Three myths of battling terrorism

There is no ‘magic bullet’ cure for terrorism. Without governance reforms, the menace can’t be checked
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First Published: Wed, Mar 06 2013. 08 46 PM IST
Terrorism is the strategic weapon of choice of an adversary that is weaker or chooses a covert mode of war. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP
Terrorism is the strategic weapon of choice of an adversary that is weaker or chooses a covert mode of war. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP
The Hyderabad bombings last month ended a spell of inactivity by terrorists and have rekindled demands for action from people who believe that this attack ended a somewhat enduring period of peace. This is a myth. The country was always under attack from terrorists. It is important to understand the strategic dimensions of terrorism, without which, well-meaning demands for action will not only be misdirected but actually abet the aims of terrorists.
Terrorism is the strategic weapon of choice of an adversary that is weaker or chooses a covert mode of war. Decrying terrorism assuages a sense of angst, but does not alter its nature. Several aims of terrorists boil down to a single purpose: To exert influence, far beyond conventional capability of those using this weapon. So when Al Qaeda bombs the US forces out of Afghanistan, or the Lashkar-e-Taiba disrupts normal life or goons prevent the screening of a film by threatening violence—they are all using a strategic weapon that projects influence far beyond their numerical strength. But for terrorism to succeed, its intended target also must respond in a dramatically disproportionate manner. The context in which these groups operate needs to be understood clearly.
India loses millions of lives each year due to preventable diseases, adulterated food, spurious medicines, pollution caused by illegal effluent discharges and simply from the blatant disorganization prevalent across its length and breadth. For instance in 2011, the country lost 186,000 persons in road accidents alone—or over 20 people per hour. And another half a million were wounded.
Estimates by Forbes show this drained 2.7% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). In contrast, the country’s health budget was a paltry 1.2% of GDP in the same period.
The 26/11 Mumbai attackers killed just 163 persons in three days. Yet since then, not only India, but several countries have spent billions of dollars in implementing security precautions to try and prevent a Mumbai-style attack.
Every time you buy a coffee in a hotel, you pay for the security apparatus put in place after the Mumbai attacks. Every time you fly, your ticket costs more to amortize the newly introduced security checks. The security industry has now become the second largest employer in India. These billions of rupees which are diverted from developmental budgets into what is a fundamentally non-productive expenditure is the real terrorist attack—in perpetuity. The aim of our adversaries is to prevent us from achieving our true economic potential and they are succeeding splendidly—simply because we don’t realize that our largely (economically) wasteful response to terrorism is the actual attack.
The bluster of “zero tolerance to terrorism” is the second myth. This line, in itself, literally means nothing. Of course, leaders are duty-bound to assuage terrified citizens and the seriousness with which terrorism is being taken is captured to an extent in this declaration. The problem is that this goal is simply not achievable. As explained earlier, terrorism is a strategy and not an apparatus existing in isolation. There are, of course, training camps where guerilla warfare and terrorist tactics, indoctrination and suicide attacks are taught. But these are tactical measures and cater largely to the last mile. The characteristic of terrorism is that it leverages the very apparatuses it seeks to destroy. Terrorists use public transportation, public communication channels, commercial houses, legitimate and illegitimate fund transfer methods to further their aims.
Consider this. Every day millions of dollars worth of contraband and spurious goods are smuggled in and out of India. These include spurious automobile parts, medicines, fake branded watches, exclusive label wear, drugs, counterfeit currency and human trafficking.
This illegal trade flourishes using the very same channels which terrorists can piggyback on without any danger of detection. So the next time you see pirated DVDs being sold in neighbourhood shops or admire a friend’s fake Rolex, you are watching the terminal end of a supply chain that could have well been used to transport high explosives, weapons or even terrorists into the country. There is simply no way to achieve zero tolerance to terrorism in an environment that has high tolerance for every other crime.
The last myth of terrorism is that there is a silver closed circuit TV out there which is going to contain or prevent the next attack. The efficacy of terrorism is demonstrated when inexperienced (counterterror-wise that is) citizens too, pitch in their advice on how to tackle terrorism by buying tools.
Fighting terrorism is best understood through the metaphor of society as a patient and terrorism as a disease. Terrorism is not a tumour that can be surgically removed by a team of well-equipped surgeons with little participation from the society. Instead, it has to be appreciated as a condition that can only be cured through active physiotherapy. The specialists can certainly diagnose, guide and help, but it is the patient who has to methodically carry out the steps that cleanse the body, strengthen and cure it. And just as physiotherapy necessitates traumatic changes in lifestyle, removal of toxins, improved discipline and the rigour of a healthy regimen, terrorism too can only be addressed through fundamental changes in mindset, long-term development of modern institutions and all-round revamp of governance systems.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Wed, Mar 06 2013. 08 46 PM IST