NEW DELHI: At a time when the Islamic State is being squeezed out of its strongholds such as Mosul in Iraq, members and supporters of the group have stepped up efforts to gain a toehold in India by creating a group focussed on Jammu and Kashmir.
The group, Ansarul Khilafah Jammu Kashmir, has an active channel on the encrypted messaging service Telegram that is used to disseminate the usual IS propaganda along with manuals for making weapons and planning and carrying out attacks.
In recent weeks, the channel has featured a call to Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel to defy their officers and direct their weapons at the “enemy of Muslims and Islam”. On July 5, the group put out detailed instructions on how IS supporters “on the ground in Kashmir” and “present at the clashes against the Enemies of Islam” could prepare for attacks.
On Monday, the group put out instructions in Hindi on how attacks could be carried out with large trucks, such as the ones in Nice, France and the German capital Berlin last year, along with potential targets.
The group’s emergence has coincided with the increasing adoption of Islamic State banners and flags by disaffected youngsters of Kashmir during the unrest that followed the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani a year ago.
Indian security officials insist the IS has no real presence in the Kashmir Valley and they also point to the fact that the group has not so far claimed responsibility for an attack anywhere in India.
However, they acknowledge the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has no dearth of sympathisers, including in Kashmir.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue who is one of the world’s leading experts in tracking the IS’ online activity, told Hindustan Times the terror group “definitely has an interest in South Asia, and is trying to plant a stronger hold there”.
There is a precedent of IS-linked terrorists in India forming a group named Ansarul Khilafah (soldiers of the caliphate). Last October, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) busted a group of six men from Kerala’s Kannur district who formed “Ansarul Khilafah Kerala”.
Amarasingam said such groups are “usually a mixture” of IS members based in countries such as Syria and disparate sympathisers.
On Sunday, the Telegram channel of Ansarul Khilafah Jammu Kashmir was replete with tributes to Sajad Gilkar, a slain terrorist whose body was wrapped in the IS flag at his funeral in Srinagar on Wednesday.
Since the group was created on Telegram on June 2, it has shared among its more than 100 members a number of manuals that provide information on handling weapons commonly used by terrorists, such as AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and on making suicide vests and car bombs.
Other material shared with the aim of inspiring attacks was footage from high-profile terrorist assaults around the world, including CCTV footage from inside the Taj Hotel during the Mumbai attacks.
In its instructions for IS supporters “on the ground in Kashmir” to organise themselves for attacks, there was a call for uniting all groups under one banner and choosing an ‘ameer’ (leader).
The instructions included assigning tasks among members, including the ‘mujahid’ (fighters), a “medical man” capable of dealing with injuries, “scouts” to carry out assessments before and after attacks, members who could “raise funds without raising attention” and “media man”, who “takes photos or videos of the attack (make sure to blur faces of fellow brothers) and propagate” the material on social media.
In another message posted on July 7, the group called on Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel to “distance yourselves from aiding Kuffar and their agents with Muslim names (CM etc and your officers)”.
Amarasingam believes law enforcement should take online communities such as Ansarul Khilafah Jammu and Kashmir “pretty seriously”.
“Sometimes they are small, but that doesn’t mean these groups are not made up of committed followers. If they are already sharing attack logistics and bomb-making materials, it’s only a matter of time before someone takes these tips and carries out something. I would hope that law enforcement has infiltrated these online spaces, but in my experience, that’s not always the case,” he said.
Animesh Roul, executive director of Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, a New Delhibased think tank, said there were indications of several fringe groups in Kashmir that “subscribed to the caliphate and its ideals”. “We don’t know their actual strength…A large coordinated attack needs a lot of planning and that may not be immediate. But we need to be careful as the IS does have sympathisers in India and their ideology is expanding as the group looks to spread elsewhere after the fall of strongholds like Mosul,” he said.