On March 25, as many as 25 worshippers were killed in a terrorist attack on Gurudwara Har Rai Sahib by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), in Kabul. In the din of news surrounding coronavirus pandemic, this attack got relegated to the background, even though it has an ominous portent.
One of the terrorists killed by the Afghan security forces has been identified as Mohsin (with several aliases), 29, from Kerala. He was reportedly a school dropout who left for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) more than two years ago and found his way into Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Some estimates indicate that since 2016, around 100 people from India, mostly from Kerala, have joined the ISIS. Some of them travelled to the Gulf, and from there into the folds of ISIS in Iraq-Syria, and Afghanistan.
Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) is a branch of ISIS. Khorasan is a historical region comprising the present territories of north-eastern Iran, much of Central Asia, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The name signifies "the Land of the Sun" or "the Eastern Province." ISKP came into existence in 2015, with defectors from the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP). It is active in the border region of eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
In November 2019, after a two-month-long ‘clearance operation’ by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), supported by Popular Uprising Forces and the United States Airforce, President Ashraf Ghani had declared, “I am proud of the security forces and public uprising groups that defeated ISKP in Nangrahar.”
In these operations 50 terrorists were killed, around 60 fled to Pakistan, and more than 250 ISKP members, along with 426 children and 237 women, surrendered to ANSF. The surrendered were mostly Pakistani, and others from India, Iran, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
From ISKP’s point of view, the March 25 Gurudwara attack is significant on two counts – First, to tell the world that the ISKP is not defeated, and second, they would like to project themselves as the rallying force for hard-line Taliban and al-Qaeda members opposed to the US-Taliban peace deal signed on February 29, 2020.
ISKP appears to be the latest addition to Pakistan’s cache of proxies. Pakistan’s anti-India overdrive after suspension of Article 370 and the enactment of CAA is also well known. With the US-Taliban agreement and the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan hopes to get a free-run to target India’s interests in Afghanistan and intensify its proxy war against India.
ISKP provides new opportunities to Pakistan for two reasons – first, induction of people of Indian origin into its cadres, and second, the staying power that ISKP is demonstrating. Despite its losses, ISKP has continued to carve out territory in Afghanistan, and recruit terrorists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka.
According to a January 2020 report from the Middle East Institute, Washington DC, the current emir of ISKP, Mawlawi Aslam Farooqi, is an ex-militant commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The bonhomie between Pakistan’s ISI and LeT needs no reiteration.
The increased attention towards India by the mouthpieces of terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the last three to four months reveals how the propaganda and information war is being manipulated.
In February 2020, Islamic State’s new digital magazine, Sawt-ul-Hind, (Voice of Hindustan), referred to the communal violence in northeast Delhi to incite Muslims in India, "Democracy is not going to save you…only Sharia implemented in its purity in the shade of Khilafah (the caliphate) can now save you."
In a combined reference to the US-Taliban agreement and the Delhi riots, Al-Qaeda’s wing, Ghazwat-ul-Hind (Conquest of India) said, “these glorious times when the crusaders army in Khorasan have signed the final document of their defeat and in such a hopeful season when Indian Muslims have decided not to bear the atrocity and oppression of Hindu polytheist groups”, and that the jihadists in Kashmir will be energised by these events.
Islamic State’s (IS) Amaq media claimed the Kabul gurudwara attack as a “revenge for the Muslims in Kashmir”. An attack by IS on a ‘Gurudwara’ for ‘avenging Kashmir’, points the finger directly at Pakistan.
Pakistan’s involvement in the training of the attacker from Kerala is also apparent from the video that was released soon after the attack. First, the content is like what we typically hear from terrorists in similar situations in Kashmir. Second, he spoke in Urdu, the language used by Pakistan for training and handling terrorists.
It is, therefore, important that immediate measures must be taken to limit this new virus being unleashed by Pakistan-ISI. First, India needs to institute measures to keep a vigil on its workforce in the Gulf countries, to safeguard their men being recruited by ISIS and other terrorist groups. Second, India must be even more mindful for the need for social cohesion, as its politico-economic-religious fault lines are being exploited for propaganda and potential recruitment. Third, India must work together with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Central Asian Republics, to check the ISKP.
(The author is member of National Security Advisory Board, and former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Kashmir Corps Commander. Views expressed are personal.)