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The lone wolf has finally come to India

The lone wolf has finally come to India
A few days before an American-turned-Yemeni preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a hellfire missile attack by US drones in Yemen on September 30, 2011, Indian intelligence agencies got a curious tip-off from their American counterparts. There was someone in India who had been regularly accessing speeches and sermons of the preacher that motivated Muslim youth to join the jihad.

Al-Awlaki was nicknamed ‘bin Laden of the internet’. The IP address through which his sermons were frequently accessed led sleuths to the doorsteps of a Muslim family in Jamshedpur. Initial inquiry found that a convent-educated girl was extremely fascinated by the preacher’s exposition on Islam. “Yes, I do visit the site to listen to the Imam,” she said in a matter-of-fact manner. She knew that her actions did not constitute a crime. Sleuths also knew this, though Americans remained unconvinced about her innocence.

The issue was closed as far as the Indian security agencies were concerned. For the US intelligence agencies, which have been grappling with conversion of well-educated boys and girls to jihadi Islam in increasing numbers, such an approach by India was akin to ignoring the elephant in the room. However, Indian intelligence agencies found the US approach too alarmist and out of sync with Indian social realities.

Over the years, Indian security agencies have built a perception of society that is based on mutual reciprocity and deep interpersonal relations. “This is precisely why no Indian Muslim has so far turned into a fidayeen on Indian soil,” said an expert in counter-terrorism. Of late, the fragility of this perception has been unnerving the Indian security set-up. The arrest of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a 24-year-old Bengaluru-based executive of a multinational company, confirmed the worst fears of intelligence agencies: the ‘lone wolf syndrome’ of jihadi terrorism has finally arrived in India too.

Like the Jamshedpur girl, Biswas has apparently not broken any Indian law. A preliminary investigation has found it difficult to prove his culpability, as his actions primarily relate to the cause of the creating an Islamic utopia in Iraq and Syria. He cannot be faulted on his duties as a professional or in his social interactions. His metamorphosis happened only on the internet, a domain where he purveyed hatred and violence with a maniacal frenzy. In the court of law, such conduct in a virtual domain would not fall into the category of crime.

What worries the Indian intelligence agencies is the emergence of a sinister trend from the virtual world which is largely beyond Indian law-enforcement agencies. In this context, Biswas’s is not an isolated case. Only a month earlier, a 23-year-old engineering graduate from Kalyan (near Mumbai), Arif Majeed, returned after spending five months with the ‘Islamic State’ (IS). Majeed accompanied by three friends – Aman Naeem Tandel, Farhad Tanvir Shaikh and Saheem Farooq Tanki – fled home to join the war for IS in Iraq. They were all motivated by exhortations of preachers on the internet. While Majeed came back disillusioned, his friends are still stuck in Iraq.

In all these cases, Indian intelligence agencies were caught completely off guard. They found that their belief in the strength of Indian society’s deep interpersonal ties was misplaced. “This scenario has exposed our inadequacy which we need to overcome very fast,” said a security expert. “Tackling the lone wolf syndrome will be the biggest challenge for the Indian security apparatus,” confirmed a top official engaged in counter-insurgency operations.

In the intelligence parlance, ‘lone wolf’ describes an individual who sets his own mission and carries it out himself. Biswas fits this description. But much before him, Kafeel Ahmed, a suicide bomber who unsuccessfully tried to blow up the Glasgow international airport on June 30, 2007, came across as an aberration. Ahmed, also from Bengaluru, turned to jihadi Islam during his stay in the UK where he was pursuing his PhD in computational fluid dynamics at the Anglia Ruskin University. An engineer, Kafeel came from a non-conservative Muslim family and his parents were doctors. 

A perusal of his mail trail by intelligence agencies revealed that Kafeel had gradually drifted towards extreme conservatism – he had asked his mother to look for “a bride who can live under veil” as per the Islamic tradition. A further inquiry by UK agencies revealed that Kafeel was transformed from a student into a suicide bomber by an Iraqi who exposed him to preachers and motivators on the internet. Kafeel’s parents remained in the dark till his suicide mission materialised in Glasgow.

For Indian intelligence agencies, the Kafeel episode was too distant to warrant a radical change in their approach to tackle terrorism. In fact, the intelligence agencies have relied heavily on their traditional approach of human intelligence (known as ‘human int’) to crack cases of terrorism. Even in the Mumbai attack (known as 26/11), the intelligence agencies could get access to the conversation between terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan only through human intelligence.

Sources said that one of the terrorists used a SIM card which had already been under surveillance of the intelligence agencies. Similarly, in the 2008 blasts in Ahmedabad and Delhi, human intelligence proved to be effective in leading the security forces to nab culprits from all over the country.

But Biswas’s case has clearly underlined the limitations of human intelligence. Top officials engaged in counter-insurgency operations now admit that though Indian society still retains its innate strength of being highly dependent upon interpersonal relations, the unregulated cyberspace has effectively created a new underworld of terrorism, drugs, prostitution, murder and mayhem. More recently, Uber cab driver Shiv Kumar Yadav, a habitual offender and rapist, found shelter in the cab service app till he committed his next crime. The company behind the app did not bother to check Yadav’s antecedents. Even the police could not get access to the server of the site which is based in the US.

According to a public interest litigation filed by KN Govindacharya, former BJP ideologue and convener of the Bharat Swabhimaan Andolan, in the Delhi high court, around 30 percent of 100 million users of Facebook in India are using fake identities. Given the huge size of the economy that internet generates (roughly over 4 percent of GDP, making it the eighth largest contributor), this unregulated sphere becomes an ideal space for underworld operatives and terrorists to work under assumed identities.

Through this PIL, Govindacharya has sought directions to the Indian state to force the social networking sites to adhere to the Indian law and ensure that the virtual domain does not become a safe haven for criminals and a breeding ground for lone wolves like Biswas. Till the virtual domain is regulated and technical capacity of security agencies enhanced, intelligence agencies will remain quite handicapped to deal with the lurking shadow of the lone wolf from a virtual world.

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Ajay Singh

Ajay Singh

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