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New Threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Taliban’s Capacity, Tehrik-i Taliban, and ISIS-Khorasan

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The ISK founding emir Hafiz Saeed Khan

Authors: Mahmut Cengiz, Asma Ul Hussna Durrani, Andrea Quinn

The world was stunned by the Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan. The former Afghan government’s military was four times larger than the Taliban’s, but the world saw how the Afghan military surrendered to the Taliban in a short time. Overlooked or at least underestimated were the Taliban’s small but fierce army of fighters committed to the cause, its extensive financial resources, and logistical support from like-minded countries in the region. It appears that the Taliban will continue to strengthen its military and increase its financial resources for as long as it rules the country, thereby creating an ongoing threat to the future of not only Afghanistan but also the region and the Western world. Moreover, ISIS-Khorasan, a franchise group representing ISIS in the region, has increased its attacks in Afghanistan. ISIS-K was one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world in 2019, and its attacks in October 2021 show that ISIS-K will be a threat in the region. On the other hand, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), referred to as Pakistani Taliban and based along the Afghan-Pakistani border, has been another active group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The TTP are actively involved in terrorist attacks in both countries and has provided training programs for the Taliban in Afghanistan and targeted former Afghan military in the eastern provinces of the country bordering Pakistan.

Taliban

The mujahedeen who fought against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan inadvertently and unknowingly opened a door to the Taliban to enter in post-occupation Afghanistan. These mujahedeen fighters were trained in camps funded by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Western countries. When the war ended in 1989 and Soviet troops had been withdrawn, the Western world turned a blind eye to these fighters despite their efforts to end Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Undeterred by the snub, the mujahedeen fighters began moving to other jihadist regions in the world, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, to join wars where Muslim communities were facing government persecution.

With both the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen now out of Afghanistan, the country experienced a full-blown civil war. Two years later, a militia called the Taliban started getting attention from the world. Many of its members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. Some of the militia members had previously fought as mujahedeen against the Soviets. Eager to spread its ideology, the Taliban saw an opportunity in Afghanistan. The Afghan people were fed up with clashes, an ethnic war, and overall lawlessness in their country. Marching north from Kandahar and through other provinces along the way, the Taliban eventually seized the capital, Kabul, in1996. The Taliban immediately declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate and started imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic and sharia law.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the United States was determined to find the mastermind behind the attacks, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan with acquiescence from the Taliban. The Taliban demanded that the United States provide solid proof that bin Laden was behind the attacks and did not hand over the alleged perpetrator. That action prompted the United States to organize a multinational military campaign consisting of more than 100 states. The joint forces invaded Afghanistan and, within a couple of months, the Taliban was forced out of power and a new interim government was established. Three years later, Afghanistan had a new constitution, and Hamid Karzai was elected as president. The United States had backed the new Afghan leader from the start, but that support was not enough to end clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban simply regrouped and worked to drive foreigners out of the country and eventually reinstate the Taliban as the country’s ruler. With the U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, the Taliban finally was able to realize its goal. In the interim, however, clashes between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government resulted in the killing of more than 40,000 Afghan civilians, at least 64,000 Afghan military and police, and more than 3,500 international soldiers. U.S. efforts over two decades to create and develop a democratic nation in the region, ultimately failed to produce the desired results.

Afghanistan today is deeply unstable and one of the poorest countries in the region with a per capita GDP of around $550. It also is the most corrupt country (see Corruption Perception Index); hosts the most-violent terrorist organizations, including the Taliban, TTP, and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) (see Annex of Statistical Information); harvests and produces more opium than any other country in the world (see United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime); and has a criminality score of 7.08 on a scale from 1 to 10, ranks first of eight countries in Southern Asia, third of 46 countries in Asia, and seventh among the 193 countries in the index (see Global Organized Crime Index 2021).

The Taliban’s Military and Financial Capacity

The Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan was facilitated by the organization’s extensive military, financial assets, and its ability to mobilize its fighters quickly. At the time of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban had 85,000 full-time fighters and training camps across the country while the Afghan military had more than 300,000 soldiers. Mere numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. Perhaps what the western world either did not realize or did not take into account is that while the number of Afghan soldiers was nearly four times greater than the number of Taliban fighters, those Taliban fighters were responsible for a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012. During that period, the number of terrorist attacks rose from 421 in 2011 to 1,469 in 2012. In subsequent years, the number of Taliban terrorist attacks fluctuated, varying between 1,400 and 1,800. The number of such attacks in 2018 and 2019 were roughly the same (see graph).

The number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2019. Source: Global Terrorism Database (Attacks between 2008 and 2017) and Statistical Annex (Attacks in 2018 and 2019).

According to the Statistical Annex Report for 2019, the Taliban were the most active terrorist group in Afghanistan, being responsible for 83.4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the country and the killing or wounding of more than 13,000 people in such attacks. The Taliban’s casualty count in 2019 was more than that of both al Qaeda and ISIS and the two terrorist groups’ affiliates combined. In terms of tactics and targets for terrorist attacks in 2019, the Taliban used shooting 44 percent of the time; land mines and improvised explosive devises 20 percent of the time; and storming and rapid assault 16 percent of the time. Most of the Taliban’s targets in 2019 were military facilities, government buildings, and the general population (37 percent, 36 percent, and 14 percent, respectively)

