Daesh’s influence in Southern India

 By Aishwarya Dutta


In April 2019, on the weekend of the Christian Festival of Easter, the terror attack in India’s neighbouring island country of Sri Lanka brought to light a new model of pro-IS movements in South Asia. Reporting suggested that India’s intelligence services were investigating claims that the terrorists who carried out the Sri Lankan Easter Sunday bombings had an Indian link. The claims made by the leader of the Sri Lankan army have put back the spotlight on some groups in southern India suspected of growing radicalisation and terrorist dissemination.[1]

The ISI sensed that the South could be a possible gateway, and a dedicated smuggling route was what enabled its activity. This path ties Tamil Nadu and Kerala via Sri Lanka. This road has been used since ages for all manner of things such as drug smuggling, cigarettes, and gold, and now weapons.[2]

The topic of radicalisation has recently appeared in the public domain or come under the purview of government policy in India. Even though India’s concerns with groups such as SIMI or Indian Mujahideen have been enduring for decades, we had a different view of Islamic radicalisation earlier. Before 2015, most Indians and government policy-making bodies (including intelligence) were fixed with terrorism focused in Pakistan / Kashmir and more complacent with Islamist home-grown problems. So it is common for the naive to neglect the actual problem of Islamist grass-root radicalisation, which now poses a long-term challenge.

Though our priority has been shifted to terrorism in Kashmir and away from domestic terrorism in the South, we should turn our attention to the area that needs a great deal of commitment to fight the spread of radicalisation. In South India, the ISIS has been bringing together smaller extremist parties to extend its base. Over the past few years, southern states such as Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu have seen an increase in radicalisation and radical organisations. Some groups have allied themselves with larger groups with distinct terror symbols — the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Islamic State — either for support and training or because India’s top investigation agencies’ successful crackdowns left them with no choice to depend on outside assistance.[3]

One drastic difference between the terrorism in other states of India and that of southern India is that other state’s terrorist groups have secessionist goals and terrorism activities in Southern India have a desire to bring about an Islamic world and be a part of the greater Caliphate.

South India was considered to be a fertile ground for recruiting by the IS. Growing Islamic radicalisation through many sleeping cells and splinter groups has made recruitment easier. The IS believes in the ‘lone radicalisation of the wolves,’ where people are threatened and eventually radicalised. According to agencies, Telangana and Kerala had seen the IS’s most significant impact.[4]

The most prominent case concerning the ISIS, however, was reported from South India. Despite several arrests and seizures of Jihadi propaganda materials in South India, especially Kerala and, to a significant extent, Tamil Nadu, we are still unable to understand the scope and breadth of the impact of the Islamic State in these states since 2016. Near 23 people had been missing from Kerala and reports found they had joined the ISIS in Afghanistan. The ISIS Afghan wing has been heavily recruiting Indians and, in particular, South and Kerala have always been in focus. Because of the high levels of radicalisation, it was observed that targeting young people from Kerala is more superficial, and hence this has become a preferred destination.[5] Some people either demonstrated an inclination to move to West Asia to join the Caliphate or eventually did so.

The aims of this form of indoctrination are primarily motivated by young men and women to follow the direction of ‘jihad.’ These organisations ideally first ensure that prospective candidates recognise that they are part of the larger ‘Islamic cause’ and what Allah desires. Orthodox ways of radicalisation have been upgraded by selective madrasas and mosques, which now use social media.[6]

Many analysts have started to refer to Southeast Asia as the “second front” in the global war on terror, after the greater Middle East. Nevertheless, both AQ and IS have started to consider the supposed potential of India’s large Sunni Muslim community, which has traditionally been resistant to radical siren songs considering the fact that India’s Muslims have suffered from relative oppression, are often accused of harbouring allegiance to Pakistan and have been victims of communal violence over the years (Hashim 2015).

The declaration of the new branch is seen as part of ISIS’ plan to give the appearance that its global affiliations will be improved after the territorial defeats in the Middle East. It paints a rather bleak picture of Southern India’s state of affairs.[7]

The influence of the Middle East (both money and education promoting strict adherence to Islam) played a significant role. In these two counties, the past of Islam imported Salafism, and current anti-Hindu sentiment were both extremely crucial to this new wave of radicalisation.

The ISIS crisis did not spring up all of a sudden. It all started with the influence of the Wahhabism in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which spread rapidly. Saudi Arabia’s preachers arrived, poured money in, and left, and no government did anything about it.[8] Salafi-Wahhabis spurred the purification campaigns in India with principles such as the unification in Islam, absolute obedience to the Quran and Sharia, etc. In truth, these teachings and ideas are driving factors and serve as a primary step towards bigotry and hostility towards other religions and individuals, creating a deadly sectarian worldview.

