Abhinav Pandya

Mapping ISIS Phenomenon in India

Chapt 3 page 85-92

India is often regarded as an “outlier case” as far as the influence of ISIS is concerned. Home to world’s third largest Muslim population (after Indonesia and Pakistan), and, with long history of communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, it was expected to have sent a large number of foreign fighters. However, contrary to the prevailing narratives in the strategic community, the number of foreign fighters from India has been miniscule as compared to the number of foreign fighters sent by Europe, America, Russia and Central Asian Republics, let alone Middle East and North Africa.

First, only 142[i] (132 named) Indians have been conformed to have affiliated with IS in some way, with the liberal estimates ranging around 200 to 300. The number of Indians who finally reached West Asia and Afghanistan between 2014 and 2016 is only around 10 to 15[ii]. However, this should not lull us into complacency because there have been several worrying trends also. The number of Indians linked to IS has steadily grown since 2014.

YearNumber of Indians linked to ISIS
2017(first four months)25

Source: Times of India[iii]


Further, India has been at the receiving end of the jihadi terrorism for about three decades now. There are enough fault lines in social, cultural, political and religious domains making India highly susceptible to the forces of Jihadi radicalization. Alongside, there are strong forces of resilience also. Following questions may arise in strategic circles-

  • Has IS failed in India?
  • How strong were its efforts in finding roots in India?
  • What kind of threats will be posed by IS in its post-territorial phase?

Hence, understanding ISIS phenomenon in India becomes essential for framing a strategy to counter the threat of jihadi radicalization in future.

Research and analysis on the subject is largely based on the data generated by various local and international think-tanks, central and state investigation agencies, media stories and interviews conducted with strategic analysts, scholars of religion and counter-terrorism officials.

A look at some high-profile IS cases in India-

From 2011 until 2013, Indian agencies held IS to be a West Asian phenomenon. There was a false sense of security that Indian Muslims would not respond to the calls of global jihad by IS, and as a result, one does not come across any substantial effort and awareness in India to understand IS phenomenon, its strategy, long-term objectives and attempts to gain global outreach through internet.

In October 2014, six top commanders of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), including Shahidullah Shahid declared their allegiance to ISIS. In the following months, ISIS named TTP chief Hafiz Saeed Khan as the “wali” (governor) of the Khorasan province which includes India[iv]. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) also defected to ISIS and Indian Mujahiddin (IM) split into two factions- Sultan Armar formed Ansar ul Tauhid fi Bilal ul Hind which became the chief recruitment wing of ISIS while Riyaz Bhatkal faction continued its loyalties to Al Qaeda[v].

