In what is described in the United States as the worst act of terrorism after 9/11, the massacre of nearly 50 civilians, with bullet injuries inflicted on another 50, by a self-confessed ISIS convert, Omar Mateen, at a midnight party at a gay club in Orlando, has sent down shockwaves in that country. The facts that have emerged are that the young terrorist was of Afghan parentage but born and brought up in US, that the FBI had examined him twice in recent months for his suspicious conduct as a potential Islamic radical, and that President Barack Obama’s leadership has been accused by the camp of Donald Trump of trying to be “politically correct” to the point of not mentioning the threat of radical Islam at all, in its responses.
On each of these points there are lessons to be learnt by all nations affected directly or indirectly by the new global terror whipped up by Islamic radicals under the leadership of ISIS in the Syria-Iraq region and the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine in the Pak-Afghan belt. The terror of radical Islam, resting on faith-based motivation, has spread across national boundaries and thanks to social media, succeeded in enlisting “lone wolves” as its foot soldiers. Mateen, one of the first US born converts to radicalism, and not a migrant, executed the ISIS ideological mandate of wiping out gay elements. For this he acquired a semi-automatic rifle purchased over the counter.
There is a new challenge for the security agencies of detecting “the needle in the haystack”, as the FBI chief put it. But there is no gainsaying the fact that ways have to be found to cast the net of coverage wide enough by creating “eyes and ears” in the civilian communities, to detect individuals with traits of radicalisation.
The rise in the number of indoctrinated individuals who were not necessarily in an organic alliance with any radical outfit, is precisely the reason why eyebrows have been raised on the FBI’s handling of Mateen as a suspect. Terrorism has to be dealt with at the levels of both intelligence and investigation—the two having their different method of working and nature of accountability. FBI washed its hands of Mateen even though his conduct and links had created enough suspicion for the agency to question him twice. As an investigation body, FBI possibly took a purely legal view of culpability of the suspect disregarding the fact that there was enough ground for a further follow-up on him, invoking intelligence tradecraft of surveillance and communication monitoring.
What comes out of an intelligence operation is information of unimpeachable reliability even if it does not turn out “evidence” that could be presented in a court of law. Terrorism by definition is the use of covert violence for a political cause. Intelligence on the covert doings of a suspect could therefore help to prevent the execution of a threat.
This would be even more important than a post-event investigation and prosecution. Punishment may not act as a deterrent for a terrorist whose commitment to the “cause” had prepared him for the supreme sacrifice. In the case of Omar Mateen, the security system should have ensured that he was put on the suspect list in matters of foreign travel and purchase of firearms.
Preventive action taken on an intelligence assessment, if questioned in the human rights plane in all cases would weaken the security of a democratic state. The intelligence set up in a democracy is wedded to an apolitical pursuit of threats to national security and its professionalism would normally not be questioned by any other wing or agency of the government. This is important in the Indian context where an avoidable conflict between the intelligence and investigating agencies in recent times has had the effect of hurting national security. It is the third point concerning the interpretation of the new terror as a phenomenon linked with a certain kind of religious indoctrination that has posed a serious political challenge to the leaders of multi-community democracies like the US and India.
Politically correct statements like “terrorists have no religion” or “Islam is a religion of peace” have their place, but they do not recompense for the unfortunate reality that Islamic radicals have succeeded in turning the minds of many Muslim youth with the indoctrination that laying down one’s life for the cause of religion was the surest route to Paradise.
Extremism cannot be blamed on a community as a whole. However, it would not help if it is not acknowledged that the revivalists or Islamic radicals are a significant part of Muslim society, who want a return to the puritanical golden period of the pious Caliphs when no deviation from the fundamentals mandated by the Quran and Hadis was permitted. The forces behind the new global terror use this line to call for jihad against the US-led West—associated with the historical memory of the crusades—for the political resurrection of the Muslim world.
Stern action against the elements promoting extremist violence and a united voice from within the Muslim community everywhere against faith-based militancy are the two basic requirements of the strategy that democratic states have to follow to deal with the terror perpetrated by Islamic radicals in the name of religion.
Efforts have to be made by the administration to identify youth who show early signs of falling for the indoctrination of Islamic radicals through social media or otherwise and then reach out to the families for jointly initiating corrective action.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau