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Threats from Inside India: Tankel Investigates Indigenous Jihadists

Stephen Tankel

Stephen Tankel

Gliding across the majestic Taj Mahal promenade, hiking the vast Himalayas and basking on the shores of the Arabian Sea in Goa—a summer in India could easily provide an ideal respite to any weary scholar looking to take a break from the rigors of academia. That is, unless you’re Professor Stephen Tankel, who traveled to India over the summer not to escape his work, but to immerse himself in it.

“I spent almost every day of the five weeks I was in India and Bangladesh in interviews or meetings,” Tankel said. “So it was a very successful trip, but it meant I was really immersed in the research I was doing, with no time for much else.”

That’s no surprise considering Tankel’s impressive resume and extensive credentials. The second-year American University Department of Justice, Law and Society professor specializing in security studies with a focus on political and military affairs in South Asia is also a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an adjunct staff member at the RAND Corporation. He recently authored the Columbia University Press-published Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, for which he first traveled to South Asia in 2008 during his graduate studies to research the group, which, according to Tankel, “is to India what al-Qaeda is to America.” 

“Not a lot of researchers had cared about Lashkar-e-Taiba before [the 2008 bombings in Mumbai] and my thesis advisor suggested I put my thesis research on hold and write a book about it,” Tankel said. “And over time I became more immersed in the region, its politics, and the various security issues there.” 

Four years later, Tankel’s interest in terrorism and insurgency among non-state players in South Asia has grown and evolved; this past summer, on a grant from the National Defense University, Tankel spent five weeks researching the nature of the threat to India from its own indigenous jihadists and the role that regional actors like Pakistan and Bangladesh play in the movement. 

“A number of the Indian mujahideen— which is the label for the network of modules currently active in India—linked up with groups supported by the Pakistani state as proxies against India and received training—explosives, recon, counter-intelligence—as well as money and logistical support,” Tankel said. “It was with this help that they became a much more lethal force.”  

Tankel explained that in the past, the Indian mujahideen had used foreign materials to create explosives, but are increasingly using indigenous materials. This theoretically reduces the mujahideen’s reliance on either Pakistan or Pakistan-based militant groups. The Indian authorities, however, argue that Pakistan is still providing safe haven to Indian mujahideen fugitives, in addition to funds and support from abroad. 

While stressing that the Indian mujahideen is far from an existential threat to India, Tankel explained that jihadists indigenous to India are nevertheless a force that should be taken seriously. “First, from a U.S. perspective, there is concern these actors provide a means of attacking U.S. interests in South Asia. Second, because of Pakistani support for this movement, they are another barrier to normalizing relations between India and Pakistan. Third, they are symptomatic of some of the wider problems India is facing in terms of economic inequality, poor governance and policing, communal tensions, and capacity problems,” said Tankel. He added, “India is working on reforming its counterterrorism infrastructure and policies, but there’s a long way to go.” 

Tankel spent months preparing for his trip and dedicated his summer to learning as much as he could about the Indian mujahideen. Though Tankel was based in New Delhi, he traveled to Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai in India, and Dhaka in Bangladesh to interview senior security officials, military personnel, intelligence officials, police officers, journalists, diplomats, community leaders, and members of various think tanks. With the help of a team of U.S.-based graduate students to assist with additional desk-based research, Tankel plans to funnel his research into several academic papers and policy reports, as well as a monograph, in the coming months. 

But his stint in India wasn’t entirely all work and no play—Professor Tankel had a few days to himself to soak in the scenery after all.  

“I’m always warmly welcomed in South Asia—be it Bangladesh, India, or Pakistan— even though my research touches on sensitive issues for some folks there,” he said. “It was great to catch up with the growing number of friends and colleagues I have there. And being able to stay at the Taj Mahal Palace and eat at the Leopold Café, both of which are in Mumbai and were attacked in 2008, was definitely a highlight. It was great to see them full of people and to give them my business.”