The US Embassy in New Delhi released a security message on Tuesday warning of ‘an increased threat to places in India frequented by Westerners, such as religious sites, markets, and festival venues’. The embassy based this warning on ‘recent Indian media reports [that] indicate IS’ desire to attack targets in India’. The message provides no details of a specific threat, and in the absence of more detailed information about targeting or the imminence of any threat, the warning appears to be general in nature.
The embassy warning probably refers to recent Indian media reports that cited information gathered from suspected IS members and sympathisers detained last month. In early October, the Indian authorities arrested six men in Kerala, as well an Indian national called Subahani Haji Moideen in Tamil Nadu, who had fought for IS in Syria. The group of men were purportedly planning to target foreigners visiting southern India. A few days later, the Times of India quoted an intelligence officer as saying that ‘IS modules [sic] and lone wolves are being told by their handlers’ to use knives and machetes instead of explosives to avoid detection.
According to reports in the Indian press last week, once Moideen returned to India last year he received instructions on how to target foreigners in the country from Yusuf Al-Hindi, who was based in Syria. Al-Hindi was reportedly the leader of Ansar-ut-Tawheed (AuT), an offshoot of the Indian Mujahidin that pledged allegiance to IS in October 2014. For our detailed assessment of the AuT and its pledge, see R-08-10-14-IN. Two years ago, before moving to Syria, Al-Hindi led the group that only appeared to have six members based in southern Afghanistan.
Recent press reports suggest that more than 60 Indian nationals may have travelled to Syria to fight for IS, twice as many as previously reported. The Indian Express quoted intelligence officials last week as saying that IS has been instructing Indian nationals currently in Syria and Iraq, and sympathisers in India, to travel to Afghanistan because of the ongoing military operation against the group in Mosul and a planned offensive in Raqqa. IS has reportedly also been instructing Indian nationals to stage attacks there. IS Khorasan, the group’s name for its regional branch, holds territory in southern Nangarhar in Afghanistan.
Many of these Indian nationals fighting for IS in Syria appear to be members of AuT, with an Indian national called Sajeer Abdullah from Kerala having facilitated the travel of 21 people, also all from Kerala, to Afghanistan for training this year. As the recent arrests show, the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka predominantly appear to be where small groups of IS members or sympathisers are operating from in India (B-12-10-16-IN).
The recent arrests indicate that there are IS members or sympathisers who were planning attacks in India, although they do not appear to point to a specific threat at this time. But these recent developments suggest that IS has become more focused on India than before. As a result, we expect IS efforts at recruitment and planning attacks in India to increase in the coming months as it faces losing territory in Mosul, with fighters probably making their way back to their country of origin, including South Asia (B-01-11-16-IQ).
Although there has not been a major attack attributed or linked to IS in India so far, an IS-instructed or inspired attack against foreign nationals is a credible scenario. This is particularly in crowded spaces, with major cities in southern India at greatest risk.
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Image: Screenshot from Ansar-ut-Tawheed in 2014