Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR)
In the months succeeding the announcement of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, analysts were confounded by the large number of Muslims across the region who travelled to fight in Iraq and Syria. Their motivations to join the group ranged from wanting to topple the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, helping the local populations resisting Assad’s war crimes, supporting the caliphate project, the lure of money and/or “jihadi brides”, and the excitement of adventure among others.
At its peak, ISIS commanded almost 30,000 foreign fighters. Apart from some Arab states, Europe was the most significant contributor to the conflict with countries such as Denmark providing close to 3,000 fighters, despite a tiny population of just one million Muslims.
Against this backdrop, it remains a surprise to many analysts that Indian Muslims—comprising more than 150 million people, with seemingly significant push factors, such as a Hindu nationalist government with its attendant various forms discrimination—only witnessed about 100 people travelling to partake in the Syrian jihad. A host of reasons have played a role in limiting the Indian foreign fighter flow. The Indian government’s cyber operations against potential jihadi recruits and the Indian-Muslim identity that is (relatively) well-entrenched in a secular ethos are aspects that have been covered to some degree. The historic and logistical aspects are more underexplored areas of research.
THE AFGHAN JIHAD AND THE ROLE OF HISTORY
The Afghan jihad of the 1980’s has played a subtle but important role in limiting Indian foreign fighters from taking root in the region. During the 1980’s, the Afghan jihad drew in close to 20,000 foreign fighters to fight the Soviet Union’s occupation and atrocities in Afghanistan.
Most foreign fighters were, at least tacitly, supported by their respective governments in waging a war that was effectively alongside the United States against the U.S.S.R. in the context of the Cold War. Countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen ended up making the largest “contributions” to the anti-Soviet foreign fighter stream. This movement of fighters came with considerable security challenges later, once the Red Army was out of Afghanistan.
The transmission of the “Arab-Afghans” in particular into larger, global projects, with regional manifestations in places like Algeria, has been well-understood for some time, but terrorist groups more locally, like Jamaat ud-Daawa and its subsidiary Lashkar e-Taiba and Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which currently reside in Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively, are the South Asian remnants of the Afghan jihad.
India’s Muslims were always a case apart. They had their own internal issues with the state, notably the rise of Hindu Right-wing extremism and civil rights cases such as the Shah Bano judgement of 1986.
Moreover, India was quietly aligned with the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War and specifically over the Afghan conflict. As such, Delhi was opposed to the travel of Muslim insurgents into Afghanistan. In compliance with the alliance between mainstream Indian-Muslim organizations and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, prominent organizations like the Deoband forbade Indian-Muslims from partaking in the conflict.
The lasting impact of India’s Muslims largely staying out of Afghanistan in the 1980s was to deprive the Indian Islamist community of important parts of the ideological cross-pollination that led to Salafi-jihadism and, at a practical level, of insurgent expertise and the contacts that would have led to stronger, more globally-connected jihadist networks in India.
As jihadist networks expanded around the world in the 1990s and early 2000s, very few appeared in India, and the stronger homegrown groups that did crop up were swiftly disbanded or otherwise neutralized. This dearth of a global jihadist milieu meant that aspiring jihadists in India, in the age of ISIS, had greater difficulty finding a route to the Levant.
The logistical difficulties for Indians to travel to Syria during the conflict were and are significant. Where European Muslims were able to join the conflict in Iraq and Syria by taking an inexpensive airplane ticket to Turkey, the process for Indians to travel abroad in general is laborious and the ordeal of obtaining a Turkish visa was itself a deterrent.
Obtaining travel visas from India to Turkey requires extensive documentation, a sizeable bank balance, return air tickets, hotel bookings, and a complete travel itinerary—all of which proved quite the impediment for aspiring jihadists. Visa difficulties were also further compounded by the overall low passport ownership rate (5% as of 2017) in India.
Then there is the fact that, unlike in Europe, more than 70% of Indian-Muslims are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, with an average household income below 200 USD a year. This level of income meant acquiring both a passport and a Turkish visa were even more challenging.
These significant psychological and financial barriers to Indian-Muslims travelling abroad were among the reasons that few made the journey to ISIS’s “caliphate”.
INDIAN MUSLIM IDENTITY AND ITS INTERACTIONS WITH LAW AND ORDER
As propounded by scholars like Adil Rasheed, it is also important to realize that Indian-Muslims have already rejected the creation of a polity where Islam is the basis, by choosing to stay in India rather than move to Pakistan in 1947-48, and this decision has been reinforced by the trajectory of events ever since. As such, the ISIS caliphate project, based in far off Iraq and Syria, had even less traction for Indian-Muslims and the clerical establishment which viewed it as an abstract idea.
The development of an Indian-Muslim identity within the framework of an officially secular and democratic state, with the example of a failing and menacing Islamic state next door, has helped to embed peaceful conduct. For instance, multiple Islamic religious movements across India, no matter how “extreme”, from the Deobandis to Jamaat e-Islami and the Salafists to the Sufi Barelvis, have condemned violence and participation in foreign conflicts, arguing instead for deeper participation in the Indian democratic process. Indeed, the December 2019 protests in India saw Muslims across the nation peacefully dissenting against the Indian government, advocating the protection of the constitution.
This tradition in Subcontinental Islam is centuries old, beginning even before the British Raj. The theological sanction for a Muslim presence (and pride) in India was developed by an Indian clerical establishment that, if nothing else, had an interest in ensuring that Muslim rulers were able to govern vast populations of Hindus without continuous strife.
The habits of thought and practice that trickled down from this clerical tradition among the large (often fifty-plus member) families in India meant that interventions to block or report would-be foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) were generally successful. And such community policing techniques gave the government structures to work with when designed counter-extremism measures, such as was seen in the state of Kerala in 2018. In combination with cyber disinformation campaigns and other efforts by the Indian intelligence bureau, many people were dissuaded from travelling to join ISIS.
BEYOND THE USUAL STEREOTYPES
Analysts studying the relative absence of Indian jihadists in Syria and Iraq tend to over-emphasize simplistic explanations, such as the Sufi practise of Islam in India or the greater inter-religious harmony of that country as opposed to most of its neighbours. However, such two-dimensional narratives elide the dynamics laid out above—historical, logistical, familial.
As countries struggle to prevent citizens becoming FTFs or to deal with returning FTFs, it is important to have an accurate picture of all cases in order to craft better policy. Accordingly, analysis on FTFs presence would significantly benefit from a multi-dimensional study of all the factors that facilitate—or prevent—people travelling to participate in foreign conflict zones.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.