Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Islamic Terrorism in South Asia and India's Strategic Response

Islamic Terrorism in South Asia and India's Strategic Response
Ajit Doval, KC*
Publication: Oxford Journals, Policing, Volume 1, Number 1, Pp. 63-69

Ajit Doval, former head of India's Intelligence Bureau, discusses a new convergence developing among Jihadi groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the security implications of this for both the Indian subcontinent and the world at large.

This article discusses a new convergence developing among Jihadi groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the security implications of this for both the Indian subcontinent and the world at large.
The world is nowhere near containment of Jihadi terrorism—genetic mutation of a grave and fast growing malady of Islamic radicalism. The malignancy manifests in propagation of pernicious ideology of hate, revenge and violence, diabolical acts of terror, treating all conflicts with non-Muslims worthy of Jihad and branding liberal Islamic regimes, organizations and individuals as unIslamic. Flawed diagnosis of critical ingredients of the phenomenon, its networks—both real and virtual- and the areas and societies where it thrives and strikes often get lost in the din of spectacular acts of violence.
From this perspective, South Asian countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have a special import—both academic and empirical; the first three where the virus multiplied most prolifically and the last where it struck most lethally. Largest number of Muslims have fought and died in the name of Jihad from this region in last quarter of a century. Together, this region has one third of the world's Muslim population and has over 200 Islamic extremist groups and Jihadi organizations of various brands and sizes. Most of the Islamic terrorists who struck in different parts of the world have had some link or the other with the region. However, while the first three have overwhelmingly contributed to the Jihadi ranks and their depredations, Indian Muslims, who are numerically biggest, have largely remained out of it. Though India with over 40,000 civilians killed is world's biggest victim of Islamic terrorism, ironically, majority of those killed were Muslims falling prey to the bullets of their coreligionists from across the border. All the three states where Islamic radicals received state or civil society support are politically unstable, burdened with no or weak democracies, trapped in slow economic and social growth and seen as near failing states. More importantly, though theocratic Muslim majority states, they themselves are facing vicious sectarian terrorism.
India, in contrast, enjoys a stable democracy, has one of the world's highest growth rates of over 9% and is seen as an emerging economic and political power. This has been achieved without curbing democratic freedoms, using army in a military role, resorting to air strikes and using area weapons, capable of causing heavy collateral civilian damages. Interestingly, a special antiterrorism act which was passed in March 2002 was repealed after 2 years in September, 2004 to dispel misgivings, unfounded though, among section of Muslims that it was discriminatory and directed against them. It was felt the alienation cost may more than offset the dividends. As all acts of terrorism do constitute specific criminal offenses under the normal law it was decided to treat them as such.
History and geography have conspired to make this region the single largest contributor to the growth of Islamic terrorism as also its major victim. To flush out the Soviets, Islamic zealots were brought from all parts of the Islamic world to Pakistan and Afghanistan forging a unity among those who shared nothing in common but willingness to die for a cause they considered Islamic. This convergence, enabled by western powers, not only made a superpower to retreat and eventually fall apart but made Islamists aware of the potential of Jihad and force multiplication effect of networking. Its aftermath saw ascendancy of Taliban—recruited, trained, weaponized and militarily backed up by Pakistan an ally of the west. More sinisterly, Taliban, under Pak patronage, converted Afghanistan into a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists with training bases and infrastructural support to extremists from Turkey to Indonesia, Chechnya to China and Europe to Africa. It became the home of Al Qaeda and gave Islamists a geographical space to pursue their global agenda with impunity.
Ouster of Taliban following post September 11 international action did shake it. There was, however, a strategic flaw in response. Unable to identify and tackle the sources of germination and nourishment, pruning was mistaken for uprooting. Clandestine support from across the borders, failure to neutralize the top icons, Karzai's handicapped governance, shift in West's focus from Afghanistan to Iraq and duality of the frontline ally enabled Taliban and Al Qaeda to reclaim the lost ground. Unless Pakistan sees a stable and violence free Afghanistan in its strategic interest, security apparatuses of Afghanistan—particularly its intelligence—is revamped and support networks in Pakistan neutralized the situation soon may be worse than where we started from. Second victory of Jihadis against a super power will not only seriously destabilize the region but catapult the global threat level several notches up.
