A critical gap in the modern understanding of terrorism is a complete lack of appreciation of the fact that South India was where the modern concept of suicide attacks had its roots for several centuries — from the Chera dynasty to the beginning of the 19th century. Here, the history of suicide squads is part of folklore. It may well explain why a socialist group fighting for Tamil nationalism, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, ended up giving rise to a high number of suicide terrorists.
It is this lack of political and cultural understanding that has seriously disrupted measures being attempted against various terrorist organisations and violent insurgencies. It may also explain why financial packages and simplistic ceasefire agreements have failed to usher in lasting peace in India’s Northeast region or Kashmir.
In the global fight against the Islamic State (IS), such ignorance could mar efforts to find a lasting solution. The seeming ignorance about IS and its twisted ideology are sure enough reasons to predict that this may not be a simple fight against a terrorist group, but instead turn out to be a global struggle against an ideology that has widespread empathy and a deep network across continents. The world may have well entered a ‘Long War’.
Paris and global response In the wake of the Paris attacks, and in a rare show of unity, the mightiest militaries across all divides are training their finest weapons on their common enemy — no more than a motley crowd of fighters, and with no air force or navy. The best weapons that IS has are American M16 rifles and M79 anti-tank rockets. Its most sophisticated war platforms are probably surveillance drones. It is believed to have captured Russian origin fighters or parts of the Syrian air force, but there is no evidence of it using them. A number of former military officers from Iraq and at least one sergeant from the Netherlands air force are a part of its ranks.
On the contrary, the United States has already deployed its advanced F-22 Raptor stealth jets, F-16s, F-15s and A-10s. Russia is believed to be deploying the advanced Sukhoi-34, other fighters, attack helicopters and tanks. The French have their Rafale fighter, a jet India now wants to acquire. Almost every intelligence agency is hunting for information on IS, both within Iraq-Syria as well across the world.
However, a concentration of modern militaryware and collective global intelligence may not easily win the war against IS, because it is not just any other terrorist organisation but a movement that is not really understood.
Hunched across a table on the sidelines of the G20 summit at Antalya, Turkey, on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition”. It was historic on many counts. Leaving behind the bitterness of recent times and the historic legacy of their deep mistrust, the two countries, along with other major North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations such as France, are now deploying the deadliest war arsenal in history to take on the enemy.
The better understanding now between Russia and the U.S. could help reduce the potential of an accidental flare-up between the countries that are aligned on various sides of the Syrian battlefield — Iran and Russia empathise with the Bashar al-Assad regime that also has support from the Hezbollah, while other Gulf countries, the U.S. and NATO allies are pitted against President Assad. All of them, separately, are fighting the common enemy.
A different battle Despite the emerging broader coalition, the war against IS may not be an easy one to fight, or a short-lived act. It could turn out to be far longer and bloodier than the struggle against al-Qaeda, from which IS has its origins but differs from dramatically.
Al-Qaeda was a terrorist network that worked towards carrying out spectacular attacks on western targets, especially the U.S., as part of its strategy towards establishing a caliphate. However, IS is a caliphate that has a geographical presence, and with an organised military and civil bureaucracy.
It follows an ideology that is, in a twisted way, a very early version of Islam from the time of the Prophet. It believes in the savagery of killing everyone who it suspects are apostates. Thus, the mass murders of Shias and Yazidis, as well as the bombings in Paris are all justifiable under its ideology.
The world has always seen movements that have misinterpreted religious scriptures and ideologies to carry out violent expansion. What marks IS as an unusually savage group is the fact that it has found global appeal in a way that very few violent ideologies have found in recent memory.
The result is that on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, there are thousands of fighters from various countries — over 1,300 from France, half this number from Germany, over 3,000 from Tunisia, and about 100 to 150 from Australia, according to a study done by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, London, and released early this year.
If so many have flocked to the IS caliphate, what about its sympathisers and secret followers in foreign countries? Has it already created hundreds, if not thousands, of admirers who could wreck long-term havoc? What will happen if thousands of fighters in Iraq-Syria are dispersed by the global fightback? Where would they go and what would they end up doing?
Al-Qaeda now looks more like a sepia-tone group run by a derilict group of old men. In contrast, IS looks like a modern organisation with a very effective communication strategy. This is a demon that the world has probably not encountered ever in the past and one that could haunt it for a long time to come.