This week ITCT Newsdesk interviewed ITCT Deputy Director and Head South Asia desk on terrorism, Faran Jeffery, about the recent developments in South Asia involving Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). IS recently announced Wilayat Pakistan and Wilayat al-Hind in Pakistan and India, respectively. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has increased its focus on Kashmir with multiple messages released by its official as-Sahab Media group, eulogizing slain emir of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind and highlighting the story of a Kashmiri militant from Srinagar who is now part of AQIS. In the following interview, ITCT Newsdesk discusses some of these recent developments with Faran Jeffery, who closely monitors security events in South Asia.
ITCT Newsdesk: As we all know, IS recently announced the establishment of its new province in India, which is being called Wilayat al-Hind. To show that they are serious about it, pro-IS media groups released photos of some of its new recruits from Kashmir. Later, we saw images from India-controlled Kashmir which show IS supporters holding up posters of Wilayat Hind, with some of these posters containing the same photos of new IS recruits. How do you see this?
Faran Jeffery: The announcement of Wilayat Hind was always meant to be significant. They could have announced it two years ago, but they didn’t until now. So why now? Two major reasons. First, Indian state policies in Kashmir have been pretty brutal. In some cases, Kashmiri civilians have been used as human shields by Indian soldiers. Indian government defends these practices and soldiers who carry out such violations are rarely punished. For example, the Indian Army Major who tied up a civilian to his military jeep’s hood and paraded him in the streets was later rewarded by the Indian state. When the state is carrying out some brutal policies, those policies will naturally push more and more civilians towards radical militancy. Add to this the fact that Mr Modi has won the Indian election to secure his second term. Many among his voter base see him as someone who is good at killing Kashmiri militants, but many of his critics see him as someone who will never bring peace to Kashmir. In this regard, his supporters and his critics both are right. Under Mr Modi’s government, the preference of Indian state has been to kill Kashmiri militants rather than take steps to bring calm and peace to the valley. Apart from Kashmir, the Muslims in mainland India have also been complaining about increasing mob attacks by radical Hindu groups over trivial issues like carrying or eating beef. IS predicted this and its announcement of Wilayat Hind is meant to attract not just Kashmiris but also many Muslims in mainland India. Now, let’s talk about the second reason, which is Pakistan’s choking of active military support for Kashmiri militants. Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri groups is now restricted to diplomatic support, and even that is slowly taking a back seat. The choking of military support started in the era of former President Pervez Musharraf and has continued under every successive government since. Now, under PM Imran Khan’s government, Pakistan has gone one step further by isolating militant leaders within Pakistan. Of course, the pressure by French anti terror financing group FATF also has a lot to do with this recent policy but in any case, it has caused a lot of disillusionment among militant ranks. Pakistan’s restrictions on Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed, both of which are very popular in Pakistan, has disgruntled many militants, some of who may be looking for a new parent group. IS knows this and will be trying to cash this opportunity to the fullest by trying to break away as many militants from supposedly pro-Pakistan Kashmir-focused militant groups as possible. We know that some defections have already taken place in Kashmir valley, and more will be taking place in near future.
ITCT Newsdesk: Very interesting. How do you think Indian government is seeing this development?
Faran Jeffery: To understand that, you first need to understand the ruling Indian party, its ideology and what a large number of its supporters actually believe. The ruling Indian party, the party of Mr Modi, is Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It draws its ideology from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical Hindu group that has militant training camps all over India. According to the RSS ideology, the land of Hindustan, and yes they hate using the word ‘India’, belongs primarily to Hindus and secondarily to all those who were indigenous to that land 4000-5000 years ago. This means that Muslims and Christians are excluded from the tribes who they see as indigenous to Hindustan since they believe that Christianity and Islam came to Hindustan through foreign invaders or foreign proselytizing. Now let’s come back to your question. First, there are of course those few in the Indian government who don’t hold this ideology. Then there are those who do hold this ideology but they reconcile it with the modern times, which means they cherry-pick between what can be taken literally and what can be only taken theoretically. But then there are those who take all of that ideology quite literally, and they really do believe that it should be carried out today in literal terms. This third set of people are the most radical, and they will see the announcement of Wilayat Hind as a good omen. As far as this radical set of people is concerned, increased IS recruitment in India will give them an excuse to further marginalize Muslims until they’re completely pushed against the wall and have no other option but to take refuge under the wings of groups like IS, which in turn gives radical Hindus a reason to launch military or militant campaigns against local Muslim population or force them to migrate. For saner people in the Indian government, this development will be seen as a worrying development because ideally, no government wants IS presence within its territory. But at the same time, it is also true that IS is one of the weakest groups in Kashmir right now, which is why Indian security forces have carried out few operations against IS in Kashmir as opposed to operations that have been carried out against other groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen, and so on. Which set of people proves to be the most significant and influential in the Indian government is yet to be seen.
