The outbreak of Israel-Hamas hostilities, following the latter’s deadly raid on 7 October 2023, has sparked never-before-seen violence in the Gaza Strip. The involvement of external powers, coupled with the regional powers’ pursuit of geopolitical ambitions through proxies, threatens the fragile stability of West Asia. However, beyond the geopolitical implications lurks the threat of terrorist violence and radicalisation as a consequence of this conflict.
The Hamas’ shrewd use of graphic videos and imagery from its initial spectacular violence in southern Israel and then the death and destruction caused by Israel Defense Forces’ campaign in the Gaza Strip has generated a discernible pro-Hamas sentiment across many countries. This has acted as a stimulus for pan-Islamic terrorist groups like al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS), as well as other regional terrorist organisations. In South Asia, too, terrorist organisations and their sympathisers are using developments in West Asia to spur radicalisation and rally vulnerable, impressionable youth to fill their ranks.
Counter-terrorism experts around the world have noted that the Israel-Hamas conflict may cause a resurgence of the terrorist threat. The nature and scale of Israel’s retaliatory strikes in the Gaza Strip have expectedly generated anger and condemnation across the Muslim world. Terrorist organisations like AQ have exploited these sentiments to assert their relevance. Days into the Hamas attack on Israel, AQ’s franchisees in North and West Africa commended the attacks and called for more violence against the Jews. Likewise, AQ’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabaab, praised the Hamas fighters and termed it the “battle of the entire Muslim Ummah.”
The nature and scale of Israel’s retaliatory strikes in the Gaza Strip have expectedly generated anger and condemnation across the Muslim world.
In Europe, there has already been a spillover of the West Asian developments. Since 7 October, there have been two terrorist attacks in France – the beheading of a teacher in northern France (13 October), and the stabbing of a tourist in Paris (3 December), and one attack in Brussels, Belgium (16 October, though not explicitly linked by the authorities to the Israel-Hamas hostilities). These attacks have fuelled concerns among security agencies that the Israel-Hamas hostilities are potentially acting as a catalyst for terrorist radicalisation that can trigger a new wave of lone-wolf terrorist violence.
This radicalisation is also getting a boost from Hamas’ disinformation and propaganda tactics, seeking to generate sympathy for its actions by using explicit imagery and videos from the Israeli ground and air offensive in the Gaza Strip. To push its disinformation and propaganda, the group has used ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) social platform and Telegram encrypted messaging service. Recently, researchers unearthed a propaganda network of 67 accounts on ‘X’ platform that was coordinating and amplifying a campaign of posting false, inflammatory content related to the war. On Telegram, Hamas-linked channels regularly post violent graphics of its assault and highlight the aspect of civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip caused by Israeli raids. This has provided ample fodder for disinformation and impaired the international community’s understanding of the exact situation on the ground.
The Indian context
In India, too, the situation is not different. Since Hamas’ raid, the security establishment has kept a close watch on the mobilisation happening on the Israel-Palestine issue in the country, with Kerala and Maharashtra having emerged as states of particular concern. In Kerala, for instance, a pro-Palestine rally convened on 27 October in Malappuram by Solidarity Youth Movement (SYM), the youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, saw the virtual participation of Khaled Mashal, the former head of Hamas, based in Qatar. While the meeting did not figure any calls for violence and Hamas is not a banned organisation in India, the pro-Palestine campaign in the state is being held in a manner that glorifies Hamas and its leaders as warriors. This conflation of pro-Palestine sentiments with pro-Hamas sentiments is worrisome and establishes a justification for terrorist violence. Interestingly, SYM held this event as part of its ongoing campaign titled “uproot Hindutva and apartheid Zionism.” In Maharashtra, according to the security agencies’ statistics, between 7 October and 20 November, 27 pro-Palestine protests took place in various parts of the state, including Pune, Kolhapur, and Thane (Mumbra and Bhiwandi) districts. Some protest rallies were also held online.
These developments have also allowed organisation like the Popular Front of India, which, despite being banned in September 2022, continues its activities through its political front, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). On 20 October, the SDPI held a pro-Palestine rally in Pune. In response, there were also some pro-Israel rallies.
This mobilisation is symbolic of the polarisation that the Indian society is witnessing over the Israel-Hamas conflict. However, it is also spawning antagonism between religious communities – something that terrorist organisations are eager to exploit. Moreover, they have also portrayed the police crackdown on some of the pro-Palestine rallies as a crackdown on “peaceful protests,” thereby fuelling the sense of injustice and victimhood.
The threat of radicalisation to India further intensified with the IS making concerted efforts to target vulnerable youth in India.
In the pan-Islamic terrorist propaganda, India is generally clubbed with Israel. In April 2006, then AQ leader Osama bin Laden, in one of his audio messages had mentioned the “Zionist-Hindu war against Muslims.” Interrogation reports of previously apprehended Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists from Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir had revealed that new recruits to the organisation were radicalised by showing footage of global events like the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Israeli crackdown on Palestinian protestors at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Notably, Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian Islamist, was one of LeT’s co-founders.
In the last decade, however, the threat of radicalisation to India further intensified with the IS making concerted efforts to target vulnerable youth in India. Even as the IS declined, the threat persisted, as was evident from the two back-to-back killings in June 2022 in Udaipur, Rajasthan and Amravati, Maharashtra, carried out by the radicalised lone wolves. This year alone, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has arrested multiple suspects on charges of recruitment and radicalisation.
Against this backdrop, the Indian security establishment notes that the developments in West Asia have given a new lease of life to the terrorist organisations, with many of them being enthusiastic about their prospects – the kind of enthusiasm that they showed after the August 2021 takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban. This will intensify terrorist propaganda and radicalisation. Already, the al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has urged its supporters to attack American, British and French nationals and interests after Israel’s military campaign began.
The Indian security establishment notes that the developments in West Asia have given a new lease of life to the terrorist organisations, with many of them being enthusiastic about their prospects – the kind of enthusiasm that they showed after the August 2021 takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban.
In addition, a video messages from Pakistan-based fugitive terrorist Farhatullah Ghori, previously associated with the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed, is also circulating on encrypted messaging platforms. Using video clips from the Gaza Strip, he castigates India for supporting Israel and urges Indian Muslims to unite with the Ummah in its fight against Israel. Ghori was part of the terrorist recruitment network in the Persian Gulf in the late 2000s. Therefore, his message aims to resonate with the vulnerable elements of the Indian diaspora in the region.
Clearly, with pan-Islamic and Pakistan-based terrorist organisations weaponising the deluge of footage from the Gaza Strip, their propaganda will have a far-reaching impact on terrorist radicalisation in India. The wide availability of encrypted messaging platforms and Pakistan’s attempts to revive terrorist violence exacerbate this threat. The Ministry of Home Affairs, particularly the NIA, has kept up the pressure on terrorist organisations and the supporting ecosystem. However, Indian agencies will have to step up their vigil in monitoring the renewed radicalisation drive by the terrorist masterminds and their well-resourced benefactors.
Sameer Patil is Senior Fellow with the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology and Deputy Director at Observer Research Foundation
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