Vulnerabilities and Resistance to Islamist Radicalization in India

By Ajai Sahni | Executive Director - Institute for Conflict Management | Jan 12, 2015
Vulnerabilities and Resistance to Islamist Radicalization in India
Al-Qa'ida's Ayman al-Zawahri.

This series explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More ...


India has long remained an enigma within the discourse on the Islamist extremism and terrorism that have afflicted widening areas of the world. The emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its appeal to significant numbers of radicalized Muslims have highlighted ambiguities surrounding the role of these ideologies in India. Fighters from at least 82 countries are said to have joined ISIS. Western countries with tiny Muslim populations and long-standing programs intended to counter the trends toward radicalization of Muslims[1] have found that scores—even hundreds—of their citizens are involved in the fighting in Iraq and Syria.[2] By comparison, India, with a Muslim population of about 176 million[3] (well over twice the total population of Europe), has seen an estimated 18 radicalized Muslims join ISIS in Iraq-Syria.[4]

At the same time, India has a long tradition of radical Islamism and is the source of some of the most influential ideologies that currently dominate both regional terrorism in South Asia and global jihad.[5] For instance, the Darul Uloom Deoband, a religious seminary located in western Uttar Pradesh in India since 1867, has been widely viewed as the ideological fountainhead of the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, and Jaish-e-Muhammad―Pakistan-based terrorist formations operating against India. The ulama of the Darul Uloom Deoband have, however, explicitly repudiated all connection with these groups and their ideologies, declaring that “there is no place for terrorism in Islam” and that it is an “unpardonable sin.”[6]

Similarly, Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most virulent terrorist groups in South Asia, proclaims adherence to the Ahl-e-Hadith, a relatively small movement that has recently benefited from Saudi support and represents one of the most radicalized elements among Sunni fundamentalist factions in the region.[7] Inspired by Sayyed Ahmed Shaheed of Rae Bareli (in the present Indian State of Uttar Pradesh), who fought the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh from 1826 to 1831 in the Peshawar region, the movement is enormously influential in Pakistan but has no more than a trace presence in India.

Perhaps the most influential Islamist revivalist ideological stream in South Asia is represented by the Jamaat-e-Islami and its founder, Abu Ala Mawdudi, who, with Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, is regarded by many as the ideological precursor of the contemporary movement of global jihad. Mawdudi articulated what Vali Reza Nasr has described as a “binary vision” that divided the world into “Islam and ‘un-Islam.’”[8]

The erection of communal boundaries and the search for identity in Mawdudi’s works increasingly cast the world in terms of good and evil, converting history into an arena for an apocalyptic battle between the two.[9]

Mawdudi gave primacy to jihad over and above all the other duties imposed by Islam. The four pillars of Islam (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage), he said, were “acts of worship… ordained to prepare us for a greater purpose and to train us for a greater duty…” This duty was jihad.[10] “If you are true followers of Islam,” he added, “you can neither submit to any other Din nor can you make Islam a partner of it. If you believe Islam to be true, you have no alternative but to exert your utmost strength to make it prevail on earth: you either establish it or give your lives in this struggle.”[11] His notion of din, significantly, covered all ways of life and political orders. Islam was, in this conception, in irreducible conflict with all nationalisms as well as with every form of governance other than the law of Shariah.[12] The Jamaat-e-Islami has been one of the dominant forces of radicalization in Pakistan and in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Within India, the Jamaat ideology has also influenced the terrorist Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), and Indian Mujahideen. Nevertheless, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind rejects all linkages with these groups, including SIMI, which it created as its student wing in 1977, but which it expelled in 1981 due to SIMI’s increasing radicalization. The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, however, remains intimately connected with the Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu and Kashmir.

Crucially, India’s engagement with Islamist extremist terrorism over the past two and a half decades has resulted mainly from a proxy war waged by Pakistani state agencies via a succession of sarkari jihadi formations (officially-sponsored terrorist groups). These groups have been unleashed principally by the Pakistan Army and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, though they are directly or implicitly supported by Islamabad's periodic “democratic” governments as well.[13] Controlling and dominating these formations’ activities became part of the nationalist strategic calculus of Pakistani state agencies, from which the formations received aid and prominence in proportion to the loyalty and obedience they demonstrated. However, Pakistan’s calculus was relatively predictable, limited, and susceptible to strategic countermeasures. Although the ideology of extremist Islamism and jihad was exploited to direct terrorism against India, it was harnessed to the limited strategic and territorial ambitions of the state agencies that supervised the terrorist formations. Religious principles were quickly diluted or abandoned if circumstances or assessments of state interest so demanded, and sarkari jihadi groups were swiftly demoted, sometimes decimated, if they sought to evolve agendas or ambitions of their own. By its very character, consequently, the state-sponsored jihad was limited in its objectives and operations.