People in the security establishment believe the higher number of people from southern India living in Gulf countries, where they are under the sway of the ultra-conservative type of Islam, is a significant explanation for the rise of radical organisations. Another reason, according to intelligence officials, is the growing accessibility of social media, the use of apps like Telegram, and mass misinformation across the dark web, which is used to indoctrinate people.[9]

Videos of the torture faced by the Muslim people are shown, and they are forced to take an oath of loyalty to the group and the cause of Islam. Classes in arms preparation are said to be conducted and illustrate the sacrifices anticipated by the recruits. That allegedly involved the conversion of Dalits to Islam and the provision of weapons training to them.[10] IS propaganda, as propagated in posts by its Keralite followers, cited radical pro-Hindutva, organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) and other right-wing Hindu organisations as motivations for joining the Islamic State and opposing these forces. Incidents such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid by right-wing extremists in 1992 are still being used to fuel their propaganda. IS adherents have also supported the need for their opposition to Deity to combat sceptics and rationalists.[11]

India’s already diverse network of security challenges has been exacerbated by the impact of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s speeches and videos created by Al Isabah, the media arm of ISIS, have been translated into Urdu, Hindi, and Tamil and circulated through social media sites (Rajkumar 2015). Indeed, IS propaganda is pervasive and distributed in numerous languages, including Malayalam and Tamil, two South Indian languages previously ignored by Al Qaeda in favour of Urdu, the Muslim lingua franca in North India. Maybe this would also explain why IS was more drawn to Keralite Muslims than AQ; the latter did not assign significance to the implementation of propaganda in the vernacular.[12]

Arguably, the respective state governments and their agencies have neglected the mushrooming growth of radical local Islamist groups influenced by foreign Salafi and Wahabi principles, or I should only assume they are ignorant of it. Not just the Islamic State, but the militant ideology of Al Qaeda is also prevalent in South India. We need to work on the party too. The bottom line is that our intelligence services have struggled to interpret or decode (leave alone penetrate) militant grass-roots organisations (radical monotheism or anti-polytheist groups) and their separate practices, whether it be physical and interactive ‘Dawa’ or social networking literature dissemination.

Kerala was one of the first Indian states to introduce a policy of de-radicalisation, which took form in 2015.[13] A territorial war against the terror network may have ended with the collapse of the IS caliphate. Nevertheless, their agenda persists, and the internet is proving to be a potent weapon for both radicalising and exploiting what has mainly become an insurgency.

New Delhi’s counterterrorism efforts, while commendable, seem to be ineffective. There is a shortage of timely counterterrorism initiatives in the world by appropriate organisations. Also, core counterterrorism organisations still lack capital (financial, human, and technical). Investment in extremism and counterterrorism studies is woefully inadequate (Rajkumar 2015).

Eradicating or driving back terrorist organisations from their territory and adopting strict new anti-terrorism regulations is one way of dealing with the ever-increasing radicalisation. The only difficulty is that the gangs don’t travel far enough; they merely move to the closest loosely regulated or ungoverned area to resume their operation and establish relations with like-minded radicals (Hashim 2015).

Law enforcement and intelligence services should be prepared to detect, control, and infiltrate the jihadist inclinations of virtual and physical Islamist groups. And those with anti-Indian sentiments, or who support the idea of global Muslim Ummah, pose a long-term threat. In order to fight the extremist or Jihadi agendas (those romanticising jihad and exploiting Muslim youth clamouring for the rule of God or Caliphate etc.), mainstream Islamic intellectuals and cultural icons should be encouraged. Geographically speaking, IS-related or inspired Jihadi spills from neighbouring countries (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Maldives) should be controlled, and any alliances with the groups of South India may be risky.

The challenges that an organisation such as IS raises from a policy perspective directed at transnational militant groups are constrained in its strategy and do not work holistically to counter-terror from a global perspective, so much Indian analysis on counterterrorism comes from a particular background, that of Kashmir. The emergence of IS, as described earlier, altered the nature of how indoctrination, recruiting, and maybe even the same approach to global jihad works. There are gaps both in strategy and thought processes, and from a global viewpoint, India has struggled to look at a challenge such as IS.

In India, Kerala should be made a feasible example of how radicalisation can be countered by moving beyond conventional responses to violence that have been used in Kashmir. Transnational terrorist organisations have turned the basic definition of terrorism into a ‘Do-It-Yourself’ online violence textbook. In the case of IS, marketing a message of ‘God wants you’ rather than ‘you need God’ can be countered holistically in the future by using comprehensive tactics rather than military action to a large degree, and understanding the evolutionary existence of these terror organisations themselves.



  • Gregg, H. (2014). Defining and Distinguishing Secular and Religious Terrorism. Perspectives on Terrorism, 8(2), 36-51. Retrieved from jstor.org/stable/26297135
  • Balakrishnan, R. (2018). India and the Crime-Terrorism Nexus. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 10(9), 11-17. Retrieved from jstor.org/stable/26487540
  • Ramachandran, S. (2020). Hindutva Violence in India: Trends and Implications. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 12(4), 15-20.

·         ISIS teams up with Al Qaida, UN report warns of terrorist attack in South India. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.timesnownews.com/videos/times-now/india/isis-teams-up-with-al-qaida-un-report-warns-of-terrorist-attack-in-south-india/68662


·         Radicalisation of South India by Wahhabis who came and went before we knew it. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.mynation.com/views/radicalisation-of-south-india-by-wahhabis-who-came-and-went-before-we-knew-it-pzxeuk


·         Now linked to Sri Lanka terror, here’s how south India became a hotbed of radicalisation. (2019). Retrieved from https://theprint.in/india/now-linked-to-sri-lanka-terror-heres-how-south-india-became-a-hotbed-of-radicalisation/233228/


·         Siyech, K. (2020). The Islamic State in India’s Kerala: A primer | ORF. Retrieved from https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-islamic-state-in-indias-kerala-a-primer-56634/