The large scale killing of civilians in serial terrorist attacks in the heart of Paris by suicide bombers of ISIS on 13/11 was rightly described by the French President as “an act of war”, because this is precisely what it is — the launch of an asymmetric warfare in which militants indoctrinated to the point of giving up their lives, would be used as a weapon to bring down a mightier state through socio-economic destruction.
This new form of combat is the aftermath of the decade-long “war on terror”, which was essentially a battle between the Islamic radicals and the US-led West precipitated by 9/11. Just as the US was declaring victory after the elimination of Osama bin Laden in a midnight operation by SEALS at Abbottabad, new leadership of radicals emerged to recreate two theatres of war — Abu Bakr al Baghdadi heading the ISIS in Iraq-Syria region and Al Zawahiri reviving Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak belt. Significantly, this happened around the two countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — that had been made the prime targets by the US-led “world coalition against terror”.
That the Paris carnage is not just another standalone terrorist attack, but a marker of the new warfare that could acquire a global dimension, is proved not only by the scale of planning and preparation that went behind it in terms of logistics for the assailants, preparation of special suicide vests, and smuggling in of automatic rifles, but also by the fact of extension of the battlefield from Syria into Europe and the deft use of social media for advancing the “war” objectives.
The radicals are not a fringe of the Islamic world, but a part of the mainstream of the Muslim societies spread across geographical boundaries. They carry the politico-historical legacy of how the leading Ulema of the early 19th century in Algeria, Arabia and India had launched a jihad to oust the encroachment of the West on the Islamic lands. They had called for the return to the pristine days of early Islam and to this day this remains the source of motivation for the radicals.
The ISIS and Al Qaeda carry the historical memory of the Caliphate and the Wahhabi offensive, respectively. The reason why radicals consider Shias also as their prime enemy, lies in the historical revolt against Caliph Ali, in which Sunnism was born. All of this suggests that the threat of violence from Islamic radicals was underestimated. The fact that leaders of other sections of Muslims are prepared to disassociate from, but not condemn the extremists is also something that attracts attention.
ISIS and Al Qaeda sponsored terrorist offensive against the West and its supporters, has enough funding support coming in from their acolytes and sympathisers. Covert transfer of money is known to be taking place, sometimes buried deep in proxy transactions — this admittedly becoming a major challenge for those countering the radicals. The expansion of the turf of war to Africa, West Asia and Europe has been made possible because the radicals have been able to enlist “fighters” on their call in the name of faith, from amongst not only the “have nots”, but the educated elements as well. In a covert warfare, “lone wolves” do become important.
India has rightly taken a stand against faith-based extremism and injection of violence in religion anywhere, in keeping with her strategic culture. Prime Minister Modi, responding to Paris massacre, reiterated India’s willingness to be in the forefront of the global fight against terrorism, but hit the nail on the head by making it clear that no distinction should be made between one militant group and the other.
In the years of Cold War, the West did allow religion-based militancy to be used as an instrument of politics against the regimes which were pro-Left. Its support to Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt in opposition to Assad and Nasser is a fact of history. The US fully sponsored the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan led by the Jamaat-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba funded by the Pak-Saudi axis. It came as no surprise that US looked the other way when India complained against cross-border terrorism let loose on it by these militant outfits mentored by ISI. This proxy war against India was kept on during the “war on terror”, though India had come on board with the US-led world coalition, even before Pakistan joined in.
The conduct of “war on terror” and the continuity of the faith-based terrorism that the world is now witnessing, establish that there are no “good militants” and “bad militants” and that the world would do well even now to declare through UN or otherwise that injection of religion into politics and of violence in religion will not be accepted.
President George W. Bush had a two-fold strategy for the “war on terror” — getting the moderates of the Muslim world to fight the radical extremists at home and pumping in funds to expedite the process of democratisation. Pakistan signified the failure of this approach, because invoking of religion only silenced the “moderates” against “extremists” and support to an army dictatorship was bound to negate the second plank of that strategy. Hopefully, Prime Minister Modi’s recipe presented to the G20 summit will begin to meaningfully unite the world against the new escalating threat.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau.