Islamic State-inspired attack on passenger train points to gradually rising support, but risk of sophisticated attacks remains limited
A home-made pipe bomb injured ten civilians when it exploded on a passenger train near Jabdi station, 80 km west of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, on 7 March. The security forces said the attack was carried out by a cell of local Islamic State (IS) sympathisers, and arrested eight men linked to the group before killing a ninth in a shoot-out in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on 8 March. The police later described the bombing as a “trial run”, alleging that the cell also planned to attack a Sufi shrine in Uttar Pradesh. Separately, security forces in Gujarat arrested two men accused of communicating with IS online and planning to strike religious sites in the state, including a Hindu temple.
These incidents indicate that IS is gradually inspiring support among militants in the country. Indeed, despite its limited impact, the train attack was the first successful IS sympathiser strike in India. That said, IS has not associated itself with, or praised, the incident in Madhya Pradesh, and the authorities claim that the men involved were self-radicalised. The security forces commonly overstate links between domestic militants and global jihadist groups in order to downplay the extent of local Muslim grievances. The fact that they have not done so in this case, and the relatively simple nature of the bomb used, lends support to the authorities’ assertion that the cell did not have direct links with IS.
IS sympathisers have not previously been arrested in Gujarat, and so the detentions in that state suggest that the group’s propaganda is reaching new audiences. It is plausible that these individuals were in contact with IS, particularly since the planned targeting of a Hindu temple is consistent with the group’s aim of increasing sectarian tensions by attacking religious sites. However, the men arrested were apparently reliant on widely available bomb-making instructions, and so it is unlikely that they were receiving support from IS militants, such as Indian nationals fighting with the group in Syria and Iraq.
We therefore do not believe that IS is devoting increased resources to supporting attacks in India. Regionally, the group remains focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, while globally, defending the Caliphate remains its priority. It is therefore unlikely to divert resources to India at present, and will continue to rely on local sympathisers to raise its profile. The remote location of the train attack suggests that these militants will be limited to striking poorly-defended targets, such as religious sites or critical infrastructure, in an effort to undermine the Government. Such violence will remain sporadic, and is unlikely to occur in major cities where capable security forces will mitigate the threat. However, the risk of larger and more frequent attacks will rise when territories in the Caliphate become indefensible, prompting IS to increase its efforts to expand globally. At this point the potential for attacks against government and security force facilities is likely to rise.