Geopolitics

International Terrorism: A Perspective to Current Scenarios
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Issue Vol 22.3 Jul-Sep 2007 | Date : 27 Dec , 2010

Terrorism has undergone what may be equivalent to genetic changes. In the earlier decades, its agenda was mostly political, such as class questions, national liberation and urban or anarchic issues. In the 1990s religious motivation has captured the centre stage. This development introduces an abstract concept into the phenomenon. Terrorists of the new breed consider their acts sanctified by God and, therefore, are not deterred by the values of any society other than their own.

This terrorist operates both at the strategic and tactical level. At the former level, his objective is publicity. Larger the number of victims, especially women, children and the elderly, more is the publicity and, therefore, more is he pleased with his actions. At the latter level, he operates to get a specific demand conceded, like release of compatriots, arrested earlier. Both types of operations have an inbuilt element of punishment. Besides, punishment itself could be the motivation as several incidents in J&K and elsewhere demonstrate.

The West reacted as one monolith, relegating the debate on the freedom fighters versus the terrorist to the shadows. While no last word has yet been heard on the subject, the voices of those who saw terrorists as freedom fighters are greatly subdued.

These changes have been occurring as the debate around terrorism has moved onto new arena Former colonies have won their independence. Wars of national liberation have all but disappeared. Urban guerrilla activity is on the wane as is class based or political ideological terrorism. But religious and sectarian phenomena have grown tremendously to disturbing proportions. 9/11 was a devastating manifestation of this resurgence. The West reacted as one monolith, relegating the debate on the freedom fighters versus the terrorist to the shadows. While no last word has yet been heard on the subject, the voices of those who saw terrorists as freedom fighters are greatly subdued.

Moral Dilemmas

Yet crucial to any consideration involving terrorism are the moral dilemmas involved:

  • What is terrorism? There is no universal consensus on this question. One scholar has come up with 109 different definitions. One school of thought believes that violence, inherent in revolutionary struggles, national liberation etc. is not terrorism whereas the opponents of such acts label them as terrorism. The former would consider terrorism as a tool of warfare and therefore worthy of legitimacy. This school does not label terrorism as inherently immoral.
  • Who is a terrorist? The distinction gets blurred because terrorism has no uniformly acceptable definition. Western powers call Al Qaeda and its supporters terrorists. To the latter West constitutes a group of perpetrators of terrorism.
  • Are issues of human rights involved? The terrorist respects no human rights. Does he, therefore, deserve the benefits of human rights? If terrorism is considered to be totally immoral, why should not any act of counter terrorism be held worthy of a moral standing and approval? Even if it is conceded that the human rights of a terrorist must be respected, do the same rights of the victim take precedence?
  • Which principle should be held supreme, Security of the state or rule of law? If a state or society is threatened with destruction, where will the rule of law operate if it gets destroyed?

Also read: The India Factor in Afghanistan

Terrorism is, thus, a phenomenon operating on both sides of morality. Some of the moral dilemmas will cease if a definition of terrorism could be forged and accepted worldwide. A consensus seems to be developing that the means test should apply rather than the motivation test. Terrorists justify ends, not means. The suggestion is to define terrorism as intentional use of or threat to use violence against civilian targets to attain political, ideological or social aims. Under this definition guerrilla activities against security forces in a situation of a non-conventional warfare being waged between an organisation and a state will not count as terrorist acts, provided civilians are not targeted.

Terrorism is, thus, a phenomenon operating on both sides of morality. Some of the moral dilemmas will cease if a definition of terrorism could be forged and accepted worldwide. A consensus seems to be developing that the means test should apply rather than the motivation test.

Acceptance of a definition will facilitate international cooperation in fighting terrorism and legislating uniform laws in various countries for the purpose. In its absence terrorism will mean different things to different people and moral dilemmas will continue to abound. An easy solution does not seem to be in sight. India’s efforts to have UN adopt a comprehensive terrorism convention have consistently failed. While nearly 150 countries agree in the UN on a definition of terrorism, OIC’s insistence that people struggling against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism and hegemony be exempt from the ambit of terrorism, blocks unanimity.

Political terrorism goes back several centuries. They were the acts of leftwing movements (19th century), Islamic assassins (13th century), Social Revolutionaries (20th century) who felt the need to carry out “propaganda by deed”. They found violence rational. Anarchists operated in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Subsequently it became organised political terrorism. Several nationalists – separatist movements sanctified it. The Irish against the British, Armenians against Turks, Muslim Brotherhood, against unrepresentative and authoritarian state power structure etc.

