Contrary to his pitch during the campaign, the US president Donald Trump has, in his first major foreign policy enunciation, renewed America’s commitment to keeping Afghanistan from falling into hands of Taliban. The president chose to go with the wisdom learnt the hard way that a time-based approach to the Afghan conflict was counter- productive and continued and enhanced US presence was critical to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a potential safe haven for transnational terrorist groups.
The new US policy on Afghanistan/ South Asia comes at a time when the war on terror elsewhere seems to be making some headway. The Islamic State is finally on the retreat. Last month, Iraqi forces had recaptured Mosul, the capital of the so called Caliphate, after three years of IS control and have since been pushing further west to the town of Tal Afar, 80 km from Mosul. The coastal city of Sirte, another IS stronghold since 2015, had been demolished by the Libyan forces 8 months back. In the meantime, Syrian forces have captured half of the most prominent remaining stronghold of the IS i.e. Raqqa and are well on their way to reclaim the city in full. While doubts have cropped up over the news of the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the IS commander, in a Russian raid on Raqqa in June, the Caliphate, spread over parts of Iraq, Libya and Syria stands almost dismantled.
In a worrying development, however, the physical obliteration of the Caliphate in its erstwhile strongholds of Syria and Iraq is probably giving rise to spread of terrorist attacks elsewhere, primarily in Europe. Be it the London attack of March 22, Stockholm attack of April 7, London attack of June 3 or Barcelona attack of August 17, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for all of them. Though, there is a possibility that these may be lone wolf attacks that the Islamic State could be riding piggyback, the possibility that these attacks were inspired by IS propaganda is quite plausible. These attacks make a strong point that in today’s online world it is much easier for any terrorist organization to recruit and motivate without actual physical presence and that the IS propaganda, now widely disseminated over the internet is clearly working. On the flip side, these incidents wherein the attackers used vehicles as opposed to weapons or explosives also show that at present, the IS lacks the capability of carrying out major attacks despite its strong urge to get back at the West for uprooting the Caliphate.
News on terrorism elsewhere is mixed. Whereas Al Queda has emaciated beyond recognition now, Taliban has been able to thwart the advance of Afghan forces and now controls almost 40% of Afghanistan. One more Afghan district fell to Taliban earlier this week. In Pakistan, however, significant success has been achieved against the Pakistani Taliban over last three years, though it is still work in progress and the ideological and financial support to Taliban and a score of other terrorist groups, including the sectarian ones and the ones directed against India continues. Al Shabaab, an Al Queda affiliate active in East Africa, particularly Somalia, has retreated from major cities in past two years. But, Boko Haram, an IS affiliate, continues to be a strong and deadly force in West Africa, particularly Nigeria. In the meantime, the IS has also made inroads into countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mali, Indonesia, the Philippines, Tunisia, Somalia and probably the Indian part of Kashmir.
In terms of location, Afghanistan and Iraq continue to be the top two countries affected by terrorism, with casualties running into four digits. Pakistan, Nigeria and Russia follow with casualties in high triple digits. Parts of India are still affected and annual casualties are in high double digits. Although the US and Europe wear their sensitivity to the terrorist threat on the sleeve, the casualties have been in low double digits. Among the other large countries, China and Brazil are the least affected, China reporting casualties in low double digits and Brazil, in fact, reporting none. One is tempted to mention Syria here. However, tragic as it is, Syria is not a case of terrorist violence in a strict sense of the term but is a multi-sided armed conflict that has its origin in the Arab spring protests of 2011 and has so far consumed about half a million lives and displaced one million people.
So, how do we rid the world of the scourge of terrorism? Can terrorism be defeated at all?
To explore the answer to these questions, we need to look at the history of terrorism as also its basis. It is easy to mistake terrorism for a modern phenomenon. But while the term ‘terrorism’ is modern, political violence is as old as the political organization itself. Terrorism has historically been an instrument of asymmetric warfare and to that extent has always been deployed by the weaker party. As early as 11th century, a group known in history as The Assassins were active in the Middle East, killing political and military leaders with an objective to create alliances as also for pure retribution. In modern history, terrorism has manifested itself in what David Rapoport, an authority on terrorism, calls four waves. Each wave started with a gush, lasted a few decades and then gradually faded even as a new wave gained prominence.
The first wave of terrorism that started in the 1880s is known as the anarchist wave. It started in Russia under ideological influence of Bakunin and Kropotkin and then spread to the rest of Europe, the US and Asia. It was marked by a number of high profile assassinations –Elizabeth, the queen of Austria, Uberto I, the King of Italy and McKinley, the then US president. The trigger for the First World War also was an assassination– that of the crown prince of Austria, Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – though it was done by a Serbian nationalist and not an anarchist.
The second wave of terrorism started right after the first world war in the 1920s and is known as the Anti-colonial Wave. It was directed against the colonial occupation of the French and the British and was marked by the hit and run, guerrilla tactics. Unlike the protagonists of the first wave, players in the anti-colonial wave did not see themselves as terrorists, preferring the identity of freedom-fighters. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) were the representative organizations of this era. India also saw its share of the anti-colonial wave in individuals such as Ras Bihari Bose, Chandrasekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh and organizations such as Hindustan Republican Association.
By early 1960s the Anti-colonial Wave had given way to the third wave known as the New Left Wave. This wave had originated in the backdrop of the cold war – at times its hot manifestations e.g. Vietnam war- and was marked by eruption across all continents. Weather Underground in North America, Autonomi in Germany, Naxalites in Eastern India, 26th of July Movement in Cuba and National Liberation Army in Bolivia were some of the better known organizations riding this wave. Rapoport includes Palestine Liberation Organization in the Middle East also in this wave, even though the nature of Palestine struggle is a bit different. Hostage taking and plane hijacking were the signature tactics of this wave.