The evolution of global jihad, spearheaded by non-state actors, albeit with significant and complex overlaps with a number of state players, has radically altered this calculus, introducing millenarian objectives and the acceptance of limitless violence. Al-Qa‘ida (AQ) leaders, including Osama bin Laden, saw themselves as catalysts who would provoke other Muslims to accept the objectives of global jihad and act independently for their attainment. These leaders planned catastrophic terrorist acts on an unprecedented scale—including the pursuit of nuclear and chemical weapons capabilities—in order to propagate their ideology. 

ISIS has now taken the AQ doctrine to a new level of barbarity, which it has projected worldwide in astonishingly successful and sophisticated Internet and media campaigns. K.P.S. Gill speaks of “the tremendous magnetism that both its [ISIS’s] successes and its excesses have exercised over the imagination of Muslim youth across the world . . . [which indicates] that much worse is to come.”[14]

These risks cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, assessments must be tempered with reality, and there is no reason to believe some of the more sensational projections that followed the announcements that AQ and ISIS had brought India into the scope of their ambitions. The realization of any threat potential―and a potential certainly exists―is a function of both intent and capacities, operating in a complex and dynamic interface. It is clear that the intent to escalate jihadi terrorism in India exists; thus capacities are the key to a realistic assessment of the threat.

Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism in India has seen dramatic declines since 2001.[15] Pakistan's ideological hostility to India remains unchanged, but circumstances have forced a dilution of capacity, at least to the point where Islamabad is willing to accept somewhat delayed gratification regarding its expansionist goals. There are multiple causes for this weakening, including the transformation of the international context and a sharp diminution in the global tolerance of terror after 9/11; a shift in Islamabad’s priorities to the Afghan theater, where Pakistan sees a window of opportunity after the withdrawal of U.S.-NATO forces; the rising blowback of domestic terrorism; and the progressive dilution of Pakistan’s influence as an “aspirational state” among Indian Muslims. Nevertheless, the reserve armies of state-sponsored jihadis remain and flourish under the patronage of the ISI. An abrupt escalation or catastrophic terrorist attack is, consequently, well within the means of Pakistani state proxies.

On September 3, 2014, AQ amir Ayman al-Zawahri released a video declaring the creation of al-Qa‘ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).[16] Eminent Indian experts were particularly agitated by the fact that Zawahri’s declaration specifically mentioned three Indian states—Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, and Assam—and that these would thus become immediate targets of recruitment and of AQ’s brand of hyperterrorism.

As a declaration of intent, Zawahri’s statement cannot be ignored. To the extent that a new organization has been formed with a particular objective to advance jihad in the Indian sub-continent, it must be taken seriously. Nevertheless, it is necessary to moderate assessments with the recognition that India has been unsuccessfully targeted by AQ at least since 1996, when Osama bin Laden included the country among the regions where Muslims were living under “oppression” and which therefore qualified as legitimate theaters for jihad.[17] Several AQ statements have referred to India since, and in 2006, bin Laden articulated the theory of the global “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu conspiracy” against Muslims, concluding, “It is the duty for the Ummah with all its categories, men, women, and youths, to give away themselves, their money, experiences and all types of material support, enough to establish jihad, particularly in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kashmir, and Chechnya [italics added]."[18] Nevertheless, in June 2013 Maulana Asim Umar, now head of AQIS, released a video titled “Why is there no Storm in your Ocean?”[19] lamenting the trickle of Indian Muslims to join global jihad.

In sum, the creation of AQIS only reiterates numerous earlier declarations of intent and attempts to provoke Indian Muslims to join the so-called jihad. Importantly, AQ has no operational capacities of its own in India. Though several Pakistani groups as well as the Indian Mujahideen, which operate in India, have accepted its ideological leadership, this has been the case for several years now and has had no significant impact on the trajectory of Islamist terrorism in India. It is unlikely that AQ, in its current state of disorganization and under Zawahri’s leadership, can achieve more than it could at its zenith under the far more charismatic Osama bin Laden, operating in the flush of the “great victory” of 9/11.