ITCT Newsdesk: Interesting. Let’s talk a little about Kashmir militancy. We are seeing some increased attention towards Kashmir by al-Qaeda and Islamic State. How do you see this?
Faran Jeffery: Right, so we are seeing some increased focus on Kashmir by two rival groups, al-Qaeda and IS. First, let’s discuss the reason behind this increased focus on Kashmir by these two groups. Consider some of the points I have mentioned earlier, from the re-election of Mr Modi to Pakistan’s choking of support for Kashmiri militant groups combined with Indian policy of shoot-to-kill for militants in Kashmir. Both, al-Qaeda and IS, know that the current environment in Kashmir is ideal for their recruitment drive. Many Kashmiri militants from other groups are disgruntled right now and see Pakistan with increased suspicion. They have realized that Pakistan has always used Kashmir as a geopolitical tool to keep the heat on India and to keep Pakistanis at home distracted. Many believe they have been used as cannon fodder by Pakistan for its own foreign policy. This is something that many Kashmiri militants repeat when we hear their stories. More recently, this was also said by Faisal Ishfaq Butt, the Kashmiri militant from Srinagar who has been featured in the recent al-Qaeda video released by as-Sahab Media. IS and AQ both see this as an ideal opportunity to flip militants from supposedly pro-Pakistan groups. The more Kashmiri militants who were previously backed by Pakistan feel alienated, the more chances there are of them joining AQ and IS ranks. The popular conspiracy theory in Pakistan is that Ansar Ghazwatul Hind and Wilayat Hind are backed by Indian and U.S. intelligence, which isn’t a surprise if you are aware how conspiracy-friendly most Pakistanis are. There’s very little truth to this particular conspiracy theory. The ground facts are that multiple factors, as discussed earlier, are playing an important role in the rise of IS and AQ in Kashmir. In the past, Pakistan has tried to keep Kashmiri militants in its camp with a mixed rhetoric of nationalism and religion. But now, since Kashmiri militants have seen that Pakistan’s military support depends on Pakistan’s national interests, they are feeling more attracted by radical groups like IS and AQ, both of which are selling a radical idea of independence from India in the form of the establishment of an Islamic state, which will also be against Pakistan. It’s a very powerful idea, more powerful than what Pakistan has been selling, and it is only a matter of time before we see mass defections from the ranks of supposedly pro-Pakistan groups.
ITCT Newsdesk: You say that we can expect some defections from the ranks of allegedly pro-Pakistan groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen. How do you think Pakistan will see those defections?
Faran Jeffery: Behind the scenes, Pakistani government and military establishment fully understands the reasons behind such defections. But to the local public, Pakistani analysts and government officials will continue to tell a different story. It will be a little hard for them to admit publicly that among the main reasons behind such defections is their choking of support for Kashmiri militant groups. They will likely peddle same old conspiracy theories about the ‘hidden Indian intelligence hand’ behind such defections. This, of course, has little to do with reality. Yes, some radical elements in India will definitely prefer to see Kashmiris turn towards more radical groups like AQ and IS, but at the same time many in India will see these defections as a great cause of concern. India sees Kashmir as its integral part, and therefore significant presence of international terrorist groups like AQ and IS in Kashmir won’t be something that most people in India would like to see or acknowledge. At the same time, Pakistan will try to minimize the damage from its actions carried out under international pressure but that damage-control will be most likely focused within Pakistani territory. For instance, some of these disgruntled elements in Pakistan could pose a future threat to Pakistan’s internal security and so Pakistani state will be trying to avoid that.
ITCT Newsdesk: Very interesting. How does al-Qaeda fit into Kashmir militancy?
Faran Jeffery: As we know, AQ and IS are rival groups and they have been carrying out bloody campaigns against each other in some regions, most notably in Yemen. In Kashmir too, both groups seek to counter the other group’s influence. So far, IS and AQ allied fighters and supporters in Kashmir have largely avoided open hostility – but that has a lot to do with the fact that both groups are still very weak in Kashmir and it would be foolish for them to engage in open hostility just yet. Right now both groups are trying very hard to survive in Kashmir with the limited resources they have. They also have to worry about daily operations by Indian forces as well as members and supporters of other groups who may sell them out to Indian security forces. Supposedly pro-Pakistan groups don’t like competition and with the rise of AQ and IS in Kashmir, we have heard multiple reports where members of supposedly pro-Pakistan groups provided intelligence on AQ and IS allied fighters to Indian security forces. Once AQ and IS strengthen their ranks in Kashmir, we can expect to see some open hostility between them.
