Why you should care
Because the world’s largest democracy may have seen the start of something frightening.
Ejaz Majeed was torn between twin fears as he entered the local police station in his suburban Mumbai neighborhood of Kalyan on May 26, 2014. One day earlier, Majeed, a practitioner of traditional Indian medicine, had been preparing for work when his 22-year-old son, Areeb, called. Areeb had left home the previous evening saying he was visiting a friend. Now, he told his father he was in Abu Dhabi, en route to Baghdad for a pilgrimage. He wouldn’t say when he would return. Majeed worried his son might have joined the Islamic State. But he feared meeting with police, who might treat Areeb as a fleeing criminal rather than as a young man potentially in need of help.
Despite that fear, Majeed walked to the Bazarpeth police station half a kilometer from his house. When, a week later, Kalyan Police investigators confirmed that Areeb and three friends who had traveled with him had joined the Islamic State — becoming the first Indians to do so, according to the National Investigation Agency, India’s premier counterterrorism body — Majeed wrote to federal home minister Rajnath Singh, seeking an appointment. On July 19, Majeed traveled to New Delhi to ask Singh to help bring Areeb back. Photos from the meeting show Singh placing his hand on Majeed’s shoulder reassuringly. “I knew my son would want to come back,” Majeed recalls today. “He would realize he had made a mistake. And I trusted the police and government would help.”
This was hardly the sort of dealing that police officers, let alone the home minister, might have had with the father of a suspected terrorist a year earlier. Home ministers receive hundreds of letters a week from citizens seeking an appointment, and their offices rarely reply. But the authorities’ response to Majeed’s call for help marked a turning point in Indian security policy. Investigators from the NIA helped Areeb return from the Middle East to Mumbai in November, weeks after Areeb called Majeed from a Syrian number, asking to come home. The government assisted Areeb in obtaining emergency travel documents to reenter India from Istanbul a month after his call to his father. Areeb’s became the first IS case the NIA registered.
After that, an unofficial but successful coalition formed between the government, the Muslim community and families of IS recruits. Indian police departments were once famous for rounding up suspects en masse in the wake of a terrorist attack, locking up both the innocent and guilty (for as much as a decade in some cases), as the courts moved leisurely toward trials. But now authorities adopted a softer approach: They detained suspects but offered counseling and so-called de-radicalization sessions, where clerics deliver moderate Islamic messages, officers decode traps set out by IS to lure vulnerable youth and religious leaders and authorities both lay out alternative future prospects. (Home ministry spokesperson K. S. Dhatwalia did not respond to emailed queries. The Kalyan police officers Majeed spoke with in May 2014 were unavailable.)
You can experiment when the threat is distant. You can’t when it is local and possibly imminent.
—Ajai Sahni, counterterrorism expert at the South Asia Terrorism Portal
It seemed to work. By May 2016, only 24 out of India’s 170 million Muslims had traveled to the Middle East to join IS, according to NIA estimates. Those numbers match the data of Ajai Sahni, a counterterrorism expert who runs the independent South Asia Terrorism Portal. By contrast, up to 5,000 recruits from Europe were fighting for IS. Experts and law enforcement officials estimate that nearly 500 young men and women who were identified as influenced by IS propaganda have received the counseling and de-radicalization sessions across the country. The NIA tracks them and found that none have attempted to join IS subsequently. “There’s little doubt the approach India followed then played a role in this success,” says Shweta Desai, a counterterrorism analyst at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Land Warfare Studies.
But now, the images of India’s home minister patting scared fathers on their shoulders, investigators coordinating strategies with imams and police officers handing over potential IS recruits to parents have begun fading. The country is embracing more traditional antiterror tactics: arrests, months-long interrogations, discouraging judges from granting bail. One indication of the increased threat perception is evident in the number of IS investigations the NIA has taken on. The federal government asks the NIA to pursue only investigations it views as the most serious — the rest are left to regional police. The agency was assigned a single IS-related investigation each in 2014 and 2015, NIA spokesperson Alok Mittal says, but 15 cases in 2016. The agency has registered two IS cases in 2017 so far, he adds, and in all has arrested 63 people in these 19 cases. Sahni’s data suggest more than 100 Indians have now joined the terror group, though NIA officials said they are unconvinced about any correlation.