Modern Terrorism

Modern terrorism dates from mid 1960s. There were two causes:

  • Failure of the European and North American New Left i.e. the student movement. It led to the creation of Japanese Red Army, German/ Italian Red Army/ Brigades, Weather Underground (USA).
  • Emergence of nationalist/separatist move-ments in several parts of the world.

The wars of liberation may have ended but not insurgencies, which often style themselves as war of liberations. The threat of terrorism is, thus, not on the decline. It may in fact be increasing.

Following categorisation is possible.

  • Nationalist separatist – Irish, Kurdish, Moro, PLO, Hamas, LTTE
  • Anarcho Communist – Residual Red Brigades whose objective was to build up a communist society through urban guerrilla movement.
  • Traditional guerrilla gps – Latin American Cops, ANC, Nicaraguan guerrillas
  • Right wing extremism – Death squads of El Salvadore, Turkish Grey Wolves, Ku Klux Klan
  • Islamic Fundamentalist Extremists like Hizbollah, Dawa, Islamic Jehad, M. Brother- hood

Increasing role of State distinguishes modern terrorism. Many States pursue national interests through this, low cost route. Syria (PFlp), Lybia (Abu Nidal), Iran (Hezbollah) Pakistan (JEM, LET and a host of others) are foremost example of this phenomenon.

State terrorism is to be differentiated from state sponsored terrorism. Former is practised against own citizens. In recent years, however, the boundary between state terrorism and that of small groups has been increasingly blurred. The groups take the shape of non-state actors and the state goes as state non-actor to escape accusations of direct involvement.

The wars of liberation may have ended but not insurgencies, which often style themselves as war of liberations. The threat of terrorism is, thus, not on the decline. It may in fact be increasing. Progressive miniaturisation and, therefore, portability of the rocket launchers, explosive devices, system of communications and remote control devices have potentially made terrorists more dangerous. Access to funds and sources of supply, the sheer complexity and density of modern industrial society, democratic or not; and the means for rapid and anonymous travel have spawned what is known as international terrorism. Instant publicity over print and electronic media acts as the oxygen of this terrorism.

Nuclear terrorism can take the shape of: exploding a device in a densely populated area, sabotaging a nuclear reactor from within, terrorist attack (truck bomb/suicide) on nuclear establishment and use of nuclear substance with radiological material in a conventional bomb i.e. the dirty bomb.

Dedicated terrorists do not lose no matter what is the counteraction against them because they do not operate on the basis of rationality. Fanatical dedication converts them into suicide bombers.

Terrorist Scenarios

Briefly there are four kinds of potential terrorist scenarios which the world faces or can face:-

  • International Terrorist League. In the past, the Muslim Brotherhood was a prime example. Today the International Islamic Front, led by Bin Laden, qualifies for such a description. Such a league keeps evolving new mutations, maritime terrorism, WMD terrorism, terrorism directed at economic targets or energy infrastructure, cyber terrorism etc. Currently the most destructive activity of such a group is worldwide Jehadi terrorism. This form of terrorism specialises in suicide or fidayeen attacks. Furthermore it has spawned what can be easily designated International Islamism.
  • Terrorist Groups As Mercenaries. Two epicentres of such terrorism function from India’s neighbourhood and they are Pakistan and Bangladesh. The epicentre in Pakistan is located in the Waziristan area from where Al Qaeda, Taliban, Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, Jundullah (Army of Allah) and other component of International Islamic Front are making a determined bid to stage a comeback in Afghanistan.
  • BW Terrorism. Confluence of biological weapons and terrorism can be catastrophic. Weight by weight biological weapons are the most lethal products of human enterprise. The quantity of botulinium in the dot of “i” is enough to kill ten persons. 100 gms of anthrax spore are adequate to decimate a medium size city. 500 gms can cause more destruction to human life than a medium sized hydrogen bomb. Most bio weapon grade microbes are easy and in expensive to grow. Large quantities can be produced in a few days or weeks. Antigenic and pathogenic properties can be added to tailor it to stealth characteristics. In bio-terrorism non-state actors with support from state non-actors may strike population centres, water reservoirs, industrial centres, livestock or crops. A society, immunised against pathogens like smallpox, is very vulnerable to such pathogens, launched by a state or non-state actor.
  • Nuclear Terrorism. It constitutes the most spine-chilling scenario because lakhs can die immediately and many more, including future generations, crippled or doomed to early death. Nuclear terrorism can take the shape of: exploding a device in a densely populated area, sabotaging a nuclear reactor from within, terrorist attack (truck bomb/suicide) on nuclear establishment and use of nuclear substance with radiological material in a conventional bomb i.e. the dirty bomb.

