digital storage, capable search engines, and broadband communication networks”. In 2005, the FBIS was placed under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and renamed the Open Source Center, with control being given to the CIA.

OSINT compliments the other intelligence disciplines very well. Due to OSINT’s ability to be more in touch with public data (as opposed to information that is more gleaned from interrogations, interviews with defectors or captured enemies or from clandestine wiretaps and electronic intrusions), it allows policymakers and intelligence analysts the ability to see the wider picture of the information gleaned. In Lowenthal’s own book, he mentions how policymakers (including the Assistant Secretary of Defense and one of the former Directors of National Intelligence (DNI)) enjoyed looking at OSINT first and using it as a “starting point… [to fill] the outer edges of the jigsaw puzzle”.

Given the 21stcentury and the public’s increased reliance upon technology, there are also times when information can only be gleaned from open source intelligence methods. Because “Terrorist movements rely essentially on the use of open sources… to recruit and provide virtual training and conduct their operations using encryption techniques… OSINT can be valuable [in] providing fast coordination among officials at all levels without clearances”. Intelligence agencies could be able to outright avoid or, at a minimum, be able to prepare a defense or place forces and units on high alert for an imminent attack.

In a King’s College-London research paper discussing OSINT’s potential for the 21stcentury, the author notes, “OSINT sharing among intelligence services, non-government organizations and international organizations could shape timely and comprehensive responses [to international crises or regime changes in rogue states like Darfur or Burma],” as well as providing further information on a country’s new government or personnel in power. This has been exemplified best during the rise of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and during the 2011 Arab Spring and 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti. However, this does not mean that OSINT is a superior discipline than other forms such as SIGINT and HUMINT, as they are subject to limitations as well. According to the Federation of American Scientists, “Open source intelligence does have limitations. Often articles in military or scientific journals represent a theoretical or desired capability rather than an actual capability. Censorship may also limit the publication of key data needed to arrive at a full understanding of an adversary’s actions, or the press may be used as part of a conscious deception effort”.

There is also a limit to the effectiveness of OSINT within the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), not because it is technically limited, but limited by the desire of the IC to see OSINT as a full-fledged discipline. Robert Ashley and Neil Wiley, the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and a former Principal Executive within the ODNI respectively, covered this in a July article for DefenseOne, stating “…the production of OSINT is not regarded as a unique intelligence discipline but as research incident to all-source analysis or as a media production service… OSINT, on the other hand, remains a distributed activity that functions more like a collection of cottage industries. While OSINT has pockets of excellence, intelligence community OSINT production is largely initiative based, minimally integrated, and has little in the way of common guidance, standards, and tradecraft… The intelligence community must make OSINT a true intelligence discipline on par with the traditional functional disciplines, replete with leadership and authority that enables the OSINT enterprise to govern itself and establish a brand that instills faith and trust in open source information”. This apprehensiveness by the IC to OSINT capabilities has been well documented by other journalists.

Some contributors, including one writing for The Hill, has commented that “the use of artificial intelligence and rapid data analytics can mitigate these risks by tipping expert analysts on changes in key information, enabling the rapid identification of apparent “outliers” and pattern anomalies. Such human-machine teaming exploits the strengths of both and offers a path to understanding and even protocols for how trusted open-source intelligence can be created by employing traditional tradecraft of verifying and validating sourcing prior to making the intelligence insights available for broad consumption”. Many knowledgeable and experienced persons within the Intelligence Community, either coming from the uniformed intelligence services or civilian foreign intelligence agencies, recognize the need for better OSINT capabilities as a whole and have also suggested ways in which potential security risks or flaws can be avoided in making this discipline an even more effective piece of the intelligence gathering framework.

OSINT is incredibly beneficial for gathering information that cannot always be gathered through more commonly thought of espionage methods (e.g., HUMINT, SIGINT). The discipline allows for information on previously unknown players or new and developing events to become known and allows policymakers to be briefed more competently on a topic as well as providing analysts and operators a preliminary understanding of the region, the culture, the politics, and current nature of a developing or changing state. However, the greatest hurdle in making use of OSINT is in changing the culture and the way in which the discipline is currently seen by the U.S. Intelligence Community. This remains the biggest struggle in effectively coordinating and utilizing the intelligence discipline within various national security organizations.

