New Delhi: South Asian region has been the target of diverse terrorist threats and main arena of transnational terrorism for 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.
Emergence of Islamic terrorism and numerous militant ethnic groups in the last few decades has aggravated factional and communal divides. Islamic terrorism needs 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 here 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 cauldron of Islamic and separatist terrorist activities. 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. This is not easy because of the dynamic variables that make developing of a precise system difficult. A Universally acceptable definition of terrorism is yet to be found. Even the United Nations while defining terrorism describes only broad characteristics of terrorism, stopping short of a comprehensive definition.
The primary purpose of Pakistan sponsored terrorism in India has been to wrest Kashmir away from India. Towards this end 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.
Modus operandi of terrorist organizations in 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 pose the most serious threat to the region’s stability. Jihadis indulge in planned killing of innocent bystanders to generate fear and spread chaos, purely to undermine people’s morale.
Increase in ethnic and religious tensions has a direct relationship with 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 advantages by closing viable options available to the government of the targeted country - a situation exemplified from the modus operandi of militants in Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Bangladesh is under threat of radical elements that are creating chaotic conditions that can 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 is named as an international terrorist group. 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. The group is also suspected to be linked with the attack on American Centre in Calcutta in January 2002.
The other radical group to watch out for is JMB, believed to be behind assassination attempt of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in July 2000. Jamaat-e-Islami, which was a coalition partner of BNP, openly promoted radical Islam with the aim of installing a Taliban-type government in Bangladesh. The situation changed after crackdown on these elements by the recently formed moderate interim government. Radical groups are, however biding time, waiting to revive their activities, conditions permitting.
Sharing information at regional and global levels is necessary to determine aims and targets of terrorist groups, their location and possible plans of subsequent attacks. Routes of supply of weapons and sources of financial support can only be blocked by cooperation of countries in the region.
Periodic assessments on whether counter-terrorist infrastructure and policies are ‘primarily and adequately’ structured to combat terrorism and if first responders have the mental robustness and resources to implement crisis management schemes is necessary.
New technologies should be employed for warding off terrorist attacks, to keep terrorist organizations off balance and to 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 people should receive greater attention. Experience shows that social and economic developmental programmes are far more effective in eroding 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 capability and organizational skills to confront and eventually defeat terrorism. Terrorism can be managed more easily if double standards are shed and earnest attempts made by all countries of the region to jointly combat terrorism.
An establishment that is manned by multi-disciplined professionals is needed and one which can develop and implement plans for pre-empting, deterring and preventing terrorist attacks. Formulation of joint preparedness programmes; facilitating intelligence analyses and regional coordination will aid the process.
This must 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 governments on positioning assets for ‘joint responses’ to terrorist strikes. It should help 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.
Given present trends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is likelihood of increased fundamentalist and terrorist activity, though western countries are making resolute efforts to combat fundamentalist forces and terrorism, terrorists too are making vigorous efforts to expand their bases and areas of influence. India with the largest Muslim population, is a prime targets.
Terrorists will use all the means at their command to continue their battle against moderate and secular elements of Southern Asian region. Running battles between them and secular societies may be witnessed since Islamic terrorist organizations in Pakistan and PoK are still intact and have a large support base here. They are unlikely to give up terrorism and there is no evidence to suggest that they will curtail their violent activities.
Situation in Bangladesh is fluid, though evidently a majority of their military officers 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 Bangladesh’s military and work out regional development plans which can help the stabilization and economic progress of Bangladesh.
Once insurgents, where ever they may be operating, are denied external support, they will eventually whither away. We have seen terrorist groups operating in northeast India, dwindling and fading away because they had to endure long periods of struggle to survive and “keep up the fight”.
Undoubtedly, coming years will see the biggest enemy of our times take on an even more menacing shape – international terrorism is poised to get more sophisticated and specialized. It is the turn of governments, militaries and specific organizations to address these vulnerabilities and threats.
Maj Gen Afsir Karim is editor-in-chief of defeince magazine Akrosh and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org