  • 2011-2014- Two childhood friends, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali (40), a grocery store manager in Singapore and Gul Muhammed Maracachi Maraicar (37), a software professional, were radicalized, and decided to join IS in Syria. Both of them were born and brought up in Cuddalore and were radicalized by the plight of Muslim suffering in Syria. Images of Muslim suffering and the mainstream media coverage played an important role in their initial radicalization. After that, they accessed the ISIS’ online propaganda material. They planned to move to Syria to join IS. Gul, the one with stable job and earnings, is said to have motivated Haja. They also planned to seek permission from the family members in India (visited India twice between November 2013 and January 2014). During these visits, he held several conspiracy-meetings with Khaja Miodeen and Shakul Hamid in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka with the intention of recruiting more persons for ISIS. Haja’s parents opposed his decision but he moved to Syria in January 2014 with his family against his parents’ wishes (via Turkey, but still there is no clarity). In the meantime, Singapore authorities arrested Gul and deported him to India[vi]. In the interrogations, he revealed that both of them had planned to intensify ISIS recruitment in the universities and educational institutions in Chennai. Later, in 2017, five individuals were arrested in Chennai for involvement in ISIS-related activities. One of them, Ansar Meeran had financed Haja and his family’s journey to Syria. (Data Source: ISIS Tracking Project by ORF)[vii]
  • 2014- Four young men- Arif Majeed, Fahad Tanveer Sheikh, Aman Naeem Tandel and Shaheem Tanki- from Kalyan (Mumbai) successfully made it to Syria as a part of the 22 pilgrims ‘making a religious trip to Iraq’. Then they fled to Falujah and joined ISIS. Arif was a son of an Unani doctor. According to intelligence agencies, the four young men were radicalized through internet. Later, Majid surrendered and was brought back to India. The other three were reported killed[viii].
  • December 2014- Mehdi Biswas[ix], a software engineer was arrested in Bangalore. He was running the twitter handle of ISIS under the name of “Shami witness”. It was a successful propaganda outlet that helped ISIS in recruitment in India. The account had a strong international outreach. He was also reportedly in touch with the attackers of Dhaka terrorist attack in 2016.
  • In July 2016, 21 people disappeared from Kasargod and Palakkad in Kerala to join ISIS. Rashid Abdullah was the chief recruiter. Five of them were connected to Peace International School chain of Kerala. Many were new converts. Ayesha, Rashid’s wife was a Hindu convert. All the families in Kaasargod knew Rashid and the three families were known to each other. Rashid also knew two Christian brothers Bestin and Bexen from Palakkad who converted to Islam. Rashid introduced Bexen to Hindu girl Nimisha who converted to Islam and married him. Bestin and his girlfriend Merrin also converted to Islam[x] . All of them were highly educated with degrees in management and engineering.
  • 2016- Muhammed Mosiuddin (alias Abu Musa), a 26-year-old grocer from Burdwan (West Bengal) was arrested on the charge of planning lone-wolf attacks in the name of ISIS against local and Western targets. Mosiuddin’s interest in ISIS developed through online networks where he met with other ISIS enthusiasts to discuss future strategy and planning operations. He came in touch with Shafi Armar (alias Yusuf al-Hindi, founder and self-appointed Amir of Junud al-khalifa e Hind). Shafi, a resident of West Bengal, was a former Indian Mujahiddin operative. He was one of the chief recruiters of ISIS in India.  During this period, Mosiuddin also came in contact with Abu Sulaiman, a former member of JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahiddin, Bangladesh). Their initial communications were on Facebook, but later they switched to other platforms like Nimbuzz, Surespot and Trillian. In 2015, JMB joined these conversations. Abu Sulaiman travelled to India from Bangladesh to visit Mosiuddin to discuss the establishment of ISIS’ foothold in India. Meanwhile,  Mosiuddin tried to arrange finances and passport for traveling to Syria with Armar’s help.


Mosiuddin, at the same time also recruited Saddam Hussain (25-year unemployed man) and Shaikh Abbasudin, a 22-year old daily wage plumber.  Mosiuddin, Abu Sulaiman and the two new recruits commenced efforts to build ISIS’s base in India. Their activities included surveillance trips to Srinagar and Delhi in 2015 (train trips sponsored by JMB). Attempts were made to disseminate ISIS ideology in the Valley by fomenting protests with ISIS flags and YouTube video clips. But Mosiuddin’s ultimate dream of travelling to Syria was never fulfilled because he could not arrange finances and passport[xi].  The rich and educated lads from Kerala and Maharashtra could get passport and travel to Syria whereas the poor and comparatively illiterate Mosiuddin could not. Further, to what extent Shafi Armar was interested in him also gives a clue to ISIS’s recruitment policy which apparently focuses more on educated and rich ones)

  • October 2016- Ansarul Khalifa, ISIS module was busted in Kannur, Kerala by the NIA. Six persons were arrested. The group was led by Manseed Omar al Hindi, who developed ties with ISIS while working in Qatar. The group had 12 members. The group was planning a Nice-style attack on a Jamaat-i-Islami meeting with truck as a weapon[xii].
  • There have been several cases of the waving of ISIS flags during agitations in Kashmir but these cannot be accepted as substantial evidences for the official presence of ISIS in Valley. They appear more like teasers. Eisa Fazli killed a policeman in Srinagar in the name of ISIS. Later, ISIS’ Amaq News agency legitimized it as its operation. But no militant organization in Kashmir has pledged official allegiance to ISIS which is also the case with its other ‘wilayats’ (provinces)[xiii]. However, ISIS mindset is taking strong roots in Kashmir and Zakir Musa’s Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind openly talks about
StateNo. of ISIS casesStateNo. of ISIS Cases
Telangana21Uttarakhanda/Bengal3 each
  • Islamic State in Kashmir (details discussed in the case-study on Kashmir).


