The real fight against ISIL is online—and India is struggling

The price of failure is just too high.
The price of failure is just too high.
Image: Reuters/Arko Datta
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The attacks in Paris last week are a somber reminder of how terrorism is evolving: Geographical borders and military technologies are being challenged by online propaganda. The possibility of terrorists getting radicalised in their homes far away from war zones is real—and potentially deadly.

India, like any other country today, is not immune to the effects of ISIL, a Sunni Wahhabi militant group that controls large territories in Iraq and Syria as a self-proclaimed caliphate.

“Though ISIS/ISIL has not been able to establish any significant presence in India, its success in radicalising some youth, attracting certain section of the local population/Indian diaspora… or the possibility of piggybacking on terrorist groups operating in India have opened up the possibility of ISIS-sponsored action on Indian territory,” India’s home ministry told police officials in a note, Reuters reported on Nov. 18.

The number of people from India that have tried to join ISIL is negligible, but those that have been caught display utter naivety, which is aided by the euphoric anti-Western propaganda of ISIL’s online activities. The group publishes a glossy magazine called Dabiq, releases well-produced theatrical propaganda videos, pays salaries to its jihadis and operates a quasi-state, which advertises itself as a haven for the Islamist thought process.

Indians who have been arrested—or stopped from joining ISIL—are mostly middle class and educated. And the abilities of the Indian government to counter this new threat seem to be questionable. Indian cyber intelligence has been caught off guard in cases on ISIL-related threats more than once.

Areeb Majeed, an Indian who joined ISIL in the summer of 2014 only to return and surrender by December last year, relied on the internet for his introduction to ISIL. Part of a group of four hailing from Kalyan in Maharashtra, Majeed did not have a criminal record. He confessed that his radicalisation was pushed forward by online videos, chats with like-minded people, e-books and lectures.

Salman Mohiuddin, another Indian who was nabbed before he could leave Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh for Turkey with intentions for joining ISIL in Syria, also had a clean record. The son of an engineer, and himself a graduate of an American university, Mohiuddin said he wanted to join ISIL due to the discrimination he faced in the US. He was arrested from the Hyderabad airport, not because of Indian intelligence but because of a tip-off by the Americans over his intentions, who had been monitoring his online activities.

According to an Indian Express report, Mohiuddin openly ran his group “Daula Newsroom” on Facebook talking about Western forces in the Middle East and argued that the establishment of the Islamic State was the “solution.”

A year ago, a Twitter handle—@ShamiWitness—widely known as one of ISIL’s biggest propagators on social media was unmasked by Britain’s TV network Channel 4. Mehdi Biswas, an Indian engineer working for a multinational corporation in Bengaluru, ran the account. This revelation, again, did not come from one of our security agencies but from British media.

Both @ShamiWitness and Mohiuddin raise questions on the effectiveness of India’s cyber intelligence infrastructure led by NATGRID, NTRO, Cert-In and others. 

NATGRID—or the National Intelligence Grid—connects all Indian intelligence agencies’ databases together. The National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) is a technical intelligence agency that comes directly under the ambit of the National Security Adviser and Cert-In (Indian Computer Emergency Response Team) is the main Indian agency responsible for cyber security.

India’s agencies tasked with cyber security and intelligence are riddled with deep-rooted bureaucracy, overlapping of jurisdictions leading to turf wars, and a chronic shortage of expertise and manpower.

Meanwhile, Indian intelligence is also reportedly maintaining a close eye on single males travelling to the Middle East and has certain cities and towns under the scanner for ISIL-inspired activities.

ISIL uses the internet for its media propaganda with great success, and Indian authorities need to realise the online space as the first arena to counter the group’s influence. This isn’t easy, but ISIL’s outreach should be seriously dealt with.

The group has already released India-specific material, including speeches and videos in languages such as Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and so on in the past. With broadband penetration rapidly increasing, and an even faster rise in the smartphones usage, India’s cyber security capabilities need to develop just as quickly. The price of failure is simply too high.

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