ISIS is a relatively recent entrant into the sub-continental scenario, backed by apparently spectacular victories in Iraq and Syria as well as a horrifying record of atrocities proudly projected across the world through the Internet and other media. Commentators have tended to ignore the specifics of each of these elements and instead have responded only to their cumulative emotive impact. Difficulties of assessment have been further compounded by the quick succession of worrying news reports within India. After Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement that India is a target destination of ISIS jihad, there followed a flurry of reports of Indian youth travelling—or trying to travel—to Iraq-Syria to join ISIS.[20] Furthermore, a handful of pro-ISIS demonstrations were reported from Jammu and Kashmir[21] and Tamil Nadu,[22] and some posters and propaganda materials have also been recovered from different locations.[23] Developments in Pakistan also indicate a growing ISIS threat. According to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), there are over 300 Indians in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and factions within TTP are drawing close to ISIS.[24] ISIS’s aggressive social media policy is also likely to attract at least some of the fringe of the radical fringe elements among Indian Muslims. Nevertheless, ISIS’s appeal in India has thus far had a remarkably modest impact.

Much of this may change over the coming months and years. ISIS has adopted a high—indeed, terminal—risk strategy and has to chalk up a relentless succession of victories if it is to continue to seduce radical Muslims around the world. However, the core elements that have contributed to its success are themselves problematic for its future, as the ISIS juggernaut in Iraq-Syria approaches its natural (ethnic-sectarian) boundaries. ISIS’s brutal excesses have isolated it even within the radicalized Muslim world and have drawn some of the most powerful nations into the war against it. Moreover, while a tiny minority of Muslims has been enthused by the declaration of a caliphate, a majority, including the leaders of the orthodox Sunni powers, find this step deeply offensive, further compounding ISIS’s progressive exclusion. While the continued spotlight on ISIS’s acts of barbarity by international media may win the group occasional recruits, this can only contribute to the eventual hardening of the global intent to destroy the organization and its leadership―and, despite the still halfhearted interventions of Western powers, elements of the ISIS establishment and leadership have already been successfully targeted in drone operations. ISIS will, consequently, be increasingly targeted and degraded, just as AQ has been since 9/11. In short, ISIS constitutes an ongoing but limited threat to India.

Indian intelligence and enforcement agencies have recorded some extraordinary successes in the identification and management of radicalized youth within the country. Many who sought to go to Iraq-Syria to join ISIS were identified and, in a velvet glove response, returned to their homes, convinced that such a course of action was not in their or their community’s interests, and no charges were pressed. Further, the potential for battle-hardened cadres returning undetected from Iraq-Syria to create havoc in India is limited, since their movements would likely be tracked. Recruitment via the Internet remains a concern, as ISIS, AQ, and other radical Islamist groupings are increasingly using this medium to reach out to Muslims in India, and they are meeting with at least some success. But the Internet can also be a critical part of the solution. Augmented capacities for monitoring recruitment attempts can provide advance warning and create opportunities to act against those who are tempted to join extremist forces, or to disrupt those who use the Internet for recruitment and the planning of terrorist acts. The current Indian government's declarations indicate ample awareness of both the risk and the potential in this regard, and there have been some policy announcements demonstrating the intention to greatly augment monitoring capabilities,[25] though the scale and pace of implementation remains to be seen.

The principal threat to India remains the Pakistani state and its proxies, since this source can more efficiently transfer organized terrorist cells to Indian soil than any non-state formation. The networks of Pakistan-backed terrorist groups have, however, been largely dismantled in India over recent years, and it is unlikely that they can easily be restored to past capabilities. The risk of a catastrophic strike persists, however, and India's vulnerabilities are significant. Most importantly, the internal security apparatus remains ill-equipped, ill-trained, and under-strength.[26]

In conclusion, India’s Muslims have not been easily seduced by Islamist extremist ideologies. The Muslim community in India is integrally related to, and interacts constantly with, people of other faiths. In such a situation, it is difficult to dehumanize the “other” and to condemn all members of other faiths to death and eternal damnation. A broad culture of religious tolerance—not just the political and legal context of secularism—also moderates religious perspectives. The critical element of India’s abiding success against radical Islamist mobilization, despite the limitations of its security services, has been the constitutional and civilizational underpinnings of secularism within the country. It is, of course, the case that Indian society and politics are yet to become “socially and emotionally secular,”[27] despite constitutional secularism and long histories of co-existence—and periodic communal conflagrations are evidence of this. Nevertheless, as Pakistani scholar and politician Husain Haqqani notes, “India’s secular democratic constitution empowers the country’s Muslims more than their co-religionists in Muslim majority states,”[28] and structural and cultural factors constrain even radical players from their greatest excesses.

