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Association of Retired Senior IPS Officers (ARSIPSO)

This is with reference to my letter No. ARSIPSO/GS-BSD-4/2023 dated. 10/08/2023 on the 4th B.S. Das Memorial Lecture, which had to be rescheduled for unavoidable reasons.

The 4th B.S.Das Memorial Lecture to be delivered by Shri Anil Kumar Sinha, IAS (Retd.), on the subject Disaster Management: Creating Safer Communities, has now been rescheduled for October 14, 2023 as per the following:

Conference Room No. 2, India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi, October 14, 2023 (Saturday)

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Identifying the nature of current terrorism - What its containment requires? - A.K. Verma


Terrorism is undergoing what maybe equivalent to genetic changes. In the earlier decades, its agenda was mostly political, such as class questions, national liberation and urban or anarchic issues. In the 1990s religious motivation has captured the centre stage. This development introduces an abstract concept into the phenomenon. Terrorists of the new breed consider their acts sanctified by God and, therefore, are not deterred by the values of any society other than their own.

This terrorist operates both at the strategic and tactical level. At the former level, his objective is publicity. Larger the number of victims, especially women, children and the elderly, more is the publicity and, therefore, more is he pleased with his actions. At the latter level, he operates to get a specific demand conceded, like release of compatriots, arrested earlier. Both types of operations have an inbuilt element of punishment. Besides, punishment itself could be the motivation as several incidents in J&K and elsewhere demonstrate.

These changes have been occurring as the debate around terrorism is moving onto new focii. Former colonies have won their independence. Wars of national liberation have all but disappeared. Urban guerrilla activity is on the wane as is class based or political ideological terrorism. But religious and sectarian phenomena have grown tremendously to disturbing proportions. 9/11 was a devastating manifestation of this resurgence. The West reacted as one monolith, relegating the debate on the freedom fighters versus the terrorist to the shadows. While no last word has yet been heard on the subject, the voices of those who saw terrorists as freedom fighters are greatly subdued.

The shift in focus has been caused largely by the two Afghan wars. During Afghan war I, for the first time, a united Islamic agenda, jihadi in nature, received the combined support of the West and its allies, notably the US, to send the USSR into oblivion. The war gave a new hero to the Islamic world, Osama bin Laden who was quick to proclaim that the success in the war against USSR was the result of combined jihadi fervour. The slogans of jihad in the war were Islam versus Communism and Muslims versus the atheists.

The themes of these slogans were to change during Afghan war II. Now bin Laden himself was the target and the Al-qaeda that he had set up the hunted. 9/11 had changed the scenario dramatically. The new slogans handed down by bin Laden were Muslims versus the Jews and their supporters, Muslims versus the infidels and Islam versus Western values. The struggle was given a new twist and the battle structure re-organised. In 1998 an International Islamic Front (IIF) was created by bin Laden which, much on the lines on which an International Communist Front had operated in the hey days of communism, affiliated most of the Islamist terrorist groups operating worldwide like Abu Sayyaf of Southern Phillipines, Al-quaida and Taliban fron Afghanistan, five from Pakistan, two from Central Asian Republics and three from Egypt. All the Arab Afghans (Arabs who fought in Afghan war I) who had scattered across the globe after the end of the war became potential or actual cells of support under this strategy. A new vision and a new mission pervaded this grouping under bin Laden, aimed at emulating the Islamic Caliphate, which at the peak of its power in the middle centuries spread from Spain to the Indian shores. Emphasising that all Islamic people were part of one Ummah, viz one polity, this new concept sought to weave together in one mosaic all the struggles of Muslims in different parts of the world for a jihad against one easily identified enemy, the Westernised world led by the US and its values. bin Laden expected this jihad also to succeed, through unity, common purpose and commitment like the earlier jihad against the Soviets.

The new approach produced a surge in Islamic fundamentalism with consequent rise in terrorism. The true objective of a fundamentalist is political power. He will use any method, including twisting principles of religion, to pursue his aims. Islamic fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon. Since the early part of last century, it has existed in the Arab countries, seeking establishment of regimes, which will rule by the principles of Sharia. The struggle was carried out with exhortations to all Arabs to treat themselves as one nation with no frontiers among themselves. The political objectives of the struggle failed because of brutal repression of the regimes in power in Arab lands and also because the people could not execute the concept of being Muslims first and Arabs later. Political failure, however, did not mean that the idea of a common Islamic identity did not take deep roots. It was to this constituency bin Laden made his appeals when he set up the IIF. The response demonstrated that in the Islamic peoples’ consciousness the struggle had been elevated from the regional to the international dimension. The new slogans had succeeded in breathing a new life into the movement and providing Bin Laden a striking operational capability. Terrorist incidents were recorded from Tunisia to Indonesia and Western countries like the US, Italy, Russia and France also got scorched. bin Laden has become a much more sinister version of Carlos who had in the 60s and the 70s succeeded in welding into one network various terrorist organisations to present a united front against Zionism.

How Islam can be metamorphosed to suit fundamentalist purposes is best demonstrated by taking a look at Pakistani extremist Islam. Originally targeted at Kashmir but nurtured by the experience in Afghanistan, exponents of the Pakistani version hold that a Muslim, as a member of the frontier less Ummah, can go anywhere to fight for his cause, owes his first loyalty not to his territorial nation but to his religious creed, and may use any means including weapons of mass destruction to secure his religious and political objectives. Setting up an Islamic Caliphate in South Asia is the dream of people in Pakistan who think on these lines. Clearly such people, by subverting the principles of Islam, are seeking to set up a clash of religions through acts of terrorism, fuelled by a misguided religious zeal.

