New Delhi: South Asian region has been the target of diverse terrorist threats and the main arena of transnational terrorism for several decades. Porous borders and religious and ethnic affiliations in this region make it extremely difficult to detect or check cross border movement of terrorist groups.
Politically motivated terrorism launched across international borders has become a common phenomenon in this region, making it necessary to identify sponsors of terrorism and their future plans. The pattern of operations and modus operandi of the terrorist organizations and the domestic supporters involved must be assessed realistically for meeting the threat effectively.
The emergence of Islamic terrorism and numerous militant ethnic groups in the last few decades has aggravated factional and communal divides. Islamic terrorism needs be given special attention because of a highly complex mix of Muslim and non-Muslim populations of the South Asian region.
Despite the global war against terrorism, all the major Islamic terrorist groups in this region are still intact and have a very large support base. There is now increasing evidence to suggest that they are in a position to further expand their activities in the region.
Expanding network of terrorist groups
Extended southern Asian region, comprising Xingjian, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, are presently the main arena of Islamic and separatist terrorist activities. Various facets of terrorism in the South Asian region and the factors that can play a positive role in curbing terrorism in all its manifestations need to be studied in-depth. Terrorism now poses a challenge never faced by the international community before and with terrorists better placed to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, the situation could not be more grave and alarming.
To take a long-term view of terrorism and its management is important to understand the nature of terrorism and it’s rapidly changing forms. Pondering over the future course of terrorist activities in the region is necessary but not easy because of various dynamic variables that make developing of a precise system difficult. A definition of terrorism that has universal acceptance is yet to be found. For, even the United Nations while defining terrorism manages to describe broad characteristics of terrorism, stopping short of a comprehensive definition.
The primary purpose of Pakistan sponsored terrorism in India has been to wrest away Kashmir from India. Pakistan has worked assiduously to isolate people of Kashmir morally and physically from the national mainstream. It is necessary to identify the overall pattern of operations and modus operandi of the terrorist organizations for determining long-term threats.
Vulnerabilities within India
The main targets of terrorist attacks in India have been:
* Religious institutions and places of worship;
* Common people especially in large urban centres;
* Industrial infrastructure, communication and transportation systems;
* Administrative infrastructure and military establishments; and
* Political institutions and leadership.
Understanding the psyche of a Jihadi terrorist outfit
The modus operandi of various terrorist organizations of the region have many common features but Islamic or Jihadi terrorist groups have been specially trained and equipped to spread lawlessness in large areas to promote ethnic and religious strife by engineering violent communal or ethnic conflicts.
Porous borders between countries of Southern Asian region provide favourable conditions for free flow of fundamentalist ideas and infiltration of subversive groups across international borders. Consequently domestic and international terrorism feed on each other. Jihadi terrorism with base facilities in Pakistan and Bangladesh poses the most serious threat to the stability of the region. Jihadis indulge in planned killing of innocent bystanders for generating fear and spreading chaos whichis calculated to undermine the morale of the people.
The increase in ethnic and religious tensions has a direct relationship with the mobilization of terrorist groups and their capability of spreading violence. The chaos and panic created by repeated terrorist strikes fuel internal conflicts and create a situation in which terrorists and their sponsors monopolize all the advantages by closing viable options available to the government of the targeted country. This situation is quite apparent from the modus operandi of militants in Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Bangladesh is under threat of radical elements that are creating chaotic conditions with a view to change the moderate Islamic culture of Bangladesh. The radical Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), Jamaat-ul Mujahidin (JMB) and the Islamic Oikya Jote are known to have close links with Al Qaeda. In the latest US State Department’s country reports on terrorism, HuJI has been named as one of international terrorist groups. It was one of the signatories of the fatwa issued by Osama bin Laden in 1998, which declared American civilians to be legitimate targets of attack. This group is also suspected to be linked with the attack on the American Centre in Calcutta in January 2002.
