As white nationalists across the world have gained prominence through racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic acts, the world’s focus on terrorism seems to have shifted. Many experts on extremism now focus heavily on the far-right in its many incarnations as an important driver of terrorist threat. But this myopic approach ignores the dynamism that the Islamic State injected into the international jihadist movement, and the long-term repercussions of the networks it built. In particular, the Indian and Central Asian linkages that the group fostered are already having repercussions beyond the region.
This threat emerged most recently with the attack by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) on Jalalabad prison in early August. The attack showed a level of ambition that distinguished the group from many of the Islamic State’s other regional affiliates. Part of a bigger global push to do something about colleagues rotting in prisons, it was also a way of signaling how the group’s approach to freeing its prisoners differed from the Taliban’s. In ISKP’s eyes, the Taliban are in essence surrendering in their peace negotiations with the U.S. government. But the most interesting aspect of the attack was the roster of fighters involved—a multinational group that included Afghans, Indians, Tajiks, and Pakistanis.
While at first glance this seems unsurprising, the presence of Central Asians and Indians in transnational attacks is a relatively new phenomenon that reflects a shifting pattern in jihadism linked to the Islamic State. Some of the group’s most dramatic attacks—like the Easter 2019 Sri Lanka bombings, the attack on a Turkish nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, or the 2017 truck attacks in New York City and Stockholm—revealed jihadism’s persistent appeal to a global audience. Indeed, the rise of Central and South Asian cohorts to the front rank of attack planning is a development with potentially worrying consequences.
Jihadist ideas are not new to Central Asia or India. The civil war in 1990s Tajikistan that broke out in the wake of the country’s emancipation from the Soviet Union was an early post-Cold War battlefield which included jihadist elements. Fighters used northern Afghanistan as a base from which to fight in Tajikistan.
While most of the support for the fighting in Tajikistan emerged from communities in northern Afghanistan who went on to fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, some disillusioned fighters in the conflict ended up fighting alongside al Qaeda. And for a while, assessments of where al Qaeda would go after its ejection from Afghanistan post-9/11 focused on the Fergana Valley, a region spanning Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan that is home to conservative communities who have clashed with their respective capitals. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jund al Khilafah, the Islamic Jihad Union or various Tajikistani groups provided networks that helped Central Asians get involved in fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But these networks were relatively limited in their impact.
India’s history of jihadism goes back even further. The country was the birthplace of the Deobandi movement, a sect that was a source of ideas for the Taliban among others. And the conflict in Kashmir has long been held up by extremist groups as one of the world’s most long-standing unresolved jihadi conflicts. While most Kashmiris are nationalists furious at New Delhi, their conflict is one that is regularly adopted as a rallying cry by extremists who point to it as one of the many places where Muslims are being abused.
Yet notwithstanding this heritage, neither India nor Central Asia has historically produced many figures in the international jihadist movement, launching attacks far from their borders. Indians have stayed involved in networks in India, or occasionally Pakistan. Central Asians have shown up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but rarely farther afield. That is changing.
A major attraction drawing young men and women to jihadism has always been the idea of participating in a transnational religious movement and an epic global struggle. To focus only on a parochial local level misses the larger canvas of their narratives. This appears to be a gap that the Islamic State identified and filled.
A major turning point in Indian and Central Asian involvement in the global jihadist movement was Syria. A cauldron that continues to draw people in, it is a clear and significant marker in the international jihadist story. The battlefield was one that drew in Muslims from almost 100 different countries and from every continent. This included Indians and Central Asians, though their experiences were markedly different.
The Central Asians integrated well into the conflict, serving alongside both Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. For example, Tajikistani former Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov rose to be a senior Islamic State commander. Large groups of Central Asians fought on the battlefield. In contrast, the few Indians who made it to the Levant had a different experience. Many received bad treatment at the hands of their Arab hosts, who tended to look down on them—reflecting the status of South Asians as poor laborers in much of the Arab world. This racism did not stop a significant number of Indians being drawn to the group, however. A more thriving community of Indian fighters made it to the conflict in Afghanistan to fight alongside ISKP there.
