SINCE 9/11, terrorism has captured global attention; however, India has been battling the threat for a far greater period. Unfortunately, the realm of terrorism studies and subsequent policymaking and implementation seems to be lacking a nuanced understanding of the contemporary threat that our country faces today. It appears that the national discourse concerning terrorism is still glued to the age-old threat from Pakistan and is overwhelmed by newer and emerging threats.
During the 2nd Counter Terrorism Conference (CTC) in Jaipur, held over February 2-3, 2016, discussions at the sessions and between them brought to the fore the problem that has been afflicting India’s security apparatus when it comes to the national discourse concerning terrorism.
First, in a vastly altered landscape of terrorism, both globally and locally, the Indian authorities and security experts still seem to be tied down in India vs Pakistan binaries. The immediate reaction to any security mishap within our sovereign borders is to start pointing fingers at Pakistan. This is not to deny the role of Pakistan and Pakistani authorities in various terrorist incidents-after all, even the CIA in its report recognised the role played by our neighbours in promoting State-sponsored terrorism-but to highlight that the problem of terrorism is far graver and complex than reasons explained by State-State rivalry.
If one were to look at the emergence of new factions within the South Asian terrorist groups, given the intense ideological differences, especially in the Afghan and the Pakistan Taliban, it is clear that there is no single overlord of these groups. Statements like “good Taliban, bad Taliban” illustrate clearly that not all terrorist organisations enjoy the Pakistani State’s patronage and vice-versa. While it is true that Pakistan has had a key role in funding, training, arming and harbouring a number of terrorist and insurgent groups that have wreaked havoc in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Punjab, it will take us nowhere to lambast Pakistan now that Frankenstein’s monster is beyond control. Pakistan must be reprimanded and be held responsible for its role in creating and arming the monster, but it does not make for an effective strategy to contain the monster.
If one were to look at the emergence of new factions within the South Asian terrorist groups, given the intense ideological differences, especially in the Afghan and the Pakistan Taliban, it is clear that there is no single overlord of these groups
Second, the competition generated between Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including in the South Asian region, further pushes the need to alter the lens through which the Indian authorities have been evaluating terrorism. Having been pushed out of the Iraq and Al-Sham region as the primary player by ISIS, Al Qaeda has been desperate to establish its prominence in other regions. Therefore, in the September of 2014, Al Qaeda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the formation of the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and introduced Asim Umar, an Indian, as its emir. This resulted in a competition of bay’ah (oath of allegiance) by already existing terrorist groups in the subcontinent between AQ and ISIS.
While it is hard to ascertain the significance of AQIS in the region—though its affiliates continue to remain active-given that it has already been more than a year since its inception and it has been unable to successfully carry out any significant attack in the region, the impact of ISIS has reached Indian shores. In the run up to this year’s Republic Day there were numerous arrests that were made across the country in connection with possible ISIS sleeper cells, recruiters and operatives.
IF CTC 2016 was any indication, India, much like the rest of the world, is overwhelmed by the rise of the ISIS and by the role played by its social media propaganda machinery. Unfortunately, the paranoia con-cerning ISIS’ social media presence has turned a highly convoluted phenomenon into effective propaganda by jihadists.
How is it different?
Changing terror landscape and locale
Al Qaeda, the erstwhile face of terrorism, employed the strategy of ‘localised terror in a globalised world’, i.e. it uses local issues and grievances, such as the Palestine, Kashmir, Uighurs and Rohingya issues, to motivate people to join AQ and/or its affiliates in the region. On the other hand, the ISIS, while it continues to exploit local issues, has amassed great swaths of territory and is urging people to migrate (hijrah) to the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate. Furthermore, it attempts to incite terror by making use of ‘Lone Wolf’ terrorists who sympathise with their cause.
That’s not all! Before ‘black flags’ were reported in Kashmir, a number of Indians from the southern parts of the country were found to be either ISIS sympathisers or supporters. The @ShamiWitness Twitter account was being run by ‘Mehdi’ Masroor Biswas, originally from West Bengal, while working in Bengaluru. In May 2015, intelligence agencies dismantled an ISIS-linked five-man unit in Karnataka and that provided the Indian authorities with information on Indians who had joined the terrorist organisation. According to news in November last year, a report by Indian security agencies found that 23 Indians were among the ISIS ranks and six Indians had been killed while working for them. Out of the six, two were from Bengaluru, one from Bhatkal and three from the rest of Karnataka. A Thane youth, Saheem Faroque Tanki, who had gone to join the ISIS with Areeb Majeed from Mumbai, was killed. Furthermore, two young men from South India were deported from Turkey while attempting to get in touch with the ISIS in Syria last year.
