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The Role and Place of the Taliban on the Global Map of Islam: Challenges and Threats

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The rise to power of the Taliban (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) in August 2021 has raised a number of questions about how the world community should deal with the organization, an ardent proponent of Islam that calls for an all-out Sharia system to be established in Afghanistan. As a case in point here, many experts and media outlets refer to the Taliban as either a structure linked to the terrorist Islamic State (banned in Russia) or as a legitimate Sharia state, much like Saudi Arabia or Iran. The group is seen as both jihadist and traditionalist. All these differing and often mutually exclusive assessments make it difficult to identify the group’s ideological leanings within Islam. At the same time, accurate forecasts of its influence on the world of political Islam—and on the global processes at large—will depend on a correct understanding of the Taliban’s role and place in the many-faceted world of Islam.

The Taliban and Salafi-jihadis

The most accurate definition to characterize the various international terrorist organizations purportedly acting on behalf of Islam is that of “Salafi jihadism,” which was introduced in 2002 by the scholar Gilles Kepel to describe a “hybrid Islamist ideology” developed by volunteers from Arab and Muslim countries during the first Afghan War (1979–1992) [1]. Salafism came to be the spiritual, doctrinal and methodological foundation of this radical movement.

This fundamentalist and conservative trend in Islam originated in the 18th century in Najd, Arabia, and was formulated by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It then acquired not only its own doctrinal but also theological attitudes that differ from other schools of Islam, including the Sunni school. Essentially, all international jihadists are mostly followers of the teachings of Najdi Salafism. This also applies to Al-Qaeda and the IS (both banned in Russia), as well as other organizations. Besides, Salafism seems to be a fairly moderate movement, like in Saudi Arabia or Qatar, unless it is tied to the ideology of global jihad, which otherwise turns it into Salafi jihadism.

The Taliban, however, do not adhere to the Najdi school of Salafism, which puts them beyond the jihadist mainstream. They consistently support the Hanafi madhhab and Maturidi Kalam (Maturidism), both being typical of Afghanistan. Many affiliates of the Taliban studied in religious institutions—primarily, in the Deobandi madrasah “Hakkaniya” in Pakistan. They mostly arose as a branch of the Islamic university in Indian Deoband that occupies a special place in the Hanafi school of Islam, giving its name to a trend in Hanafism.

At this point, it should be borne in mind that insurmountable doctrinal and theological contradictions stand between the Hanafi-Maturidis and the Salafis. For instance, some Salafis see Maturidites as heretics because of their stance on the divine properties and attributes, in the interpretations of which they allowed allegory (ta’wil). In turn and for the very same reason, Hanafis-Maturidites regard Salafis as Mujassim, impious anthropomorphists. In addition, discrepancies related to the permissibility of Sufi practices, the celebration of Mawlid, the use of rosaries and amulets are unacceptable innovations from the point of view of the Salafis. This is often accompanied by mutual accusations of disbelief, which severely limits the potential for interaction between Salafi jihadists and the Taliban.

Such differences appeared before the rise of the Taliban, during the first Afghan War as well as in the disputes between the founders of Salafi jihadism, Abdullah Azzam and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, who arrived in Afghanistan to help the Mujahideen. While Azzam adhered to Salafism, he believed that the Afghans still remain Muslims, be they Hanafi-Maturidis or Sufis. Meanwhile, al Maqdisi insisted that they must first be forced to abandon their own views and “innovations” to be turned to Salafism. That is, they should first be taught “monotheism”, only then followed by military sciences. Subsequently, Azzam’s position was also adopted by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the leaders of al-Qaeda, although it resulted in a split in al-Qaeda’s ranks, since other representatives and spiritual leaders, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, opposed any ties with non-Salafis.

Several of the jihadists, for example, Abu Musab al-Suri, tried to settle this conflict. In his publications, he tried to refute the thesis that the Taliban are Maturidites in theology and “convinced Hanafis” in the madhhab. He attempted to prove that the views of the Taliban do not contradict the teachings of Salafism and that they are open to partnerships. This was done, of course, through distorted facts and false arguments, with suitable episodes and quotes selectively used, while the words of Pakistani Islamic scholars who dealt with the Taliban, those that did not fit his arguments, were omitted. The purpose of such publications was to preserve the global “unity in the ranks” of Salafi jihadism.