Mapping ISIS- (Source: Times of India[xiv])

  • Kerala, the most literate state has the highest recorded number of ISIS cases i.e. 37. The Wahabi/Salafi religious and ideological bond created and nurtured over the years by economic links with the Gulf created fertile ground for radicalization and the results are quite expected. Maharashtra, West Bengal and Telangana have also witnessed worrying levels of radicalization.
  • All those who joined ISIS are youngsters. Most of them come from affluent economic background, and had advanced educational qualifications in the field of engineering, medicine, information technology, medicine, dentistry, and management studies. Many of them were anglicized in personal lifestyle. For example, the case of Mehdi Biswas may be an interesting one- Mehdi adored Hollywood movies, American actresses, and American superhero movies and attended Hawaiian theme parties. Before his arrest, he posted on twitter, “May Allah guide, protect, strengthen and expand the Islamic State … Islamic State brought peace, autonomy, zero corruption, low crime-rate.[xv]
  • Further, except UP, the majority came from the more prosperous, developed and networked states of India. This trend is quite similar to the trends in other parts of the world with relatively liberal societies most vulnerable to ISIS radicalization- Morocco, Tunisia (comparatively liberal in Arab world), Australia, Nordic countries, France and Belgium.
  • There were several cases of online radicalization. 1/3rd of the total numbers were already affiliated with the domestic terror organizations like SIMI, IM and Junood al Khalifa fi Hind and PFI. It shows that ISIS’ strategy is very flexible and can successfully tap into the existing jihadi infrastructure. In most of the cases, the transition from the local jihadi set-up to global jihadi set-up was very smooth.
  • ISIS radicalization in India was not a faceless process, nor was it entirely online, happening on its own with a multiplier effect. Well-trained ISIS recruiters like Shafi Armar and Rashid Abdullah have been arrested. They were running ISIS-terror modules in West Bengal and Kerala. Similarly, in Kannur (Kerala) an ISIS module with 12 active members and a leader was busted. The recruiters were trained by ISIS to become efficient recruiters. They were trained in convincing the probable candidate by using online content and distorting theological texts. Even the twitter handlers of ISIS such as Mehdi Biswas and Muhammad Sirajuddin[xvi] (IOC official, arrested in Jaipur) were highly tech-savvy and efficient in using social media platforms like Facebook, for publishing online contents and encrypted applications like telegram and WhatsApp. This study, because of paucity of data, does not aim at a concrete analysis on the nature of the exact relationship and the frequency of contacts between the ISIS recruiters in India and the core ISIS leadership However, it is emphasized that ISIS represents a different model of organizational structure and command and control systems. Therefore, investigating ISIS from the conventional prism of locating a centralized leadership and control system may not be a sound idea. In fact, ISIS’ strategy of roping in educated and tech-savvy young men and women suggests that the organization’s training strategy focused on self-radicalization and self-training through online mediums.
  • Besides, other vectors that played important role in radicalization are family ties, marriage-relationships, group ties and conversions. An important pattern that comes forth from the analysis of pro-ISIS individuals in India is that they preferred to work in groups. They preferred to work in groups and moved to Syria and Afghanistan in groups. This pattern has strong parallels with cases in Europe. ISIS attack in Paris in 2015 was an effort of a group of individuals who came from Belgium’s Muslim-populated ghetto town of Molanbeek[xvii]. Many of them were childhood friends.
  • India has also been an anomaly in so far as there has been no case of lone-wolf attack so far. The general trend in South Asia is to work in groups. The reason for this may lie in the fact that the institutions of collective social identities like families, caste, communities are still very powerful in India. However, this cannot be a reason to rule out the possibility of such attacks in future. Mosiuddin and the Kannur ISIS module wanted to organize lone-wolf attacks. It must be noted here that local socio-cultural factors may have an influence on the strategy and modus-operandi but largely they are guided by the religious injunctions on such things, as conveyed by the ISIS leadership. When ISIS spokesperson Adnani urged ISIS Jihaids to use any weapon-knives, machetes, cars and trucks- to attack then it did figure in the ISIS modules as a potential strategy to be employed.
  • Regarding radicalization in India, some unique feature come to light. As mentioned earlier, the Singapore group of pro-ISIS individuals were seeking approval from their families before joining ISIS. One of them Haja, moved to Syria with his family. Similarly, in Kashmir also, the militants continue their contacts with their families and friends even after joining a terrorist organization. As discussed in the Kashmir case-study, they have been found talking to their families before encounter deaths or fidayeen attacks. This phenomenon is inconsistent with the prevailing notions that a radicalized individual gets disconnected from his friends and family as he finds a virtual community of like-minded people.
  • The radicalized individuals came from diverse backgrounds. Many of them came from affluent backgrounds with high education (Kerala modules), there were others like Mosiuddin from humble economic background and poor education. Many of them were previously associated with IM, PFI and SIMI. In many cases, convicts cited the rise of Hindu extremism, beef-lynching as reasons for their radicalization. Some others stated that the conditions of Muslims in post-9/11 world and Muslim suffering in ME at the hands of foreign powers radicalized them. Almost 95 % of them refer to online ISIS content as the motivating factor. Further, Olivier Roy’s theory (from his study of radicalization in France) that homeless, drug addicts and second-generation Muslims who faced integration problems in society, were more prone to radicalization, does not find much resonance in India. Most of the ISIS cases had no family issues. In fact, they had good family support system. Muslims in India have been living for almost 1000 years now so there are no integration problems as such.


The inconsistencies mentioned above make it extremely difficult to derive a standard logic for radicalization. However, in all the cases analyzed, theology and the geopolitics of global Islamism emerge as common factors. Many of them displayed pronounced religiosity before making a move to Syria. The over-religiosity manifested in keeping beards, wearing skull caps, advocating dressing restrictions on their sisters, and despising television and cinema. This needs to be taken into consideration for the future policy-making. Until now, the role of religion in radicalization has been downplayed in intellectual and security circles. Politically, it may be an uncomfortable zone to enter. But if the problem is to be addressed seriously, an objective and honest assessment of the role of religion needs to be carried out. Greame Wood[xviii], an expert voice in terrorism, studied more than 100 ISIS recruiters and concluded that religion plays an extremely important role in ISIS’ strategy and ISIS has made jihad religious again. For further details, the readers may refer to the essay by this author-Post-ISIS-Future of Global Jihad[xix] (available on VIF website).

Did ISIS fail in India?

Stanford University’s counter extremism project, “Spiders of Caliphate” studied the social media networks of ISIS and found that in South Asia, there were two nodes of ISIS (Facebook community of ISIS followers) one in Afghanistan-Pakistan and the other one in Bangladesh. India is more or less missing in that network of nodes. The counter extremism project has concluded that ISIS cannot be called a success in India. The total number of Indians who subscribed to ISIS was miniscule. Even a small entity as Maldives sent 200 fighters to ISIS. There was no large-scale sophisticated ISIS led attack in India and not even a proper lone-wolf attack, typically characteristic of ISIS. What hindered the progress of ISIS in India? An exploration will bring forth several reasons-