Following Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, many factors influenced Pakistan's strategy and response towards Islamic terrorists. First, having discovered their strength and potential, it decided to hold and nurture them as integral, albeit deniable, instruments of its state apparatuses. A subservient Taliban regime was installed in Afghanistan which besides achieving strategic depth against India was envisaged to work as Pakistan's backyard for dirty tricks. The agenda included installing Taliban prototypes in the Central Asian Republics, reaching out to radical Islamic forces globally and leveraging them to Pakistan's advantage in the politics of Islamic world. The second policy objective was to settle scores with India on Kashmir and avenge the humiliation of 1971. Pakistan decided to use the Jihadi forces as its command against its asymmertric adversary hoping to succeed where its earlier military adventures had failed. The Jihadis, the huge left over arsenal and the infrastructure to recruit, indoctrinate, train, equip and infiltrate the terrorists, was positioned to launch a covert offensive against India. The West, instead of coming to India's help or force Pakistan to rollback the apparatus, underplayed India's concerns. The fire looked too far and distant than it actually was. The prophetic warning to US Congress by the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee in October 2000 that ‘Distance and geography provide no nation immunity against international terrorism’ met with characteristic indifference. Pakistan soon became a nursery not only for terrorists who trained their guns on India but those who targeted the West, Arab world, Far-East and other Afro-Asian countries. Keen to extend its influence in unstable Islamic Central Asian Countries, Pakistan used Taliban to strengthen radicals hoping to establish Taliban type regimes there. Radiational effect of terrorism thus started advancing in all directions—India being worst hit due to Pakistan's hostility and geographical proximity.
The other important factor that shaped events in Pakistan was September 11 attacks in US which overnight changed global perception of the threat. Pakistan could not support the Taliban and Al Qaeda as before. It made a tactical withdrawal and decided to cooperate with the West to the extent it was necessary to protect Pakistan's strategic interests. In a dangerously calibrated response it made queer deals and counter-deals with both the sides. September 5, 2006 agreement with the radicals in North Waziristan, marketed to both sides as something done to favour them is illustrative. While Taliban used the dichotomy to their advantage, West lost valuable time and is still trying to decipher Pakistani intentions.
The third factor has been inexorable growth of sectarian violence within Pakistan among rival Islamic groups. Intertwined in a complex relationship of mutual collaborations and hostility, Pak intelligence had used them selectively but is now finding it difficult to live with its contradictions. For different reasons, different groups have turned against Musharraf though still receive some patronage on the quite down the line. Attempts on the life of President Musharraf, however, has led to head on collision and brought to the fore their threat to internal security.
Pakistan's policy of ‘different strokes for different folks’ bracketing the terrorists in three broad categories viz., those targeting the West, those responsible for domestic violence and those hitting at India has created a confusion that Pakistan is finding difficult to cope with. The problem has been compounded because of convergence of anti-establishment elements under re-emerging Taliban and resurgent Al Qaeda. Classifying terrorists under different labels is proving to be both strategic and tactical mistake. Pakistan, continues to be soft on the groups operating against India. Their top leaders live and move around in Pakistan freely, travel on Pakistani passports and run businesses with impunity. The training camps and other terrorist facilities have also not been rolled back, though greater discretion is exercised.