The other radical group to watch out for is the JMB. It is believed that it was behind an attempt to assassinate the former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in July 2000. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which was a coalition partner of the BNP, openly promoted radical Islam with the aim of installing a Taliban-type government in Bangladesh. The situation has changed after the crackdown on these elements by the moderate interim government, that was formed recently. The radical groups are, however biding time, waiting to revive their activities, as and when conditions allow.
Sharing information at regional and global levels will be necessary to determine aims and targets of terrorist groups, their location and possible plans of subsequent attacks. The routes of supply of weapons and sources of financial support can only be blocked by cooperation of various countries of the region but this is yet to take concrete shape.
It is essential to assess periodically whether counter-terrorist infrastructure and policies are ‘primarily and adequately’ structured to combat terrorism and if the first responders have the mental robustness and resources required to implement crisis management schemes?
New technologies should be employed for warding off terrorist attacks, keep terrorist organizations off balance and interfere with their command, control and communication systems.
The war against terror cannot be confined merely to search and destroy missions although use of force is unavoidable for ensuring security of individuals, political and administrative systems. The important aspect of winning ‘hearts and minds’ of the people should receive much greater attention and experience shows that social and economic developmental programmes are far more effective in eroding the root causes of terrorism than merely hunting down terrorist groups.
Regional grid in South Asia
It is necessary to develop a regional grid in South Asia for ensuring closer coordination between various countries of the region to oversee implementation of joint counter-terrorist strategies. A multi-dimensional approach can provide the capability and organizational skills required to confront and eventually defeat terrorism. Terrorism can be managed more easily if double standards are shed and earnest attempts are made by all countries of the region to jointly combat terrorism of all varieties.
An establishment that is manned by multi-disciplined professionals is the need of the hour. This should develop and implement plans for pre-empting, deterring and preventing terrorist attacks. This organization can formulate joint preparedness programmes; facilitate intelligence analyses and regional coordination of a widespread range of activities.
Organization’s armoury to include:
* A central authority;
* Joint command control and communication facilities;
* Specific research and development cells;
* Terrorist-specific intelligence groups;
* Psychological warfare experts;
* Counter- terrorism planning cells;
* Special response units; and
* Foreign liaison cells.
The organization should be capable of rendering advice to the governments on positioning of assets for ‘joint responses’ to terrorist strikes in any part of the region. It should be able to coordinate regional crisis and consequence management plans, oversee airport and sea port security functions; monitor functioning of terrorist tracking bases; plan disruption of terrorist financing, formulate long-term plans of assistance programmes and take up reorientation of public information systems.
Considering the present trends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a likelihood of increased fundamentalist and terrorist activity. Although western countries are making resolute efforts to combat fundamentalist forces and terrorism in these countries, terrorists too are making vigorous efforts to expand their bases and areas of influence. India with the largest Muslim population, is one of their main targets.
It is certain that terrorists will use all the means at their command to continue their battle against moderate and secular elements of Southern Asian region. We may witness running battles between them and secular societies. Islamic terrorist organizations in Pakistan and PoK are still intact and have a very large support base in this area. They are unlikely to give up terrorism and there is no evidence to suggest that they will curtail their violent activities either.
The situation in Bangladesh is fluid, though it is evident that a majority of military officers in Bangladesh do not want fundamentalists to gain control of the country. Hanging of six Bangladeshi fundamentalist militants recently, sent out a clear signal. India should use this opportunity to develop better relations with the Bangladesh military and work out regional development plans which would help the stabilization and economic progress of Bangladesh.
Once the insurgents, where ever they may be operating, are denied external support, they will eventually whither away. We have seen terrorist groups operating in the northeastern part of India, dwindling and fading away because they had to endure long periods of struggle to survive and “keep up the fight”.
There is no denying that the coming years are going to see the biggest enemy of our times take on an even more menacing shape – international terrorism will get more sophisticated and specialized. It is the turn of governments, militaries and specific organizations to address their vulnerabilities and threats.
Maj Gen Afsir Karim is editor-in-chief of defence magazine Akrosh and can be contacted on email@example.com