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Sunday, September 16, 2001

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Merchants of terror

Jehadis are an extremely loose bunch of fanatics that cannot be pinned to either a territory or an objective, says Kesava Menon.

WITH THE U.S. finally being goaded - and goaded by a series of deep wounds at that - to lead a decisive war against global jehad there is finally a chance that the campaign will acquire some coherence. So far, the U.S. has been fighting terrorism in its many manifestations and at different points around the globe but has done so piecemeal.

Other nations confronting this phenomenon have also addressed it in the particular form in which it manifests before each of them. A net result is that while global jehad has been defined on the basis of its tactics its true nature as a menace to civilisation has been obscured.

There has been a hesitancy in the West to apply the term jehad to international terrorism in its current form. This is probably on account of a distaste for provoking the proverbial clash of civilisations. However, it is possible to use the term to describe a relatively new global phenomenon while negating an inference that the use of the term implies hostility to a religion.

In its true sense as one of the five pillars of Islam, the obligation for jehad, or struggle, is little different from similar obligations in other religious systems. Every person is enjoined to struggle, or wage jehad, against his baser instincts and social evils. This is an imprimatur in any religious system.

Used as a political term over the past two decades, the term jehad has acquired a secondary and altogether different meaning. As used by its votaries jehad has become a cover-tag for the activities of a group of people filled with a blind unreasoning hatred for anyone else who does not subscribe to their lifestyles, world views or even dress and behavioural codes.

Those who disembowel children in Algeria, or behead poor shepherds in Jammu or bomb innocents in New York buildings can by no means be described as followers of the tenets of any religion. Yet since they themselves describe their activities as being jehadi in nature there should be no difficulty in using this term, in its secondary sense, in relation to them.

The above exercise in semantics is necessary to mark out the distinction between jehadi terrorism and terrorist activities of an earlier vintage. The Hizbollah in Lebanon has used terrorism - indiscriminate attacks on the unsuspecting with the sole intention of instilling terror - in the past. So did the Islamic Salvation Army in Algeria and so does Hamas and Islamic Jehad in Palestine even now.

But in each of these cases the use of terror tactics was and is linked to specific goals. If the AIS wanted their country to become more Islamic in its political orientation, Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jehad are fighting for the liberation of their homelands. While the tactics they use, or have used, are deplorable there is at least scope for the thought that they would abandon these practices once their goal was achieved.

On the other hand, the jehadis display no such relieving features. Neither the members of the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, nor those who attacked Amarnath pilgrims, nor those who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 or on Terror Tuesday state that their actions had a connection with any specific objective.

They might vaguely say that they want to promote the cause of Kashmir or Palestine but they also make clear that their millennial movement will not stop once these objectives are achieved. More nebulously they might talk of destroying American imperialism or re-conquering India but even they seem to recognise that such statements are mere slogans. The only true objective they seem to pursue is destruction for its own sake.

The U.S., probably because its world view on terrorism had so far been moulded by Israel and its own experience in the Middle East during the 1980s, had thus far not drawn any distinction between terrorism of an earlier vintage and the new jehadism.

While it may be necessary to use all means to dissuade all those who indulge in terror tactics to desist from doing so the failure to draw a distinction between jehadis and terrorism of the older vintage can lead to difficulties.

For instance, if the U.S. were to move against Hamas or Hizbollah it could jeopardise the prospects for drawing moderate Muslim states into the coalition against jehad. To lump both forms of terrorism together could also lead to confusion about the choice of methods to use against jehad.

Terrorist organisations of an older vintage have a territorial base and identifiable objectives. The jehadis on the other hand are an extremely loose bunch of fanatics that cannot be pinned to either a territory or an objective. At present, it would appear that the only way of identifying them is by their connections to the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.

But Al Qaeda is itself a loose fraternity of the like-minded and not a structured organisation with locatable offices or branches. Jehad is a phenomenon whereby a bomb-maker from Tunisia, a speed driver from Egypt, a pilot from the UAE or a financier from somewhere else can pool their efforts for a specific operation, disperse after that and then form completely new teams for the next operation down the line.

Besides the facts that it encompasses a large and widely dispersed range of operatives and financiers the only other matter that can be pin-pointed about jehad is that it has a readily available base in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. There is no other place in the world where the jehadis can go for rest and recuperation between operations, or plan and prepare for the next one, with no worry about being disturbed. That automatically leads to the question of the jehadi establishment in Pakistan - the only country in the world where the jehadis have worked themselves into all levels of the power structure to the extent that the non-jehadis are unable to take action against them despite enjoying co-equal power.

Would jehadis from all over the world for instance be able to access their base in Afghanistan with such ease if Pakistan did not readily provide multiple-entry visas and untrammelled transit. If the current campaign is to stop with merely an attack on Osama and the Taliban the world will have to confront jehad for a long time to come.

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