Jehadi Terrorism

The shift in focus in the debate between freedom fighters and terrorists, has been caused largely by the two Afghan wars. During Afghan war I, for the first time, a united Islamic agenda, jehadi in nature, received the combined support of the West and its allies, notably the US, to send the USSR into oblivion. The war gave a new hero to the Islamic world, Osama Bin Laden who was quick to proclaim that the success in the war against USSR was the result of combined jehadi fervour. The slogans of jehad in the war were Islam versus Communism and Muslims versus the atheists.

Also read: Wikileaks – Intelligence of interest to India

The themes of these slogans were to change during Afghan war II. Now Bin Laden himself was the target and the Al Qaeda that he had set up the hunted. 9/11 had changed the scenario dramati-cally. The new slogans handed down by Bin Laden were Muslims versus the Jews and their supporters, Muslims versus the infidels and Islam versus Western values. The struggle was given a new twist and the battle structure re-organised. In 1998 an International Islamic Front (IIF) was created by Bin Laden which, much on the lines on which an International Communist Front had operated in the hey days of communism, affiliated most of the Islamist terrorist groups operating worldwide like Abu Sayyaf of Southern Phillipines, Al Qaeda and Taliban from Afghanistan, five from Pakistan, two from Central Asian Republics and three from Egypt.

The quantity of botulinium in the dot of “i” is enough to kill ten persons. 100 gms of anthrax spore are adequate to decimate a medium size city. 500 gms can cause more destruction to human life than a medium sized hydrogen bomb.

All the Arab Afghans (Arabs who fought in Afghan war I) who had scattered across the globe after the end of the war became potential or actual cells of support under this strategy. A new vision and a new mission pervaded this grouping under Bin Laden, aimed at emulating the Islamic Caliphate, which at the peak of its power in the middle centuries spread from Spain to the Indian shores. Emphasising that all Islamic people were part of one Ummah, viz one polity, this new concept sought to weave together in one mosaic all the struggles of Muslims in different parts of the world for a jehad against one easily identified enemy, the Westernised world led by the US and its values. US was specifically accused of occupying holy lands of Arabia, inflicting destruction on Iraqi people and supporting Israel in their occupation of Jerusalem and killing Palestinians. Bin Laden expected this jehad also to succeed, through unity, common purpose and commitment like the earlier jehad against the Soviets.

The new approach produced a surge in Islamic fundamentalism with consequent rise in terrorism. The true objective of a fundamentalist is political power. He will use any method, including twisting principles of religion, to pursue his aims. Islamic fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon. Since the early part of last century, it has existed in the Arab countries, seeking establishment of regimes, which will rule by the principles of Sharia. The struggle was carried out with exhortations to all Arabs to treat themselves as one nation with no frontiers among themselves.

The political objectives of the struggle failed because of brutal repression of the regimes in power in Arab lands and also because the people could not execute the concept of being Muslims first and Arabs later. Political failure, however, did not mean that the idea of a common Islamic identity did not take deep roots. It was to this constituency Bin Laden made his appeals when he set up the IIF. The response demonstrated that in the Islamic peoples’ consciousness the struggle had been elevated from the regional to the international dimension.

Also read: Kargil Controversy – Mismanagement of Higher Defence

The new slogans had succeeded in breathing a new life into the movement and providing Bin Laden a striking operational capability. Terrorist incidents were recorded from Tunisia to Indonesia and Western countries like the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Russia and France also got scorched. Bin Laden has become a much more sinister version of Carlos who had in the 60s and the 70s succeeded in welding into one network various terrorist organisations to present a united front against Zionism. The Ummah has indeed been galvanised as well as polarised against their own rulers, collaborating with West, and the West. This was reflected in the resonance in the Islamic world to 9/11, proving that the Salafi brand of extremist Islam had captured much cultural ground in these lands. Only a microscopic minority disapproved of 9/11. A vast majority rationalised it.

Misuse of Islam

How Islam can be metamorphosed to suit fundamentalist purposes is best demonstrated by taking a look at Pakistani extremist Islam. Originally targeted at Kashmir but nurtured by the experience in Afghanistan, exponents of the Pakistani version hold that a Muslim, as a member of the frontier less Ummah, can go anywhere to fight for his cause, owes his first loyalty not to his territorial nation but to his religious creed, and may use any means including weapons of mass destruction to secure his religious and political objectives. Setting up an Islamic Caliphate in South Asia is the dream of people in Pakistan who think on these lines. Clearly such people, by subverting the principles of Islam, are seeking to set up a clash of religions through acts of terrorism, fuelled by a misguided religious zeal.

9/11 was a major act in a drama, which is still being played out. Its most significant message was what a few committed can achieve in a devastating manner against the mightiest power on earth.

But the scenario in the world in no way resembles a clash of civilisations, feared by Samuel Huntington. Islamic Ummah is neither a single nation nor does it command an army to be able to set up a clash as surmised by Huntington. The tenets of Islam also do not decree such a clash. That said, it has to be admitted that some of these tenets can be misinterpreted to support terrorism.

Some of these precepts are rock like pillars, which no one dares dislodge on account of the reprisals that are bound to follow. Salman Rushdie attempted to do that and was punished with a fatwa of a death sentence. Almost the entire Islamic world lauded the fatwa. Yet, reform movements are not unknown to Islam. The very principle of Ijtihad, enshrined in Islam, gives the right to each Muslim to reflect and decide what Islam should mean to him. Some interpretations of Islam have also kept step with the spirit of contemporaneous times. Can the need to control terrorism be cited as a reason to seek new harmonisation of such tenets? This is a very difficult subject to ponder over. Most communities the world over determine their basic identity by a reference to their religion. An effort, which can be mistaken as an attempt to quiver this identity, will meet determined and stout opposition. The Mullahs and Maulvis would ensure such a fate.

Some tenets, which could receive an enlightened scrutiny, could be the following:

  • Sovereignty of Allah. The Muslim recognises Allah to be the supreme entity under whose grace all phenomena operate. This raises two important questions; first, how can the will of an abstract entity be judged, and second, how to reconcile this tenet with the will of the people, which in a democracy, stands for the supreme law. Attributing sovereignty to Allah implies that no independent human interpretation can stand on its own. The Islamist terrorist claims divine sanction for his actions and is not dissuaded by temporal laws.
  • Concept of Ummah.This is interpreted as giving a license to a Muslim to operate in any country and, thus, identifies unofficially the whole world as a stage for what is considered legitimate terrorism by its perpetrator.
  • Violence as a permissible activity.Quran approves of violence only in defence of faith or justified rights but only under approved authority. In today’s world only the state constitutes such authority. All acts of terrorism thus become illegal under Quranic injunctions. Violence against women and children is not justified even in Quran.
  • Desirability of martyrdom. This is the desired objective of the committed terrorist, who sees his sacrifice as a service to Allah. In today’s world, however, martyrdom is an anachronism and ensures no recompensation to the individual, staking his life.
  • Blasphemy. There is a heavy punishment in Quran for blasphemy or apostasy and the fear of such punishment silences those who may be ready for reforms or alternatives. Thus, freedom of expression, now a recognised human right in all the enlightened world stands denied.
  • Gender Equality. Women need to be given equal rights with men under Islam. They seem more outspoken against misinterpretations of Islam.

The leadership, which delights in such activity, will not hesitate to plan more such incidents. They will have no inhibition in using a weapon of mass destruction, panic or disorder if they can build one or contrive to get one.

9/11 was a major act in a drama, which is still being played out. Its most significant message was what a few committed can achieve in a devastating manner against the mightiest power on earth. From the IIF perspective it was an inspiring act of faith and conviction. That faith and conviction continue to live in the heart of many in the Islamic world because others link them to the body of their beliefs, to the structure of their religious cultural heritage and to the agony of an historical experience of domination. That explains the absence of widespread outrage in the Muslim countries against 9/11 or other incidents of Muslim terrorism elsewhere. The leadership, which delights in such activity, will not hesitate to plan more such incidents. They will have no inhibition in using a weapon of mass destruction, panic or disorder if they can build one or contrive to get one.

A state like Pakistan can be a willing collaborator, considering that it parted with nuclear weapon technology in favour of North Korea against established norms or that its nuclear scientists have been privately in touch with terrorists like Bin Laden. Leakage from Pakistan of WMD material into the hands of a would be terrorist is considered to be a plausible scenario by many experts on terrorism worldwide and has been causing considerable anxiety to the national security establishments the world over.

Combating Terrorism

Today’s terrorism has to be combated at the ideological level. The combat will extend to decades, may be a century or two even, because the battle will be for the minds of the people. End of one Bin Laden will not end the war because the adversary in this war is just not an individual or the band of his close supporters. If they are exterminated, many more will rise in their places unless the hatred, which motivates them, and the belief system that sustains them, gets altered. The real challenge lies in recognising that the real enemy does not exist in a concrete shape but in the abstract, in the dogmas and strains, subject to easy misinterpretations and manipulations. This calls for a strategic campaign. A tactical onslaught will prove totally inadequate.

Leakage from Pakistan of WMD material into the hands of a would be terrorist is considered to be a plausible scenario by many experts on terrorism worldwide and has been causing considerable anxiety to the national security establishments the world over.

In other words, tools of political warfare need to be marshalled to deal with the present scourge of terrorism in the world. The assistance of Muslim world is very necessary in this exercise as they alone can display authority in the re-interpretation of the principles involved. They in turn will have to carry the message to regional and local levels. Only then, those, fearing reprisals, and hence keeping silence, will be encouraged to speak out their mind. A well articulated widely spread Muslim opposition could deter the Islamist terrorist like nothing else can. If such an approach is not considered, all else may prove to be an exercise in futility. It is heartening that some Muslim countries like Egypt are displaying certain sensitivity to such matters.

How fear strangulates Muslim opinion to muteness is visible in India. Terrorism in J&K and other parts of India, ISI schemes for destabilising the country and its Government, calls from across the border to unfurl the flag of Islam over India and attempts to dot the Indian borders with hostile cells hardly produce a ripple of condemnation from the Muslim opinion in the country. Such silence is not good for the country since it leads to avoidable misunderstanding and suspicion. Leaders of Muslim opinion of all shades in the country owe it to themselves and their motherland to condemn terrorism without any reservation and to strike it at its root causes. Moderate and liberal Muslims need to network nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, unlike radicals, they have almost no resources. In India due to vote politics they have practically no government backing.

Finally, the complexity and the gargantuan nature of this problem requires that all countries, seeking redress, should place the interest of the world above their own to combat it. It is a strong belief in India that unfortunately USA is yet to subscribe to this view. American opacity to international concerns sometimes is quite bewildering. It was on display when Pakistan was building its nuclear bombs. It is again on display as secrets about the Pakistani help to make North Korea the eighth nuclear weapon power in the world, have tumbled out into the open. This Pakistani readiness to dispense forbidden expertise can mean the doom of the world if its scientific and military community, known to be highly sympathetic to the fundamentalist cause, extends the same support to the Islamist terrorist as Pakistan did to North Korea. Many feel that US arrogant unilateralism and its ambitious vision to dominate the world for ever will be counter productive in the struggle to combat international terrorism.

Also read: C I Operations in the Northeast

International terror today largely means the global Jehad against Christianity and Judaism though Bin Laden once identified Hindus also as a target. The Jehadi anger against autocratic repressive regimes in Islamic countries, most of which are supporters of the West, follows from their identification with the West and absence of Sharia from those lands. In Dec 2006, Ayman-al-Zawahiree, Al Qaeda second-in-command, identified Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Chechnya and Somalia as the principal arenas of this struggle. He separates this campaign from similar activities in India, Southern Philippines, Indonesia and Southern Thailand, and apparently suggests that the latter are manifestations of local Jehadi struggle. But the truth is that the sentiments are equally strong in all the territories mentioned and there are matching reflexes also in most Muslim pockets in non-Islamic countries of Europe. And to win this war a struggle for the hearts and minds must be waged and won.

It should be evident that counter-terrorism strategy in various affected countries alone will not yield the requisite results. At best such a strategy can prevent some tragedies and provide perimeter security to sensitive installations and region as a whole. But it cannot neutralise the virus of widespread radicalisation, which is the core problem.

Note: This is the text of a talk delivered at the National Defence College on April 18,07. This paper is based on published information which however is not individually acknowledged.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anand K Verma

Former Chief of R&AW and author of Reassessing Pakistan.

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