India and the Gulf: Towards an Evolving Counter-Terrorism Partnership

 By Yogesh Gattani
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The last two decades have witnessed a change in the status quo of the relations between India and the Persian Gulf[1] as the two have consciously diversified their areas of co-operations. Historically, the relations between the Gulf and India have been mainly dominated by energy exchange, expatriate population and remittances. India’s large Muslim population has also been an important factor in India’s relation with the region as “relations with Middle Eastern countries have often been considered as levers to appease Indian Muslims.”[2] Currently, India, the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil, fulfils 60 per cent of its oil requirements from the Gulf region[3] while the region “host over 8.5 million expatriates who send home about US$30 billion in remittances”, contributing to nearly half of the entire remittances to India.[4]

Since the early 2000s, the two partners started brewing a strategic partnership that began with discussions related to shared security challenges and interests. For almost a decade these challenges revolved around the shared water body of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to counter piracy, smuggling and illicit trade. The strengthened defence co-operation between the navies of the Gulf and India, as well as other branches of the defence, Air Force and Army, regularly conduct joint exercises with the defence personnel from the Gulf countries regularly visiting Indian defence academies and institutions for training. For instance, in 2008, the exercise Desert Eagle was started between the Air Forces of India and the UAE leading to Gulf Star, the first bilateral naval exercise between the two in 2018[5] as well as Army personnel from Saudi Arabia arrived in India for three-year training at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 2018[6]. The reasons behind the two partners warming up to each other can be attributed to several factors. Both understand the vast economic importance of the other and, therefore, it is inevitable for them to overlook the common security concerns.

India’s engagement with the Gulf has been one that has been crafted tactically to ensure its economic, strategic and political interest remain consolidated. The Gulf region is fraught with political and military volatility, and India remains cognizant of this. The growing power tussle between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as the boycott of Qatar from the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC)[7], has led India to manoeuvre itself diplomatically with all the parties involved to ensure its interest are safeguarded. Nonetheless, India’s growing bonhomie with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has led to them becoming the most reliable partners in the region not only economically but also in other avenues such as defence, security, culture and education. A similar trend has been observed with other countries, leading to a diversification of relationship with the entire region.[8]

Evolving Counter-terrorism ties

Both Indian and the Gulf have been victims of violence originating from terror groups or extremists harboured either within their domestic borders or outside. Therefore, the growing defence and security ties have naturally evolved to strengthen co-operation to battle terrorism, radicalization and the various ways in which they manifest themselves.

The signing of the ‘Delhi Declaration’ between the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on his visit to New Delhi in January 2006 followed by the reciprocal signing of the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ on Singh’s visit to the Kingdom in 2010 changed the status quo of the partnership between the two countries but also set an indelible precedent for the entire Gulf region. The Declarations emphasized on the “need to intensify and coordinate bilateral, regional and global cooperation to combat and eradicate the menace of terrorism”[9], to “enhance cooperation in exchange of information relating to terrorist activities”[10] and “welcomed the signing of the Extradition Treaty and the Agreement for Transfer of Sentenced Persons.”[11] Over the years, identical agreements have also been signed between India and the other Gulf countries[12].

Most of the Gulf countries, despite their traditional cordial relation with Pakistan, have also become more vocal in supporting India’s stance against terrorism and non-state actors emanating from Pakistan. They have been extremely careful to support India’s posture against Pakistan without explicitly naming the country. For instance, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Oman in February 2018, both the countries agreed to “take urgent action against all such entities, which support terrorism and use it as an instrument of policy”[13]. During Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to India in February 2019, 4-days after the Pulwama attack, PM Modi said: “We agreed that in order to combat the menace of terrorism effectively, there is a need to put pressure on countries that support terror in any form.”[14]

Similarly, in May 2019, Kuwait played an integral role “as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in declaring JeM chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist [a move opposed by Pakistan] and earlier an equally important role in UNSC condemnation of Pulwama terror strike”[15]. On the other hand, Iran and India, while already strong partners, could see further consolidation of their security and counter-terrorism ties as the former suffered a suicide attack that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards by a terror outfit, Jaish al-Adl, based in Pakistan. The two “have agreed to cooperate more closely on combating terrorism in the region. Such an agreement could see an escalation of surreptitious military operations within Pakistan by its neighbours”[16].

India has successfully managed to extradite individuals from the Gulf countries, most of them from UAE and Saudi Arabia, wanted for terror activities among other charges. The long list of those extradited includes individuals involved in the 26/11 attacks, 1993 Mumbai bombings as well as members of terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Indian Mujahideen[17]. On the other hand, all branches of India’s defence services enjoy an interactive relationship with the Gulf region. While “India’s most notable… defence cooperation has been with Oman”, “all the Gulf states are members of the Indian Navy-conceived Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which was established in 2008 as a biennial forum for navy chiefs of the Indian Ocean littoral”.[18] The Gulf nations are also part of the mega multilateral annular exercise of the Indian Navy called MILAN. Oman’s Port of Duqm SEZ, Indian Ocean’s one of the largest deep-sea port, is also open for access for India[19].

