Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan is perhaps the most important geopolitical development of recent times. What worries global community is the possibility of Afghanistan turning into a hub of radicalisation and terrorism again. In South Asia, Pakistan based terror outfits are being reinvigorated due to the links between the Taliban and terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).Very recently, in a congratulatory message for the Taliban, Al-Qaeda called on Muslims for waging jihad in different regions of the world including Kashmir. The Taliban after having made a statement calling for a bilateral resolution of the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan, made a conflicting statement of raising their voice for Muslims around the world including Kashmir. While India must actively work towards safeguarding its interests in Kashmir, it should also be aware of the possibilities of having a spill-over effect from countries in South Asia which have also suffered from terrorism. This fear is shared by the countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives, where in the public discourse there is a sense of caution and alarm.
India has faced the brunt of terrorism for decades now. Contrary to popular belief this has not been limited to just the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir but extends to other states as well. Kerala, in particular, emerged in recent times as the hub for religious radicalisation with Indian nationals from the state joining organisations like the Islamic State. Kerala accounted for the highest number of pro-ISIS cases in India between 2014 and 2018. 14 of these radicalised youths left to join ISIS and eventually all but one ended up in Afghanistan. The reasons behind this particular vulnerability include the pre-Islamic ties trade ties between Kerala and the Arabs, introduction of Islam in India via Kerala and the mass migration to Gulf states post 1970s as a result of the economic boom in West Asia. Most of the cases from Kerala have been from the Malapurram, Kannur and Kasargod districts in the north. The biggest recruitment tool was indeed social media. As we see a new Taliban with a strong public relations wing in power, India would do well to intensify its counter-radicalisation efforts, particularly monitoring the social media space. As recently as August 2021, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of India arrested several Kerala youths over suspected ISIS links as it continues to look towards Kerala to gain a stronger foothold in India and the region at large. Given the close interactions between the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the IS, Kerala will loom large in India’s national and regional security calculations.
Post the end of a 30 year long civil war, Sri Lanka witnessed some relatively peaceful years in terms of the domestic security situation. In April 2019, the country was stuck with multiple coordinated attacks on Easter. The government blamed a small militant group, National Thawheed Jamath, with links to ISIS for the attacks.After the civil war, Muslims replaced Tamils as the demonised minority and the country witnessed a surge in Islamophobia. While earlier Sri-Lanka went through a civil war, it was mainly an ethno-nationalist conflict and not a religious war. The Easter attacks was evidence of the ability of Islamic groups like ISIS to successfully penetrate the previously untouched societies like Sri Lanka. This is a cause for worry for not only Sri Lanka but India as well. In fact, in the aftermath of the Easter attacks, Kerala was an important factor during the investigations. While under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has banned several extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, much broader scope of efforts would be required to prevent the emboldening of local terror groups in the island nation as they might seek to replicate a Taliban style jihad in their own country. Any meaningful efforts against extremist elements would require much deeper cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.
Just like India, Bangladesh too has had a long history of dealing with the consequences of religious extremism and terrorism. The extremist roots go back to the East Pakistan days when Jamaat-e-Islami was leading the Islamic agenda in the country against the liberation efforts. After independence, these radical elements found space under the military rule of General Ziaur Rahman and General HM Ershad who allowed that for their own political gains. During the Ershad regime, a number of Bangladeshis left for the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s with an objective of liberating their fellow Muslims. Following the Taliban victory in 1990s, many of these indoctrinated Islamic fighters returned with training and operational experience and launched their own terror groups in Bangladesh. The primary objective of these nascent groups was to establish strict Sharia law in Bangladesh. India should be concerned as these groups and organisations have consistently kept India in their strategic plans whether it be related to Jammu and Kashmir or the Rohingyas in India. With the Taliban’s rise, Afghanistan could provide a training destination for terror groups subsiding in many South Asian countries and increased coordination and cooperation with the Afghan veterans of the recently concluded war.
Since the 1990s, Bangladesh saw the rise of several such terror groups, however, two were the most prominent, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). HuJI-B are well known for their admiration of the Taliban model of Afghanistan, having issued slogans like “Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan”. The group has been responsible for several attacks throughout the country in the past two decades. While the group itself is dormant now in the aftermath of government crackdown under the Awami League, its ideology has been carried forward by Ansar-ul Islam, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in South Asia. Ansar is a small mainly urban centric group with a formal structure covering overseas logistics and recruitment, military training and a media wing. JMB was another critical player in Bangladesh. It was responsible for the devastating 2005 serial blasts, attacking in all districts of the country but one. According to the Bangladeshi government, terrorists from Neo JMB (a revived version of JMB), with links to the Islamic State, were also behind the major terror attack at a bakery in central Dhaka in 2016.
Fortunately for India, it has a reliable partner in Bangladesh under the Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Ever since its recent rise to power in 2009, the Awami league government has followed a stern policy towards extremist groups, including proscribing terrorist organisations like HuJI-B and JMB. The challenge for India remains to prevent resurgence of extremist elements in Bangladesh. While the counter-terrorism cooperation between India and Bangladesh should be applauded and must continue, it needs to be elevated to a comprehensive counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation strategy. This would require a strong partnership between the state and civil society within and between the two countries, improved socio-economic engagement with the marginalised communities, safeguarding secular education and closely regulating the madrassa systems in both countries. While India and Bangladesh have achieved great success in countering terrorism based on active cooperation including intelligence sharing, the gains made are still fresh and vulnerable to the evolving situation in the region.
While most countries in South Asia can afford to focus their entire counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation efforts domestically, that’s not the case for India. Due to India’s geographical centrality in the region and sharing close ethnio-religious affinity with all its neighbouring countries, it remains particularly vulnerable as far as the effects of deteriorating security situations in the neighbourhood is concerned. The way forward for India lies in ensuring maximum coordination and cooperation with countries which share the same concerns about the consequences of the rise of Taliban for the region.
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