U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent television address, on a strategy to combat the violence and influence unleashed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) couldn’t have come a day or a moment too soon. What he said may not have been spectacular or path-breaking in its content, but the categorical announcement of all-out air strikes in the affected areas reveal a steely resolve to destroy the monster that the terrorist outfit — a splinter group from the al-Qaeda — has become.
Both Mr. Obama and the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, are under great stress following the phenomenal rise of ISIS. They are bewildered by the complexity and the way in which it has shaped itself. Outsmarting the parent outfit, al-Qaeda, in just a few years of its existence, ISIS has shown itself to be even more brutal and acutely driven by a fundamentalism that ostensibly strives for a Caliphate, whatever such a body means. With a cadre strength of about 10,000 it seems to have the resources — control over a few towns in Syria and Iraq as also some oilfields — and the determination to hold on to its gains against the odds. Its achievements have been spectacular and have lured many away from the al-Qaeda, whose presence in the region could become nominal if the trend continues.
Mobilisation trends There is now unassailable evidence that ISIS has managed to draw substantial support from highly motivated youth. What is even more serious is the arrival into Syria and Iraq of an estimated 1,000 young men from abroad, especially the United States and the United Kingdom. This is however not something new. We do know of how a large number of youth from the West became fascinated by the al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and in the days following 9/11, with many even having received training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One sees a revival of the trend after a short lull following the liquidation of bin Laden in 2011. Only very few countries, including those in Africa and Asia, can be blind to this sinister development because of its serious implications for their own domestic stability.
What should be of great concern to India is the report of the body of an Indian youth — Arif Majeed, an engineering student from Maharashtra — having been found recently in Mosul, Iraq. The son of a doctor from Kalyan, he is said to have gone to Iraq sometime ago, along with three of his friends, presumably on a jihadist mission. There is no news yet of what happened to the other three. This report confirms the existence of the regular movement of youth from India to the Middle East on religious-cum-terrorist pursuits. This again should not come as a surprise to our intelligence and law-enforcement officials. An investigation of the activities of the Indian Mujahedeen (IM) in the past few years has shown that some young men, especially from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, had been drawn to the cause and were maintaining contacts outside the country. The IM’s role in terrorist adventures, inspired by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), is all too well known for us to ignore the dangerous implications of this on our national security.
Challenge before intelligence It is in this context that we need to know whether there is the possibility of a link between the IM and ISIS. This is a real challenge before the IB and State intelligence agencies. At this stage, this proposition could seem preposterous, but the evolving picture is one of many such dangerous possibilities. Our intelligence agencies are no doubt sharp and clued in. The IB, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the State police should get their act together to monitor the situation and take follow-up action. Unfortunately, the weakest link is the police, especially in the form of police stations. With the exception of a few States, the priorities and preoccupation of the police have been skewed, with the accent on perpetuating the fortunes of the ruling dispensation, rather than in taking care of public security.
State of preparedness What is crucial is to keep an eye on all those travelling to the troubled Middle East region and their purpose of visit. This exercise could lead to some harassment of those who have genuine business to undertake in the area, but this should be no ground for lowering our vigil. We have a new National Security Adviser who knows his job well. His forte is counter-terrorism against religious fundamentalism, and this gives us some optimism that important happenings will not be missed out.
“Every taxpaying citizen is entitled to information on how his contribution to the government treasury is being utilised towards enhancing his safety”
On the negative side however is the poor track record of our State intelligence and police agencies. We have had far too many incidents of terror in our major cities since the 9/11 attack for us to be confident that our law enforcement agencies will be able to thwart any IM-LeT-ISI-ISIS joint manoeuvre to disturb peace in India. Memories of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai have not faded away either and should serve as a reminder to avoid repeating the mistakes that were glaring then. Both the Union Home Ministry and the Maharashtra government have no doubt been sensitive enough to beef up the manpower and equipment needs of the Mumbai police. Some evidence is available to prove that these steps have strengthened the capabilities of the city police substantially. Notwithstanding these steps, there is still a sense of unease that the mindset of the average policeman at the forefront remains unchanged. Also, till a few years ago, the politicisation of the force and a more than sly appeasement of rival religious groups within and outside the police were rampant. This undermined professionalism in tackling both conventional crime and terror. Acts such as taking out processions in defiance of prohibitory orders and inflammatory speeches capable of inciting religious bigotry in Mumbai shockingly went unpunished in the name of sheer political expediency. Nothing could be worse for policing at grass-roots level. Things have improved, but only slightly. This is no guarantee however that major terrorist designs will be unearthed in quick time and defeated.
Training in handling new equipment is another grey area. In our view, there is a need for greater transparency in this area. Every taxpaying citizen is entitled to information on how his contribution to the government treasury is being utilised towards enhancing his safety. There is nothing wrong in a government being more forthcoming in sharing details with the community on the state of our security preparedness. The obsession with secrecy in this area that we often see is odd.
Pro-active steps Trickles of information emanating from some parts of the country point to sections of our youth being indoctrinated by propaganda from the Middle East. Media material such as compact discs with material that indirectly provokes religious animosity have come to notice. This is disturbing. There is at least one report that speaks of ISIS using the Internet to disseminate pernicious ideology and training material. This is vividly reminiscent of the days when the al-Qaeda was active. There is only a little that we can do to prevent the propagation of mischief in cyberspace. What we can certainly do is to use the same medium to counter false propaganda.
There is substantial and credible leadership in religious communities across the nation. In the context of the al-Qaeda’s recent announcement of the setting up of a branch in the subcontinent, all religious groups must sink their dogmatism and petty differences and take up this momentous challenge at a time when India faces immense danger from terrorism. The objective should be to fight prejudice and violence, and promote inter-religion harmony and understanding. The police are as well equipped as the general administration in fighting terror. They must be active in this regard.
We are happy that the Mumbai police and a few other law enforcement agencies are using social media to disseminate public safety information. The same medium can be employed effectively to counter vicious terrorist propaganda that is unabashedly sectarian. Or else we could face a repeat of 26/11 and all that emanated from it.
(Dr. R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director, and D. Sivanandhan, a former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, and former DGP, Maharashtra.)