When Areeb set out to fight for IS, he was moving toward a war ostensibly far from his own physical homeland. Today, there have been no attacks on Indian soil claimed by the Islamic State; no truck attacks, shootings in music arenas and football stadiums or bombs on subway carriages. But authorities say they are spotting more cases involving IS sympathizers plotting attacks on Indian soil. That they are inspired by IS to carry out attacks in India is bad enough, say experts. “You can experiment when the threat is distant,” says Sahni. “You can’t when it is local and possibly imminent.”
At Singh’s home ministry, the brief softening of 2014 now appears a potential liability. An official there blurts out his nightmare scenario: What if IS recruits use de-radicalization efforts to identify counterterrorism officers and then target them? He refers to IS-inspired attacks on soldiers and security personnel in Toronto and London as he swivels nervously in his chair. In him and in other government officials and cops, one hears the ring of an increasingly global fear — that the hand of the Islamic State is no longer restricted to war-torn zones in Syria, that it is penetrating borders, reaching Nice and London and San Bernardino and Manchester. It must not reach Delhi, a rising chorus in the Indian capital asserts. If that means a return to old habits, they say, so be it.
Dressed in white kurta pajamas and wearing a graying beard, 53-year-old Maulana Mahmood Madani cautions that the authorities risk losing a valuable partner. Madani, the general secretary of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, India’s largest group of Islamic clerics, is in his office at the organization’s red sandstone headquarters in central Delhi, where he’s occasionally interrupted by aides carrying messages. A vocal critic of the use of Islam as a cover by terrorist groups, his voice turns stern as he speaks of IS and why Indian Islam is different.
Most Indian Muslims hail from one of two schools of thought — the Barelvi and Deobandi ideologies, named after cities in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Both strains grew out of the 19th-century anticolonial movement, influenced by Sufi traditions, and are publicly disdainful of the Wahhabi ideology that is believed to have influenced groups like IS and al-Qaeda. “They’ve corrupted Islam,” says Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella body of Indian Islamic organizations, speaking of Wahhabi thought. “What can we learn from them?” For both schools, the concept of a global Islamic “ummah” or fraternity — that IS propagates — is alien, says Madani; most Indian Muslims do not dream of a caliphate but are likelier to practice their faith as a private element of a secular state. (Madani’s Jamiat oppose
For India, the IS threat is novel, but terrorism isn’t. A secessionist movement in Muslim-majority Kashmir exploded into terrorist violence in the 1980s and has worried India since. Sikh separatists in the 1980s planted bombs on buses and bikes. And starting with serial blasts in Mumbai in 1993 following the demolition of a major mosque, India has witnessed sporadic terror attacks through the past two decades. But each of those movements has remained local. Kashmir’s fight has never attracted Muslim fighters from the rest of India. No known Indians have moved beyond their borders to join the Afghan mujahedeen, the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Those groups also attracted just a handful of Western fighters — only 14 Americans are known to have been part of al-Qaeda, for instance — relying mostly on Arab and Pakistani volunteers.
But IS, with its use of technology and social media to lure disenchanted youth to the dream of a caliphate, has proven different — in other countries, and now in India too. “The earlier groups had more defined political goals — the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or revenge against the U.S. and Israel — and were limited in their territorial ambitions,” says Sahni. “IS is an expansionist force, which makes its pitch of a caliphate attractive to some. And it doesn’t have a sharp political goal, so anyone can marry their grievances to the IS narrative.”
India’s de-radicalization efforts, by contrast, have thrived at regional and local levels, far from the nebula of that IS narrative. These programs left regional police officers with greater authority than most would expect in a terror case. In August 2014, police in the southern city of Hyderabad foiled a plot by 23 young men to travel to Syria and Iraq to join IS, detained six but arrested none, citing the absence of any actual contact between them and IS leaders. After sessions similar to the ones Shadab went through, they released the men. As late as August 2015, the federal home ministry advised states to keep arrests as the option of last resort.
Some critics had cautioned that giving local officers the discretion to label someone a terror threat or not was dangerous. But the act of dismissing someone from the highest threat levels is a surprisingly humane and local one — it was in the case of now 24-year-old Shadab Mohammad. Two years ago, Mohammad developed a habit of downloading IS-supporting pamphlets. When Mohammed’s parents noticed his internet activity, they approached the authorities in their hometown of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.
