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Is ISIS Setting Its Sights on India in Afghanistan?

Indian officials say the arrest of an ISIS fighter who claims to have been preparing to attack the Indian consulate in Jalalabad is “vindication” of New Delhi’s belief of strong Pakistani links propping up the militant group’s operations in Afghanistan.

File photo of an ISIS fighter. Credit: Reuters

File photo of an ISIS fighter. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: Last week, the Afghan spy agency caught a suicide bomber who had been planning to attack the Indian consulate in Jalalabad. It was certainly not the first time that Indian diplomats have been the targets of terror threats, but what raised eyebrows was the affiliation of the would-be suicide bomber – ISIS in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Brigadier General Dad Mohammad Harifi, the chief of the National Directorate of Security for the eastern province of Nangarhar, conducted a press conference to announce the arrest of 11 militants and the confiscation of 1000 weapons. Among those arrested were three ISIS fighters – one of whom was apparently tasked with carrying out of a suicide attack on the Indian consulate located in the provincial capital of Jalalabad.

Sources confirmed to The Wire that this was the first instance of the ISIS in ‘Khorasan province’ (the group’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan) apparently targeting Indian assets in Afghanistan.

The Indian consulate in Jalalabad is no stranger to terror threats. Earlier this year, on March 2, one suicide bomber blew himself up in an explosion-laden vehicle, while five other terrorists were gunned down outside the compound of the Indian diplomatic post.

There were no claims for the March attack, but previous assaults on other Indian consulates and the embassy in Kabul have been traced to the Taliban and even to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, both backed by Pakistani security agencies.

Credit: ISIS propaganda photo

The last major reference to India by the ISIS came in January, when Hafiz Saeed Khan said the group considered Kashmir a fertile area for expansion. Credit: ISIS propaganda photo

But, until now, there had been no indication that Indian assets were targets of the ISIS in Afghanistan. The last major reference to India by the ISIS came in January. In an ‘interview’ to the group’s English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq, Hafiz Saeed Khan, the ‘wali’ (governor) of ISIS Khorasan, stated that the group considered Kashmir a fertile area for expansion, even as he accused Pakistan of being fickle in supporting the Kashmiri struggle. Khan was killed in a drone attack in July.

Thus, when Afghan authorities’ claim to have an ISIS fighter in custody came to light, Indian officials were quick to contact provincial authorities for more details.

Afghan security officials told Indian diplomats that the arrested fighter had stuck to his assertion that ISIS was behind the planned attack during the interrogation. “He is insisting that his group Daesh had told him to carry out the suicide bombing,” an Indian official said.

Identified as Abu Bakr and a resident of one of the border districts of the province, he told his interrogators that he joined the ISIS fold about six months ago. “He joined after coming under the sway of extremist religious preachers,” an Indian government official said.

Bakr then received training for about three months in Achin province, the headquarters of ISIS in Afghanistan. “Bakr says that he came to Jalalabad about two weeks, along with another ISIS member, with the objective of a suicide attack on the Indian embassy,” said the official.

He was “picked up” by the Afghan spy agency around December 1-2, but his companion managed to escape.

With there being no previous instance of ISIS targeting Indians in Afghanistan, Indian officials are still trying to figure out the veracity of Bakr’s claims.

“This guy seems to be more like a cannon fodder. Whatever he knows is probably on a need to know basis,” said an official.

A senior Indian official told The Wire that the arrest of the ISIS fighter targeting the Indian consulate was a “vindication” of New Delhi’s belief of strong Pakistani links propping up ISIS’s Afghan operations.

The Indian government believes that ISIS in Khorasan, with its amorphous groups with shifting loyalties and made up mainly of former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militants, is part of the larger game of the Pakistani deep state in Afghanistan.

There has not been any major change in this Indian scepticism over the last two years of ISIS’s emergence in Nangarhar, with New Delhi worried that this was a ploy to normalise the Taliban as a more viable, reasonable, home-grown political force. While ISIS is still largely confined to a few districts in Nangarhar, it has conducted some big suicide attacks with numerous casualties. Last month, an ISIS suicide bomber attacked the Ministry of Defence, killing at least six people.

Indian officials have pointed out that the Afghan officials have deduced from documents obtained from dead ISIS fighters than about 90% of fighters were Pakistani citizens.

After a visit to Nangarhar some months ago, Afghan national security advisor Hanif Atmar indicated that ISIS was getting Pakistani patronage. “We can easily eliminate IS if Pakistan does not give the militants sanctuary,” Atmar said in an interview to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in September.

However, the theory about the Pakistani hand behind the growth of ISIS is not publicly supported by other major actors in Afghanistan, such as the US and Russia. The Russians have, in fact, stepped up their cooperation with Pakistan in order to stave off the influence of ISIS in Afghanistan from spreading to Central Asia.