TERRORISM: Changing face of Terror

A Pakistani volunteer rescues a woman from the debris of a collapsed building following a bomb blast in Karachi on November 11, 2010. A car bomb attack targeting a police building in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi killed at least 10 people late November 11 and wounded more than 30, a government official said.

by Dr Anil Kumar Singh

(November 18, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Phenomenon of terrorism as a global menace is of recent origin. History of terrorism is as old as the human civilisation. However, recent decades have witnessed exacerbation in occurrence of terrorist incidents in almost all parts of the globe in general and Asia and Europe in particular. Having remained confined to the Middle East and some parts of Europe until the decade of 1980s; terrorism also ensnared some parts of Asia, particularly South Asia into its fold during the 1980s.

The decade of the 1990s witnessed turmoil and political instability in the post-Soviet republics, Afghanistan and some other countries of the Third World, provided fertile ground for terrorism to thrive.

The Cold War’s denouement during the 1990s as the harbinger of stability in emerging new post-Cold War order was viewed by some analysts with skepticism. While others viewed this ‘unipolar moment’1 as affording the United States a unique opportunity to create a durable peace that would provide order and stability globally.2 However, the events of 9/11 changed those perceptions.

Dr Anil Kumar Singh, Executive Editor, Star News and author of the book Military and Media

Prior to September 11, 2001, there was no cumulative global will to counter the menace of terrorism and occurrence of terrorist violence either in Jammu and Kashmir in India, or Afghanistan or West Bank or elsewhere as it was seen as an isolated event not impinging upon global security.

However, Osama bin Laden-led al Qaeda had deeply embedded its network in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan by late 1990s and Taliban-al Qaeda combine was to emerge as the most dangerous transnational terrorist group having expanded its networks in over 60 countries during that period. Incidents of bombings of US. embassies in East Africa involving al Qaeda during 1997-1998 were not perceived in terms of al Qaeda’s potential to threaten American survival.3 Lack of concerted action on the part of international community to deal effectively with the menace of terrorism had caused loss of over 35,000 innocent lives in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir4 alone and approximately 10,000 lives in different parts of the globe during the period 1991-2001.5

The al Qaeda terrorists’ attacks on World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York and Pentagon Headquarters on September 11, 2001 virtually shook the international community in general and the United States in particular, to wake up to the menacing reality of terrorism.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US President, George W. Bush, described the tragic events not as ‘terrorist acts’ but as ‘acts of war’. He categorically resolved that Washington would make “no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harboured them.”6 There were strong suspicions about al Qaeda’s involvement in 9/11 attack.

The US-led international coalition forces launched massive attacks in Afghanistan against Taliban-al Qaeda combine and by the middle of November 2001 the last bastion of Taliban had fallen. With the fall of Taliban regime, a coalition of Northern Alliance was installed and subsequently an elected government headed by Mohammed Karzai assumed the reins of power in Kabul and is still in power.

The remnants of Taliban and al Qaeda activists are still hiding in the rough and rugged mountainous regions of Afghanistan and bordering Pakistan. Although a segment of coalition forces and US troops is still stationed in Afghanistan, but the fragile situation there is still vulnerable to the attacks of Taliban-al Qaeda activists.

Undoubtedly, Asia as almost become the new strategic centre of gravity in international politics.7 In the post-Cold War period, concomitantly Asia’s vulnerability to the menace of terrorism has also become more acute as compared to other parts of the globe. There are issues, like tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the maturing nuclear threat from North Korea, and political stability in Central, South, and South-east Asia that have assumed new meaning in the light of the on-going war on terrorism.

Emergence of terrorist groups as sub-statal actors seems to have become defining features of post-9/11 terrorism. In the post-9/11 period, a ‘new form of terrorism’ is said to have emerged. Delineating between ‘new form of terrorism’ and ‘old’ terrorism, Steven Simon cites the example of al Qaeda, which justified its 9/11 acts as acts of religious devotion and it is this “religious motivation, coloured by a messianism and in some cases a apocalyptic vision of the future”8, that distinguishes al Qaeda and its affiliates from conventional or ‘old’ terrorist groups. ‘New terrorism’ poses more serious and dangerous threat to security.