The police first directed the parents to a Muslim cleric who held five sessions with him, recounts Shadab. The cleric showed Shadab portions of the Koran to convince the young man that the IS was mangling the religious text’s messages to suit its interests. Next, a police officer visited Shadab and showed him how many of the videos IS sympathizers were sharing online were doctored to exaggerate both the alleged victimization of Muslims and the terror group’s military successes. Finally, the police helped the then-unemployed Shadab land a spot in a government vocational training program, where he learned auditing skills. Shadab now works with a chartered accountant. “My life was saved,” he says, sighing deeply. “I don’t know if I would even be alive otherwise.”
When Areeb left for Iraq in May 2014, IS was a fringe concern for the newly elected Narendra Modi government. The group had yet to issue any specific threat against India. Then, in July 2014, it abducted 40 Indian workers from a construction site for the Iraqi government in Mosul. “We couldn’t ignore the danger anymore,” says Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the minister for minority affairs. “We couldn’t allow IS to take root in India.”
And yet, at the time, IS remained far from India’s borders, and law enforcement officials felt sympathizers could be dealt with differently — an approach driven politically by home minister Singh, who was widely viewed as a moderate in Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. Aggressive arrests may have only given some Muslim men added motivation to join IS, India concluded. “It saved these young men and women from seven years in jail, the average time a terror suspect spends in prison in India,” says Desai, the counterterrorism analyst, who has researched India’s shifting strategies against IS. “If we had started arresting everyone, that would have had a massive blowback.” Multireligious India was also wary of being seen as pitching itself into a regional sectarian conflict, Aswini Mohapatra, a professor in West Asian studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, explains.
Relying purely on law enforcement would always be a “reactive approach,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center for National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law, especially when dealing with young men and women. “Law enforcement has to be just one of your tools. You also need to reach out to communities, identify vulnerable youth and help them deal with their challenges.” She adds, “I think giving up on the softer, interventionist measures may be a mistake.”
Many Muslim leaders agree with Greenberg. Khan of the Majlis sees the government’s new — or revived — attitude as just as sweeping and indiscriminate as what the experts warned against. “No one knows who is genuinely guilty and who is being framed.” (The Supreme Court of India had criticized these traditional tactics in May 2014.)
Today, parents are rarely involved in the affairs of their radicalized children. In April, Maharashtra stopped its de-radicalization program, worried about exposing the identities of its counterterror sleuths. The federal NIA — rather than local police — respond swiftly to any whiff of the Islamic State. In February 2016, a man delivered pro-caliphate speeches near New Delhi; in March 2016, a sales clerk in western India’s Rajasthan used Facebook and messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram to encourage people to join IS. The NIA swooped down on them both within days.
These policy shifts have swung Areeb’s own fate. For a year after his son’s return, Majeed remained confident the now 25-year-old would be released soon. But the NIA has successfully opposed bail for Areeb, telling the courts that he returned with the intent to carry out attacks in India. The NIA filed formal charges of terrorism against Areeb on April 27 – nearly two and a half years after he was arrested. “They’re destroying him,” says a bitter and worried Majeed. “If he was a hardened terrorist, why would he come back to his family?”
But the authorities have a clear argument for the retightened security: Since the 1993 Mumbai blasts, India has seen 73 attacks on its own soil, killing 1,811 people. “We’ve learned these lessons at a heavy cost,” says Sahni. Not all Muslim leaders are critical of the shift either. The NIA’s top counterterrorism professionals are better equipped to interrogate suspects, while untrained local cops could indulge in interrogation excess, they argue. “The NIA is doing its job, and should be allowed to do so,” says Zafar Sareshwala, chancellor of India’s largest Urdu university, in Hyderabad.
In Delhi, the desire to put security above all else appears understandable. The Indian capital alone has suffered seven terror attacks since 2000 — targeting India’s Parliament, the iconic Red Fort, the High Court, Israeli diplomats and markets crowded during a festival — that have claimed 135 lives. But terrorism is also about instilling fear in nations near and far, dividing societies and turning people against each other. Majeed no longer has faith in investigators, says Farhana Shah, his lawyer. Delhi’s return to old tactics and Maharashtra’s decision to end its de-radicalization program suggest the government’s trust in community partners is declining too. New Delhi’s officers and Majeed share something else now: suspicion and fear.