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Online Radicalization in India



Radicalization, is a gradual process of developing extremist beliefs, emotions, and behaviours at individual, group or mass public levels. Besides varied groups, it enjoys patronization, covertly and even overtly from some states. To elicit change in behavior, beliefs, ideology, and willingness, from the target-group, even employment of violent means is justified. Despite recording a declination in terror casualties, the 2019 edition of the Global Terrorism Index claims an increase in the number of terrorism-affected countries. With internet assuming a pivotal role in simplifying and revolutionizing the communication network and process, the change in peoples’ lives is evident. Notably, out of EU’s 84 %, daily internet using population, 81%, access it from home (Eurostat, 2012, RAND Paper pg xi). It signifies important changes in society and extremists elements, being its integral part, internet’ role, as a tool of radicalization, cannot be gainsaid. Following disruption of physical and geographical barriers, the radicalized groups are using the advancement in digital technology:  to propagate their ideologies; solicit funding; collecting informations; planning/coordinating terror attacks; establishing inter/intra-group communication-networks; recruitment, training and media propaganda to attain global attention.  

               Indian Context

In recent times, India has witnessed an exponential growth in radicalization-linked Incidents, which apparently belies the official figures of approximate 80-100 cases. The radicalization threat to India is not only from homegrown groups but from cross-border groups of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as global groups like IS. Significantly, Indian radicalized groups are exploiting domestic grievances and their success to an extent, can mainly be attributed to support from Pakistani state, Jihadist groups from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Gulf-employment boom for Indian Muslims has also facilitated radicalization, including online, of Indian Muslims. A close look at the modus operandi of these attacks reveals the involvement of local or ‘homegrown’ terrorists. AQIS formed (2016) ‘Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’ in Kashmir with a media wing ‘al-Hurr’.

IS announced its foray into Kashmir in 2016 as part of its Khorasan branch. In December 2017 IS in its Telegram channel used hashtag ‘Wilayat Kashmir’ wherein Kashmiri militants stated their allegiance with IS. IS’ online English Magazine ‘Dabiq’ (Jan. 2016) claimed training of fighters in Bangladesh and Pakistan for attacks from western and Eastern borders into India.Though there are isolated cases of ISIS influence in India, the trend is on the rise. Presently, ISIS and its offshoots through online process are engaged in spreading bases in 12 Indian states. Apart from southern states like Telangana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu — where the Iran and Syria-based terrorist outfit penetrated years ago — investigating agencies have found their links in states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir as well. The Sunni jihadists’ group is now “most active” in these states across the country.

               Undermining Indian Threat

Significantly, undermining the radicalization issue, a section of intelligentsia citing lesser number of Indian Muslims joining al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Syria and Middle East, argue that Indian Muslim community does not support radicalism-linked violence unlike regional/Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Maldives. They underscore the negligible number of Indian Muslims, outside J&K, who supports separatist movements. Additionally, al- Qaeda and IS who follows the ‘Salafi-Wahabi’ ideological movement, vehemently oppose ‘Hanafi school’ of Sunni Islam, followed by Indian Muslims. Moreover, Indian Muslims follows a moderate version even being followers of the Sunni Ahle-Hadeeth (the broader ideology from which Salafi-Wahhabi movement emanates). This doctrinal difference led to the failure of Wahhabi groups online propaganda.  

               Radicalisation Strategies/methods: Indian vs global players

India is already confronting the online jihadist radicalization of global jihadist organisations, including al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), formed in September 2014 and Islamic State (IS). However, several indigenous and regional groups such as Indian Mujahideen (IM), JeM, LeT, the Taliban and other online vernacular publications, including Pakistan’s Urdu newspaper ‘Al-Qalam’, also play their role in online radicalisation.