This ‘new terrorism’ has “different motives, different actors, different sponsors, and demonstrably greater lethality. Terrorists are organising themselves in new, less hierarchical structures and using ‘amateurs’ to a far greater extent than in the past.”9 The potential of threat of use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has added a more serious and dangerous dimension to the new form of terrorism.

Another dangerous development that provides teeth to ‘New Terrorism’ is the tendency among lesser known terrorist groups to gravitate towards al Qaeda. A variety of lesser-known regional or national terrorist outfits, such as Ansar al-Islam, the Zarqawi network, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), Salifiya Jihadia, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), are now increasingly gravitating towards al Qaeda operationally and seeks to advance its objectives of worldwide terror.10 Many parts of Asia in particular, and the world in general, are vulnerable to the threats of new terrorism.

Factors like the existence of large Muslim communities (some 240 million Muslims); easily penetrable geography; the existence of significant Western and pro-Western interests; and a generally lax security environment make South-east Asia a region of immense geo-strategic significance for the terrorist groups. Consequently, terrorism tops the security agenda of countries in South-east Asia and the issue of transnational terrorism in post- 9/11 has galvanised the ASEAN states to cooperate in anti-terror efforts.

There has been an on-going and across-the-board military modernisation and expansion programme being pursued by most South-east Asian states, which includes many of them acquiring the kind of military hardware for conventional threats, rather than the unconventional threat of terrorism. Significantly, states have used the sceptre of the terrorist threat to justify their continuing military buildup. In other words, the terrorist threat has been used as a pretext for ongoing military expansion plans by some states. Although another fallout of South-east Asia seemingly becoming the second front in the campaign against terrorism has been the United States’ military re-engagement with the region, which has not translated into overall US attention to the region’s wider strategic concerns and interests. Washington is merely interested in pursuing its anti-terror campaign, and its supposed strategic re-engagement in South-east Asia is very narrowly focused on that particular issue. Under the prevailing circumstances, countries of South-east are called upon to address their terror-related problems on their own through the forum of ASEAN and Asian Regional Forum (ARF).

In Central Asia the linguistic and cultural diversity intersects with politically charged separatist and irredentist demands growing out of a vast set of subnational (clan, tribal, regional, or even village) loyalties, anemic economic growth, and sclerotic political institutions, which in turn confront various former communist leaders who, quickly donning nationalist guise, have embarked on determined efforts at national consolidation in these newly independent states. In the thick of these struggles, state failure in Afghanistan produced a healthy supply of foot soldiers for various extremist opposition movements, while the war on terrorism that followed has empowered local despots to attempt neutralising both reformist and insurgent opposition.11

Viewed in a broad perspective, North-east Asia is very heavily armed. There are massive military forces; some armed with high-tech equipment, ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The United States enjoys military pre-eminence in the region, both owing to its global military reach and because of its alliances with Japan and South Korea and its friendship with Taiwan. Accordingly, this region is greatly affected by shifts in US strategy, such as the newly articulated doctrine of preemption. Some aspects of the more assertive US approach came in response to the threat of terrorism. Existing territorial disputes within North-east Asia, including South/North Korea; China/Taiwan. Japan’s territorial disputes with Russia, South Korea, China and even Taiwan entail the potential of flaring up thereby threatening the security of the region. South Korea and China also have a maritime dispute. Perception of each other as security threat by the countries of North-east Asia and their conflicts of national interest are prone to undermine the overall security environment. Such an eventuality provides a fertile ground for terrorism to thrive.

South Asia has been experiencing the menace of terrorism since early 1980s. Terrorist violence exacerbated in South Asia in the post- 9/11 period, particularly in the crises of December 2001 and May 2002 after terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament and the Indian Army camp in Kaluchak, respectively. Until 2004, the United States continued to buy Pakistan’s version of terrorist violence occurring in the subcontinent on the lines that there was a differentiation between ‘global’ terrorism and mere ‘local’ terrorism’, a position India was reluctant to subscribe to.

