Kabir Taneja is a researcher and writer based in New Delhi. He is currently a Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). His work focuses on India’s relations with West Asia, specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics, terrorism, non-state militant actors, and the general security paradigm of the region. Kabir has written extensively in The New York Times, The Hindu, Suddeutsche Zeitung, The Huffington Post, Politico, Quartz, The Wire, among others. He has recently come out with the book “The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and Its Shadow on South Asia”, which explores the Islamic State’s online propaganda strategies and uncovers the ideological underpinnings of the jihadist movement in South Asia.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about the book, the security dimensions raised by transnational jihadist groups like ISIS, and how India and other South Asian countries can deal with the threat of terrorism.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Kabir Taneja. I am a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation, which is India’s premier think tank.
What drew you to this project of writing “The ISIS Peril”?
I was a journalist in 2013-2014, when ISIS was taking over territory in Syria and Iraq and developing into the behemoth it did become, albeit for a small period of time. I was mostly interested in the Middle East, and as a journalist covering foreign policy, did spend most of my time looking at the region, realising that there are significant gaps in Indian journalism and foreign policy discourse in understanding the Middle East from an Indian security perspective. The rise of ISIS provided me an opportunity to hunker down, and observe the start of a major geo-political event at a time when most in India were not paying too much attention towards it.
Can you tell us about your research process?
It’s been a long and arduous task. ISIS was a very online friendly terror group, and they used the internet well to disseminate propaganda and information that they wanted out. The fact that they were visible online made it easy for mainstream media to also cover them, which worked in favour of ISIS as well. Both mainstream media and ISIS online propaganda fed off each other for a long time. So for better or worse, if you wanted to find ISIS information online, you could. More than that, I also created the ISIS Tracker, an online database tracking pro-ISIS cases in India divided into cases per state. This allowed me to keep on top of what kind of penetration and influence ISIS had been able to create in India, which as it turns out, was not a whole lot. So in short, trawling the corners of the web where ISIS festered, maintaining databases, and understanding hierarchy and ideology of the group were the main three tenets of my research for the book.
What challenges did you face while researching for and writing this book?
Well, collating information which is verifiable at some level was the biggest task. Second, was after a point when social media platforms started to crack down on ISIS ecosystems, and maintaining access to them became crucial. Third, was of course to get case studies from Indian agencies on local pro-ISIS cases, which became invaluable to understand why ISIS failed in India more than anything else. Lastly, just writing 60,000 words while doing my daily work for ORF was a big challenge. Time management is quite an ordeal.
You describe ISIS as the world’s most feared terror group. How did you come to this assessment?
A mixture of information flow and the kind of gruesome terror attacks they committed. Burning a captured Jordanian fighter pilot in a fully produced theatre which became a famous propaganda tool for the group, throwing gay people off tall buildings and releasing those videos as propaganda for the world to see was quite a horrifying way to go about it. This is what we had not seen before by the likes of Al Qaeda for example. The weaponization of the internet and using technologies that were meant for good adversely and effectively, proved to be a big challenge for society and governments. Suddenly, ISIS was in our living rooms, on our smartphones and tablets. They were digitally everywhere.
In the book, you write that there is little understanding about ISIS in India and South Asia – both in the media and the public discourse. Why do you think this is so?
Well, ISIS mastered the art of DIY terrorism. They developed and marketed templates, under the umbrella of ISIS, which in Islamist terror is a big brand now. Even those who were in other groups, say Al Qaeda or Taliban, and were having internal feuds, in many cases decided to defect and come under the ISIS banner, which brought them overnight fame and spotlight. ISIS operations, specifically after it lost territory last year and with the killing of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is like a physical internet now. The ideology is connected to those who wish to follow online all over the world, and the ISIS sympathising ecosystem online offers strong validation to those who do want to act in its name. Technology, almost always, defeats policy. Security in a state is run via policies. This is the main gap, and the main challenge.
What do you think are the implications of ignoring the ISIS Peril? How can India and South Asia deal with this threat?
We have had two major events relating to ISIS in South Asia – the 2016 bakery attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the 2019 Easter attacks across Sri Lanka in 2019. The Sri Lanka attack is arguably the biggest ISIS related terror strike anywhere till date, and still little is known about it. South Asian states, despite mechanisms such as SAARC, etc. have very little institutional cooperation on common terror threats and that is an area where a much more collaborated approach is needed. A threat such as ISIS is common in the region, from Pakistan to India and Nepal to Sri Lanka.
Your work with the ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme focuses on India’s relations with the Middle East/ West Asia. In the context of current geopolitical developments, what do you think of India’s contemporary relationship – on diplomatic, economic and political fronts – with this region?
I think India’s relations with West Asia/Middle East are developing fairly well despite the tight-rope act New Delhi has to perform on a daily basis by not getting sucked into the region’s own political feuds, of which there are plenty. India has diplomatic relations with the three poles of power – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, who seldom get along with each other. However, India’s rise as an economic power has given it bigger access to these countries without entering into their own disputes, and this stance is also appreciated by the West Asian states, who have grown accustomed and extremely wary of external interference. As the economic heft of the global order shifts from the West to East, West Asian states will look more and more at places such as India for investments and opportunities in almost all fields of commerce, society and stability.
Which books, both in fiction and non-fiction, have you read recently and would like to recommend to our readers?
Thanks to the lockdown I have had some time to read fiction as well, which I don’t get to do that often. From fiction, I recently finished Anthony Marra’s ‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’, which is indeed as fantastic and eccentric a read as it sounds. From non-fiction, Hannah Lucinda Smith’s book ‘Erdogan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey’ was a great read on one of West Asia’s most important and controversial contemporary leaders.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
Trying to successfully navigate the lockdown without losing all my marbles!
‘The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and Its Shadow on South Asia’ by Kabir Taneja has been published by Penguin Viking. Read more about the book here and buy it here.