Indian jihadist groups use a variety of social media apps, best suited for their goals. Separatists and extremists in Kashmir, for coordination and communication, simply create WhatsApp groups and communicate the date, time and place for carrying out mass protests or stone pelting. Pakistan-based terror groups instead of online learning of Islam consider it mandatory that a Muslim radical follows a revered religious cleric. They select people manually to verify their background instead of online correspondence. Only after their induction, they communicate online with him. However, the IS, in the backdrop of recent defeats, unlike Kashmiri separatist groups and Pak-based jihadist mercenaries, runs its global movement entirely online through magazines and pamphlets. The al-Qaeda’s you tube channels ‘Ansar AQIS’ and ‘Al Firdaws’, once having over 25,000 subscriptions, are now banned. Its online magazines are Nawai Afghan and Statements are in Urdu, English, Arabic, Bangla and Tamil. Its blocked Twitter accounts, ‘Ansarul Islam’ and ‘Abna_ul_Islam_media’, had a following of over 1,300 while its Telegram accounts are believed to have over 500 members.

               Adoption of online platforms and technology

Initially, Kashmir based ‘Jaish-E-Mohammad’ (JeM) distributed audio cassettes of Masood Azhar’s speeches across India but it joined Internet platform during the year 2003–04 and started circulating downloadable materials through anonymous links and emails. Subsequently, it started its weekly e-newspaper, Al-Qalam, followed by a chat group on Yahoo. Importantly, following enhanced international pressure on Pak government after 26/11, to act against terrorist groups, JeM gradually shifted from mainstream online platform to social media sites, blogs and forums.   

 Indian Mujahideen’s splinter group ‘Ansar-ul-Tawhid’ the first officially affiliated terror group to the ISIS tried to maintain its presence on ‘Skype’, ‘WeChat’ and ‘JustPaste’. IS and its affiliates emerged as the most tech-savvy jihadist group. They took several measures to generate new accounts after repeated suspension of their accounts by governments.  An account called as ‘Baqiya Shoutout’ was one such measure. It stressed upon efforts to re-establish their network of followers through ‘reverse shout-out’ instead of opening a new account easily.

Pakistan-backed terrorist groups in India are increasingly becoming  technology savvy. For instance, LeT before carrying out terrorist attacks in 2008 in Mumbai, used Google Earth to understand the targeted locations.

IS members have been following strict security measures like keeping off their Global Positioning System (GPS) locations and use virtual private network (VPN),  to maintain anonymity. Earlier they were downloading Hola VPN or a similar programme from a mobile device or Web browser to select an Internet Protocol (IP) address for a country outside the US, and bypass email or phone verification.

Rise of radicalization in southern India

Southern states of India have witnessed a rise in  radicalization activities during the past 1-2 years. A substantial number of Diaspora in the Gulf countries belongs to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Several Indian Muslims in Gulf countries have fallen prey to radicalization due to the ultra-conservative forms of Islam or their remittances have been misused to spread radical thoughts. One Shafi Armar@ Yusuf-al-Hindi from Karnataka emerged as the main online IS recruiter for India.  It is evident in the number of raids and arrests made in the region particularly after the Easter bomb attacks (April, 21, 2019) in Sri Lanka. The perpetrators were suspected to have been indoctrinated, radicalised and trained in the Tamil Nadu. Further probe revealed that the mastermind of the attacks, Zahran Hashim had travelled to India and maintained virtual links with radicalised youth in South India. Importantly, IS, while claiming responsibility for the attacks, issued statements not only in English and Arabic but also in South Indian languages viz. Malayalam and Tamil. It proved the existence of individuals fluent in South Indian languages in IS linked groups in the region. Similarly, AQIS’ affiliate in South India ‘Base Movement’ issued several threatening letters to media publications for insulting Islam.

IS is trying to recruit people from rural India by circulating the online material in vernacular languages. It is distributing material in numerous languages, including Malayalam and Tamil, which Al Qaeda were previously ignoring in favour of Urdu. IS-linked Keralite followers in their propaganda, cited radical pro-Hindutva, organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) and other right-wing Hindu organisations to motivate youth for joining the IS.  Similarly, Anti-Muslim incidents such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 are still being used to fuel their propaganda. IS sympathisers also support the need to oppose Hindu Deities to gather support.

