Recent sightings of graffiti and flags supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in conflict-ridden Kashmir have Indian security officials worried about the extremist group’s potential expansion into the region. Analysts, however, say these incidents aren’t signs of the group gaining a foothold in the subcontinent, but part of a larger trend in the region of individuals and militant groups attempting to piggyback on the battlefield successes of ISIL elsewhere.
A group of masked men reportedly brandished ISIL’s black flag after Friday prayers last week during a rally in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, according to the Times of India. It marked the fourth such incident in three months. What’s more, sightings of graffiti welcoming ISIL to Srinagar have appeared in many parts of the city, according to Pakistan Today.
These developments have worried Indian intelligence, which according to local media held a high-level meeting last week in New Delhi to address the incidents and alleged recruitment by ISIL of Kashmiri youth.
Last Thursday, Subramanian Swamy, a leader in India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called for martial law to be imposed in Kashmir for up to a year in order to counter ISIL’s growing influence in the region, reported India's Business Standard.
But not all Indian officials consider flag and graffiti sightings as evidence of globalized jihadist activities. Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, downplayed the most recent sighting as "an act of some idiots."
"You have to understand that no ISIS [another acronym for ISIL] group has been identified so far in the [Kashmir] valley," Abdullah said. "The flag was waved by some idiots, which does not mean that ISIS has any presence in Kashmir."
Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, echoed Abdullah, saying that the presence of some literature and flags falls short of an ISIL expansion. “The notion of ISIS expanding into South Asia is a bit of an exaggeration,” he said.
Other experts say that Indian officials are more likely threatened by the potential for domestic radicalization.
"It’s the message of ISIS that threatens them rather than any organization that may or may not be on the ground," said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "There is no evidence to suggest that ISIS has the capacity to establish operations in Southeast Asia.”
An unnamed Indian intelligence official told Reuters last month: "The problem is we know so little about this [ISIL] network or who is acting on their behalf here."
"We know roughly where the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Indian Mujahideen (organizations backed by Pakistan that have operated in Kashmir) support groups are, where they make contacts," the official said. "But this is a different challenge. Youth getting radicalized in their homes on the Internet, in chat rooms and through Facebook are not easy to track."
Indian intelligence has stated that as many as 20 Indian youth were recruited by ISIL to fight in Iraq and Syria, according to the Times of India.
Joshi, however, believes that some Indian officials are exploiting ISIL flag and graffiti sightings to deflect attention from more pressing issues plaguing Kashmir, such as escalating violence in the territory.
Kashmir has been at the heart of the fractious relationship between India and Pakistan ever since the subcontinent won independence from British rule in 1947.
Since then, the two nuclear powers have fought over claims to Kashmir, where 60 percent of the population is Muslim. A United Nations supervised cease-fire line was created following the first war between the countries in 1947-48. Two-thirds of the territory has since been administered by India, but each country claims the entirety of Kashmir, and violence between the two sides continues despite a tentative cease-fire agreed to in 2003.
A separatist movement in Indian-administered Kashmir, the only state within India where Muslims are the majority, has been fighting since 1989 for independence from India, with some wanting complete autonomy and others desiring to be part of Pakistan. India, which retains a heavy security presence in the region, has long accused Pakistan of supporting separatist activity in the Indian-controlled portion.
Resentment towards India by Kashmiris under its administration was apparent last month amid accusations that the Indian government failed to adequately respond to floods that killed more than 281 people there and drove tens of thousands of families from their homes.
"There is obviously this huge accumulated experience with the army, which is, of course, anything but pleasant," Parvaiz Bukhar, a Kashmiri journalist, told the New York Times while explaining local sentiment in Kashmir.
Analysts say such sentiment explains the occasional ISIL flag — which is more likely an indication of local frustrations with India’s government than an actual sign of support for the extremist group.
Still, Daniel S. Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says local armed groups may attempt to brand themselves as associates of ISIL in order to reap the benefits of its battlefield successes.
The question is whether an ISIL connection would translate into transnational financing and larger organizing capacities for the local groups, Markey said.
ISIL offers a "new, fresh brand with the potential to capture the imagination of the next generation, for whom Al-Qaeda seem like ancient history," Markey said.
The threat of transnational coordination among armed groups seemed to have been realized last month when elements of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIL. But Moeed Yusuf, director of South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the announcement was misleading.
Yusuf described the pledge of allegiance as mere posturing by a few sidelined TTP commanders who felt left out of recent talks between the group and the Pakistani government.
"This is their way of raising the stakes," Yusuf said. "Certain commanders who did not get the kind of space they wanted during talks are saying ‘we can become the face of the ISIS franchise’ as a competitor to the Al-Qaeda-driven groups in the region."
Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Al-Qaeda, with which ISIL was once aligned, announced in September the creation of an Indian affiliate group.
In a video statement, Zawahiri said Al-Qaeda will "raise the flag of jihad" across the Indian subcontinent.
However, it’s not clear that Al-Qaeda is competing with ISIL for influence in the region or just seeking to strengthen its control over “regional affiliates which have grown more powerful than the center,” said Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute.
But Yusuf said that focusing on a perceived competition between ISIL and Al-Qaeda, and which extremist groups – if any – have planted roots in the subcontinent, overlooks a more dangerous problem. The international community, he says, is losing the ideological war.
"Today it’s Al-Qaeda, tomorrow it’s ISIS. If you lose the ideological war, none of that matters. Any organization with money has the potential to recruit and you will always find takers. At the end of the day, these groups are part of same ideological enclave and that enclave is only increasing."