The situation in Bangladesh has fast deteriorated after September 11, 2001, than is normally understood. When Pakistan and Afghanistan came under pressure, a good number of terrorists, reportedly with Pak intelligence support, found Bangladesh as safe haven. Using Islamic card for political gains, the Bangladeshi society stands highly radicalized—most local groups working on the franchise of Pak-Afghan terrorist outfits including Al Qaeda. The collective strength of terrorist groups like Harkat-ul-Jihadi Islami, Harkat-ul Ansar, Okaye Jote etc. now is estimated in several thousands. While India is the principal target, the anti-US and anti-West outbursts are too shrill to be ignored. The proximity to arm bazaars in Pacific Rim countries has enabled them to procure sophisticated weapons and explosives. Illustratively, on April 2, 2004 at Chittagong port, 1,790 rifles, 150 rocket launchers, 2,700 grenades, one million rounds of ammunition etc. were seized while being loaded in ten trucks. The two trawlers who brought the consignment from Malaysia were owned by the brother of then ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader. The weapons, it is reliably learnt, had India as their destination.
On terrorist front, India is thus living in an unenviable neighbourhood. Islamic terrorism in India is essentially of an imported variety. The manpower, weapons, finances, ideological motivation and plans that go in terrorist actions largely has its origin in its neighbourhood. Except Kashmir, where some youth under various temptations went to Pakistan for training, and weapons only a minuscule of Indian Muslims joined terrorist ranks. However, subversive propaganda and cascading effect of global radicalization have made a visible dent.
Indian strategic response to terrorism has been a delicate blending of the hard and soft power of the state which, at times, invites snide comments like—a democracy that has room even for violence. Besides safeguarding national security interests, Indian response has been conditioned by its democratic polity, need to accommodate communal sensitivities and safety of its citizens. The global and regional settings, complexity of relations with neighbouring countries and international obligations on terrorist front have also influenced the response. Moreover, India having long historical experience of grappling with civilizational conflicts, has conditioned the mind set, both of the rulers and the ruled. India has traditionally avoided head on collisions with civilizational adversaries and preferred conflict avoidance and conflict resolution trying to contain physical confrontation at a low level. The high tolerance of Indian civil society and its ability to take losses in its stride is also a great national strength whose strategic import may not be obvious to a western analyst.
One of the corner stones of India's counter-terrorist strategy has been to de-link Islam from terrorism and treat terrorists as a class devoid of any religious identity. Terrorist efforts to project themselves as soldiers of Islam and seize control of Muslim society through coercion and persuasion are sought to be defeated. To achieve this, communal polarization of the civil society on religious fault lines is prevented. Muslims are seen as victims of the phenomenon rather than its perpetrator. It was duly reflected in enactment and enforcement of laws, affirmative actions to redress genuine grievances, supporting liberal and pluralistic Islamic thought and political engagement of Muslims.
Democracy, was used as an effective tool to fight terrorists. In Jammu and Kashmir, even at the height of terrorist violence with average killing figures as high as 3,000 a year, elections to state assembly were held in 1996 and 2002 (state assembly having a 6-year term) with an impressive turn out. Even parliamentary elections for the government in the center were held regularly along with rest of the country. Terrorist resistance to holding of elections by unleashing violence against the party leaders, candidates and voters was resolutely countered. Successful holding of free and fair elections proved to be silent but most effective display of civil societies’ rejection of terrorists—both in terms of means and ends. As elected governments had a political interest in maintaining law and order and providing security to their voters, they became principal instruments of fighting terror unleashed by their co-religionists.
The next element of strategic response was dealing with terrorism as essentially a problem of policing and criminal administration rather than a military problem. The police forces which are locally recruited and belong to the same religious, ethnic, linguistic and social milieu were put on the lead role. The central forces whenever deployed were governed by the civilian laws and made answerable to the civilian judicial and administrative authorities. Infirmities of the police were made good through central assistance in training, equipment, intelligence etc. and enhancing their strike capabilities by placing central forces at their disposal. To achieve optimal coordination, In Kashmir, the entire counter-terrorist apparatus was placed under a unified head quarter headed by the elected chief minister. Local heads of army, police, and intelligence worked as its members and his advisors.
Strengthening of intelligence apparatus was accorded a high priority. Working on the doctrine that if you fail to surprise the terrorists you are in for surprises, intelligence operational capabilities were substantially increased. Country's Intelligence Bureau was designated as the nodal authority for counter terrorism. Aiming at seamless coordination platforms like Multi Agency Center and Joint Task Force on Intelligence, with representatives from all central and local security agencies, were created.
