How to convince the Muslim youth that we are seeking to counter terrorism and not Islam? That is a question which needs the serious attention of policy-makers and non-governmental experts.
(September 11, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) India took 19 years to prevail over the Naga and Mizo insurgents, 14 years over the Khalistani terrorists in Punjab and about 10 years plus over Al Ummah of Tamil Nadu. It has been fighting against left-wing extremists in different incarnations for nearly 40 years with no end in sight, against different terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) for 21 years and against indigenous and Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorist organizations in hinterland India outside J&K for 17 years.
2. The UK took about 35 years to prevail over terrorism in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka 26 years to vanquish the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
3. Israel has been fighting against West Asian terrorist groups for 43 years and the US against Al Qaeda for 12 years plus and against the Taliban for nine years. The Russians have been fighting against the Chechens for 15 years. Pakistan has been fighting against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for three years now.
4. As I have been repeatedly saying, once terrorism or insurgency makes its appearance it takes years to prevail over it. One should not, therefore, be surprised that the end of the fighting against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban is not yet in sight even nine years after the beginning of the sustained campaign against them under the US leadership in the Af-Pak region after the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US Homeland. In my assessment, it will take at least another eight to10 years for the international community to prevail over Al Qaeda and tame the Afghan Taliban.
5.The US-led campaign against the Al Qaeda brand of terrorism has had many tactical successes in eliminating a large number of its important leaders, in preventing many planned acts of terrorism and in thwarting an accretion in their capacity. It has kept Al Qaeda on the run to escape from the unrelenting drone ( unmanned planes) strikes in North and South Waziristan in Pakistan. It has prevented Al Qaeda and its affiliates from disrupting maritime trade, from threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction material and from turning the Internet into a weapon of mass disruption. These successes have come as a result of constant refining of the physical security techniques, US investments and innovations in the use of science and technology against global terrorism and making counter-terrorism an exercise in global partnership.
6. However, despite these tactical successes, Al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations have maintained a capability for repeatedly taking the international community by surprise as seen since 9/11 in Bali, Mombasa, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid, London, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Jakarta, twice in Mumbai and Islamabad. Al Qaeda has become a two-headed monster--- an insurgent organizations which seeks to overthrow Governments in Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iraq, Algeria and Indonesia and a ruthless terrorist organization which seeks to keep the non-Muslim world bleeding.
7.It continues to pose a joint threat to the Islamic as well as non-Islamic countries. Unless the Islamic and non-Islamic countries join hands in countering it, a strategic neutralization of Al Qaeda will remain a distant goal. There is unfortunately an ambivalence in the attitude of the Islamic world to Al Qaeda. They want to protect themselves against it by whatever means possible, but are reluctant to co-operate sincerely with the non-Islamic world in neutralizing it. Al Qaeda is dangerous for the stability of the Islamic world, but its activities against the non-Islamic world are understandable. That seems to be their attitude, which could prove suicidal.
8.How to prevail over Al Qaeda and its affiliates-----with the co-operation of the Islamic world, if possible, and without it if the worst comes to the worst? That is the question facing all of us whether in India, the US or the rest of the world suffering the global jihadi depredations. In this endeavour, our primary aim should be the neutralization of Al Qaeda. Its neutralization will not eliminate global jihadi terrorism. It could make it less virulent and hopefully more manageable.
9. The recent indicators of the resurgence of Al Qaeda and its allied elements in Iraq show that the international community still does not have an answer as to how to deal effectively with global jihadi terrorism---- which has had a large geographical spread with the Af-Pak region, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa serving as its epi-centres. Unless there is a co-ordinated fight against the terrorists operating from all these areas, we will be fighting and fighting endlessly.
10. Al Qaeda has not only had a geographic spread. It has also had an ethnic spread by exploiting the feelings of Islamic solidarity and the victim complex of the Muslims of the world. By projecting the counter-terrorism campaigns of different countries as a war against Islam and not a fight against terrorism, it has been able to draw the support of Muslims belonging to different ethnic groups and of different nationalities. The international community has not been able to use effectively its soft power to convince the Muslim communities in different countries-----particularly the Muslim youth---- that it has been waging a counter-terrorism and not a counter-Islam campaign.
11. The over-focus on the use of hard power---- the heavily armed security forces and the civilian security agencies --- and the inability to use soft power to counter the ideological campaign of Al Qaeda, the Talibans and other allied organizations have resulted in a situation in which the word and example of the jihadists have a greater appeal in the Islamic world than the word and example of the States trying vainly till now to counter the terrorists.
12. The international community has not been able to isolate Al Qaeda and expose its pernicious ideology as likely to be detrimental to the interests of the Muslims themselves. The result: more and more jihadi organizations are joining the bandwagon of Al Qaeda and placing their cadres----many of them more volunteers to serve the perceived Islamic cause than recruits to act as Al Qaeda’s cannon-fodder---- at its disposal for being used in its fight against so-called infidels and apostates.
13. The fight against Al Qaeda and its associates has come to be seen as a war of attrition and not simultaneously as a campaign of decontamination too. The objectives of the war of attrition are the neutralization of the leadership, stopping the flow of funds and destroying their capabilities. These objectives are important, but they alone are not sufficient. Simultaneously, there has to be an intelligently waged decontamination campaign against pernicious ideas that seek to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims.
14. In this decontamination campaign, elements of soft power such as the radio, the TV, the print media and the Internet are important. This campaign has to be waged with the help of Muslims of different ethnic groups and different nationalities. The fight against Al Qaeda and the Talibans cannot be won unless Muslims---particularly the youth---are persuaded to play a leading role in it.
15. The Muslim youth cannot be weaned away from the attraction of Al Qaeda unless and until its sense of anger over what it perceives as the injustices being committed against the Muslim community are taken note of and addressed where legitimate and possible. Closing our eyes and ears to their anger is proving counter-productive.
16. Anger is nothing unusual. It has always been there, but in the past the anger was due to feelings of poverty and deprivation and social discrimination. Now, the anger is increasingly due to the counter-terrorism methods adopted after 9/11----- profiling, special checks of Muslims, disproportionate use of force, air strikes in populated areas etc . There is a perception encouraged and exploited by Al Qaeda and its affiliates that Islam and Muslims as a religious group are targeted in the name of counter-terrorism. The feeling that what is being waged is not a counter-terrorism, but a counter-Islam campaign is spreading. Unwise measures such as banning the wearing of burqa by Muslim girls attending schools in countries such as France, not permitting the construction of minarets in some countries are strengthening this feeling.
17. How to convince the Muslim youth that we are seeking to counter terrorism and not Islam? That is a question which needs the serious attention of policy-makers and non-governmental experts.
18.In the months after 9/11, there was a recognition that the counter-terrorism campaign must be holistic paying equal attention to security measures and to rising the level of education and economic well-being of Muslims. Measures for reforming the madrasas and for making modern education easily affordable for Muslims received considerable attention.
19.Counter-terrorism as being waged today is no longer holistic. The need for the reform of the madrasas is no longer emphasized. Spread of modern education is receiving less attention and less funding than improving the communications infrastructure in areas affected by terrorism. Just because many of the cadres of Al Qaeda and its affiliates come from an affluent and educated background such measures are no longer receiving the required attention.
20.The time has come for us to go back to comprehensive counter-terrorism.
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com )