               Radicalization: Similarities/Distinctions in North and South

Despite few similarities, the radicalisation process in J&K is somewhat different from the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Gujarat. Both the regions have witnessed a planned radicalization process through Internet/social media for propagating extremist ideologies and subverting the vulnerable youth. Both the areas faced the hard-line Salafi/Wahhabi ideology, propagated by the extremist Islamic clerics and madrasas indulged in manipulating the religion of Islam. Hence, in this context it can be aptly claimed that terror activities in India have cooperation of elements from both the regions, despite their distinct means and objectives. Elements from both regions to an extent sympathise to the cause of bringing India under the Sharia Law. Hence, the possibility of cooperation in such elements cannot be ruled out particularly in facilitation of logistics, ammunitions and other requisite equipment.

It is pertinent to note that while radicalisation in Jammu and Kashmir is directly linked to the proxy-war, sponsored by the Pakistan state, the growth of radicalisation in West and South India owes its roots to the spread of IS ideology, promotion of Sharia rule and establishment of Caliphate. Precisely for this reason, while radicalised local Kashmiris unite to join Pakistan-backed terror groups to fight for ‘Azadi’ or other fabricated local issues, the locals in south rather remain isolated cases.

               Impact of Radicalisation

The impact of global jihad on radicalization is quite visible in West and South India. Majority of the radicalised people, arrested in West and South India, were in fact proceeding to to join IS in Syria and Iraq. It included the group of 22 people from a Kerala’s family, who travelled (June 2016) to Afghanistan via Iran. There obvious motivation was to migrate from Dar-ul-Harb (house of war) to Dar-ul-Islam (house of peace/Islam/Deen).

While comparing the ground impact of radicalization in terms of number of cases of local militants in J&K as well as IS sympathisers in West and South India, it becomes clear that radicalisation was spread more in J&K, owing to Pak-sponsored logistical and financial support. Significantly, despite hosting the third largest Muslim population, the number of Indian sympathisers to terror outfits, particularly in West and South India is very small as compared to the western countries. Main reasons attributed to this, include – religious and cultural pluralism; traditionally practice of moderate Islamic belief-systems; progressive educational and economic standards; and equal socio-economic and political safeguards for the Indian Muslims in the Indian Constitution.

               Challenges Ahead

Apart from varied challenges, including Pak-sponsored anti-India activities, regional, local and political challenges, media wings of global jihadi outfits continue to pose further challenges to Indian security agencies. While IS through its media wing, ‘Al Isabah’ has been circulating (through social media sites) Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s speeches and videos after translating them into Urdu, Hindi, and Tamil for Indian youth (Rajkumar 2015), AQIS too have been using its media wing for the very purpose through its offshoots in India.  Some of the challenges, inter alia include –

Islam/Cleric Factor Clerics continue to play a crucial role in influencing the minds of Muslim youth by exploiting the religion of Islam. A majority of 127 arrested IS sympathizers from across India recently revealed that they were following speeches of controversial Indian preacher Zakir Naik of Islamic Research Foundation (IRF). Zakir has taken refuge in Malaysia because of warrants against him by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for alleged money laundering and inciting extremism through hate speeches. A Perpetrator of Dhaka bomb blasts in July 2016 that killed several people confessed that he was influenced by Naik’s messages. Earlier, IRF had organised ‘peace conferences’ in Mumbai between 2007 and 2011 in which Zakir attempted to convert people and incite terrorist acts. Thus, clerics and preachers who sbverts the Muslim minds towards extremism, remain a challenge for India.

Propaganda Machinery – The online uploading of young militant photographs, flaunting Kalashnikov rifles became the popular means of declaration of youth intent against government forces. Their narrative of “us versus them” narrative is clearly communicated, creating groundswell of support for terrorism.In its second edition (March 2020) of its propaganda magazine ‘Sawt al-Hind’ (Voice of Hind/India) IS, citing an old propaganda message from a deceased (2018) Kashmiri IS terrorist, Abu Hamza al-Kashmiri @ Abdul Rehman, called upon Taliban apostates and fighters to defect to IS.  In the first edition (Feb. 2020) the magazine, eulogized Huzaifa al-Bakistani (killed in 2019), asking Indian Muslims to rally to IS in the name of Islam in the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi riots. Meanwhile, a Muslim couple arrested by Delhi Police for inciting anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment) Bill protests, were found very active on social media. They would call Indian Muslims to unite against the Indian government against the CAA legislation. During 2017 Kashmir unrest, National Investigation Agency (NIA) identified 79 WhatsApp groups (with administrators based in Pakistan), having 6,386 phone numbers, to crowd source boys for stone pelting. Of these, around 1,000 numbers were found active in Pakistan and Gulf nations and the remaining 5,386 numbers were found active in Kashmir Valley.

