A savage new world of terrorism

Counterterrorism agencies should not be lulled into complacency by assertions that India is insulated from the growing virus of radical terrorism.

April 15, 2015 12:24 am | Updated April 21, 2016 11:20 pm IST

The Islamist terror network has grown into a hydra-headed phenomenon. This has consequences far beyond the current arc of terrorist violence, which for the moment is confined to the regions of Asia and North Africa. But countries like India are already feeling the heat. Hence, counterterrorism agencies should not be lulled into complacency by assertions that India and Indian Muslims are insulated from, and therefore unlikely to be affected by, the new virus.

Like other viruses, this one too has several variants. The core theology remains the Saudi theologian, Abdul Wahab’s doctrinaire teachings, combined with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood icon, Syed Qutub’s nihilistic fanaticism. Previously, a liberal dose of Salafism had contributed to the lethal violence that characterised 20th century terrorism. Now, it is the advent of a new radical Islamist breed that is committed to the supremacy of faith, and a belief in exclusionist Islamic puritanism, that is likely to result in 21st century terrorism being remembered for the savagery it practices.

Newer and older outfits

The current levels of violence should not be regarded as a transient phenomenon. It might be recalled that in late 2013, American embassies in West Asia had to close down due to a realistic terror threat from the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Russia had to face terror attacks in quick succession in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Ever since the “Caucasian Caliphate” came into existence some years ago, Russia has witnessed multiple attacks including 50 suicide attacks. Today, there are increasing numbers of ethnic jihadi outfits, — consisting mainly of recent converts to Islam, who are in a position to supply “more and more fighters” for the cause.

The situation is getting more complicated by the day. Even as newer outfits such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Jabhat-al-Nusra in Syria/Iraq are gaining ground by adopting more violent methods and techniques, older outfits are reinventing themselves and becoming more sanguinary; 18th century ideologies not only drive the IS/al-Nusra, but also the different affiliates of the al-Qaeda such as the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), >Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. For example, in terms of lethality, the AQAP has eclipsed the original al-Qaeda. Atrocities committed by the IS are described by the United Nations as “beyond inhumane”. Earlier distinctions between “infidels” and “believers” (including those belonging to other Abrahamic religions are becoming blurred. Nearer home, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan is reportedly preparing for another devastating attack on Indian targets. In Afghanistan, the Haqqani network continues to plan attacks on Indian missions.

Mindless violence The recent series of barbaric attacks, from Pakistan to Australia to Europe to North Africa, confirm that “mindless” violence remains the staple of most groups. In November 2014, a suicide bomber belonging to the >Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed 60 Pakistanis on the Wagah border. In December, TTP was behind the killing of over 140 people which included 132 children at an army school in Peshawar. Three persons were killed in a terrorist attack in Sydney in mid-December 2014. And in January 2015, a group of terrorists in Paris massacred 12 people at the office of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo ; in this case, each of the targets was identified by name.

Africa too has not been spared and is witnessing a resurgence in jihadi -linked violence. In September 2013, the Somali-based Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the > killing of 67 people in a shopping mall in Nairobi. In January this year, the Boko Haram carried out the “deadliest massacre” in its history, reportedly killing over 2,000 people in attacks on Baga and surrounding towns, in Nigeria. In April, in Kenya, al-Shabaab gunmen killed 147 students (mainly Christians) following a siege at the Garisa University College campus.

Yemen has become a major staging post for many al-Qaeda programmed actions. The intense Shia-Sunni conflict in Yemen provides many opportunities for unbridled savagery. For example, on March 21, in Sana'a, four suicide bombers blew themselves up during Friday prayers > at two Shia mosques , killing at least 137 people and injuring 350 others. Southern Yemen has emerged as a key centre for the AQAP, from where it has planned several attacks on Western targets, and is said to be planning several more. Yemen today is an embodiment of a “failed State”, which provides facilities for terrorist outfits of different persuasions to engage in terrorist violence.

Dramatic shift

However, it is the emergence of the IS that has brought about a dramatic shift in the topology of terrorism. Terrorism now possesses a virtual state of its own. It holds wide swathes of territory. It is flush with funds, and is fed by an ever increasing number of battle-hungry fighters. Educated Sunni Muslims from across the world are responding to the call of the IS, inspired by their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s vision of an Islamic State based on ancient Islamic history. The central themes are “hijra” (migration) and “bay’ah” (allegiance). A heady mix of regional warfare and Islamist fundamentalism and the call to establish new “ties of brotherhood”, are proving irresistible for the “Muslim faithful”. This is all a prelude to the final battle that will come later.

The IS is exploiting the tragic circumstances of Syria and Iraq to enlarge the area of its Caliphate. It already claims Yemen’s Sana'a province as a part of its Sunni Caliphate. The Islamic State of Khorasan includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of North-west India including Gujarat. Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon are all to be included in an enlarged Islamic Caliphate. As its coffers grow — estimated to be well over $5 billion as of now — the IS is apparently seeking higher stakes.

Grooming and recruitment Coordination and affinities between jihadi movements across Asia and North Africa are also growing. For example, the IS is seeking allegiance from like-minded terror outfits across the region. The Boko Haram has already pledged its allegiance. The IS is now advising Boko Haram on how to achieve territorial gains and metamorphose from a guerrilla movement into a force capable of holding on to its gains.

In the battle for the jihadi mind-space, the IS clearly has gained the upper hand at the moment. Using social media and other Internet-linked methodologies, it has been able to lure recruits in sizeable numbers from across the world. It has sought to portray itself as a “way of life” and has glamourised its movement as one seeking spiritual purity. Thousands of educated Muslims, including women, have thus been inveigled into joining the IS. Counterterrorism agencies — especially in the West — have been unable to stem the tide of individuals volunteering to join the IS-led war for Islamic liberation. Reliable Western estimates suggest that almost 27 per cent of all Muslims in the West are inclined towards the IS; 40 per cent of all foreign fighters in Syria/Iraq are from the West.

Grooming women for jihad has become one of the more successful ventures undertaken by the IS. Plots referred to as “Trojan Horse” have also been unearthed in the West, which are aimed at altering the character of teaching in schools and making them fall in line with the Islamic faith. This is helping to swell the ranks of pro-IS “stay-at-home radicals”. The intention appears to be to employ the latter for “lone wolf” attacks in major urban cities, far removed from the scene of today’s fighting in North Africa and West Asia. Hence, this could lead to many more incidents across the globe on the pattern of the beheading of the British soldier, Lee James Rigby, in 2013, and the shooting of the Canadian Corporal, Nathan Cirillo, in 2014.

India cannot expect that it will remain insulated from the current mania that is afflicting even countries with a much smaller population of educated Muslims. Instances have already come to light of the radicalisation of Indian Muslims, and their numbers are growing. Known cases, such as those of Mehdi Biswas, arrested after a Twitter handle supporting the IS was traced to him; Arif Majeed, who is said to have had a stint with IS; and Salman Moinuddin, who was arrested at Hyderabad airport, are only the tip of the iceberg. These examples are symptomatic of a growing global phenomenon where the digital footprints of IS proselytisers are subverting the thoughts and the beliefs of educated Muslim youth. It would be a mistake to believe that with the Indian Mujahidin having been routed, the situation in India remains normal. The radical Islamist movement in India must be seen as an integral part of the global phenomenon of a new ‘über-Wahhabi’ model of Islam. At one level, this employs outfits such as the IS to wean away educated Muslim youth to the Islamic cause. At the other, it has helped to create new affiliates leading to new terrorist franchises, several of which are splinter groups from the erstwhile al-Qaeda network.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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