The Taliban put an end to this dispute, though. In the course of the negotiations in Doha, its representatives demanded that the Hanafi madhhab be the only school of jurisprudence in Afghanistan.

In turn, the fact that some in the Taliban leadership are Maturidites was also emphasized by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, when referring to Mullah Omar in his letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After the capture of Kabul, it turned out that the Taliban had banned the activities of the Salafis in Afghanistan. In particular, they were forbidden to preach, build mosques and declare their beliefs in the open. The Internet has even seen videos where Afghan Salafis were forced to publicly recant their beliefs in front of the Taliban.

As for the very recognition of the existing world order and the architecture of international relations on the part of the Taliban, they—unlike Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other Salafi jihadists—have never advocated for its dismantling, willing to fit into it instead.

Between Modernism and Traditionalism

Thus, falling back on traditional legal and theological schools of Islam in the region and using them to find ground for their actions, the Taliban does not fit into the framework of either Salafi jihadism—or, as some researchers go on to suggest, Islamism itself.

The anthropologist Olivier Roy, for one, believes movements such as the Taliban to be “neo-fundamentalist”, distinguishing them from what can be seen as another set of Islamic movements, often called “Islamist.” Limited, as his argument goes, by the “simple application of Sharia” in matters of ritual, dress and behaviour, these “neo-fundamentalist” movements differ from Islamist parties primarily because the former have neither a systematic ideology nor a global political agenda that would be oriented towards the external environment, to one degree or another. They might be more accurately labelled as “Islamic traditionalists.”

At the same time, the Taliban have provisions that distinguish them from the traditional Islamic organizations and trends that existed in Afghanistan. This, first of all, implies their attitude to Sufism, which is widespread in Afghanistan. The Taliban tried to minimize the role of the Sufi orders in the religious affairs of the regions under their control, far from welcoming any preservation of ties between their members and the Sufi tariqahs. The Taliban also criticized and banned many Sufi practices that were considered excessive. The leadership of the Taliban, though, was not opposed to Sufism as such, resorting to the heritage of the Sufi sheikhs in their writings and appeals.

Likewise, the Taliban, originally a Pashtun movement, have completely abandoned the use of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun customary law. This contributed to the marginalization of the role of the Pashtun tribal leaders and their elders in the affairs of the movement, while opening the door for representatives of other peoples of Afghanistan to join the movement.

Despite the various “modern” particularities in the methodology and the doctrines of the Taliban, the movement can be considered fundamentally traditionalist, focused on attracting conservative residents of Afghanistan living in accordance with the established Islamic traditions. But, on the other hand, one cannot simply ignore the fact that the beliefs of the movement were initially alien to the Afghans. These beliefs were better masked and more in tune with the local dynamics[2] than what the government in Kabul was trying to introduce. Therefore, it would also be correct to characterize the Taliban as a “hybrid” movement, which means that both Islamism (and not necessarily radical) and the consolidation of traditionalism in its ideology are plausible options.

The Takings of Kabul and Other Analogies

In fact, given that the Taliban is not a Salafi jihadist movement, it cannot (and will not) become a banner under which to rally for these forces in their struggle. Nevertheless, there are examples of events similar to the capturing of Kabul by the Taliban that have triggered transformation (or unrest) in the whole Islamic world.

Of course, the events surrounding the presence and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan appear at first glance to be similar to those of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan (1979–1989), and it was the first Afghan War (1979–1992) that sparked the rise of the global jihadist movement. However, there are rather few grounds to suggest that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will have similar consequences.

In contrast to 1989 (or 1992, if we take the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime as the endpoint), the recent success of the Taliban belongs to them alone. There are no foreign volunteers acting in the ranks of the movement to “share the victory.” Of course, the “Afghan Arabs” (Arab volunteers in the ranks of the Afghan mujahideen in 1979–1992) did not play any significant role in the military operations of the first Afghan War but, having dispersed across their countries, they still emerged as welcomed guests to hold lectures and visit mosques, becoming heroes for young people and launching the appropriate discourse. At the same time, the impetus for the international Salafi jihadist movement to emerge was not provided by the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the country but rather by the fact that the army of “Mulhids” (atheists, non-believers) entered the Islamic lands. Therefore, the current analogies with the post-Soviet period, including the collapse of the Najibullah regime, will probably be not entirely correct.