ITCT Newsdesk: How do you see the recent eulogy of Zakir Musa released by AQIS?
Faran Jeffery: That is quite significant. Previously, we knew that Zakir Musa’s group maintains strong links with AQIS but this eulogy, just hours after the announcement of new emir of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind, is important and basically cements AGH as AQ franchise in Kashmir. However, this was still not openly acknowledged by AQIS spokesperson in his audio tape. One reason for that could be the fact that AGH is still very weak and a direct official endorsement from AQIS would mean unnecessary attention as well as damage to AQ’s own credibility due to AGH’s weak status. But at the same time, AQ really, really wants us to know that it has a favorite group in Kashmir.
ITCT Newsdesk: AQIS has also released a lengthy video message which features a Kashmiri militant from Srinagar. The timing of the release is certainly very interesting. How do you see this?
Faran Jeffery: Yes, like you said, the timing of this video release is pretty interesting. Its promotional teaser was released on the same day new emir of AGH was announced and AQIS spokesperson eulogized Zakir Musa, so that makes it even more significant. The video, which features a Kashmiri militant from Srinagar named Faisal Ishfaq Butt, is something that will make many people in both India and Pakistan very uncomfortable. Some of the things that many Indians won’t like include Faisal Ishfaq saying that Pakistan uses Kashmir as a geopolitical tool and doesn’t care about jihad at all. He recounted an event where Pakistani intelligence stopped Kashmiri militants from carrying out a major attack. He said that Pakistan treats jihadis as cannon fodder to keep the pressure on India and will stop or open support for Kashmiri militant groups according to its national interests, instead of the interests of jihadis. He also said that Pakistan had nothing to do with 2001 Indian Parliament attack and if jihadis had told Pakistani agencies about the plan, Pakistani agencies would have put a stop to it. All these things will be very hard for many Indians to digest because the popular narrative in India about Pakistan – and Pakistani intelligence agencies in particular – is that it is main source of terrorism in Kashmir as well as mainland India. In fact, Indians have gone so far as to come up with an insulting name for Pakistan: ‘Terroristan’. So imagine the discomfort of many Indians when they hear an AQ militant negating all those beliefs and saying that Pakistan doesn’t really care about jihadis. This AQ video tape will definitely make many Indians uncomfortable. Now, let’s talk about Pakistan. Many Pakistanis will also be very uncomfortable with this tape. Main reason for Pakistan’s discomfort is going to be the criticism of Pakistani military and intelligence by Faisal Ishfaq. How will supposedly pro-Pakistan militants react after seeing that tape? More importantly, how will Pakistanis who have been living under the illusion that Pakistan will one day take Kashmir from India cope with such a message? Or how will Pakistanis who have been praising Zakir Musa interpret this video tape? The tape certainly poses some narrative issues for Pakistan.
ITCT Newsdesk: In the video that was released by AQIS, Faisal Ishfaq Butt mentioned Burhan Wani while the video package itself also carries his image. Why do you think that is, considering that Wani was a commander in Hizbul Mujahideen?
Faran Jeffery: AQ knows that Burhan Wani was one of the most popular militants in Kashmir. He was specially inspirational for younger generation of Kashmiris in the valley. AQ is simply trying to cash Burhan Wani’s popularity in Kashmir. We should also remember that the first emir of AGH, Zakir Musa, defected from Hizbul Mujahideen. The video that was released by AGH’s al-Hurr Media on the first day of Eid, in which AGH spokesperson Abu Ubaida announced Hameed Lelhari as the new emir of AGH, also contained an audio recording of Zakir Musa’s address to a militant of Hizbul Mujahideen in which Musa is convincing the militant to join AGH. Moreover, the video featuring Faisal Ishfaq Butt also has a spot where Faisal Ishfaq says that there are several militants in supposedly pro-Pakistan groups that are ‘honest’ towards Jihad. Considering all these facts, AQ trying to ride the Burhan Wani popularity wave is not a surprise. AQ seeks to woo more Hizbul Mujahideen militants to defect to AGH as well as regular Kashmiris who have not joined militant ranks yet but see Burhan Wani as an inspiration while distrusting supposedly pro-Pakistan groups like Hizbul Mujahideen. AQ is also sending a message to Kashmiri civilians and militants that unlike IS, it is open to embracing militants from all groups and won’t engage in takfir against any group.
