Escalation of jihadist propaganda likely to slightly increase risk of sympathiser attacks, including around key dates like Republic Day
The theft of a Central Reserve Police Force vehicle in south Delhi on 30 December triggered a national security alert, with intelligence agencies warning that it could be used to carry out an attack in Delhi or in Jammu and Kashmir ahead of Republic Day on 26 January. Media reports said that the authorities were concerned about a possible al-Qaeda attack, including a suicide car bomb attack on a security force camp. The authorities issued several other alerts in December, and another on 11 January, though none cited firm evidence of a planned attack. Meanwhile, jihadist groups published a number of India-focused propaganda videos over the holiday period. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) released a video encouraging attacks in Indian cities including Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata, which it claimed would lead to “victory” in Kashmir. Separately, a pro-Islamic State (IS) media outlet released a video on 25 December in which a Kashmiri fighter announced the formation of a new “Wilayat” (province) in the territory.
Official terror warnings and security alerts typically increase around public holidays and key religious dates because of the higher propaganda value many militant groups attach to successful attacks on these days. However, there is no indication that the intelligence agencies were aware of a specific plot involving the vehicle stolen on 30 December, and the warning is unlikely to constitute evidence of an imminent attack in Delhi. Indeed, there is no sign that AQIS, which has never carried out an attack in the country, has increased its capabilities. Likewise, IS has an extremely limited presence in India; it has only been linked to a crude pipe bomb attack on a train in Madhya Pradesh in March 2017, and there was no indication that the perpetrators had direct connections to the group.
Instead the authorities’ warning of a possible threat from al-Qaeda likely reflects their ongoing efforts to link the militant threat in the country to the international jihadist movement. This is intended to downplay domestic groups’ grievances and justify crackdowns on radical individuals. Meanwhile, AQIS and IS are likely to have stepped up their propaganda in an effort to win support in South Asia, where the fate of Kashmir is an emotive issue among Muslims. IS will particularly hope to boost its presence on the subcontinent as it seeks to distract supporters from its losses in the Middle East.
This heightened focus will slightly raise the risk of IS or al-Qaeda sympathiser attacks in the coming months. Nonetheless, any such incidents are likely to be isolated and small in scale. Increased security will limit supporters’ ability to carry out a large attack in a major city around Republic Day, particularly in Delhi, where ten ASEAN heads of state are due to attend the celebrations. However, Kashmir will face a greater risk given its less-stable security environment, which facilitated a vehicle-borne explosive attack on a military base in Kashmir’s Pulwama district on 30 December.