If we compared the capturing of Kabul by the Taliban with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, an important element would be missing. The Taliban movement does not call for a global expansion of its ideology, unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran, having attempted to export the revolution[3]. Of course, we can say that the Iranian Revolution awakened, for example, the Syrian Islamists, pushing them into an armed struggle, but there is no direct evidence of this. The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) launched military operations against the government even before the Iranian Revolution in 1976, although they stepped up their activities at around the same time as the revolutionary events unfolded in Iran. Rather, both the Iranian Revolution and the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria were links in the same chain, attesting to the growth of Islamist sentiments in the Middle East.

Today, the various groups that stand for moderate Islam are wondering whether it was a mistake to strive towards democracy, using its institutions to seize power. We are, in fact, referring to the events in Egypt in 2013 and Tunisia in 2021, when Islamists were ousted from power. Their supporters, who held machine guns and rifles instead of seats in the government, somehow managed to maintain their presence on the game board, whether in Libya or Syria. Therefore, it is possible that a completely new round of the “Arab Spring” will lead to a radicalization of some previously moderate Islamic movements in terms of their readiness to embark on the path of an armed struggle. This, we should say, will come as the result of their independent and convergent evolution, regardless of any influence from the Taliban and its successes.

Finally, if we compare the implications of the Taliban takeover and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we should not forget that it was these attacks that brought the Americans to Afghanistan. This terrorist act, which “awakened” many jihadists, was rooted in the element of surprise, a strike on U.S. soil, to help it echo around the world in such a profound way. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, having begun back in 2014, was no secret—just as everyone, the Americans included, predicted the government in Kabul would stay afloat for more than six months, a year max, following the withdrawal of international forces. Ss such, the government’s collapse was then not a direct blow to the Americans but to the pro-American government only.

After all, the Taliban itself does not call on anyone to continue the “jihad” against the United States—on the contrary, it advocates for dialogue and cooperation, seeking recognition from Washington. This aspect cannot be ignored. Yet, it is precisely this approach that has led to the Taliban being seen as apostates from the idea of ​​jihad, especially after negotiations with the United States were launched in Doha. This stance is common to many jihadist leaders, not only IS but also people like Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi.

The Threats and Challenges of the “Taliban Myth”: Real and Imaginary

The promotion of the Taliban myth, capable of “awakening” the radicals, is mainly hindered by the Taliban itself, who refuse to make jihadist calls for the Muslim Ummah. They are instead setting an example of how dialogue with global powers, such as the United States or Russia, rather than a “global jihad” can guarantee them success. Accordingly, the absence of such appeals makes it impossible for other radicals to conduct any activity on behalf of the Taliban, otherwise significantly reducing the propaganda effect.

Of course, many extremist movements have come out in support of the Taliban. One example is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) in Idlib, Syria. In this case, though, it is worth mentioning that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has adopted the Taliban’s approach in terms of its own legitimization and deradicalization, assuring the world community that they do not plan to expand outside of Syria, being open to establishing relations with all countries, should they so desire. Thus, the Taliban’s example has already served as the basis for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to change the rules of the game, trying to go global and starting to play by the rules of the international community.

Therefore, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, like the Taliban, will avoid embittering the world community with any form of aggression. On the contrary, they will seek support from the United States and Turkey by taking measures to suppress other radical and terrorist groups in Idlib, while choosing not to target the official Damascus. The Taliban has taken similar steps since they first made contact with the United States, albeit more successfully, as they have never been a branch of IS or Al-Qaeda, unlike Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

Although other Idlib-rooted radical groups, including those directly associated with al-Qaeda, celebrated the success of the Taliban, their spokespeople quite tellingly noted that they see Afghanistan as a refuge where they can move and live as civilians rather than a place to continue their military activity, seeing that the Taliban would not support any aggressive actions. In this context, it cannot be ruled out that the Taliban’s influence might lead to the abandonment of the “global jihad,” and not the radicalization of certain groups. Therefore, the “Taliban myth” might threaten the very ideology of Salafi jihadism.

