Assessing the ISIS threat to India: It is a serious but manageable challenge
By Dhruva Jaishankar


  • ISIS numbers in India are still very small
  • While ISIS appeared to have made some inroads in India between 2013 and 2016, their success may be levelling off, for now
  • Well-networked and more prosperous regions of India (Kerala,   Karnataka, Telangana and Maharashtra) appear particularly prone   to ISIS radicalisation, more than say, Bihar or Jammu and Kashmir
  • India has a relatively good record of intercepting potential ISIS   recruits
  • As ISIS becomes more of a global network, there is a prospect of other radicalised individuals and cells claiming allegiance to ISIS, rather than the group itself establishing a major direct presence in India. This is not unlike al-Qaeda in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh, is back in the news in India. Recent reports suggest that Indian IS fighters were killed by US forces in Afghanistan, and the Telangana police has been accused of trying to lure and entrap potential IS sympathisers. This raises the question of how big a challenge IS poses to Indian interests and national security.

To investigate, we assessed all Indian citizens confirmed to have affiliated themselves with IS. This includes those who attempted or succeeded in travelling to Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan as recruits, as well as propagandists, recruiters, funders, conspirators and other sympathisers. While acknowledging that this comprises only a sample of actual IS affiliates in India, a few tentative conclusions can nonetheless be drawn.

First, only 142 Indian citizens (132 named) can be confirmed to have affiliated with IS in some way. This suggests that IS has made only scant inroads in India, relative to Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Australia – let alone West Asia and North Africa. In fact, some of these Indians were radicalised abroad, including in the US, UK, Singapore and Australia.

That said, the numbers of Indians linked to IS has steadily grown. From only one confirmed individual in 2013, the numbers grew to six in 2014, 35 in 2015 and 75 in 2016. The trend may now be plateauing, with 25 in the first four months of 2017. The IS challenge is a serious one, but does not yet appear to be on par with other countries or with other terrorist challenges facing India.

Second, certain states in the south and west appear particularly prone to IS-inspired radicalism. We identified 37 recruits or sympathisers from Kerala, 21 from Telangana, 19 from Maharashtra, 16 from Karnataka, 15 from UP, six from MP, five from Tamil Nadu, four from Gujarat, three each from Uttarakhand and Bengal, two from Jammu & Kashmir, and one each from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi and Rajasthan.

The fact that over three-quarters come from just five states suggests that localised responses may be more beneficial than any national policy. Additionally, with the exception of UP, these states represent among the most prosperous and best-networked parts of the country. This is in line with similar trends elsewhere, with more liberal or developed countries (such as Tunisia and Morocco among Arab states, or Australia, the Nordic nations, France and Belgium globally) among the most vulnerable to IS-inspired radicalisation.

Third, India appears to have a relatively good track record of countering the IS threat. 85 of 142 known IS sympathisers from India (60%) have been arrested or interrogated, while two returned home, although successful cases are probably overrepresented. A significant number of those Indians who have been arrested were intercepted at Indian airports, and several were caught in transit before being deported back to India. Of those that were not arrested or apprehended, 11 have been confirmed killed: six in Syria, three in Afghanistan, one in a police encounter in India, and one in either Iraq or Syria. This means at least 43 are active or at large, although many of these have been reported (but not confirmed) killed.

Finally, despite many cases of self-radicalisation, IS often tends to graft onto pre-existing organisations. About one-third of the reported Indian IS sympathisers have affiliations with other groups, including the Indian Mujahideen (IM), Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), or IS-inspired groups such as Junood ul Khalifa fil Hind (JKH). IS radicalisation also tends to spread through family, school or neighbourhood ties, often coalescing into cells, such as Ansarul Khilafa Kerala.

As IS is defeated as a state – a self-proclaimed Caliphate with defined territory and a military – it could very well morph into a global network, akin to al-Qaida. This presents a new kind of challenge for India and the world. Without unnecessarily exaggerating the threat, details available in public about IS recruitment and propaganda can be a valuable way of anticipating its future challenge to India’s national security.

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