Since the Islamic State’s emergence, Central Asians have been involved in repeated attacks in Turkey, including the assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June 2016 and the high-profile massacre at the city’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017, as well as attacks using vehicles that were driven into crowds in 2017 in Stockholm in April, and New York City on Halloween that year, as well as an underground bombing in St. Petersburg.
For Indians, the international role has been more limited, with Indians for the most part appearing in attacks in Afghanistan and in limited numbers on the battlefield in Syria. The attack on the prison in Jalalabad follows the earlier decision by ISKP to use an Indian fighter to attack a Sikh gurdwara—a place of worship—in Kabul. Seen as “polytheists,” Sikhs are regarded as an acceptable target by the Islamic State like many other religious groups, though the decision to use an Indian attacker likely reflected a desire by the group to highlight their connection to India in particular.
The Islamic State officially announced the creation of an affiliate in India last year but has been hinting about involvement in Kashmir for years. The group was likely in part rejected by local Kashmiris who have long seen foreign Islamists as complicating factors in their struggles against the Indian state. However, it now seems as though the group is quite openly talking about its involvement. Al Naba, the Islamic State’s regular publication, recently listed the martyrdom notices of three Kashmiris who had reportedly fallen fighting for the group. These individuals join the growing numbers of Keralans and other Indians who are now reported to have died or fought alongside the Islamic State.
While the absolute numbers are small, this is an entirely new trend. Indians involved in external jihadist attacks have until now been the exception. The few Indians who pursued jihad tended to do it at home in a limited fashion, often with links across the border to Pakistan. Only a few ventured beyond, like Dhiren Barot, a British-raised Hindu convert who was close to 9/11 organizer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and was ultimately jailed for a plot to detonate a bomb in the U.K. in 2005.
This is surprising, considering that India is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim community. However, today’s new generation of jihadists, is driven by a range of economic, political, and ideological factors.
Both Central Asia and India are home to large communities of young men who go and work abroad, sending home remittances that are a crucial pillar of local economies. It is often among these diaspora communities where radicalization takes place—for the Indians in the Gulf, for the Central Asians in Russia. In the COVID-blighted world, this workflow has slowed down, hurting economies, but also creating a pool of underemployed young men at home and abroad.
This comes in the context of a tense political environment. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advanced a series of policies promoting a Hindu nationalist narrative openly hostile toward Muslims. There has since been a notable uptick in jihadist propaganda toward India. In Central Asia, governments may not be stoking the same fires, but there has been an active pursuit of political opponents across the region. While there are numerous programs in place seeking to counter violent extremism, it is not always clear how effective they are, nor is it clear they are able to deal with problems of radicalization amongst diaspora communities.
And there is the continuing question of what will happen to the fighters from these countries who went to Syria and Iraq. Some may try to come home, but others may end up fostering new networks which create problems elsewhere.
The danger is that there may be an increasing number of Indian and Central Asian links to plots outside their regions. Earlier this year, German authorities disrupted a network of Tajiks linked to cells in Albania and in contact with the Islamic State in both Afghanistan and Syria. They were reportedly under orders to launch an attack in Europe. Other Central Asian cells have been reportedly disrupted across Europe, and authorities in Ukraine have made numerous arrests of fighters fleeing the collapsing battlefield in Syria.
India has seen less such activity, though there were Indian links to the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter attacks. Like many violent Islamist extremists, a Southern Indian cell involved appears to have followed the sermons of Indian prominent extremist preacher Zakir Naik, whose speeches have helped radicalize numerous different jihadists around the world.
Most of the current attention on new terrorist groups focuses on the extreme right—something that is understandable given the deeply polarized political environment in the western world. But violent Islamist threats have not gone away, and are transforming. The story of Central Asian and Indian jihadism is one that has historically received too little attention. Emerging from domestic environments that are creating more opportunities for disenfranchisement and radicalization to take place, they are exactly the sort of threats which may slip under the radar until it is too late.