  • Firstly, it appears that ISIS did not accord the same level of priority to India and South Asia as was accorded to the Western and the Middle Eastern world. In Kashmir, the organization named ISJK (Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir) existed but it did not find much traction. As already mentioned previously, no group in Kashmir has announced official allegiance to ISIS, just the way Abu Sayyaf of Manila or the TTP of Pakistan did. Kabir Taneja[xx] (ORF) in his detailed study on the ISIS phenomenon in South Asia opines that ISIS deliberately did not include Kashmir in their “quest of Caliphate” in al-Hind because it feared that the jihadi terrorist organizations in Kashmir like HM and LeT have nationalist or patriotic orientations and hence, would never accept merger with ISIS. He further says that ISIS has tremendous brand value so militant outfits find it suitable to use their brand name to gain popularity and recognition which was evident in the case of massive popularity which Zakir Musa achieved after stating his idea of establishing Islamic state in Kashmir. However, during field research, it was found that the ISIS as an organization, cannot be said to have achieved any major success in Kashmir but the ideology and the caliphate narrative of ISIS has captured some degree of popular imagination. The details are discussed in the chapter carrying case-study on Kashmir.
  • ISIS’ brutal tactics and killing of fellow Muslims did not rhyme well with the socio-cultural ethos of South Asia. India’s strong family values and a robust national and cultural identity cutting across religious lines was also an effective deterrent[xxi]. The ISIS narrative also did not align well even with local extremist organizations such as PFI and Jamaat-i-Islami. In South Asia, Muslims have lived in a democratic set-up and evolved in a multicultural environment. As a result, fanaticism and extremism advocated by ISIS did not find a fertile ground here.  Secondly, majority of Muslims in South Asia follow Barelvi and Deobandi Islam. Barelvi school is comparatively tolerant and allows the syncretic Sufi practices. ISIS’ Wahhabi line of Islam is at odds with the Barelvi and Deobandi belief systems. Further, the causes of radicalization in India are highly localized and communal in nature. Dominant jihadi narrative is over the Hindu-Muslim communal frictions. Being a minority, the prevailing threat perception among Muslims is from the rising Hindu assertiveness, not from the fellow non Wahabbi Muslims whereas the ISIS’ prime targets were non-Wahhabi Sunni Muslims and Shias first and then the Kafirs.
  • Jihadi terrorism in South Asia, India in particular, is largely controlled by Pakistan’s ISI. ISI does not have any ideological fixation. It uses terrorist organizations for its narrow geo-political ends, certainly not in the cause of Islam. Therefore, in the Indian context, transnational terror outfits like AQ and ISIS have to face stiff competition from Pakistan backed, highly organized, disciplined and well-funded terrorist groups like HM, LeT, JeM and HuJi. Self-radicalized and untrained ISIS sympathizers are no match for such a well-trained and organized Jihadi infrastructure.
  • Many Indian ISIS fighters were not treated with dignity by the Arab ISIS fighters. Indians were rarely given military assignments. They had to face Arab racism. A report[xxii] by MI6 and CIA revealed that ISIS considered Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis inferior to Arab fighters so they were used as canon-fodder for suicide bombings. They were used for menial jobs.
  • Indian Muslims have a fair representation in politics, bureaucracy and the financial world of India. They have high stakes in Indian democracy and the peaceful functioning of the state.

In India, the state and its security infrastructure gave a robust checkmate to ISIS activities at all levels, operational, strategic and psychological. There was strict monitoring of social media outlets and the individuals on the verge of radicalization were identified and the prompt action was takenand 60[xxiii] % of the 142 ISIS sympathizers were arrested and interrogated.

[i] Jayshankar, Dhruva & Pelangeli, Sara, “Assessing the Islamic State Threat to India: It is  a Serious but Manageable Challenge”, Times of India, May 6, 2017, Accessed: October 1, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/assessing-the-islamic-state-threat-to-india-it-is-a-serious-but-manageable-challenge/


[ii]  “Tracking ISIS’ Influence in India”, ORF, Accessed: October 2, 2018 http://trackingisis.orfonline.org/ 

[iii] Jayshankar, Dhruva & Pelangeli, Sara, “Assessing the Islamic State Threat to India: It is  a Serious but Manageable Challenge”, Times of India, May 6, 2017, Accessed: October 1, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/assessing-the-islamic-state-threat-to-india-it-is-a-serious-but-manageable-challenge/

[iv] Sherazi, Zahir Shah, “Six top TTP commanders announce allegiance to Islamic State’s Baghdadi”, Dawn, October 14, 2014, Accessed: October 2, 2018 https://www.dawn.com/news/1137908

[v] Rasheed, Adil, “Jihadist Radicalization in India: Internal Challenges, External Threats”, Journal of Defense Studies,  July 2018, Accessed: October 2, 2018 https://idsa.in/jds/jds-12-2-2018-jihadist-radicalisation-in-india