The fourth and the present wave, known as the Religious Wave, is said to have started in 1979 when three seminal events took place – The Islamic revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and storming and occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The Religious Wave is predominantly identified with the Islamist militia of all kinds spread over South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, but many other religious extremists have been part of this wave. Sikh extremists in Indian Punjab, anti-abortion Christian terrorists, Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan, Jewish terrorists that killed Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv are a few examples. We can also treat this wave as an Identity Wave, as Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka also reared its head during this period. But while all of these have since faded away/ been defeated, the Islamist terrorism has not only endured but has exhibited great resilience in face of the concerted campaign by the international community. Suicide bombing is the contribution of this wave to the repertoire of tactics available to the terrorists.
As the opening paragraphs of this piece suggest, the international community has achieved significant successes against Islamist terrorism, especially since 9/11. However, I would argue that the Islamist terrorism is rather deep rooted and will last much longer than we may want to believe. The primary reason for this argument is that the forces led by the West have largely attacked the symptoms and the manifestations of this wave, not the root cause.
The root cause of the Islamist terrorism is the obscurantist, exclusivist and expansionist version of Islam being taught in innumerable madrasas or seminaries across the world, from Africa to South Asia to East Asia. This is the Wahhabi strain of Islam that has edged all other moderate, indigenous versions of Islam in many of these countries through sheer money power. Quite often in these poor societies, the only choice available to parents wanting to educate their children is the free madrasa education. But, the Wahhabi Islam being taught in these madrasas propagates hate towards all other religions, including various sects of Islam itself, viz. Ahmadi, Shia, Sufi and non-Wahhabi Sunni itself. What is more alarming is that the students are taught that any place not being governed as per the Islamic law is Dar-ul Harb and that it is the sacred duty of each Muslim to convert such lands into Dar-ul-Islam. While radicalization is not confined to the poor and the disadvantaged, students of these seminaries do provide the overwhelming percentage of the recruits to the Islamist terrorist organizations.
This dangerous indoctrination really took off post 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when the US, in tandem with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, decided to fight communism with radical Islam and motivated the Afghans as also the Muslim volunteers from across the world to wage jihad against the Soviets in the name of Islam. It was only logical that such volunteers were indoctrinated in radical Islam before training them for the holy war. The Soviets vacated Afghanistan long back but the Frankenstein’s monster of radical Islamism is still being fed with unabated zeal in seminaries across the world thanks to the money flowing from many parts of the oil rich Gulf. According to Dr Yousuf Butt, Senior Advisor to British American Security Information Council, about $ 100 billion have been channelled since 1979 towards constructing and operating these seminaries, in training Imams, distributing text books, endowments and media outreach etc. by Saudi Arabia alone. This indoctrination has begotten an abundant crop of potential recruits that have been harvested by various Islamist terrorist organizations, including Al Queda and the IS.
What has greatly helped the cause of Islamist extremism is the concept of Muslim Ummah – Muslims as a supranational community. Islam, like most religions, predates the concept of the nation-state that originated in Europe in the 17th century, after the Thirty Years’ War and has since become the accepted unit of political aggregation for a people. No other religion has a problem with that, but the Islamists do not recognize the concept of nation-state and dream of establishing an Islamic state all over the world. This dream has led to the phenomenon of the foreign fighters joining the local ones against the enemy of the day in a particular country. Thousands of volunteers from Tunisia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordon, Pakistan, Chechnya and many more states have routinely crossed borders to flock at the latest conflict zone to participate in ‘jihad’, the holy war.
Another development that fuels Islamist terrorism is the equivocal stance of governments in many Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria et al. All these countries are fighting certain terrorist organizations and feeding certain others, engendering the deadly and pernicious dichotomy of good and bad terrorist. The then US Vice President Joe Biden admitted as much at an event last year at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government when he said, “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends… [and] the Saudis, the Emirates, etcetera. What were they doing?…. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.” In fact, to a lesser extent, many large responsible countries could be accused of the same double dealings. Role of the US and its allies as also Russia in Syria is a case in point. Similarly, the US and its NATO allies have not been able to subdue Taliban in Afghanistan for the last 16 years because one of their own allies, Pakistan, has been harbouring and supporting some Taliban factions, including the infamous Haqqani Network, because she treats them as an asset in its asymmetric war against a stronger India. Iran has traditionally supported Hezbollah and Hamas and is at present involved in proxy wars with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Clearly, till such ambivalence on part of various countries continues, money and weapons will keep flowing to terrorist organizations in opposing camps and embers of terrorism will keep smouldering.
Therefore, even though the world has not let terrorism win so far in any of the theatres, the world has also not scored an outright win either. Even though massive resources – primarily military – have been mobilized against terrorism across the world, the supply lines of terrorism in terms of recruitment, logistics, arms and finances are also largely intact. Counter terrorism and anti-radicalization programs can only do so much. Unless the basic issues of indoctrination and asymmetric warfare being waged by countries are addressed, the fight against terrorism will remain an inadequate and schizophrenic one. To counter terrorism fully and decisively, the world must honestly acknowledge the wisdom that peace is indivisible and strengthen the international mechanisms to address political injustice anywhere in the world in time before it creates avenues for terrorism to get a toehold.