August 9, 2021

IntelBrief: Expanding Priorities in South Asian Security Two Decades After 9/11

(AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan leaves the region as unstable as it was before the attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • India will once again focus its security efforts on containing Taliban-backed violence and monitoring ideological and logistical support for Pakistan-based jihadi groups.
  • The rise of right-wing “Hindutva” extremist violence against Muslim minorities in India is of grave concern and must be curbed.
  • Groups and individuals linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS) are leveraging India’s domestic religious tensions to recruit.

As American troops draw down in Afghanistan—leaving open-ended a two-decade Global War on Terror catalyzed by the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001—their departure poses a critical question for India and its neighbors. Does the U.S. response leave the region more stable or less stable than before?

Over the last twenty years, global jihadist violence spawned by al-Qaeda before and after the 9/11 attacks has mutated. The Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region remains one of the most dangerous in the world, with Afghanistan rated the most dangerous country by the Global Peace Index for four years in a row. Linkages between transnational terrorist groups, the Taliban and their supporters, and the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment—as well as a return to a form of tribalism that dominated its political landscape at the end of the Cold War—threaten Afghanistan as it enters its next phase.

For India, too, it could be argued that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Twenty years ago, barely three weeks after 9/11, and just forty-eight hours after the Jaish-e-Mohammed had struck the Jammu and Kashmir assembly building in Srinagar killing twenty-seven people, India’s then External Affairs (Foreign) Minister Jaswant Singh met with U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at the White House in Washington. The meeting was remarkable. As Singh underscored India’s painful experience with terrorist violence, President George W. Bush dropped in unannounced, and committed to bolstering a joint  counterterrorism partnership formed a year earlier. This was no small victory in a long diplomatic conflict that had only just begun to see the Indo-U.S. relationship evolve beyond its zero-sum game of the Cold War. Singh told CNN, “What the United States of America grievously experienced on September 11th is something that we in India have been going through for the last twenty years or thereabouts.”  Hinting at Pakistan, he further added,  “In the region, we know clearly who is perpetuating these acts, what lies at the heart of it, and how it is to be dealt with.”

Terrorism in the South Asian region generally, and in India specifically, remains a grave concern, but has also mutated. The Kashmir insurgency that began in 1989, and saw an uptick in violence by indigenous guerrilla insurgents funded and trained by Pakistan, was only one part of the subcontinent’s tryst with terror. Two events in India that preceded 9/11—the Mumbai serial bomb blasts of 1993, and the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in 1999—were a portent of turbulence to come and evidence of the regional tensions that would persist.

Dawood Ibrahim, the mastermind of the serial bomb blasts that killed over 250 people in Mumbai in 1993, found refuge in Karachi. The hijacking of flight IC-814 and the subsequent events in Kandahar then brought India to its knees, as hostages were only rescued when India was forced to release three prisoners to meet the hijackers’ demands. Foreign Minister Singh himself, along with India’s current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, personally escorted Omar Shaikh (later considered the man behind Daniel Pearl’s beheading), Mushtaq Zargar (who continues to train Kashmiri insurgents in Muzaffarabad), and Masood Azhar (the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed) in exchange for civilians onboard. Video footage of the men being driven out by Taliban members in land cruisers across the Af-Pak border is forever etched into the memories of Indians.

However, there is one critical, albeit nuanced, distinction. While generally aligned to global jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, Pakistan-based cross-border terror groups acting against India—like the Jaish-e-Mohammed or the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba—are seen primarily as instruments of the Pakistani State and regional politics, rather than part of a transnational terrorist group. This makes it difficult to address concerns about security and stability in the region if seen through the prism of global jihad alone. Even in the years immediately following 9/11, groups operating in the South Asian subcontinent beyond Afghanistan focused their attention on local or regional grievances and did not rely on the spectacle of 9/11 to find recruits. Indeed, many have relied on longstanding social, political, and economic grievances to mobilize supporters.

That said, South Asia is not a monolith. The reach and presence of transnational terrorist groups varies from country to country. The Maldives has been seen as a hotbed for IS radicalization. IS recruits and affiliates have perpetrated horrific terror strikes in Bangladesh (for example, young men inspired by IS brutally killed twenty civilians at a bakery in Dhaka in 2016), challenging domestic counterterrorism efforts. In recent years, as Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils abated, pockets of discontent and radicalization among its small Muslim population led a little-known group called the Tawheed Jamaat, with links to IS, which carried out deadly bombings on Easter Sunday in 2019 that killed 269 people.

Despite these regional trends, relatively small numbers of Indians have joined Salafi-jihadist groups in India or overseas. Many argue that groups seeking to establish a Caliphate simply don’t find takers amongst India’s over 200 million strong Muslim community, not even in Kashmir. Instead, local terrorist violence that spread through groups like the Indian Mujahideen between the 1990s and 2012-2013 is fueled by two key factors. First, communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims manifest in local conflicts. Second, Pakistan has the ability to leverage resultant disaffection, recruit youth, and provide logistics and training. The Mumbai serial blasts of 1993 happened in the wake of Hindu-Muslim riots after the demolition of the Babri Mosque. The spike in terrorist incidents across Indian cities between 2002 and 2012 was motivated by young men radicalized and recruited by the Indian Mujahideen after the 2002 Gujarat riots, which left over a thousand people dead, mostly Muslim, and several thousand injured. The Mumbai siege of November 2008, in which terrorists opened fire at railway stations, attacked a Jewish hostel, and entered luxury hotels filled with wealthy business travelers and foreign tourists, was an exception. It was masterminded by the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafez Saeed, and carried out by Pakistani terrorists who arrived in Mumbai by sea.

The most significant impact of efforts to curb Pakistani groups active in the region since 9/11 has been made by the threat of financial sanctions. The Financial Action Task Force placed Pakistan on a terror financing watch list. Its real impact, however, has been seen in Pakistan’s arrest of at least 20 UN designated terrorists linked to al-Qaeda and the sentencing of Hafez Saeed to several years in prison on four terror financing charges.

With local groups morphing over time, and a “post organizational” jihadist community allowing individuals to claim credit for violence acts, new opportunities have surfaced for organisations like al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and IS. After the 2020 Delhi riots, a new pro-IS publication, the Voice of Hind, launched specifically for Indian audiences, exhorting Indian Muslims to defend themselves in the wake of growing right-wing extremist Hindutva violence against them. Its inaugural poster splashed an image of a bloody faced young Muslim man being beaten by a group of Hindu men in India’s capital city, once again indicative of the power of leveraging local grievances.

In truth, the Indian subcontinent’s security priorities have expanded rather than shrunk in the twenty years following 9/11. As U.S. troops withdraw, the focus returns to regulating the Taliban’s tendency towards violence and excess, and to checking the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence support to terrorist actors in Kashmir. But, super-imposed on these imperatives are the realities of competing fundamentalisms, political authoritarianism, and hyper-nationalism that push identity and faith-based divisions to polarized extremes.

Potential solutions such as education, awareness, equality, justice, and a sense of investment in a stable future are evident. Government policies to promote these solutions exist, but it is the politicians of the day that need to be willing to follow them through.

Maya Mirchandani is the Head of Department of Media Studies at India’s Ashoka University, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. Her research focuses on violent extremism, hate speech, and online misinformation. Prior to this, Maya was Foreign Affairs editor at NDTV and has reported extensively on Indian diplomacy and security.