New Delhi: On 7 March a blast ripped through the Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train, injuring eight people. That was the first ever strike by an Islamic State (IS) module in India—a dry run, intelligence officials said, for a group that has been radicalizing Indian youth using social media and mobile phone apps.
An official at the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which has been probing the matter, said the group’s modus operandi revolved around tracking youths mostly between the ages of 20-30 years and monitoring their behaviour on social media platforms. The process of radicalization through social media and apps, however, was far from easy, the official said requesting anonymity.
“Radicalisation is a long-drawn process. The handlers are not in India. They operate modules which are already in existence in India and assign the task of tracking vulnerable youths to some of their operatives. These monitor the pages and the links that people share and like on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Based on that, they then contact the person over apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram and begin the process of radicalizing and inducting the person into IS,” said the official.
Once the IS modules establish a secure and successful line of communication with the “potential candidates,” they go about physically meeting them and giving them tasks meant to be carried out to “send out the Caliphate’s message.”
On 25 February, the NIA chargesheeted three people from Karnataka for hatching “a criminal conspiracy to propagate ideology, recruit persons, raise funds and facilitate the travel of such recruited persons to Syria to join the ISIS and further its activities.”
The chargesheet added, “The accused persons had created multiple email IDs, used multiple mobile numbers obtained from their associates of different countries, formed various online forums and groups on Facebook, WhatsApp, Kik, VKontakte, Viber and Skype, using internet and invited and associated like-minded persons, residents of different countries from different parts of the world.”
There is a difference between recruits of the IS and those of groups likes the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Hizbul Mujahideen that lure young men into terrorism with the promise of paying the families.
By contrast, most of the youths who have been radicalized by IS—according to home ministry data—are literate and well-to-do. They are mostly from Kerala, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana—people who are fascinated by the concept of the Caliphate.
However, with apps now encrypting chats between people and groups, the challenges to tracking down radicalized IS youths in India are mounting. Encryption typically means that every chat or call exchanged between two parties cannot be hacked.
“It takes a lot of time to break through the encryption on some of the apps because they are hack-proof. The IS modules in India have been using various chat apps, but cyber security experts have been relentlessly working on cracking those codes and that has helped foil several potential terror attacks. They had also raised, collected and received funds in the UAE and transferred it to their associates in India, Philippines and Tunisia to facilitate their travel to Syria to join ISIS,” the NIA official added.
In 2016, according to home ministry data, the NIA arrested 36 radicalized IS supporters, while the state police in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu arrested 18 IS supporters.
The home ministry, on its part, has regularly been taking stock of the situation.
“The Islamic State is using various platforms to propagate its ideology. The intelligence and security agencies monitor closely to identify potential recruits and take further action, if necessary. In order to assess the threat posed by IS and to devise a national strategy to deal with it, meetings have been held by the Ministry of Home affairs with all the Central agencies,” said a senior home ministry official, on condition of anonymity.