Traditionally, jihadist activities in South Asia have remained associated with militant organizations like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Indian Mujahideen, and the Harkatul Jihadul Islami Bangladesh, who recruit people from rural and poor socio-economic backgrounds with madrassa education. The extremist ideologization of these jihadists take place in militant training centers located in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Contrary to popular perception, in the last two years, since the advent of the Islamic State terrorist group, a new breed of educated jihadists from the urban middle and upper middle class has emerged in South Asia.
This new breed of South Asian jihadists has two nodes of presence: self-radicalised cells and lone-wolf individuals. For instance, the pro-IS cell in Karachi that targeted members of the Ismaili Shia community in Karachi in May 2014 and the five-member cell which carried out the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka in July 2016 were educated militants from rich families. More recently, the terrorist group that targeted the Quetta police-training academy in Balochistan was also comprised of college and university educated students, except for the suicide bomber who was educated in a madrassa.
Similarly, in November, Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe briefed parliament that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims from well-educated and elite families had joined IS in Syria. Likewise, the wannabe jihadists who had travelled to Syria and Iraq from India, or those who created their own cells, had educated and urban backgrounds.
IS has fuelled recruitment in major South Asian cities like Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, Sialkot, and Rawalpindi in Pakistan; Mumbai, Maharashta, Tamil Nadu, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad in India; Colombo in Sri Lanka; Dhaka in Bangladesh; and Malé in the Maldives. This generational shift has created new themes, motivations, trends, and narratives.
The South Asian urban jihadists, generally, have university or college level education and their path to violent extremism has been triggered by identity crises; the quest for a genuine sense of belonging; the struggle for recognition; or resentment towards their respective states due to unemployment, corruption and bad governance. They suffer a double alienation: from the corrupt and irresponsive states that have failed them as citizens; and from societies where a lack of consensus on what constitutes a “good Muslim” pushes them to seek answers from extremist discourses. This set of grievances falls within the broader parameter of contemporary political Islam and the Salafist narrative.
Historically, jihadist and sectarian organizations in South Asia have been grassroots movements linked to madrassas and mosque networks whose target audiences have been the poor and lower-income class segments of society. Meanwhile, the educated middle and upper-middle class segments of urban areas have been targeted by evangelical and missionary organizations like Hizbut Tahrir, the Islamic Research Foundation, Tableeghi Jamaat, Al-Huda, and Tanzeem-e-Islami, whose teachings and lectures revolve around contemporary discourses on political Islam. Therefore, prior to their entry into violent extremism, these educated militants of urban areas had some exposure to so-called non-violent extremist narratives.
Arguably, this new generation of South Asian militants constitute the fourth generation of jihadists and they subscribe to IS’ extremist narrative. The first generation of South Asian jihadists consist of the groups that participated in the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s such as Hizb-e-Islami and Harkatul Jihad al-Islami. In the 1990s, the rise of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Kashmir-focused militant groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkatul Jihad, and sectarian outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are the second generation. The third generation consist of post-9/11 militant groups like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jandullah, the Indian Mujahideen and the Ansarullah Bangla Team.
IS has been successful in mobilizing supporters, sympathizers, and lone-wolf fighters from South Asia’s educated and urban youth for three reasons:
First, the deeper internet penetration and the onset of social media have decreased the distance between local and global developments, accelerated the flow of communication, democratized violence, and eroded states’ monopoly on information. South Asia’s unregulated cyberspace of 480 million users is the second largest in the world, and IS has exploited it to further its ideological narrative. This has had a huge impact on patterns of violent extremism and terrorism. Social media pages and online Islamist forums have become the usual meeting places for recruiters and vulnerable youth.
In retrospect, when the devastating 9/11 attacks took place, it was the dotcom era when the most modern communication gadgets were laptops, Nokia handsets, and password protected internet chat rooms. So, radicalization and militant recruitment were conducted in a secretive manner through closed networks and personalized channels.
In South Asia, the Sufi saints used qawali (Sufi devotional music) as a medium to spread Islam. As Sufi Islam promotes communal and sectarian tolerance and preaches peaceful coexistence, it needs to be promoted and strengthened.
