The security services arrested six members of an alleged Islamic State (IS) cell in the southern state of Kerala on 3 October. The group’s suspected handler, an Indian national working in Qatar, was also recently detained on his return to India. The cell was reportedly considering various targets for attack, including a religious gathering in Kochi, High Court judges, the Jewish community, tourists, and prominent members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organisation aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. According to the authorities, the suspects were planning to drive a heavy vehicle into crowds, replicating IS’s attack in the French city of Nice in July.
The Indian authorities have in the past sought to portray local militants as belonging to global jihadist groups in an effort to downplay their domestic grievances, and at other times overstated the threat posed by suspects. However, the details of the alleged IS cell’s reported targets and methods are consistent with IS’s capabilities and ambitions in India, suggesting that those arrested posed a credible threat. In particular, both globally and in India, IS is seeking to strike high profile targets that will resonate with its supporters and demonstrate its continued strength, despite gradually increasing territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. IS’s strategy also seeks to provoke local sectarian tensions that will trigger a crackdown on Islamist communities and so fuel further IS recruitment, underlined by the plans to attack Hindu and other religious targets. Plans to strike tourists and Jewish interests would also appeal to global jihadist sentiments.
While the disruption of the cell shows that the authorities are capable of preventing some IS attacks, details of the alleged plot underline the challenges that they face when attempting to counter all threats. For example, the militants allegedly planned their attacks from a relatively remote hilltop shrine in a likely attempt to avoid electronic surveillance. The group’s members also reportedly first connected via a pro-IS Facebook group. This is a marked departure from previous jihadist recruitment patterns in India, which relied heavily on face to face contact and were easier for the authorities to track and disrupt. The group’s plan to launch an unsophisticated attack using improvised weapons further highlights the difficulties involved in disrupting future plots.
IS will continue to seek to direct or inspire attacks in India in the coming months, both in major urban centres and smaller regional cities. The group will look to strike targets that are less secure and so easier to reach, prioritising religious, political, state and tourist interests. Although IS will be constrained by the relatively small numbers of Indian nationals fighting with it in Iraq and Syria, which will limit its ability to reach out to sympathisers in India, the group will be keen to claim an attack in India to demonstrate continued expansion. In addition, such an attack will distinguish it from its rival al-Qaeda, which despite establishing its al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent branch in 2014, has yet to conduct a significant attack in India.