ITCT Newsdesk: Do you think we can see open animosity between Wilayah Hind supporters and Al-Qaeda allied militants in Kashmir in future?
Faran Jeffery: Certainly. That’s more of a question of ‘when’ than ‘if’. Like I said previously, currently both AGH and Wilayah Hind are two of the weakest groups in Kashmir, and they have Indian security forces as well as supposedly pro-Pakistan groups to worry about. But once they grow a little stronger as groups like Hizbul and Jaish go weak, we can certainly expect to see open hostility between AQ and IS allied militants in Kashmir.
ITCT Newsdesk: How do you think the increased presence of IS and al-Qaeda in Kashmir impact the overall militancy movement against India in that region?
Faran Jeffery: Oh it will have long-lasting impact on the overall Kashmir militancy. Pakistani state certainly won’t like this impact, and will try to curb both groups through groups like Hizbul and Jaish, which are more friendly towards Pakistan. One of the main reasons why the narrative of AQ and IS is resonating with many people in Kashmir is due to the fact that Pakistan, throughout the history, has failed to keep its allied militant groups in Kashmir strictly nationalist. Pakistani state encouraged radical religious rhetoric within these groups while giving a cursory nod to the nationalist elements. The result is that the most radical militants will be the ones leaving the ranks of these groups in droves. We also saw this impact previously within Pakistan when hundreds of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen militants broke away from their parent groups and joined other more radical groups, including Islamic State’s Khorasan Province in Afghanistan.
ITCT Newsdesk: Do you think India will intensify its counter-terror operations in Kashmir following increased Al-Qaeda and IS presence in the valley?
Faran Jeffery: Certainly. In fact, India has already intensified its operations in the Kashmir valley, with over a dozen successful operations carried out in just the past Islamic month of Ramadan.
ITCT Newsdesk: What kind of impact do you think the new emir of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind have on the group?
Faran Jeffery: That is yet to be seen, but I figure Hameed Lelhari may not last very long and may meet the same fate as his predecessor Zakir Musa sooner than later. Zakir Musa was popular because of his radical narrative against Pakistan and India. Burhan Wani was popular because of his social media presence. It is yet to be seen what makes Lelhari popular in the valley.
ITCT Newsdesk: Okay, now let’s talk about Wilayat Pakistan. How significant do you think is this new IS province and why do you think IS decided to separate Pakistan from its Khorasan branch?
Faran Jeffery: This has multiple aspects to it; local and international. First, let’s talk about the international aspect. Since the loss of large portion of territory in Middle East, IS has been looking to expand its presence in other regions where it sees fertile ground for recruitment and operations. IS also wants to keep the morale of its worldwide supporters high. Locally, one of the reasons IS decided to separate Pakistan from its Khorasan Province is likely due to the fact that fencing at Pakistan-Afghanistan border has made militant cross-border movement quite difficult, and at the same time IS sees a very fertile ground for recruitment in Pakistan. Some of the reasons why IS sees fertile ground in Pakistan are: 1. The worsening economic situation in Pakistan, which will see many people struggling to meet ends. IS is still one of the richest terrorist groups in the world and can offer some considerable economic incentives to its recruits in Pakistan. 2. The popular anti-government and anti-military narrative that has been building up in Pakistan as well as among Pakistanis settled abroad is also creating some disgruntled people, specially in the Pushtun tribal belt and Balochistan. It is important to note here that since the announcement of Wilayat Pakistan, majority of IS attacks have been carried out in Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province. 3. Another important factor are peace talks in Afghanistan, which are nearing a failure. If talks fail and a new civil war breaks out, it will create ripples deep within Pakistan, and IS will be there to exploit it. 4. Pakistan still has a long way to go before it tackles radicalism that is coming from madrassas as well as from online terrorist propaganda. Most Pakistani counter-terrorism experts lack basic understanding when it comes to IS and therefore they have been always one or two steps behind. The popular narrative in Pakistan is that IS is supported by Indian intelligence R&AW, America’s CIA and Israel’s Mossad. If you start from that absurd point, how do you expect to counter IS? Therefore, it’s not a surprise that most Pakistani defense and counter-terror experts happen to be conspiracy theorists at heart. Hundreds of madrassas in Pakistan continue to produce men and women who only have Islamic education, and won’t be able to survive in a tough economic situation without university education or skills. All of these factors, when combined, provide IS with some very fertile ground for recruitment.
ITCT Newsdesk: IS has released its first photo set from Pakistan since the announcement of its new province. The photo set shows IS militants having an Eid meal somewhere allegedly in Pakistan. How do you see this development?
