Reckoning with the lone wolf

It is important to bring about greater coordination among countries and chalk out a strategy to exploit the fault lines between terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Updated - September 16, 2016 04:40 pm IST

Published - June 28, 2016 01:32 am IST

One question uppermost in many minds since last week is whether >Brexit will have an impact on the fight against terror. There is nothing to suggest that when Brexit becomes a reality, the British resolve to counter jihad and all that goes with it will be greatly diluted. But then, the country will have to contend with a possible disruption of international law enforcement networks and its effect on counterterrorism. There is one view that in isolation from the rest of the present European Union (EU), Britain may actually be better equipped to deal with infiltration of jihadist elements through stricter border control and monitoring of traffic from the EU countries, which have had a considerable influx from West Asia last year.

All this is in the realm of speculation. Much will depend on the course terrorism takes in the next few years. In this context, one cannot ignore how >Hafiz Saeed , the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief and mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, has reacted to Brexit. In his view, the U.K. was now paying for its past sins, especially the support it lent to the U.S. and other European nations in working against supporters of ‘jihad’. In a public address in Faisalabad, Pakistan, a few days ago, Saeed is learnt to have appealed to his followers to step up their campaign with a view to seeing “the end” of other nations like France, Germany and Italy as well.

R. K. Raghavan

New-age decentralised terrorism The U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports for 2015 released a fortnight ago highlights the growing decentralised and diffused nature of terrorism globally. Gone are the days of al-Qaeda’s undisputed leadership. It is certainly present in many regions, but with much less authority and spread. The Islamic State (IS) has undeniably stolen a march over it with its magnetic appeal, stark brutality and the enormous resources it commands through sheer looting and control over oilfields, mainly in Iraq. The silver lining is that there are indications that the IS has not lately been able to weather the onslaught of coordinated action by Western nations. The substantial expulsion of IS fighters from the cities lying on the routes connecting the two strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq is evidence of this. Air strikes at modular refineries, petroleum storage tanks and crude collection points have also resulted in an erosion of IS resources. The close monitoring and check on volunteers from around the globe wanting to go to Syria and Iraq has also reduced the strength of active fighting forces available to it.

The various reverses in West Asia have, however, been somewhat neutralised by the IS’s move to establish affiliate organisations in Asia, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are uncorroborated claims of small actions in the latter countries, but there have been counter-attacks by the Afghan government, coalition forces, and particularly the Taliban, which has not taken kindly to the rise of the IS. Support from the local population has also been insignificant. All this has to be reckoned with against the backdrop of reports last year of escalating tension between al-Qaeda and the IS in some regions that triggered local violence. In particular, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has shown itself to be a resilient force in an already conflict-ridden Yemen. Ultimately, it seems, counter-terror strategists will have to exploit these ego clashes to gain at least temporary operational advantage. The 2015 Country Reports reveals the greatest concern about the unmitigated violence in Africa. Perhaps the most deadly of the groups which are active is Boko Haram of Nigeria, which declared its affiliation to the IS last year. The greatest strength of Boko Haram, as also of a Somali outfit like al Shabaab (that was responsible for the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013), is its capacity for unleashing high-decibel attacks on unwary and soft targets. Governmental efforts to thwart terrorism in the region have been commendable though the outcome has been only a modest reduction in violence. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), to which many countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda contributed soldiers, has been fairly effective against al Shabaab. In the process the joint force suffered a large number of casualties last year, somewhat stalling the offensive.

Coordination and law enforcement The U.S. State Department believes that whatever gains have been made in countering terror have been the result of greater coordination among nations across the globe. This has taken the form of enlarged and up-to-date watch lists shared with many nations affected badly by terror. Worthy of mention here is the evolution of a comprehensive Passenger Name Record (PNR) that makes it mandatory for airlines to let authorities know names of passengers on a flight in advance of take-off. A European Counter Terrorism Centre in Europol (something equivalent to Interpol) was another development to beef up the offensive.

The question that is repeated again is whether such arrangements can help to thwart the lone wolf who is becoming more and more the rule rather than an exception. The answer is ‘no’! How do we frustrate a person who is convinced that a Caliphate established after liquidating all other religions is the only answer to what he considers an unequal world order, before he inflicts mass casualty on innocent communities? My response is that an ounce of optimism is preferable to a pound of cynicism. Simultaneous to efforts aimed at deradicalisation will have to be the strengthening of law enforcement and the rest of the criminal justice system. Preventive detention at the merest suspicion — as long as such action is provided for in law and is subject to eventual oversight by the judiciary — of persons who share and disseminate (orally or electronically) an ideology that incentivises killing of fellow beings is the only way to help prevent atrocities like the one we witnessed recently in Orlando, U.S. Human rights activists will cry foul at this. But we must remember that they are getting marginalised every time a Paris, Brussels, Orlando takes place.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and current Chairman of the Special Investigation Team, Gujarat.

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