The IS’ ability to universalize local grievances in its meta-narrative of global jihad and offering a putative solution in the revival of the so-called Caliphate has resonated with the educated urban audience who had either remained immune or non-responsive to Al Qaeda’s call for transnational jihad. Other than addressing individual grievances, such rhetoric also provided its audience with a stronger sense of belonging and empowerment.
Second, the lower threshold of radicalization and violence because of IS’ violent and well-publicized tactics with cinematic flair has also played a critical role in mobilizing South Asia’s educated urban youth. Arguably, IS’ ingress into South Asia has pushed religious activism closer to militant activism in the vulnerable segments of this class. Such youth may have harbored radical thoughts but did not find Al Qaeda and its associates’ jihadist platforms attractive. IS’ radical message has provided them an alternative coupled with excitement about creating a global “Sunni Caliphate” and the spiritual experience to fight for the glory of Islam as its hero-warriors and saviors.
Third, with changing times and circumstances, social, political, and religious movements undergo a generational shift creating a rift between the old and the new generations. This rift can result in dissension leading to the creation of splinter factions by the young and rebellious members. The younger generation views the older generation as status quo oriented, rigid, and resistant to change. Meanwhile, the younger generation tends to be impatient, hungry for quick fixes, and driven by grand ambitions.
Characteristically, this generation of South Asian urban militants is tech and media savvy, overambitious, and — compared to traditional South Asian jihadists — more aware of the political and religious history from which it cherry picks. Generally, this generation has Salafi-Takfiri leanings.
Most of the militants of this generation are between 18-30 years of age and they have gone through a relatively shorter period of radicalization. While the motivational factors may vary from individual to individual and from area to area, they all seem to be obsessed with ideas of the so-called Caliphate, hijrah, and end-times narratives. They are extreme in their methods, unapologetically brutal, and morally consequentialist: for them the ends justify the means.
In the rapidly changing global and regional environment, especially the reshaping of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East due to civil wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, the disaffected and disfranchised Muslim youth of South Asia are facing an identity crisis. This unique challenge, in addition to operational and traditional law enforcement responses, requires counter-narrative and counter-ideological responses. Moreover, the threat of cyber-radicalization in South Asia is real: the battlefield has expanded from real space to cyberspace. The war within cyberspace pertains to the war of ideas, which can be fought with better, stronger, and smarter counter-ideas.
Another possible threat from this development could be the intensification of the existing Sunni-Shia conflict and its expansion between the Salafists and other Sunni schools of thought. IS not only apostatises Shias but also excommunicates other Sunni groups, such as the Barelvis, Sufis, and Deobandis.
The real threat of IS’ ingress into South Asia is ideological. The existing policy frameworks for counter-terrorism and extremism will have to be revised in line with evolving trends and patterns. However, the counter-ideological components within the broader CVE frameworks need not borrow from foreign concepts. The answers to IS’s ideological threat are local and enshrined within South Asia’s pacifist tradition of Sufi Islam.
South Asian Islam is qualitatively different from its Middle Eastern counterpart. In South Asia, the Sufi saints used qawali (Sufi devotional music) as a medium to spread Islam. They mixed the message of Islam with the ritual of bhajan (melodic spiritual and religious songs) that is also practiced in Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. This cross-fertilization of ideas and practices gave birth to the pacifist and tolerant Sufi Islam.
As Sufi Islam promotes communal and sectarian tolerance and preaches peaceful coexistence, it needs to be promoted and strengthened. The concept is indigenous to the South Asian socio-cultural milieu and political environment.
A serious debate is also needed on how to organize religious activism within institutions and movements like Hizbut Tahrir and Tableegh Jamaat. While they are not directly involved with the violent radicalization of vulnerable individuals, the worldview they construct through their teachings make the job of violent and extremist organizations easier. A case for reformation clearly exists. This process of reformation should be internal and self-driven. Anything imposed from outside will not only jeopardize the existing balance, it will further tilt the scale in favor of extremist organizations.