The endgame of terror—II

The endgame of terrorII

The previous instalment of this column discussed three of the six ways in which terror movements come to an end. To continue with the discussion, overwhelming and repressive campaigns against terrorists is the fourth and perhaps the most common approach that states resort to. This is a natural response that history is replete with—colonial powers such as the British in India used this very approach to try and suppress what they perceived to be secessionist terrorism.

In a way, the state has to demonstrate an immediate and rapid response to terror movements— more, to assuage its broader set of stakeholders, than what the immediate problem requires. Its motive is clear: The need to be seen as “doing something" is a reinforcement that the state is in control. And this show of force is critical. Terrorists aim to attack the morale of the public and suggest that they, and not the state, are in control. Armed troops rushing to the affected region, area dominance through intensive patrolling, cordon and search operations, and other state measures are designed to replace terror with a sense of order and steadfastness.

The Peruvian government’s response to the Maoist Shining Path movement, Russia’s response to the Chechen rebels and the Turkish response to the Kurds fall in this category. Such repression is accompanied by high collateral damage, with innocent people being displaced, incarcerated or killed. By definition, a heavy hand and subtle nuances don’t go together, thus leading to extrajudicial atrocities and abuses, which in turn alienate state forces and offer recruitment opportunities to the terrorists. Fortunately, history shows that security forces soon learn from their mistakes and initiate specific targeting, efforts to win over the hearts and minds of the people, and focus on intelligence-based operations. However, history also shows us that the state’s slow recognition of the magnitude of the problem and its lack of urgency or intelligence-based operations make the situation a lot worse before it can become better.

The repressive approach is characterized by high casualties, displacements, abuse and a deep sense of polarization which ultimately come back to haunt the state in other forms. Democracies are particularly at a disadvantage in this approach because its implementation requires the suspension of some elements of a democratic framework.

The fifth situation is where the terrorist group reorients itself to either an upstream model, graduating to a full-blown insurgency or separatist movement (such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) or slips downstream into criminal activities, like the Khalistanis. Terrorist movements straddle a thin line between guerrilla warfare and criminality. The ideological leadership of such movements tries to leverage a sense of purpose and values as the central themes, but militant wings gravitate towards criminal activities such as kidnapping, extortion, drug dealing, smuggling and theft. Of course, while almost all terrorist movements indulge in both these activities, the key is to discern where their bias is. This is usually decided by the centrality and legitimacy of the cause espoused by the movement and the diaspora that can support it. If a large part of the movement’s funding comes from legitimate sympathizers who identify with its cause, or from foreign states that want to foment trouble, then the movement is more likely to escalate into an insurgency. If, on the other hand, the terrorist organization depends on extortion and forced “donations", then it quickly degenerates into common criminality, loses its popular base, and becomes less of a threat to the state.

The last scenario in which terrorism ends is when the group achieves its intention. The current world order, especially in Europe and post-colonial Asia, is a derivative of successful movements with significant terrorist incidents that have been legitimized by the victors, and history has reflected that legitimization. Ireland, the African National Congress in South Africa and, more recently, the Maoist regime in Nepal are examples where the terrorist elements have lived out their locus standi once their respective goals were achieved. Historically, such instances are rare—limited to situations where a minority ruled over an overwhelmingly dissatisfied majority. Statistically, there are more examples of terrorism achieving very limited success or completely failing the people they purported to represent, while the movement’s leaders themselves benefited materially.

Audrey Cronin’s assessment of terrorism’s end (How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns) has lessons for India as well. We face terrorist threats from multiple movements of different genres and motivations. A fundamentalist radical group led by a charismatic leader needs a different approach than, say, a federated, foreign-aided movement such as Naxalism. We must also realize that solutions which appear ideal, such as negotiation, for instance, have their own lengthy timetables. Hence, stakeholder expectations need to be managed accordingly. And this understanding of the end of terrorism should not be limited to just the security forces and the state. Terrorism, after all, is a battle for perception. Unless all participants realize the nuances of the different endgames of terrorism, they could be learning the wrong lessons from the right battles.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security

This is the last of a two-part series on the six ways in which terror movements end. Comments are welcome at