In a break from the past, ISIS content has been translated into Tamil so as to attract youth from South India. It was found that speeches by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and videos by Al Isabah media, one of ISIS’ media arms, have been translated into Tamil along with Hindi and Urdu. A video titled, ‘Al Gurabha – The Chosen Few of Different Lands,’ released in July 2014, was found to be subtitled in Tamil too.
WHILE the most imminent threat of terrorism in the past, both in terms of infiltration and support base, has been in the North given its proximity to Pakistan and the unrest in Kashmir, today the ISIS is finding considerable traction in Southern India, which is a matter of grave concern. It forces Indians to step out of the Pakistan-backed terrorism box and re-evaluate its anti-terrorism strategy in the light of the changing scenario.
Social Media: Just a medium
The global focus on the use of social media has to some extent made the “medium”, and not the “message”, the centre of all attention. While Marshall McLuhan did claim that the “medium is the message”, it would be naïve of us to actually ignore the message.
The communist revolutions had posters, the Iranian revolution had audio tapes of the Ayatollah’s sermons and the earlier jihadists had grainy videos of Osama Bin Laden. Today we have the social media to facilitate instant global two-way communication with vines, twitter, Facebook, etc. Social media and the online world were instrumental in the Arab Spring and the Anna Hazare movement. However, to credit the success of these movements to new media alone would be naïve. Similarly, to credit the social media with popularity of ISIS seems to make a claim that the public is susceptible to being wooed by the media; it’s a claim that seems eerily similar to the claims made by the Chicago School in propaganda models and theories propounded by them post the Second World War. The assumption that the media (or the medium) could implant messages like a “magic bullet” or a “hypodermic needle” into the minds of an audience, which was largely passive, was rampant during the 1950s and should probably stay in there.
Herein, it is imperative to unwrap the ISIS’ narrative and study the reasons why it resonates with its supporters and sympathisers. Why is it that the world’s now most dangerous terrorist organisation has been using the “end of time” narrative? Why has it named its magazine Dabiq? The global paranoia, which was evident at the conference, surrounding the medium takes our attention away from these pertinent questions and from pinpointing grievances, whether real or perceived, of those running and of those joining groups like ISIS. Further, it has become a barrier in our ability to address many of these issues.
The way forward
It is imperative that India develops a broader framework to counter terrorism. It should begin with the study of the landscape of terrorism by removing blinkers that limits its vision to ‘Pakistan/ISI/Army-terrorist nexus’. As mentioned earlier, a number of groups that Pakistan created and backed have spiralled out of their control and are biting them. Unfortunately for India, this means that there are more actors that have a vested interest in spoiling Indo-Pak peace processes and have a lot to gain from spreading a reign of terror in the region. Furthermore, the new ‘bad boys’ of terrorism, aka ISIS, are trying to make a global presence like never before and this change must be reflected in India’s counter-terrorism policy.
It is imperative to unwrap the ISIS’ narrative and study the reasons why it resonates with its supporters and sympathisers. Why is it that the world’s now most dangerous terrorist organisation has been using the “end of time” narrative?
FURTHER, a massive overhaul is urgently required in the area of security studies in the country. The top think-tanks and experts in the country are dominated by the armed forces. It is imperative that the civilian involvement in this field increases so as to bolster cross-discipline cooperation in terrorism studies. The fact that there is a dearth of security, strategic and terrorism studies in Indian universities, contributes to this problem. Therefore, it is important that both the Indian government and private players introduce these subjects at the undergraduate and the postgraduate levels.
Lastly, the government needs to further strengthen its counter-terrorism efforts. Its attempt to revive the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid), which is an ambitious project conceived to integrate data from 21 different agencies, is a step in the right direction. It is reported that three names have already been sent to the Prime Minister’s Office for the selection of the next CEO of Natgrid. However, given the nature and magnitude of sensitive data which it will be handling, it must be set up in a thoroughly planned and structured way.
The writer is a Research Analyst with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She did her Masters in Strategic Studies with specialisation in Terrorism Studies from NTU. She recently attended the 2nd Counter Terrorism Conference (CTC) in Jaipur, held over February 2-3, as a delegate.