Cybersecurity and the Islamic State

Counter-terrorism co-operations have evolved from sharing information, curbing terror finances to tackle aspects like radicalization, especially cyberspace, in both India and the Gulf. The rise and fall of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have exposed the ever-growing need to tackle cyberspace as a tool for the propagation of extremist ideology and radicalizing individuals across borders. In 2014, Indian intelligence agencies launched Operation Chakravyuh where the “operatives assumed the role of Islamic State recruiters online and reportedly dissuaded about 3,000 youth from taking part in extremist activities”[20]. Similarly, again in 2017, “security personnel identified nearly 800 youth deemed susceptible to online propaganda and worked with local communities and clerics to help deradicalize them”[21] through Operation Pigeon Hole.

On the Indian PM’s visit to Bahrain in August 2019, both sides emphasized the “prevention of the use of cyberspace for terrorism, radicalization and for disturbing social harmony”[22]. India and UAE have also signed “an agreement to enhance cooperation in cybersecurity”[23]. India has largely been successful in managing online radicalization and, therefore, proves to be an extremely resourceful partner of the Gulf in their fight against a common enemy. Moreover, the “group’s [ISIS] impressively organised internet outreach”[24] renders international co-operation inevitable. While the fall of ISIS might appear to be a respite, India and the Gulf still need to co-operate extensively on the cyber front. Both PM Modi, at the Dubai Summit in 2018, and the External Affairs Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, at the Paris Peace Forum in 2019 reiterated the need to eliminate “unimpeded growth of terrorism-related activities, including extremist propaganda; terror financing; illicit trafficking and radicalization in the cyberspace” as their “actions present a clear threat to our national, regional and global security”[25].

The Islamic State online propaganda saw a resurgence in India during the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act[26] and the Delhi riots in February 2020. According to Kabir Taneja of the Observer Research Foundation, “The 221st issue of Islamic State’s (IS) al-Naba’ newsletter was perhaps the first time IS dedicated an entire page to India” which mocked the polytheistic nature of Indian society “and urged Indian Muslims to wake up and work towards a single Islamic rule”[27]. On 24 February and again a month later, an online propaganda magazine named ‘Voice-a-hind’ was launched “by an online group identifying itself as a pro-IS entity called al-Qitaal Media Centre by Junudul Khilafaah al-Hind”[28]. Furthermore, post the US-Taliban peace deal in February, it was observed that “Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) changed the name of its online magazine Nawai Afghan Jihad to Nawai-Ghazwa-e-Hind”[29], making a clear indication of its intentions in India.

For India, it is integral to analyse the online revival of the IS in the context of its physical manifestation in the form of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan, an ISIS branch that has been active in Central Asia and South Asia since early 2015. This year the attacks claimed by IS-K has surged rapidly and, most importantly, the attack on the Sikh community that left 25 dead, allegedly by a suicide bomber from Kerala, is of extreme significance to India[30]. Moreover, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the militant outfits associated with it in Afghanistan have reported links with IS-K. To this effect, the counter-terrorism ties between India and the Gulf need to transcend their geographical boundaries and further evolve to tackle terrorism in their common neighbourhood[31].

Conclusion

It is often argued that India was largely protected from the threat posed by ISIS during its heydays, while that might be true to a certain extent, it needs to further safeguard its security interests now that the IS is establishing itself right at its door. The military coalition by the Gulf countries was largely successful in eliminating the caliphate from the region and their prowess will be beneficial for India in leading the asymmetric warfare against the terror group.

It is true that the Gulf faces many challenges of its own but so does India. The threat from IS-K is one among the many reasons in the long list that demands stronger Indo-Gulf counter-terrorism ties. As analysed above, these ties are multi-faceted in nature that includes cybersecurity, armed forces, terror financing, travel routes undertaken by IS sympathisers and other extremists as well as safeguarding other strategic interests with the Gulf nations. Moreover, the threat posed by the Islamic State is not limited to India but entire South Asia. It is in India’s long-term interest to further consolidate its relationship with the Gulf for assistance in abating terrorism and ensure the region’s stability from the different ways in which terror manifests itself.

Notes:

[1] Persian Gulf consists of the following countries- Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar.

[2]Niranjan Marjani (2019), “Is India Redefining Its Role in the Politics of the Middle East?” The Diplomat, October 24. Accessed June 16, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/is-india-redefining-its-role-in-the-politics-of-the-middle-east.

[3] Nidhi Verma (2020), “Middle East Share of India’s Oil Imports Falls to 4-yr-low in 2019 – Trade.” Reuters, January 20. Accessed June 16, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/india-oil/middle-east-share-of-indias-oil-imports-falls-to-4-yr-low-in-2019-trade-idUSL4N29K27X.

[4] P. R. Kumaraswamy, Muddassir Quamar and Manjari Singh (2019), Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region, (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan).

[5] Anubhav Gupta (2019), “Asia’s New Pivot-India.” Asia Society, August 8. Accessed July 05, 2020. https://asiasociety.org/asias-new-pivot/india#security-and-military-ties.

[6] Aarti Nagraj (2018), “Saudi Army Cadets Travel to India for Training.” Gulf Business, June 28. Accessed July 05, 2020. https://gulfbusiness.com/saudi-army-cadets-travel-india-training/#:~:text=Saudi army cadets are set,of the Indian armed forces.&text=After completing the course, the,a Bachelor of Science degree.

[7] Regional intergovernmental organisation of all Gulf countries except Iran and Iraq.

[8] Kumaraswamy, Quamar and Singh, Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region.

[9] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2006) “Delhi Declaration, Signed by King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh of India.” January 27. Accessed June 18, 2020. https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/5969/Delhi Declaration Signed by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh of India.

[10] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2010), “Riyadh Declaration: A New Era of Strategic Partnership.” March 01. Accessed June 18, 2020. https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/3700/Riyadh Declaration A New Era of Strategic Partnership.

[11] Ibid.

[12] For instance, extradition agreements were signed between India-Kuwait in June 2006 and November 2013; India and Bahrain in 2014; India and Qatar in June 2016; and India and Iran in 2018.

[13] Embassy of India, Muscat, Oman. “Visit of Prime Minister of India to Oman, 2018.” Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.indemb-oman.gov.in/page/visit-of-prime-minister-of-india-to-oman-2018/.

[14] Nirmala Ganapathy (2019), “Saudi Arabia Vows Counter-terror Help for India and Billions in Investment.” The Straits Times, February 22. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/south-asia/saudi-arabia-vows-counter-terror-help-for-india-and-billions-in-investment.

[15] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury (2019), “Kuwait Supports India in Countering Terror as UN Security Council Member.” The Economic Times, July 04. Accessed June 20, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/kuwait-supports-india-in-countering-terror-as-un-security-council-member/articleshow/70066334.cms.

[16] Brian M. Perkins (2019), “Iran: Jaish Al-Adl Attack Could See Increased Iran-India Cooperation.” Jamestown, March 04. Accessed June 21, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/briefs-299/.

[17] Rajesh Ahuja and Jayanth Jacob (2018), “Of 24 Terror Suspects Turned in by Gulf Countries to India since 2012, 18 Are from UAE and Saudi.” Hindustan Times, August 24. Accessed June 21, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/of-24-terror-suspects-turned-in-by-gulf-countries-to-india-since-2012-18-are-from-uae-and-saudi/story-225ND6iIOaWrD9mYZYRFLL.html.

[18] Rahul Roy Chaudhury (2018), “India and the Gulf Region: Building Strategic Partnerships.” IISS, August 29. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2018/08/india-gulf-strategic-partnerships.

[19] Sanjay Pulipaka and Mussadi (2020), “Power Shifts and Re-calibrations: India and the Gulf.” Economic Times Blog, February 14. Accessed June 18, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/power-shifts-and-re-calibrations-india-and-the-gulf/.

[20] Mohammed Sinan Siyech (2017), “India-Gulf Counterterrorism Cooperation.” Middle East Institute, December 21. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://www.mei.edu/publications/india-gulf-counterterrorism-cooperation.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2019) “India-Bahrain Joint Statement on the Visit of Prime Minister to Bahrain (August 25, 2019).”. August 25. Accessed June 24, 2020. https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/31767/IndiaBahrain Joint Statement on the Visit of Prime Minister to Bahrain August 25 2019.

[23] India Writes Network (2016), “India, UAE Bolster Infrastructure, Cyber Security Cooperation.” February 12. Accessed June 24, 2020. https://www.indiawrites.org/diplomacy/india-uae-bolster-infrastructure-cyber-security-cooperation/.

[24] Kabir Taneja (2018), “Uncovering the Influence of ISIS in India.” ORF Online, July 12. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://www.orfonline.org/research/42378-uncovering-the-influence-of-isis-in-india/.

[25] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury (2019), “India Suggests a Global Regulation for Open, Safe and Secure Cyberspace.” The Economic Times, November 12. Accessed June 24, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/india-suggests-a-global-regulation-for-open-safe-and-secure-cyberspace/articleshow/72027153.cms.

[26] The Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest happened across the country as the Act was anti-Muslim in nature.

[27] Kabir Taneja (2020), “Islamic State Propaganda in India.” ORF Online, April 16. Accessed June 25, 2020. https://www.orfonline.org/research/islamic-state-propaganda-india-64715/.

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Vijaita Singh (2020), “Kerala Man Was among Kabul Gurdwara Attackers.” The Hindu, March 28. Accessed July 26, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala-man-was-among-kabul-gurdwara-attackers/article31186642.ece.

[31] Animesh Roul (2020), “Islamic State-Khorasan Remains Potent Force in Afghan Jihad.” Jamestown, June 03. Accessed June 26, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/islamic-state-khorasan-remains-potent-force-in-afghan-jihad/.