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Indian jihadists in Afghanistan

Masood Saifullah
April 19, 2017

Afghan officials claim the US' "mother of all bombs" killed 13 Indian militants in Nangarhar. In a DW interview, expert Michael Kugelman says Indian nationals are joining both "Islamic State" and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Taliban Kämpfer Symbolbild
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Noorullah Shirzada

On April 13, the United States dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb in eastern Afghanistan on an "Islamic State" (IS) target. The so-called '"mother of all bombs" (MOAB) killed at least 96 IS fighters, according to Afghan officials. Surprisingly, 13 of them were from India.

IS in Afghanistan is known to have recruited hundreds of local fighters as well as militants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Central and Southeast Asia, but an active involvement of Indian jihadists in IS' Afghanistan operations is not well documented.

In an interview with DW, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says there's good reason to believe there could be Indian extremists in Afghanistan.

DW: Not much is known about the activities of Indian militants in Afghanistan. What can you tell us about it?

Michael Kugelman: I think the broader question is why Afghanistan is becoming so attractive to extremists on the whole. Over the last few years there has been an influx of extremists from around the broader region - the militant network in Afghanistan is much more diverse and international than merely the Taliban and al Qaeda. Clearly what appeals to extremists about Afghanistan is its growing swath of lawless and hard-to-navigate territory, which provides ideal conditions for sanctuaries. These are conditions that appeal to extremists of all types, whether we're talking about Indian militants, jihadists from Central Asia, or Arab fighters from the Middle East.

This is one of the few cases, if not the first, in which Indian extremists have been killed in Afghanistan. Are Indian militants active across Afghanistan?

There's reason to believe that al Qaeda, and particularly AQIS - al Qaeda's South Asian regional affiliate - could feature some Indian nationals. Let's not forget that the supreme leader of AQIS is widely believed to be an Indian. Al Qaeda, despite claims to the contrary, remains a serious threat in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

Also, based on recent history, there's good reason to believe there could be Indian extremists in Afghanistan. Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) has had a presence in Afghanistan, and for quite some time LeT partnered closely with Indian Mujahideen, an al Qaeda-aligned Indian terror group, which has since been decimated.

Michael Kugelman
Kugelman: 'There's good reason to believe there could be Indian extremists in Afghanistan'Image: C. David Owen Hawxhurst / WWICS

The bottom line is that given the types of terror groups that have operated in Afghanistan, both past and present, there's reason to believe that there could be some Indians among them.

Are Indian PM Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalistic policies pushing some Indian Muslims toward extremist groups in Afghanistan?

It's true that Indian Muslims have faced new and growing challenges of discrimination and marginalization in India, though it's doubtful this has had a radicalizing effect and led some to join IS. I think it's highly unlikely that radicalized young Indian Muslims are gravitating to IS en masse, though one can't discount the possibility that if current conditions remain in place, you may eventually have this dynamic play out, albeit on a modest scale. For all the challenges and problems they face, Indian Muslims, on the whole, are treated better than religious minorities are in many other countries.

The Afghan Ministry of Defense also confirmed that Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Philippine nationals were among those killed in the MOAB attack. Is Afghanistan becoming a favorite destination for jihadists willing to join IS ranks?

For quite some time in previous years, when we thought of top destinations for global terrorists, Pakistan was at the top of the list. But aggressive counterterrorism operations by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas - long South Asia's ground zero for militant safe havens - have shifted the calculus. First, counterterrorism operations have pushed many Pakistan-based terrorists across the border into Afghanistan. Second, these operations have prompted other terrorists from the region and beyond to view Afghanistan as a more attractive destination because the law and order situation is so much worse there.

In effect, Islamist extremists far and wide are starting to see Afghanistan as a more coveted address than Pakistan because the real estate is simply more attractive and safe havens are so much easier to establish.

36 'IS' militants killed in US bombing, says Kabul

How do you analyze the future of IS in Afghanistan?

I think that IS' star is falling in Afghanistan. Several years ago it was developing a strong profile, at a time when IS was going on the offensive around the world by staging attacks in so many places and enjoying a strong grip on its Middle East-based "caliphate." But over the last year, as IS has lost much of its territory in the Middle East, the US has worked closely with Afghanistan to degrade the organization's infrastructure and capacities in Afghanistan, mainly through airstrikes. Also, IS has not endeared itself to anyone with its particularly brutal tactics in eastern Afghanistan, making the Taliban look like a modest force in the eyes of local communities.

I am not saying IS is on life support in Afghanistan, but it's certainly struggling in a big way. The Taliban have always been the top militant threat in Afghanistan, and as IS continues to get beaten down there, the strength of the Taliban will be amplified even more.

Michael Kugelman is a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

The interview was conducted by Masood Saifullah.