On 28 June 1914, a 19-year-old Bosnian, Gavrilo Princip, executed a terror attack of cataclysmic proportions. The shots he fired not only killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, but also caused a series of upheavals that redrew boundaries of European nations and toppled four major dynasties, including the Ottoman Empire. World War I, which claimed around 10 million lives over four-and-a-half years and devastated large parts of the globe, started with that single terror incident.
Yet, as Harvard professor of history Niall Ferguson points out (in The War of the World), political assassinations were fairly common in the early 20th century. Four kings, six prime ministers and three presidents were among the 40 heads of state, politicians and diplomats assassinated in just the first 13 years of the century. The reason the Archduke’s murder sparked off a wider conflagration, Ferguson says, was that the whole region was sitting on a major geopolitical fault line. Just as tectonic fault lines become the focal point of earthquakes, Bosnia and Herzegovina was the fault line between the Occident and the Orient.
This was a time when most of Europe was dominated and influenced by old empires that presided over ethnically mixed populations. The idea of the nation state— where the “republic” subsumed regional and ethnic identities—was still in its infancy. It was this flux that created volatile fault lines among communities ranging from Europe to the Far East. World War I (which some historians argue never really ended but merely tapered before erupting again two decades later) rearranged the world order along new fault lines.
World War II, in turn, morphed into the Cold War and numerous regional conflicts and ethnic clashes that continue to ravage the world to this day. The Indian subcontinent witnessed its share of violent reordering. Over 3.5 million Indian troops—three times the size of the current Indian Army— fought in the two World Wars. The partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, subsequent conflicts involving neighbouring countries in the region, communal riots, and the constant throbbing of disturbed areas like the Kashmir valley and the North-East, indicate underlying fault lines.
The existence of these fault lines is a geopolitical reality and an integral part of terrorists’ strategy. Just as small but strategic explosions can wreck a massive superstructure, terrorists leverage the dangerous potential of driving wedges into inherent weak spots, causing them to expand into full-blown fissures.
This aspect has three implications in any counterterror strategy. First, acts of terror must be seen in terms of the potential they have to exacerbate the overall situation, rather than just as isolated incidents. Viewed from this perspective, the recent assassinations of moderate politicians in Pakistan and their virtual condonation by the establishment result in a widened fracture between fundamentalists and moderates. Similarly, the series of uprisings in the Middle East can alter the influence of radical fundamentalists.
Second, terror itself needs to be redefined. It is a misconception that an act of terror needs to culminate in explosions, hijacks, shootouts or such high drama. Terror is an instrument of waging war, and war is a continuation of politics by other means. Any act that threatens the sovereignty or well-being of a nation, or causes it to drain resources that would have otherwise been expended on developmental activities, is an act of war. And if this is done by non-state actors or by states in the absence of a formal declaration of hostilities, then it is an act of terror.
Propagators of terror realize the potential of exploiting different streams of damage—from organized crime to organized scams. They do this by interconnecting “fractures” in different layers of the ecosystem to cause a series of “explosions”, each of which may be labeled as “crime” but whose cumulative effects are devastating.
Third, the notion that grave threats originate only from established terrorist organizations with sophisticated plans, like the 9/11 attacks, has to be dispelled. Gavrilo Princip was a diminutive individual who was rejected by the Serbian army because of his physical weakness. The assassination attempt that he was part of was bungled from the instant it began. A bomb that the lead conspirator lobbed into the Archduke’s open car bounced off, killing bystanders instead. The unharmed Archduke proceeded as per his original schedule, and later decided to visit the injured, who had been admitted to hospital. On the way, his chauffeur happened to take a wrong turn. And by a simple coincidence, Princip, who was buying lunch on the street, found himself facing his intended target.
Hence, it wasn’t the intricacy of the plot that sparked off one of the bitterest conflicts in human history. Instead, it was the underlying fault lines that gave way, precipitating into an uncontrollable spiral of events. Counterterror strategies must, therefore, discern and map the existence of fault lines and their interplay, rather than account for just the incidents and their protagonists.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security
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