India's multiculturalism counters IS radicalisation

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security David Heyman feels India and U.S. must cooperate more closely on new-age threats.

Indian youths have escaped “being victims of Islamic State recruitment” because it is a multicultural democracy, says renowned terror expert and former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security David Heyman.

Mr. Heyman, who was in India for a series of meetings with officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as lectures in Mumbai and Bengaluru, told The Hindu that U.S. studies have found that personal grievances and a sense of alienation among Muslim youth in Western countries are the main reasons why they are joining the IS.

“India respects human rights, has democratic values, and it turns out that those are the patterns that allow for individuals to feel included in society. That could be one of the reasons it is not seeing this problem of radicalisation,” he said in an exclusive interview.

‘U.S. problem is now home-grown terrorists’

According to the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Centre, more than 20,000 citizens from about 90 countries have joined the terror group till February 2015, including 3,400 from western countries. However, India, which has the world’s second largest Muslim population, has only about a dozen documented cases of youth fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Heyman said the “U.S. isn’t just concerned about recruits travelling to join the IS, but the problem of home-grown terrorists trained over the Internet by IS online propaganda.”

“The U.S. set up its architecture for national security based on the idea that we would fight terrorists abroad, but we also put in place the ability to prevent them from coming to the U.S. Now, it’s much harder to detect, as it’s all happening inside the country,” Mr. Heyman said, citing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. According to the expert, the U.S. national strategy is now to work with communities and elders to try and prevent radicalisation.

Mr. Heyman has been a key interlocutor for the India-U.S. Homeland Security dialogue established in 2010, and feels India and the U.S. must cooperate much more closely on new-age threats of cyber attacks and bio-warfare. He said the homeland security dialogue that comprises high-level discussions on many security challenges has become “the best element of the India-U.S. strategic relationship,” and pointed to the success of information sharing and cooperation in the field of countering counterfeit currency and drug smuggling.

“We have had hundreds of exchanges, across the spectrum we had cooperation like our exceptional information sharing on countering counterfeit and drugs,” he added.

Full transcript of the interview with Mr. Heyman

You have been at the Department of Homeland Security for years, but also an expert on counter-terrorism and risk-management for decades… how did the US miss the rise of the Islamic State?

Not only did the US miss the signs but in the region, other intelligence agencies also missed the rise of ISIS. This was mainly because there was a civil war going on in Syria, and there wasn’t a lot of transparency to see what was going on. In an increasing number of ungoverned spaces in Middle East and North Africa, radicals and terrorists are being allowed to rise and thrive. The government of Syria, with what is reported to be one of the best intelligence services in the world, missed seeing the signs.

If that’s the case, why are so many European and American youth also joining ISIS then?

Question is why are they joining IS when they didn’t join other radical movements so quickly, and so something different is happening here. Even Bin Laden and Al Qaeda had tried to recruit western youth post 9/11, but the appeal of their ideology waned. That happened with Al Qaeda in Iraq, due to the brutal tactics of the group and its leader (Abu Musab al-)Zarkawi, and they alienated others from being attracted to it. So why IS? What’s different? A couple of things: First, you do have a significant marketing difference between Al Qaeda (AQ) and IS. AQ was about a larger ideological struggle against the West, and how to remove the enemy from sacred sites etc. It was really about the ‘fight’. By contrast, as one of its names implies, is about establishing a caliphate, and it’s the first time you see a terrorist organisation holding land. It’s not the first time you’ve seen terror organisations delivering services. But holding land, delivering services, trying to govern is a marked difference from what we have seen previously. And for individuals who may have been attracted to the AQ ideology there is now a bigger prize, of a land that will support the ideology in theory. Studies show there is a significant element of adventurism in this. Many youngsters going to join the IS for the adventure and not worrying about the risks. And we know this because they are now coming back and saying the risks were just too great, and they didn’t like it.

How should countries like India tackle this hybrid threat, that poses a military threat with its propaganda online as well. Is there a cyber threat as well?

I wouldn’t right now put the military threat side by side with the cyber threat yet, as we haven’t seen IS demonstrating any cyber attacks. But we have seen the cyber propaganda, which is very sophisticated, and it is worrying. Because historically we’ve seen the recruitment, the operation, the training occur for such groups take place in the physical world, now it is all taking place online. We saw that in America with the Boston Marathon bombers. They had done all of their research, their reconnaissance, even procured their weapons material over the internet. They didn’t need to go abroad to get training. So that changes how we deal with the threat. The US set up its architecture for National Security based on the idea that we would fight them abroad and that would keep them from coming home, but we also put in place the ability to prevent them from coming to the US. Now it’s much harder to detect, as its all happening inside the country. Globally this is the big problem for law enforcement.

How much is the alienation of these Muslim minority members a factor in this?

Well, I can’t generalise. Because, there are thousands of such people with unique stories. That said, there are commonalities, personal grievances, some sense of alienation, those are not uncommon for people who are radicalised. I can tell you from the cases we have studied, that there are these threads, but we would run into trouble if we generalised and said, for example, poverty is a factor. Turns out it is not. Each country has to look at its own culture and demographics to see why it’s happening. There’s a small number from the US so it’s hard to get trends and data, and it is distributed across the country. Our strategy has been to go to the local community to prevent such people from being victims of recruitment. That’s our national strategy.

Have you studied why India hasn’t seen such big numbers of AQ/IS recruitment? Especially given it has the second highest population of Muslims…..

Well I’ve had a chance to talk to people in the government here, and what they tell me, and I believe it, is that it is because of the culture of India. It is an open society, there are great opportunities for individuals to have a voice, and to address grievances. That doesn’t exist in a lot of places. India respects Human rights, has democratic values, and it turns out that those are patterns that allow for individuals to feel included in society. In the absence of all of those, it is likely the individual can feel alienated, its much more difficult to find an outlet for your grievances, so to the extent that India was born a multi-cultural mutli-ethnic multi-denominational society that embraces that diversity, it does as a democracy seek voices for the voiceless. That could be one of the reasons it is not seeing this problem of radicalisation.

To turn to Indo-US anti terror cooperation, you took over at the National Homeland Security office post the Mumbai attacks, and mistrust between both countries was at a high over the David Headley revelations, how closely are they cooperating now?

I did come in 2009, and in 2010, President Obama made his first state to India, and put an emphasis on relations with India, and announced a new strategic dialogue, and we for the first time proposed the Homeland Security dialogue. There was very little cooperation, in fact almost no cooperation in the areas that matter the most: counter-terrorism, border security, cyber security and even building resilience to natural disasters. So we put together the homeland security dialogue, and it became the best element to the Indo-US strategic relationship. To the point that even when Indo-US relations were more difficult in 2013-2014, the Homeland cooperation was thriving. We had hundreds of exchanges, across the spectrum we had cooperation like our exceptional information sharing on countering counterfeit and countering drugs. Historically we have not cooperated, so we are much further along that road than ever before.

When you look at the David Headley case, in hindsight, should the US have shared more information with India?

That was 2008, we have made such progress since that, so what is the point of going back? The fact is that we were able to prosecute him was because of the information sharing we did. Were there things we could have done differently? Absolutely.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 3:29:22 AM |

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