But the scenario in the world in no way resembles a clash of civilizations, feared by Samuel Huntington. Islamic Ummah is neither a single nation nor does it command an army to be able to set up a clash as surmised by Huntington. The tenets of Islam also do not decree such a clash. That said, it has to be admitted that some of these tenets can be misinterpreted to support terrorism.

Some of these precepts are rock like pillars, which no one dares dislodge on account of the reprisals that are bound to follow. Salman Rushdie attempted to do that and was punished with a fatwa of a death sentence. Almost the entire Islamic world lauded the fatwa. Yet, reform movements are not unknown to Islam. The very principle of Ijtihad, enshrined in Islam, gives the right to each Muslim to reflect and decide what Islam should mean to him. Some interpretations of Islam have also kept step with the spirit of contemporaneous times. Can the need to control terrorism be cited as a reason to seek new harmonisation of such tenets? This is a very difficult subject to ponder over. Most communities the world over determine their basic identity by a reference to their religion. An effort, which can be mistaken as an attempt to quiver this identity, will meet determined and stout opposition.
Some tenets, which could receive an enlightened scrutiny, could be the following:

a. Sovereignty of Allah. The Muslim recognises Allah to be the supreme entity under whose grace all phenomena operate. This raises two important questions; a, how can the will of an abstract entity be judged, and b, how to reconcile this tenet with the will of the people, which in a democracy, stands for the supreme law. The Islamist terrorist claims divine sanction for his actions and is not dissuaded by temporal laws.

b. Concept of Ummah. This is interpreted as giving a license to a Muslim to operate in any country and, thus, identifies unofficially the whole world as a stage for what is considered legitimate terrorism by its perpetrator.

c. Violence as a permissible activity. Quran approves of violence only in defence of faith or justified rights but only under approved authority. In today’s world only the state constitutes such authority. All acts of terrorism thus become illegal under Quranic injunctions. Violence against women and children is not justified even in Quran.

d. Desirability of martyrdom. This is the desired objective of the committed terrorist, who sees his sacrifice as a service to Allah. In today’s world, however, martyrdom is an anachronism and ensures no recompensation to the individual, staking his life.

e. Blasphemy. There is a heavy punishment in Quran for blasphemy or apostasy and the fear of such punishment silences those who may be ready for reforms or alternatives.

9/11 was a major act in a drama, which is still being played out. Its most significant message was what a few committed can achieve in a devastating manner against the mightiest power on earth. From the IIF perspective it was an inspiring act of faith and conviction. That faith and conviction continue to live in the heart of many in the Islamic world because others link them to the body of their beliefs, to the structure of their religious cultural heritage and to the agony of an historical experience of domination. That explains the absence of widespread outrage in the Muslim countries against 9/11 or other incidents of Muslim terrorism elsewhere. The leadership, which delights in such activity, will not hesitate to plan more such incidents. They will have no inhibition in using a weapon of mass destruction, panic or disorder if they can build one or contrive to get one. A state like Pakistan can be a willing collaborator, considering that it parted with nuclear weapon technology in favour of North Korea against established norms or that its nuclear scientists have been privately in touch with terrorists like bin Laden. Leakage from Pakistan of WMD material into the hands of a would be terrorist is considered to be a plausible scenario by many experts on terrorism worldwide and has been causing considerable anxiety to the national security establishments the world over.

Today’s terrorism has to be combated at the ideological level. The combat will extend to decades, may be a century or two even, because the battle will be for the minds of the people. End of one bin Laden will not end the war because the adversary in this war is just not an individual or the band of his close supporters. If they are exterminated, many more will rise in their places unless the hatred, which motivates them, and the belief system that sustains them, gets altered. The real challenge lies in recognising that the real enemy does not exist in a concrete shape but in the abstract, in the dogmas and strains, subject to easy misinterpretations and manipulations. This calls for a strategic campaign. A tactical onslaught will prove totally inadequate.

In other words, tools of political warfare need to be marshalled to deal with the present scourge of terrorism in the world. The assistance of Muslim world is very necessary in this exercise as they alone can display authority in the re-interpretation of the principles involved. They in turn will have to carry the message to regional and local levels. Only then, those, fearing reprisals, and hence keeping silence, will be encouraged to speak out their mind. A well articulated widely spread Muslim opposition could deter the Islamist terrorist like nothing else can. If such an approach is not considered, all else may prove to be an exercise in futility. It is heartening that some Muslim countries like Egypt are displaying certain sensitivity to such matters.

How fear strangulates Muslim opinion to muteness is visible in India. Terrorism in J&K and other parts of India, ISI schemes for destabilising the country and its Government, calls from across the border to unfurl the flag of Islam over India and attempts to dot the Indian borders with hostile cells hardly produce a ripple of condemnation from the Muslim opinion in the country. Such silence is not good for the country since it leads to avoidable misunderstanding and suspicion. Leaders of Muslim opinion of all shades in the country owe it to themselves and their motherland to condemn terrorism without any reservation and to strike it at its root causes.

Finally, the complexity and the gargantuan nature of this problem requires that all countries, seeking redress, should place the interest of the world above their own to combat it. It is a strong belief in India that unfortunately USA is yet to subscribe to this view. American opacity to international concerns sometimes is quite bewildering. It was on display when Pakistan was building its nuclear bombs. It is again on display today as secrets about the Pakistani help to make North Korea the eighth nuclear weapon power in the world, are tumbling out into the open. This Pakistani readiness to dispense forbidden expertise can mean the doom of the world if its scientific and military community, known to be highly sympathetic to the fundamentalist cause, extends the same support to the Islamist terrorist as Pakistan did ti North Korea.

The views and facts stated above are entirely the responsibility of the author and do not reflect the views of this Association in any manner.

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