Deep fakes/Fake news – Another challenge for India is spread of misinformation and disinformation through deep fakes by Pakistan. Usage of deepfakes, in manipulating the speeches of local political leaders to spread hate among the youth and society was done to large extent.

India’s Counter Measures

To prevent youth straying towards extremism, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has established a Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Radicalisation Division (CT-CR) to help states, security agencies and communities.

Various states, including Kerala, Maharashtra and Telangana have set up their own de-radicalisation programmes.  While in Maharashtra family and community plays an important role, in Kerala clerics cleanse the poisoned  minds of youth with a new narrative. A holistic programme for community outreach including healthcare, clergies and financial stability is being employed by the Indian armed forces. An operation in Kerala named Kerala state police’ ‘Operation Pigeon’ succeeded in thwarting radicalization of 350 youths to the propaganda of organizations such as Islamic State, Indian Mujahideen (IM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) via social media monitoring. In Telangana, outreach programs have been developed by local officers like Rema Rajeshwari to fight the menace of fake news in around 400 villages of the state.

In Kashmir the government resorts to internet curfews to control the e-jihad. While state-owned BNSL network, used by the administration and security forces, remains operational 3G and 4G networks and social media apps remain suspended during internet curfews.


India certainly needs a strong national counter- Radicalisation policy which would factor in a range of factors than jobs, poverty or education because radicalization in fact has affected even well educated, rich and prosperous families. Instead of focusing on IS returnees from abroad, the policy must take care of those who never travelled abroad but still remain a potential threat due to their vulnerability to radicalization.

Of course, India would be better served if deep fakes/fake news and online propaganda is effectively countered digitally as well as through social awakening measures and on ground action by the government agencies. It is imperative that the major stakeholders i.e. government, educational institutions, civil society organisations, media and intellectuals play a pro-active role in pushing their narrative amongst youth and society. The focus should apparently be on prevention rather than controlling the radicalisation narrative of the vested interests.

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Is Deterrence in Cyberspace Possible?



Soon after the Internet was founded, half of the world’s population (16 million) in 1996 had been connected to Internet data traffic. Gradually, the Internet began to grow and with more users, it contributed to the 4 trillion global economies in 2016 (Nye, 2016). Today, high-speed Internet, cutting-edge technologies and gadgets, and increasing cross-border Internet data traffic are considered an element of globalization. Deterrence seems traditional and obsolete strategy, but the developed countries rely on cyberspace domains to remain in the global digitization. No matter how advanced they are, there still exist vulnerabilities. There are modern problems in the modern world. Such reliance on the Internet also threatens to blow up the dynamics of international insecurity. To understand and explore the topic it is a must for one to understand what cyberspace and deterrence are? According to Oxford dictionary;

 “Cyberspace is the internet considered as an imaginary space without a physical location in which communication over computer networks takes place (OXFORD University Press)”

For readers to understand the term ‘deterrence’; Collins dictionary has best explained it as;

“Deterrence is the prevention of something, especially war or crime, by having something such as weapons or punishment to use as a threat e.g. Nuclear Weapons (Deterrence Definition and Meaning | Collins English Dictionary).

The purpose of referring to the definition is to make it easy to discern and distinguish between deterrence in International Relations (IR) and International Cyber Security (ICS). Deterrence in cyberspace is different and difficult than that of during the Cold War. The topic of deterrence was important during Cold Wat for both politicians and academia. The context in both dimensions (IR and ICS) is similar and aims to prevent from happening something. Cyberspace deterrence refers to preventing crime and I completely agree with the fact that deterrence is possible in Cyberspace. Fischer (2019) quotes the study of (Quinlan, 2004) that there is no state that can be undeterrable.