Improvement in Indo-US relations in 2005 and President Bush’s visit to India in early March 2006 has been instrumental in transformation in American perceptions about terrorism in the subcontinent and the relative potentialities of both India and Pakistan to contribute to US endeavours in combating global terrorism. Frequent media reports indicate Pakistan’s inability in handling al Qaeda and Taliban activists within its own borders and along the Pakistan-Afghan border. In other words, countries of South Asia have to live with terrorism in the years to come because the fragile situation in Afghanistan continues to linger on and the remnants of Taliban-al Qaeda activists still remain in commanding position.

Terrorism has assumed a pervasive character and its menace threatens almost every country on the globe in general and Asian region in particular with occasional occurrence of terrorist incidents in West European countries. The US strategy of combating the global war on terrorism, in the aftermath of 9/11 and its Operation Democracy in Iraq since March 2003, has not thus far met with desired results. Al Qaeda and its affiliate transnational terrorist groups are poised against the US and they even have the potential of having access to WMD. The US strategy of combating terrorism has elicited support of rulers of many Islamic countries but it has antagonised the Muslim masses in general, particularly in the Muslim authoritarian countries, where ground for ‘silent sympathy and support’ for al Qaeda is incrementally swelling.

The prevailing scenario calls for re-assessment of overall US strategy and Washington must shun pursuing policies that reflect intentions of nurturing ‘unipolarism’ and ‘retention of military preponderance.’ Instead of pursuing unilateral approach in combating terrorism, Washington should adhere to multilateral approach with prominent role for the United Nations, European Union, G-8, ASEAN etc.


1. The term ‘Unipolar Moment’ was made popular by Charles Krauthammer. For more details see, Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 70, no. 1 (1990/91), pp. 23–33.

2. The discussion on the possibilities of stability in the post-Cold War period is adequately facilitated in the works of many scholars. For details see, Graham Allison and Gregory Treverton (eds.), Rethinking America’s Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order (New York: Norton, 1992); Brad Roberts (ed.), Order and Disorder After the Cold War (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995). Also see, Richard K. Betts (ed.), Conflict After the Cold War: Arguments on Causes of War and Peace (New York: Longman, 2002).

3. For more details see, Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 12. Also see, Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004).

4. Anil Kumar Singh, India’s Security Concerns in the Indian Ocean (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 2003), p. 224.

5. United States, Department of States, Annual Report on the Global Patterns of Terrorism, reports from 1991 to 2001.

6. Cited in W.P.S. Sidhu, “US Retaliation: Fusion Reaction”, India Today, 24 September 2001, p. 35.

7. This point is amply illustrated by the following studies- Frank B. Tipton, The Rise of Asia: Economics, Society and Politics in Contemporary Asia (Hampshire: Macmillan, 1998); Aaron L. Friedberg, “Introduction”, in R. J. Ellings and Aaron L. Friedberg (eds.), Strategic Asia 2001-02: Power and Purpose (Seattle: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2001), pp. 1-16; James F. Hoge, “A Global Power Shift in the Making”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 4, July/August 2004, pp. 2-7.

8. Steven Simon, “The New Terrorism: Securing the Nation Against a Messianic Foe”, Brookings Review, No. 21, No. 1, Winter 2003, pp. 18-24. Also see, Murat Karagoz, “September 11: A New Type of Terrorism”, Perceptions, Vol. 7, No. 3 (2002), pp. 140-167; and Isabelle Duyvesteyn, “How New Is the New Terrorism?”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 27, No. 5 (2004), pp. 439-454; and David Tucker, “What is New about the New Terrorism and How Dangerous is It?”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2004), pp. 1-14.

9. Ian O. Lesser, “Introduction”, in Ian O. Lesser et al., Countering the New Terrorism (Santa Monica: RAND, 1999), pp. 1-2.

10. Raymond Bonner and Don van Natta Jr., “Regional Terrorist Groups Pose Growing Threat, Experts Warn”, The New York Times, February 8, 2004.

11. For details see, Gregory Gleason, “Central Asia: State Building in the Face of Resurgent Islam”, in A. Tellis and Wills (eds.), Strategic Asia 2004-05: Confronting Terrorism in the Pursuit of Power (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2004), pp. 199-225.

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