The Taliban’s financial capacity remains strong, even though the Biden administration froze billions of dollars in Afghan reserves after the Taliban took over the country. The action was intended to deprive the Taliban of cash; however, the Taliban has managed to generate a significant amount of revenue from its international donors, states that sponsor the organization and its involvement in various types of trafficking and smuggling, and its tax-collection system. Perhaps the most significant of these revenue sources is drug trafficking, an activity that has made the Taliban one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world. According to United Nations, the Taliban in 2019 made around $1.5 billion from growing opium poppies and producing methamphetamine. Opium farming is a major source of employment in the region, generating more than 120,000 jobs for workers to harvest the crop. The farmers who hire those workers are required to pay the Taliban a 10 percent cultivation tax on their earnings. According to a 2018 UNODC report, opium production comprises up to 11 percent of Afghan economy. The Taliban also has gone to great lengths to protect the farmers who play an integral role in generating the lucrative revenue source. For example, when local farmers complained about the law enforcement and military members who were countering drug groups, the Taliban targeted those groups to curb their enforcement actions against farmers. In addition to the drug trade, mining and the trading of materials provides with Taliban $464 million a year in revenue. Illegal logging, which provides the Taliban revenue, has devastated the country’s forests, reducing the number of hectares by about 60 percent compared with the number of hectares that existed before the Soviet invasion in 1979.

ISIS-K in Afghanistan

In addition to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, ISIS-K, and TTP have been the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network has close ties with al Qaeda and serves as a bridge between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Given that media sources report the Haqqani Network’s attacks under the name of the Taliban, it is unclear how many terrorist attacks have been conducted by the Haqqani Network. Nonetheless, it is known that the Haqqani Network has been active in Kabul.

ISIS-K (the Khorasan branch of ISIS) in Afghanistan should be given more attention than it has received. The group was responsible for  bombing attacks in Kabul that resulted in the killing of 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians. ISIS announced the formation of its Khorasan branch in 2015 and appointed former TTP militant Hafiz Khan as its leader. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pledged allegiance to ISIS-K and declared that it was part of Wilayah Khorasan of ISIS. ISIS-K also recruited Taliban defectors to join its ranks. ISIS-K and the Taliban see each other as irreconcilable enemies. The enmity between the two groups has led to many clashes as they vie for supremacy. Both the Taliban and ISIS-K have been engaged in a territorial fight in Kunar province to generate revenue from illegal logging.

ISIS-K aims to topple the Pakistani government, punish the Iranian government for protecting Shias in the region, and purify Afghanistan by punishing minority groups such as the Hazaras and uprooting the Taliban as the main jihadi movement in the country. Attacks by the former Afghan military, the Taliban, and the United States between 2016 and 2020 weakened ISIS-K. Since then, however, ISIS-K’s current leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, has rebuilt the group’s capabilities, enabling it to target key urban areas such as Kabul and perpetrate 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021—an increase from 21 attacks during the same period in 2020.

ISIS-K’s capacity to operate regionally and transnationally and its cadre of foreign fighters from Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia have made the group more threatening to Afghans and Westerners. An investigation in Germany, for example, proved the group’s capacity and prompted the German government to charge four Tajik nationals linked to ISIS-K with plotting to attack U.S. and NATO military facilities. Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, it is reasonable to assume that ISIS-K will have an opportunity to gain the support of anti-Taliban constituencies while at the same time finding it difficult to fend off well-equipped Taliban fighters whose leader holds the seat of government power in Afghanistan.

Tekrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

TTP is another Pashtun-aligned insurgency group and is based in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP has officially been designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State.

TTP was established in December 2007 to combat the Pakistani security personnel and to provide support to the Afghan Taliban in combating the U.S. led NATO forces in Afghanistan. The group was formed under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. Like the Afghan Taliban, the central goal of TTP is to enforce their interpretation of Sharia law in Pakistan. In 2014, the Pakistan army launched a military operation called operation Zarb-e-Azb to fight the TTP militants in North Waziristan. During the Zarb-e-Azb operation, more than a thousand militants were killed. The military operation was successful in weakening TTP as the number of terrorist attacks declined drastically. However, splinter groups have joined with the TTP in the recent years which may allow for more control over the region and more cohesion under one group to carry out terrorist attacks and expand territorial control over the region.

TTP has carried out and claimed a series of deadly attacks. In December 2009, TTP targeted a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, killing seven U.S. citizens. In December 2014, TTP claimed responsibility for the Peshawar school attack that resulted in the killing of 150 people, including students. TTP holds strong ties to al-Qaeda (AQ) that relies on TTP for providing safe haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the attacks on security personnel and civilians have increased in Pakistan. The South Asia Terrorism Portal reported 240 incidents that recorded 191 civilian and 190 security force members casualties in Pakistan.

On the request of Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban have mediated talks between Pakistan and TTP. Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Afghan Foreign Minister, has confirmed that the peace talks have started. In the recent talks, an agreement on a one-month ceasefire was established. The agreement requires that the group halts all violence in exchange for TTP prisoners. Afghan Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan and the Doha agreement could serve to embolden other militant groups such as the TTP in Pakistan to attempt negotiations with the state to gain power. Although there is a tentative truce, and negotiations could bring a stop to insecurity in the country during this time, there has been a history of failed peace agreements in the region in past years, such as the peace negotiation in 2014 between TTP and the Pakistan government, with the agreement to end violence against the security personnel and civilians. The eight-month long peace talks were a failed effort. The major challenge in the peace talks is TTP’s inability to compromise on its ideology. In 2014, TTP agreed to Pakistan’s offer on conducting peace talks; however, the group refused to compromise on its ideology of implementing their interpretation of Shariah throughout the country.

To conclude, it should not have been a surprise to anyone that the Taliban managed to take over Afghanistan so quickly, as it clearly had the military strength and financial resources. The Taliban is an example of how it is impossible to win a war against an organization that has a strong military and vast financial resources. On the other hand, security vacuums in Afghanistan have generated a favorable ground for TTP and an ISIS franchise, ISIS-K, to pose a threat to the Taliban, Pakistan, and Western world by engaging in terrorist attacks.

Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Assistant Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in the research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies.

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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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