To begin with, cyber threats are looming in different sectors inclusive of espionage, disruption of the democratic process and sabotaging the political arena, and war. Whereas international law is still unclear about these sectors as to which category they fall in. I would validate my affirmation (that deterrence is possible in Cyberspace) with the given network attacks listed by Pentagon (Fung, 2013). Millions of cyber-attacks are reported on a daily basis. The Pentagon reported 10 million cyberspace intrusions, most of which are disruptive, costly, and annoying. The level of severity rises to such a critical level that it is considered a threat to national security, so professional strategic assistance is needed to deal with it[1]. The past events show a perpetual threat that has the ability to interrupt societies, economies, and government functioning.

The cyberspace attacks were administered and portrayal of deterrence had been publicized as follows (Fung, 2013);

  1. The internet service was in a continuous disruption for several weeks after a dispute with Russia in 2007.
  2. Georgian defense communications were interrupted in 2008 after the Russian invasion of Georgia.   
  3. More than 1000 centrifuges in Iran were destroyed via the STUXNET virus in 2010. The attacks were attributed to Israel and the United States of America.
  4. In response to STUXNET virus attacks, Iran also launched a retaliatory attack on U.S financial institutions in 2012 and 2013.
  5. Similarly in 2012, some 30,000 computers had been destroyed with a virus called SHAMOON in Saudi Aramco Corporation. Iran was held responsible for these attacks.
  6. North Korea was accused of penetrating South Korean data and machines in 2014, thus interrupting their networks in 2014.
  7. A hybrid war was reported between Russia and Ukraine in 2015 that left Ukraine without electricity for almost six hours.
  8. Most critical scandal, which is still in the limelight call WikiLeaks released distressing and humiliating emails by Russian Intelligence at the time of the U.S presidential campaigns in 2016.

While such incidents may be considered a failure of deterrence, this does not mean that deterrence is impossible. Every system has some flaws that are exposed at some point. At this point, in some cases a relatively low level of deterrence was used to threaten national security, however, the attacks were quite minor in fulfilling the theme affecting national security. Nye (2016:51) in his study talks about the audience whose attribution could facilitate deterrence. (I). intelligence agencies should make sure highest safeguarding against escalation by third parties, and governments can also be certain and count on intelligence agencies’ sources. (II). the deterring party should not be taken easy, as I stated (above) about the lingering loopholes and flaws in the systems, hence, governments shall not perceive the intelligence forsaken.  (III). lastly, it is a political matter whether international and domestic audiences need to be persuaded or not, and what chunk of information should be disclosed.

The mechanisms which are used and helpful against cyberspace adversary actions are as follows (Fischer, 2019);

  1. Deterrence by denial means, the actions by the adversary are denied that they failed to succeed in their goals and objectives. It is more like retaliating a cyberattack.
  2. Threat of punishment offers severe outcomes in form of penalties and inflicting high costs on the attacker that would outweigh the anticipated benefits if the attack takes place.
  3. Deterrence by Entanglement has the features and works on a principle of shared, interconnected, and dependent vulnerabilities. The purpose of entanglement is to embolden and reassure the behavior as a responsible state with mutual interests.
  4. Normative taboos function with strong values and norms, wherein the reputation of an aggressor is at stake besides having a soft image in the eyes of the international community (this phenomenon includes rational factors because hard power is used against the weaker state). The deterrence of the international system works even without having any credible resilience.

Apparently, the mechanisms of deterrence are also effective in cyber realms. These realms are self-explaining the comprehensive understanding and the possibility of deterrence in cyberspace. The four mechanisms (denial, punishment, entanglement, and normative taboos) are also feasible to apply deterrence in the cyber world. Factually, of many security strategies, cyber deterrence by using four domains could be a versatile possibility. Conclusively, as far as the world is advancing in technological innovations, cyberspace intrusions would not stop alike the topic of deterrence in the digital world.

[1] An updated list of cyberspace intrusions from 2003 till 2021 is available at (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2021).

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