As both the terrorists and their hardware came to India from Pakistan and Bangladesh effective border management became an integral part of India's counter-terrorist response. Access was sought to be denied to the intruders by erecting border fencing along Indo-Pak and Indo-Bangladesh borders complimented by border lighting, sensors and other technical devices. In addition, central forces were deployed on the borders to check infiltration. Though it did reduce the menace, it failed to eliminate it.
A major part of India's counter-terrorist effort also centered around denying strategic targets to the terrorists and upgrading overall protective society. Specialized outfits were created for providing security to the Indian Prime Minister and other important threatened personalities. Strong anti-hijacking measures were taken and aviation security strengthened. While India achieved commendable success in denying strategic targets to the terrorists, it failed to provide full protection to common citizens. India's huge size, population of over 1.1 billion and a free democracy left some inevitable gaps which enabled the terrorists to strike.
While in security terms India pursues the objective of zero tolerance to terrorism, in political terms it also believes that all solutions can not be found exclusively through use of coercive power of the state. Political initiatives have to play a seminal role in complementing the security efforts including exposure of diabolical designs of the terrorists and building a strong civil society support for governmental initiatives. India has kept its doors open for peace initiatives provided the violence was abjured. It politically engaged over ground separatist leaders in J&K to narrow down the differences and convince them of futility of violence. Over a period of time it had a moderating effect.
Neutralizing collaborative networks of terrorists like gun runners, operators of funding channels, smugglers, organized crime syndicates etc. figured high in India's response strategy. Intelligence driven capabilities were developed to degrade these networks, most of them having trans-national linkages.
Tackling Pakistan, primary exporter of terror to India, remained a high priority. Political and diplomatic pressures were exerted to make it abandon use of terrorism as an instrument of its state policy. Political engagements and initiation of confidence building measures did help but not to the desired extent. There were serious gaps in what Pakistan promised and what it delivered.
With the fast radicalization of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh on one hand and erosion in the will and capability of the governments in power there the overall security scenario in the region stands highly vitiated. Taliban's ground entrenchment; recruitments of new cadres, battle preparedness and increase in drug linked financial resources are a cause of concern. Bases in Pakistan make smothering of Al Qaeda too distant a possibility. Drying up of accurate operational intelligence is reducing tactical success rate of the troops. In Pakistan, sharp accretions in sectarian violence among competing radical groups, growing hold of heavily armed terrorists in North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan and credibility of the military regime at all time low have forced the government to play on the back foot. Musharraf's sharply declining popularity and tenuous control over levers of power, except army, may lead to political anarchy in this nuclearized Islamic state of which radical elements may emerge as the net beneficiaries. Bangladesh is passing through a highly unstable political phase and democracy has been held in abeyance with postponement of elections. The radicals who once stood totally discredited have staged a come back with vengeance and main stream political parties are increasingly finding that their support was indispensable to gain power.
India will have to maintain a high degree of vigil and probably re-architect its counter terrorist policy in the wake of these developments. Further beefing up its intelligence capabilities will have to figure high in its priorities. The security agencies will have to be enabled, both materially and through legal empowerment to prevent and preempt terrorist strikes. As it can ill afford to suffer heavy casualties indefinitely it will have to use all its political and diplomatic skills to prevail upon its neighbours to irretrievably roll back terrorist infrastructures in their countries. The pressure to hand over to India wanted terrorists who have taken shelter in these countries will also have to be pursued with renewed vigor. Greater and more meaningful international cooperation in fight against terrorism will also have to be achieved. New ideas and models of cooperation are necessary as the old ones have run out of their steam. Winning over the confidence of and energizing the vast Muslim majority which does not approve of the radicals but prefers to remain quiet about it is vital for winning this battle. From indifferent onlookers beyond the fence they will have to be made to play the role of front line players. All this is doable.
Ajit Doval, KC, was formerly head of India's Intelligence Bureau.

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