[vi] “Singapore deports Indian Man for Syrian Links”, Indian Express, March 24, 2014, Accessed: October 2, 2018 https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/singapore-deports-indian-man-for-syrian-linkshttps://www.orfonline.org/research/42378-uncovering-the-influence-of-isis-in-india/

[vii] “Tracking ISIS’ Influence in India”, ORF, Accessed: October 2, 2018 http://trackingisis.orfonline.org/ 

[viii] ibid

[ix] Channel 4 News, “ISIS propagandist Shami Witness: Man Charged in India”, June 2015, Accessed: October 2, 2018 https://www.channel4.com/news/isis-shami-witness-medhi-masroor-biswas-charged

[x] The News Minute, “The Men and Women recruited by Islamic State from Kerala: NIA releases pictures”, July 2017, Accessed: October 2, 2018, https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/men-and-women-recruited-islamic-state-kerala-nia-releases-pictures-73661

[xi] Taneja, Kabir, “Uncovering the Influence of ISIS in India”,  ORF Publication, July 12, 2018, Accessed: October 2, 2018, https://www.orfonline.org/research/42378-uncovering-the-influence-of-isis-in-india/


[xii] Abraham, Bobins, “Ansarul Kahlifah- The IS Module busted in Kerala was under NIA scanner for four months” , The News, October 4 2016, Accessed: October 2, 2018, https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/ansar-ul-khilafah-the-isis-module-busted-in-kerala-was-under-nia-scanner-for-four-months-262950.html

[xiii] Taneja, Kabir, ‘Perils of Humoring ISIS in Kashmir”, ORF, June 30 2018, Accessed: October 2, 2018 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/42014-the-perils-of-humoring-isis-in-kashmir/

[xiv] Jayshankar, Dhruva & Pelangeli, Sara, “Assessing the Islamic State Threat to India: It is  a Serious but Manageable Challenge”, Times of India, May 6, 2017, Accessed: October 1, 2018

[xv] Channel 4 News, “ISIS propagandist Shami Witness: Man Charged in India”, June 2015, Accessed: October 2, 2018 https://www.channel4.com/news/isis-shami-witness-medhi-masroor-biswas-charged

[xvi] Singh, Mahim Pratap, “Indian Oil Corporation Manager in Jaipur arrested for Islamic State Links”, Indian Express, December 11, 2015, Accessed: October 3, 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/indian-oil-corporation-manager-in-jaipur-held-for-islamic-state-links/

[xvii] Reuters, ‘How Captured Paris attacks Suspect Abdelsalam hid in Molanbeek?”, March 19, 2016, Accessed: October 3, 2018 https://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/19/captured-paris-attacks-suspect-abdeslam-hid-in-belgiums-molenbeek.html

[xviii] Wood, Graeme. “True Believers.” Foreign Affairs. October 3, 2018. Accessed: October 3, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2017-08-15/true-believers


[xix] Pandya, Abhinav, “ Post-ISIS-Future of Global Jihad”, VIF Publications, November 28, 2017, Accessed: October 3, 2018 https://www.vifindia.org/article/2017/november/28/post-isis-future-of-global-jihad

[xx] Taneja, Kabir, “Uncovering the Influence of ISIS in India”,  ORF Publication, July 12, 2018, Accessed: October 2, 2018, https://www.orfonline.org/research/42378-uncovering-the-influence-of-isis-in-india/


[xxi] Pandya, Abhinav, “Why ISIS can’t make much headway with Muslims in India?”, Huffington Post, December 2015, Accessed: October 3, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.in/abhinav-pandya/why-isis-cant-make-much-h_b_8824410.html

[xxii] NDTV, “ISIS considers Indian recruits inferior to Arabs treats them as cannon-fodder- Report”, November 23, 2015, Accessed: October 3, 2018 https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/indian-recruits-inferior-to-arab-fighters-treated-as-cannon-fodder-report-on-isis-1246695

[xxiii] Jayshankar, Dhruva & Pelangeli, Sara, “Assessing the Islamic State Threat to India: It is  a Serious but Manageable Challenge”, Times of India, May 6, 2017, Accessed: October 3, 2018

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