For example, the ousting of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia after the Ethiopian invasion in 2006 led to the emergence of the Salafi jihadist Al-Shabaab group. Today, however, radical Somali Islamists might refute this globalist project, returning to the “Islamic traditionalism” of the times of the ICU. It should be noted that not all groups have the power and influence of the Taliban to seize power. Yet, following the path of the Taliban, these groups might initiate dialogue with official governments, thus launching the reconciliation process.

It is still possible that the Taliban’s attempt to integrate into the world system may cause turmoil. If the organization fails to receive international recognition and retains its terrorist status, the living standards of the local population will deteriorate under the pressure of sanctions. This could provoke the Taliban to take more active external steps, which could pose a threat not only to neighboring countries but also to the world community more generally. This could come in the form of attempts to harbor international terrorists to, with their help, overthrow the governments of neighboring states, winning a “living space.” Of course, this threat is most palpable for the Central Asian countries. Although in this case, the initiative lies with the world community to control the process and avoid this negative scenario.

The Taliban might also seek to transform Afghanistan into a new centre of Islam, using soft power to promote their influence. It would seem that that there is demand for a new Islamic centre of power in the Muslim communities of some states in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Russia’s North Caucasus and the Volga Region as well as across the Arab world. Such a centre would reject Salafist ideology, opting for the traditional for most Muslims of the listed regions madhhabs in aqidah and fiqh. At the same time, that demand would involve advocating for a Sharia state, open to the use of force (jihad) against the external enemies of Islam, albeit not through terrorist methods and not with the goal of external expansion. This is mostly about a “traditionalist” variant of Salafi Saudi Arabia or Shiite Iran as the Taliban and their project of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan do in many ways meet similar expectations.

Against this background, the Taliban is often seen in Muslim circles as a force against the foreign occupation of the country, on the one hand, and “Saudi Wahhabism” on the other, which can serve to promote the interests of the United States and the West. Conversely, it can become a platform to create global terrorist networks (such as IS or Al-Qaeda). Thus, globally, the ideology of the Taliban—as far as it relies on the traditional schools of Islam (four madhhabs) and the preservation of national characteristics, while establishing a comprehensive Sharia system based on traditional madhhabs—can challenge global Salafism.

The Taliban lack the necessary funding to promote their ideas as compared to the Gulf monarchies, but they do not yet seek to do so. Nevertheless, their success has earned the respect of many Muslims, leading them to believe that it is the “traditional” Islam, rather than imported Salafism, that is responsible for this. Therefore, it is tempting to contain the spread of the influence of Saudi theologians, focusing on the schools of law traditional for certain regions, although with a more consistent implementation of the Sharia principles, as the Taliban do.

***

Thus, although the “Taliban myth” is not a global threat, there is reason to believe that it might be effective at the regional level or within a particular state. At the same time, the bigger threat facing the Central Asian countries is not the possibility of an invasion by the Taliban or other more radical groups but rather the example set by the Taliban with their recent success. When joining a radical organization in the past involved converting local Muslims to Wahhabism and a breach of local Islamic tradition, then now, as the example of the Taliban shows, organizations based on local traditional Islamic schools may emerge, albeit without its participation or approval. This will create a much broader base of hypothetical supporters, though: they will not set global goals, rather pursuing the goal of regime change in a particular country.

At the same time, the authorities in some Central Asian states are taking action to restrict rights and freedoms, increase repression, and suppress Islamic organizations that follow moderate Islam. In addition, they may introduce restrictive measures aimed at prohibiting hijabs or beards for certain categories of the population, which can further popularize the methods and ideas of the Taliban amongst some citizens, thereby prompting more radical groups to emerge locally.

  1. “Jihadist-Salafism” is introduced by Gilles Kepel in his Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002).
  2. Ken Guest, “Dynamic Interplay between Religion and Armed Conflict in Afghanistan,” International Review of the Red Cross, Selected articles from issues 880–881, December 2010 – March 2011.
    1. Chernova, “The Impact of the Islamic Revolution on Monarchical Regimes in the Persian Gulf.” Bulletin of the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, 161 (2013): 26.

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

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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

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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.

Prognosis

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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Intelligence

Is Deterrence in Cyberspace Possible?

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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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