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Breaking ISIS Web

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“The ISIS has demonstrated its capacity to efficiently use cyberspace for a variety of purposes, including radicalisation. In addition to its own cadres, a large number of sympathisers continue to proliferate on the Web.”

By Shanthie Mariet D’Souza *

Mehdi Masroor Biswas’ was indeed a curious case. For several months, the 24-year-old engineer was working as a manufacturing executive with a multinational firm in Bengaluru.

He was handling the pro-jihad Twitter account @ShamiWitness that had supposedly become a source of incitement and information for the new recruits of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Biswas, who had never been to Syria, posed as a Libyan living in the United Kingdom to his followers, and retweeted many Arabic posts translated into English with the alleged intent of becoming a “strategist” for the ISIS. Till his arrest, the Twitter handle, now closed, had 17,700 followers.

In May 2014, four young men hailing from Maharashtra’s Kalyan district, joined the ISIS. All in their 20s, these youths left for Haj and disappeared. Then one of the youths, Majid, who returned to the country after several months, was arrested. He reportedly told the investigators that he and his friends were indoctrinated through Internet chat rooms. It was through an intermediary on Facebook that Majid was first introduced to a contact in Mosul, Iraq, who served as a local point person for guiding these youths to join ISIS camps.

While Majid and his friends sought to travel to Iraq and Biswas was disseminating offensive content on the Internet, Anees Ansari, a resident of Kurla in central Mumbai, is a radicalised youth who decided to wage a war at home. Ansari, a software engineer, was arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad for allegedly planning to bomb the American School at Bandra Kurla Complex. He was also indoctrinating an American youth, Omar El Hajj to carry out a lone-wolf attack in the US.

While these are discounted as isolated cases in India, the trend is on the rise, particularly among the urban, young and educated. The number of people worldwide who have joined the ISIS has swelled to 20,000, according to London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR)’s latest estimate. Of this, nearly a fifth are residents or nationals of western European countries. Officials in India say roughly 80 to 100 citizens (no accurate estimates available) are affiliated with the ISIS. The number of those influenced and getting indoctrinated through online content, however, remains a blind spot and could be much higher. In January 2015, a family of seven from Chennai along with two other persons, were deported from Turkey after they were caught attempting to enter Syria. Jihad in Syria is attracting loners as well as families and larger social networks into that conflict theatre. The ISIS is becoming a melting pot of sorts for diverse motivations people who simply want to live in that “ideal” land for Muslims as well those who wish to attain martyrdom fighting for the religion.

In the absence of clear legal framework, Biswas, the Twitter account handler, with no established direct connection with the ISIS, has been charged under the Indian Penal Code Section 125, which deals with waging war against a country or alliance friendly to India. Ansari, too, has been charged under the Information Technology Act and Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder) and 115 (abetment of offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life) of the IPC. There is little evidence that a uniform method of arrest, with an intention of subjecting these identified individuals for long periods of incarceration, would help address the issues of radicalisation or would prevent others from taking recourse to the same path in the future.

Another counter-radicalisation approach being employed by security-conscious countries is to prevent the people who have joined the ISIS from returning home. Australia has banned its nationals from going to Raqqa, the headquarters of the ISIS. Malaysia is proposing to invalidate the passports of its citizens who join the ISIS. However, history is witness to the fact that these short-term measures are not without consequences. Following the declaration of victory against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Arab-Afghan fighters were restrained from returning to their home countries and even threatened with long prison sentences. So, they re-grouped in Sudan and formed Jihadist International, from which Al Qaeda emerged.

Radicalisation is a complex process involving religious motivation, individual psychology as well as enabling environment. Coercive or repressive actions by the state accentuate the existing alienation and provide a fillip to mindsets that see violence as the only answer to correct the anomaly. Thus, blanket imprisonment to deal with the indoctrinated/returnees can lead to hardening of mindsets and elevate those arrested to become role models for the fence sitters. Similarly, de-radicalisation programmes have a suspect history of success. A large number of deradicalised Al Qaeda members, released from prisons of Saudi Arabia after undergoing deradicalisation, have rejoined the outfit. Similar programmes in Denmark, Holland, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Yemen has attained only marginal results.

With all these challenges, one approach that has the potential of having a positive impact is to combine community-based outreach programmes with educational and counselling services to the youth. India has been a slow starter in this regard. Recently, Maharashtra’s ATS initiated programmes in schools and colleges to explain the negative impact of radicalisation. However, mostly consisting of routine condemnations of violence, which has no religious sanction, such methods are limited in their utility and are no match for the online radicalisation tutorial available on the Internet. British government has been following the strategy of prevention by approaching schools since 2008. And yet, estimated 400 British Muslims have joined the ISIS.

The ISIS has demonstrated its capacity to efficiently use the cyberspace for a variety of purposes including radicalisation. A large number of sympathisers continue to proliferate on the Web and act as volunteers for a systematic programme of accentuating the existing levels of alienation and disenchantment among the Muslim youth in different countries.

It requires a sustained, systematic and innovative approach to meet the challenge. In addition to greater inter-agency coordination and developing collaborative measures on a regional and global level, the government’s programmes must involve psychologists, religious and community leaders, civil society groups and development planners. There is a critical need for judicial sector reforms to speed up long-pending terror cases and release of suspects against whom no charges have been filed even after years. And in a country like India, a comprehensive project of this nature must take cognisance of the pluralistic and democratic ethos, to prevent alienation and marginalisation, which would otherwise feed into the extremist narrative.

* The writer is a security and political analyst based in Delhi. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This article was first published in The Asian Age.

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