Faran Jeffery: Yes, this is the first ever photo report from Pakistan that has been released by IS. Previously, when Pakistan fell under Wilayat Khorasan, there was never a photo report from Pakistan. This newly released photo report from Pakistan means that IS has managed to recruit some militants in Pakistan and has also established a strong media network that is in contact with core IS media. This also means IS has already designated its emir and deputy emir as well as provincial commanders for Pakistan, whose identities are not known yet. Recently Pakistani security forces killed a commander of IS in Balochistan and hailed it as a victory. And yet in the following days IS claimed multiple attacks in Balochistan. That should tell us that IS has managed to establish a strong network in Pakistan and would not be affected by the deaths of couple of militants. Coming back to the photo report, it is unclear where the photos were taken in Pakistan. My guess is that the photos were captured somewhere in the Balochistan region, since that’s where most of the recent IS attacks have been claimed. The background scenery also indicates that there are mountains and hills in the area where the photo shoot took place. But it is very hard to say for sure where exactly these photos were captured.
ITCT Newsdesk: How would you advise the Pakistani government to counter IS?
Faran Jeffery: Pakistani government has a long way to go before it actually starts countering IS. Currently, there is no singular counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategy in Pakistan. There’s a lot to be done in those areas, starting with strengthening NACTA, Pakistan’s national counter-terrorism authority. There’s also a dire need to outsource a large portion of counter-extremism to the civilian sector and turn civilians into counter-terror ‘soldiers’, starting with an independent counter-terrorism institute based on international standards. IS thrives on local political grievances, which is why Pakistani state must also sincerely address these grievances, particularly in the Pushtun tribal belt as well as in Balochistan. In the long run, Pakistani state must also move away from obsessive focus on religion and embrace progressive, secular nationalism. This is also important to strengthen Pakistan’s economic position in the region and improve its international image. Pakistani state must also end the use of private militias to support troops in Balochistan and the Pushtun belt. These private militias could prove to be a liability in the short and long run, as we have seen in Afghanistan. Pakistan also needs to strengthen its cyber warfare capabilities since fighting IS propaganda online is almost as important as fighting IS militarily. There should be a dedicated cyber wing consisting of civilians and military cadets that focuses on tracking and countering terrorist propaganda as well as carrying out infiltration operations. Lastly, Pakistan needs to drastically improve its economic situation because IS heavily relies on economic grievances for its recruitment drive. The higher the crime rate, the easier it will be for IS to find recruits among those criminals.
ITCT Newsdesk: Very well said. Do you think IS would be able to break away Pakistan’s homegrown militants, who are also known by some as ‘good Taliban’?
Faran Jeffery: Absolutely. As I’ve said earlier, these militants belonging to private pro-govt militias will prove to be a liability for Pakistan. These militants, if defected to groups like IS, can also act as spies to inform on the positions and movement of security personnel. A lot of these pro-govt militants work for money, and if IS offers better incentives, it won’t take very long for these militants to change their loyalties. Then there are those militants who have been used to fight in Kashmir by the Pakistani state in the past. As I’ve said earlier, many of these most radical militants will be looking for new masters once they realize that their jihad is now restricted to just rhetoric and charity work in Pakistan.
ITCT Newsdesk: Agreed. This has been a very fascinating interview. To wrap it up with a final question, what would you say to the governments in Pakistan and India on how to counter these emerging threats in the region?
Faran Jeffery: Some may call this wishful thinking, but I think Pakistan is moving away from its obsession with Kashmir due to international pressure. International community is also not very interested in this issue since every country, from Iran to Saudi Arabia to United States and to Germany, is battling its own issues that are important for their national interests, and few to none want to take up the Kashmir issue as a cause. The present Pakistani government, which is fully supported by the military regime, has also understood this. We may see Pakistani government ending the demand of talks on Kashmir as a pre-condition for peace talks with India. On the other hand, Masood Azhar’s UNSC designation took place with China and Pakistan’s consent, while Hafiz Saeed’s public movement is presently restricted in Pakistan. I think in the near future, Kashmir issue will only be restricted to cursory rhetoric for Pakistan while it tries to improve its economic position and maximize trade with India. In such a situation, it would be ideal for India and Pakistan to collaborate on counter-terrorism when it comes to IS and al-Qaeda presence in the region. These two groups are a common threat for both countries and yet they also provide a unique opportunity for both countries to work jointly.
ITCT Newsdesk: Very well. Thank you for your time. You have provided great insight into the present terrorism situation in the region.
Faran Jeffery: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.