How can we understand global terrorism? The most chilling explanation that I ever came across was from a former head of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, who said that terrorism “is like love; you will know when it hits you”.
On the other side is the US approach —through a “global war on terrorism” — which leaves an impression of a failure to understand its true nature. A war can be waged against an entity; but terrorism is not an entity, it’s a phenomenon.
If we look closely at the characteristics, principles and strategies of war (such as initiative, surprise, strategy of indirect approach, morale and motivation, etc) we will find advantage rests with terrorists.
This is why a seminal study at the US Army had concluded in December 2003 that, “The United States may be able to defeat, even destroy, al-Qaeda, but it cannot rid the world of terrorism, much less evil.” Nearly five years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden, the primary perpetrator of that tragedy, still roams free, and terrorism is alive and killing. And now we hear rumblings of al-Qaeda’s brand of terrorism in India.
The international community came together like never before after 9/11 to deal with the menace. Funding for terrorist groups has been controlled; intelligence sharing among nations is far better now; we are killing more terrorists in relation to the numbers they are killing across the world.
But the reality is that terrorism continues, because the tools — funds generated from narcotics trade, modern communications systems, young fighters ready to lay down their lives, etc — are far from being controlled. But what we forget is that the phenomenon in its present form and shape has taken nearly four decades to grow; and it could take as long to subside if we get the solutions right.
At the root of the terrorism problem are two factors — global trends leading to increasing disparities and inequities between countries, among communities, and even families.
The worst affected people are the youth, whose frustrations tend to lead them more quickly to take up violence. And here lies the impact of the second factor — of radical religious ideologies that provide the motivation for resort to violence.
As it is, the youth in every generation are impatient, willing to take risks, and ready to fight and die for their ‘cause’.
It is in this context that modern terrorism, starting with the Middle East, began to change its characteristics and also move eastward. The holy war in the name of Islam became the driving ideology for use of violence to redress real and perceived grievances.
The basic problem is that use of violence against innocent civilians has been legitimised for nearly two centuries; and countries like Pakistan were more than willing to exploit its youth to undertake religious wars. By 1976, it had incorporated the term ‘jihad’ in the motto of its army.
And the generals of this army were soon (mis)interpreting the Quran to exhort their troops to use terror as an instrument of war. This is the milieu in which its attempts to destabilise Afghanistan and the Soviet underbelly in search of strategic depth led to Soviet military intervention and the war in Afghanistan.
That war was fought by mujahideen, among which Osama bin Laden cut his teeth as the organiser of religious terror.
But the world ignored the signs quite visible in the late 1980s when perceptions spread, promoted even by liberal elites, that Islamic jihad had defeated a superpower.
And since that was so, how could countries like India stand up to jihad in the name of freedom struggle? And now we face the prospect of the sole superpower bogged down in what is the Second Iraq War (since 2003) where it has not succeeded in defeating the resistance.
There is no alternative to fighting the terrorist to stabilise the security situation. But we need to look deeper for the root causes of terrorism, which is, after all, driven by ideas. Hence the struggle to counter it must be built upon ideas and beliefs which would channel the energies of the youth toward constructive growth, whether in the Naxal-dominated belt, in J&K or, for that matter, in Mumbai.
(The writer is former director, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis and is currently director for air power studies, New Delhi)