The horrendous killing of innocent citizens celebrating Bastille Day in France’s Nice and the Orlando massacre earlier, both by ISIS’ “lone wolves” of Tunisian and Afghan origins respectively, clearly show that the “war” against Islamic radicals has to go beyond conventional military means to embrace a firm civilian response from the democratic world against the injection of violence into religion. Subsequent incidents of a Syrian suicide bomber causing casualties in Ansbach in Germany and a team of ISIS converts killing an old Catholic priest by slitting his throat in a church during prayers in a small town in France, confirm the “lone wolf” phenomenon. The radicals headed by ISIS in Syria-Iraq region and Al Qaeda-Taliban combine in the Pakistan-Afghan belt, are recruiting suicide bombers in the name of jihad. Because of this the new challenge at the military level is that the “war on terror” is now a totally asymmetric combat, with the “foot soldiers” of ISIS choosing to attack soft targets outside of the conventional war zone and inflicting “unacceptable” losses in the camp of their opponents.
ISIS converts go undetected before the event by keeping themselves merged with the population, while planning their acts of terrorism. The military endeavour has to be backed up, therefore, by an extensive intelligence spread at the grassroots to uncover the “unseen” adversary. Policymakers in the West are too engrossed with the military solution to see the importance of intelligence in a “covert” warfare that used terrorism as its main instrument. The reach of intelligence network has to be geared to detecting “the needle in the haystack”—a problem voiced by the FBI chief in the context of Orlando. In the Indian situation, the Central, state and district intelligence resources have to be functionally integrated for the tasks related to terrorism. Terrorists succeed because of arms and explosives and the intelligence-backed police machinery, therefore, must concentrate on neutralising illicit firearms and controlling movement of material that could be used for forging IEDs. In the two cases of Orlando and Nice, as also in regard to one of the killers of the priest in France, there was enough indication of suspicion against the terrorists, but this was not followed up by the intelligence set up and the matter was handled as mere vagrancy by the local police. A requirement in countering terrorism is the recourse to a legitimate method of immobilising a terror suspect, outside of the military action in the battlefront or an encounter by the armed police. Arrest of a suspected terrorist may have to be made on the basis of reliable intelligence—not always on the strength of prosecutable evidence. There has to be a shift from “prosecution” to “prevention”, since in countering terrorism, preventive action on the basis of prior “intelligence” is far more significant than post-event “investigation”’. Suicide bombers are not deterred by the hangman’s noose.
Intelligence on terrorism is fundamentally an “apolitical” information and should, therefore, be deemed to be above party politics. If there is strong administrative oversight of every case of preventive arrest of a potential terrorist and a judicial review of the action—wherever it is questioned—the legitimacy of such a step would be maintained.
Finally, a truly challenging dimension of the “war on terror” at present is the need for socio-political measures by all vulnerable countries and societies to check radicalisation. Early detection of sympathy for ISIS in a youth should lead to benign socio-legal intervention by the administration with the concerned family. This could defuse a potential threat of terrorism. This is particularly important for India because the threat of radicalisation here is compounded by the fact that Pak agencies too are fishing in troubled waters to push some Indian youth in that direction through outfits like Indian Mujahideen, which work under their influence. Apart from unleashing cross-border terrorism on this country through India-baiting groups like LeT, JeM and HuM, Pakistan is covertly encouraging recruitment to ISIS in India. Indian intelligence has to be vigilant against new machinations and tactics of Pakistan.
There is a history of faith-based militancy having been used as an instrument of geo-politics in the decades gone by. In the Cold War era, one super power permitted such a militancy to be used as a political weapon against the leadership of those Arab and Muslim countries who had become friendly towards the rival superpower heading the Communist world. The anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan was itself fought on the slogan of jihad. The democratic world in the post-Cold War period should have taken a lesson from Afghanistan—where the rise of Taliban was an upshot of the flux created by the success of that jihad—and worked against mixing of religion with international politics. This did not happen. Today, in a large part of the Muslim world, including in many countries aligned to the US, an Islamic dispensation remains the preferred option over a republic. This makes it possible for radicals with their revivalist extremism to claim a place in the political spectrum of Islam.
Perhaps India, having the second largest Muslim population in the world living peacefully as a minority under a democratic rule, would be able to show light to others on how to deal with the threat of radicalism. Opposition to Islamic radicals with their creed of total exclusivism has to come from within the Muslim world and hopefully India will take a lead in this because the large segments of the community here comprising Barelvis, Shias and other moderate Sunnis believe that they could keep their freedom of faith to their personal domain. They can marginalise the handful of leaders who were ambivalent about condemning faith-based militancy out of communal politics.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau