Joint IPCS-Oval Observer Round-Table

Discussion Report: India’s Role in Building a Counter-Narrative to Isis Propaganda

16 Dec, 2015    ·   4945

Kimberley Nazareth reports on the proceedings of the discussion held on 09 December 2015

On 9 December 2015, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), in collaboration with the Oval Observer Foundation, conducted a round-table discussion, titled ‘India’s Role in Building a Counter-Narrative to ISIS Propaganda’, at the India International Centre.

The round-table was chaired by Rana Banerji, Member, Governing Council, IPCS, and former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. The panelists who presented were: Ambassador KP Fabian, former Indian diplomat, & Professor, Indian Society of International Law; Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy, Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies; and Alvite Ningthoujam, Research Associate, Vivekananda International Foundation.

Provided below is a general gist of the proceedings:

Introductory Remarks 
Rana Banerji, Member, Governing Council, IPCS, and former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India 

The latest intent declared to the extend Islamic State’s (IS) operations to India is alarming. However, there are some limitations in its impact in South Asia. Among the most important reasons is the perception of superiority of the Arab Muslim versus the South Asian Muslim – in terms of ideological purity, dedication, and physical capacities.
What Is The Islamic State? What Should the International Community’s Response Be? 
Ambassador KP Fabian, former Indian diplomat, & Professor, Indian Society of International Law 

It is understandable that there is widespread condemnation and contempt for the IS. Such condemnation and contempt do not add up to comprehension of what the IS is. Standard accounts starting with Abu Musa al-Zarqawi are not historically sound. The IS is a branch of a large tree we may call Salafi-Jihadism (SJ). The seeds of SJ were produced over a long period of time by scholars going back to Ahmed ibn Hanbal (780-855), Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and a few others.

The thinkers provided only the seeds. The seeds need fertile soil and a congenial climate. The soil was provided by rulers who established autocracies, denying space for dissent. For example, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Reza Shah in Iran. The climate was provided by the West by a series of actions starting from the 1953 CIA coup against Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. The US, by sending Special Forces, tricked the then USSR into invading Afghanistan where the CIA funded Osama bin Laden. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the disastrous occupation that followed provided soil and climate for the SJ seeds to germinate. 

Coming to the question as to what the international community should do, the first point to make is that there is no international community. In practice, by international community is meant the West and anyone else from the rest of the world who agrees with it. So far the international community has only added fuel to the fire by supplying arms, money, and diplomatic support to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime and its opponents. The two conferences in Geneva were barren, mainly because the participants were chosen arbitrarily. As to the two meetings in Vienna and other meetings going on elsewhere we have to wait and watch. The international community is divided over the role of Assad. But, recent developments, including the Russian military intervention, have strengthened his position.

Since those who want to unseat Assad lack the necessary clout, political or diplomatic, they should give up their goal to get him out at least for the time being. It might be possible to arrange for a ceasefire between Assad’s forces and the non-IS rebels and start a political process and once that process moves forward, the bombing of IS should be stopped. The non-IS Syria can effectively choke the IS and weaken it. People under the IS might start leaving, and at the right time, a ground operation against the IS can be considered. The focus should be on arranging a ceasefire between Assad and the non-IS rebels and not on bombing the IS. However, once started, it is difficult to stop it without results to show. The approach should be to deal with the IS and not fight it. Such dealing might require some fighting also.

Technology, the Islamic State, and India
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy, Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies 

The recruitment of Indians to the IS involves a combination of general technological outreach via social media as well as one to one association online as well as offline, but primarily online. Those looking to recruit vulnerable radicalised youth to this terrorist group have been active on Facebook, Twitter etc. They have even tried to set up alternative online platforms in the face of crackdown on user profiles – e.g. the creation of ‘Khelafabook’ in March 2015 by IS supporters. The use of the dark web warrants attention. Dark web is that section of the web contents of which are accessible only via certain browsers – anonymity is the biggest component of the dark web. Any communication carried out in this section of the web is difficult to trace. Tor is a good example of a software that provides anonymity online.

One also has to keep an eye out for the terrorist groups’ use of steganography to communicate online. Communication is reportedly being carried out via coded messages on multi-user forums such as Reddit, e-commerce website such as eBay, as well as images.

The Indian government has been working on integrating different sources of information as well as departments dealing with crimes, criminals and terrorism into one wide national grid, especially after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Progress on that front was slow, but in the wake of the Paris attacks, there has been renewed momentum towards addressing terror by improving coordination among the various wings of the country’s governments, security-related departments, and agencies. There are efforts underway to ensure smooth communication and coordination between the central government and the state governments, vis-à-vis the new security threats. However, some of the hiccups to these efforts include issues of compatibility between the databases of different websites while being integrated.

Among other things that are anyway underway, the government could also start ensuring there is a certain level of uniformity on databases/input mechanisms to prevent loss of data and/or miscommunication. Communities need to be engaged more and more to insulate the general citizenry from any propaganda that could influence any youth. Practically and realistically, the government cannot monitor and engage with every single individual on a one-on-one basis. To make the efforts to generate the counter-narratives to any extremist propaganda sustainable, a simultaneous bottom up (organic) and top down method will have to be cultivated and employed. It can be done broadly by: 

a. Engaging with community leaders, youth leaders etc. who in turn set the discussion on the need for harmony and awareness against extremist propaganda rolling their communities, peer groups and neighbourhoods

b. Ironing out any wrinkles and gaps, and improving and updating in the security systems already in place

Prevention along with cure: Identifying the most optimal mode of communication to get the counter-narratives across to as many people as possible, i.e. making optimal use of radio, television, internet, newspapers as well as general initiatives such as relevant discussions in schools and other such institutions.
India and the Isis: Current Scenarios and the Counter-Narratives 
Alvite Ningthoujam, Research Associate, Vivekananda International Foundation 

A couple of factors have been brought to light on the manner in which radical organisations reach out. First, online recruitment and the profile of persons targeted. Second, the India- Gulf country connection in terms of handlers. The focus is on the profile of the concerned youth and handlers within India and abroad.

The economic connection is no longer a justification. There are other connections that can explain the association; and those include theological affinity, sympathy for the Syrian crisis, and a sentiment of brotherhood, among others. Complacency has been the major problem in not dealing with the crisis. The traction received by IS in a short span of time should have spearheaded a greater debate on a resolution. The tactics employed by IS, especially in Iraq, Syria Tunisia, Belgium and Bangladesh should not have been ignored; and in that context, had enough attention been paid to these elements, the attack on France would not have come as a surprise. The IS’s strategy and capabilities lies in harnessing suicide bombing incidents, and the use of foreign fighters, among others. Countering the spread of the IS influence in India requires a committed and long-term effort.

Outreach efforts, especially via regional languages and in some cases, even sign language may be required. Another dimension that can be included in countering the IS propaganda would be by involving religious leaders in these efforts. The Ulema are in a unique position to discourage radicalisation of Muslim youth. The Singapore model as well as the harnessing of religious leaders’ leverage as a way to counter radicalisation in the UK could be emulated as they could prove to be an asset in countering the IS’s propaganda. In fact, leaders in India have also begun to play their roles in countering pernicious ideologies propagated by group like the IS.

Other ways include the use of online counter propaganda measures. The role of the community is also essential in discrediting radicalism. Communal violence has to be kept in check and a long-term commitment cutting across ideological and political differences is required. 


a. In dealing with the IS, the international community has to prioritise its battles and enemies. 

A ceasefire is important between the different factions. 
The other problem in dealing with IS is that there is a lack of in depth knowledge on the internal status of the group.

The narratives of ‘returnees’ and ‘defectors’ from the IS could be harnessed to build counter-narratives.

The government should also make the public aware of the outreach programmes for minorities so that a better and more structured forum for debate is available.
Concluding Remarks
Rana Banerji, Member, Governing Council, IPCS, and former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India

The Indian government has been taking steps to counter the threat of the IS. For instance, the appointment of the former director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, Syed Asif Ibrahim, as the point man on Countering Terrorism and Extremism, under the National Security Adviser, augurs well. The Indian government’s technical capabilities are also increasing. There is a need to explore the potential of rehabilitation programs, the role of the Ulema and how timely condemnation of various religious extremist actions and propaganda could put make it difficult for such fanatical agendas from having a larger impact. Inclusive measures have been used in the Singapore model, where local religious leaders are employed by the State to counter radicalisation narratives. In India, similar de-radicalisation efforts should be carried out, and the Ulema must be empowered to be able to implement these government initiatives. There should also be a focus on rehabilitation measures – for those arrested and for counselling of their families. India should concentrate on quickly implementing the entire gamut of police reforms – filling up vacant posts, modernisation – in equipment holdings; and communication capability enhancement, well thought out co-ordination between the Centre and the States to put a counter-terrorism machinery with legal teeth should be put in place without compromising on State rights under a federal constitution.