The Islamic State in Kerala: A primer

By Kabir Taneja and Mohammed Sinan Siyech

ORF Occasional Paper, October 2019

With a Muslim population of over 200 million, the third largest in the world next only to Indonesia and Pakistan, India was thought of by analysts to be fertile ground for the recruitment of foreign fighters for the Islamic State (IS). The country, however, has proven such analysts wrong by having only a handful of pro-IS cases so far. Of these cases, the majority have come from the southern state of Kerala. This paper offers an explanation for the growth of IS in Kerala. It examines the historical, social and political factors that have contributed to the resonance of IS ideology within specific regions of Kerala, and analyses the implications of these events to the overall challenge of countering violent extremism in India.

In June 2014, inside the Al Nuri mosque in Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the creation of a “caliphate”, weeks after his fighters seized control of the city. In March this year, the caliphate was officially defeated. But not before IS succeeded in becoming the most dreaded and adaptive terror group in the world, killing thousands of people, leaving cities in ruin, taking over land, implementing their own laws, and taxing citizens and doing police work.

In the caliphate’s five years, thousands of recruits from various countries across the world—including Saudi Arabia, France, Australia and Tunisia—made their way to Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State and its ‘caliphate’, which commanded a territory nearly as large as the United Kingdom at some point in 2015, spanning the geographies of both Iraq and Syria, developed a large base of foreign fighters who travelled to the region to join the group, fight for it, and help set up the so-called “pious” Islamic land that was the crux of the group’s promise. The geography, or the ‘state’ in itself, became the single biggest draw for foreigners who had come in contact with the ideology propagated by IS, as the group started to operate like a government on the ground it occupied, showcasing its version of Sharia.

India, with a Muslim population of over 200 million, third largest in the world next only to Indonesia and Pakistan, was generally expected by analysts to have high numbers of pro-IS cases due to that sheer population. The country, however, has only had a handful of pro-IS cases. Despite a uniformly distributed population of Muslims across the country, it is the state of Kerala that has contributed a comparatively significant number of members to the group domestically and internationally. Data show that 60-70 pro-IS cases in India have been from Kerala. This paper offers an explainer for the growth of IS in Kerala. The rest of the paper is structured as follows: The next section outlines the reasons why IS found interest in Kerala. It is followed by a brief history of inter-faith relations in the state, an outline of the reasons behind IS’ relative success there, and a comparative analysis of the different regions of Kerala and their inclinations for IS. The paper closes with a discussion of the implications of these events.

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