[1]     K.P.S. Gill, “Dangers of a Deepening Dark,” South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 13 No.19, September 1, 2014,

[2]     All figures for Muslim populations in European countries are from “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Region – Europe,” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2011,  Norway, for instance, with an estimated 144,000 Muslims, had seen about 40-50 fighters join ISIS by February 2014. By May 2014, an estimated 100 fighters had gone from Denmark, which has a Muslim population of 226,000, and the same number had left from Sweden, with a Muslim population of 451,000. Austria had supplied 60 fighters out of a Muslim population of 475,000. Other countries with larger Muslim populations have sent even greater numbers: 500 from the UK, which has 2.87 million Muslims; about 300 from Germany, which has 4.12 million Muslims; and over 700 from France, which has 4.7 million Muslims. See Martin Chulov and Josh Halliday, “British Isis Militant in James Foley Video ‘Guards Foreign Hostages in Syria,’” The Guardian, August 20, 2014, and Richard Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” The Soufan Group, June 2014,

[3]     Drew Desilver, “World’s Muslim Population More Widespread Than You Might Think,” Pew Research Center, June 7, 2013,

[4]     “Authorities track 18 Indian jihadists in Iraq fighting alongside ISIS militants,” Daily Bhaskar, July 9, 2014,

[5]     See Ajai Sahni, “India,” World Almanac of Islamism, The American Foreign Policy Council, September 2013,

[6]     “Darool-Uloom Deoband Says Terrorism is Anti-Islam,” Reuters, February 26, 2008,

[7]     Sahni, “India.”

[8]     Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, Mawdudi & the Making of Islamic Revivalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 51-52.

[9]     Nasr, Mawdudi, 51.

[10]    Maulana Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, Fundamentals of Islam, ed. Khurram Murad (New Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami Publishers, 2002), 285.

[11]    Maududi, Fundamentals of Islam, 296.

[12]    Maududi, Fundamentals of Islam, 296-302.

[13]    See Ajai Sahni, “Extremist Islamist Terror and Subversion,” in K.P.S. Gill and Ajai Sahni, eds., The Global Threat of Terror: Ideological, Political and Material Linkages (New Delhi: Bulwark Books, 2002). Also at

[14]    Gill, “Dangers of a Deepening Dark.”

[15]    See Ajai Sahni, “South Asia: Controlled Contagion,” South Asia Intelligence Review 12, 40 (April 7, 2014),

[16]    Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda Opens Branch in the 'Indian Subcontinent,’” The Long War Journal (September 3, 2014),

[17]    Foreign Broadcast Information Service, “Compilation of Usama bin Laden Statements, 1994-January 2004,” 2004, 14,; “Bin Laden Declares Jihad on Americans,” Al Islah (Arabic), September 2, 1996.

[18]    “Transcript: Bin Laden Accuses West,” Al Jazeera, April 23, 2006,

[19]    See

[20]    “India Promises US to Check Youth Joining ISIS,” Hindustan Times, October 1, 2014,

[21]   Ajith Vijay Kumar, “Ominous Sign: Islamic State Flags Seen in Kashmir,” Zee News, October 13, 2014,

[22]   D. J. Walter Scott, “Imam Held for Supplying T-shirts with ISIS slogan,” The Hindu, August 6, 2014,

[23]   Mugdha Variyar, “Pro-ISIS Poster Seen in Kerala Capital; BJP Office Gets Letter Warning Modi Over Visit,” International Business Times, October 29, 2014,

[24]    “Pak Taliban, ISIS Recruit 300 plus Indians: NIA Dossier,” First Post, August 29, 2014,

[25]    Rajnish Sharma, “MHA Wants Cyber Unit in Each District,” Asian Age, June 19, 2014,

[26]    Ajai Sahni, “India: Ever Unready,” South Asia Intelligence Review 12, 39 (March 31, 2014),

[27]    Partha S. Ghosh, “Demographic Trends of Muslim Population in India: Implications for National Security,” Demographic Dynamics in South Asia and Their Implications on Indian Security (New Delhi: Institute for Conflict Management, 2006 [unpublished manuscript]), 29.

[28]    Husain Haqqani, “India’s Islamist Groups,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 3 (February 16, 2006): 22,