Future of terrorism and terrorism of the future

The means to spread terror may have changed but the modes to deal with it have to evolve for terrorism of the future.

 India, Pakistan, Wahhabi, Internet, New Age Terror

The future of terrorism and terrorism of the future are two different issues. It can be safely said that the future of terrorism is, in a manner of speaking, ‘secure’ in that society and states that may be able to manage terrorism with the correct instruments and policies but it cannot be totally eliminated from society no matter what laws and counter-terror measures that are taken. Some terrorist groups fade away quickly, almost as suddenly as they appeared on the scene, while others run through a mixture of fluctuating fortunes depending on the kind of support they are able to derive from their benefactors and empirical geopolitical conditions that exist and which might vary. For long, it was considered that Islamic terrorism was something that happened only in Africa and Asia untill 11 September, 2001. The narrative began to change but not fast enough. Today, terror is to be found in San Bernardino in California, Orlando in Florida USA, Brussels and Paris; the idea is spreading from West Asia but the act often carried out by the locals. The narrative still has not changed adequately enough.

Besides the need to eliminate radical Islamic terrorism through military domination, it is necessary that the voice of the moderate must be strengthened for the battle is internal, within Islam as well. But so long as pre-eminent global leaders like President Obama and US Presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton fudge and refuse to describe recent attacks in Orlando as Islamic terror and bend the narrative away from this, the moderate feels weakened. This is precisely what moderate Muslims settled in the West and even in some Muslim countries have been urging. If the power that proclaims to lead the world in getting rid of terrorism is unable to unequivocally condemn such acts of Islamic terror, then this only strengthens radical Islamist violence.

Pakistan’s Jihad fixation

This is not surprising in a country where even the fiery speeches of Mullah Aziz of Red Mosque and videos of Jamia Hafza are not described as a threat to the State by government representatives in the court. Pakistani rulers, especially its military mindset against India and Afghanistan, have remained unchanged. Even with some acceptance of civilian control, there is unlikely to be any course correction by the military. Jihad as a tool of Pakistan’s foreign and national security policies is now a permanent fixture. Pakistan claims to be a victim of terrorism while the world at large sees it as a major backer of jihadism. American officials have described Pakistan as the ‘ally from hell’ and its officials as ‘duplicitous’. Curiously, Afghanistan is portrayed as a potential collaborator of India while the fact is that during the 1965 and 1971 wars between Pakistan and India, Afghanistan sided with the former. Professor C Christine Fair in her book ‘Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War’ effectively counters the claim that Pakistan is a security-seeking State facing hostile neighbours and if the international powers, especially the US, could guarantee or facilitate its well-being by leaning on India and to an extent on Afghanistan, Pakistan could be weaned away from jihad. The truth is that under the façade of Islam, jihad and patriotism is a mega business entity, which has actually become an economic class in its own right. Pakistani scholar Dr Ayesha Siddiqa describes the military as an economic class that is out to keep its chokehold on the nation’s resources through whatever means necessary. (Dr Mohammed Taqi, Whither Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) The main threat to the Pakistan Army is that if peace might happen between India and Pakistan then it would lose its stranglehold on the country. That is why there is the perennial need to keep the jihadis going, creating new ogres, activating defunct outfits, renaming others and keeping both countries in mutual antagonism. Jihad or its variations will continue. We should remain prepared for the long haul.

Rise of the Caliphate

According to a Gallup poll in 2007 in Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Morocco, 71 per cent of those interviewed agreed that there should be a strict application of the Shariah law in every Islamic country and about 65 per cent agreed that all Islamic countries should be unified into one single State or a Caliphate. This is similar to the orthodox Islamic goal which says that there should be a single ruler for the entire Muslim world. Moreover, 75 per cent wanted all western values be kept out of Islamic countries. The question would be who will be that single ruler. Right now, there are several claimants. Ayman al-Zawahiri also referred to Caliphates as a goal of Al Qaeda. Lashkar-e-Toiba has dreamt of three Caliphates in India and that is not something the ISIS has adopted as a slogan. The business of Caliphates is serious business in the Muslim world. Hizb ut-Tehrir had organised a series of conferences on this issue some years ago, from the UK to Indonesia. But the movement for a Caliphate is not monolithic and apart from Shia reservations, the Saudis have their own agenda with their Wahabbi Islam. There are regional conflicts like the oldest, Sunni versus Shia, at play as well. John Cooley in his book ‘Unholy Wars’ had predicted, “The world will continue to experience this blowback from the Afghanistan war of 1979-89 well into the new century”. And it shows no sign of ending.

Western interests

Western, primarily the US, commercial and strategic interests in the entire region seek to control the production and distribution of the world’s energy reserves, to be paid for in the US dollars. This interest is exhibited through the massive private US investments in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the oil and gas interests of Western companies in drilling, refining and transporting. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch, BP and Total are some of the oil giants in the playing fields of West Asia. It is this interest and the commitment of the Saudi Kings to the US that it would sell its oil in Dollars and the massive US investments in the kingdom that prevents the US from taking any action against Saudi rulers in financing terrorism and spreading Wahabbi Islam across the globe. This remains a major impediment in controlling, financing, weaponisation and the spread of terror.

There are three epicentres of terrorism today. The one in the AfPak region is a byproduct of the Cold War and Pakistani dreams, from where terrorism has long flowed in all directions reaching as far as the United States and Europe. While the “global war on terror” may have subdued some aspects of this, it remains very much an epicentre of terrorism. The second has been in West Asia in various forms over decades and is now in its latest and most virulent form. State sponsorship of international terrorism was first invoked as a strategic weapon to defeat a strong opponent through asymmetric warfare in the 1980s in Afghanistan. It has become fashionable since then as a force equaliser in some cases (against India) or force multiplier against others (in the Arab world). There is blow-back in most sponsoring countries. There is a third epicentre evolving and this is expected to be in Libya from where ISIS hordes will fan out into the rest of Africa: Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and also spill into Europe. There is no knowing how, when and where this will end. One of the main reasons has been an inability to define terror and over-emphasis on political correctness of the narrative. For us in India, we have the problem that confirmed terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan plans Ghazwa-eHind and dream of establishing three Caliphates in India. This fits admirably with the dreams of the military mindset that seeks equality with India through confrontation. Pakistani terror outfits dreamt of Caliphates in India decades before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his Caliphate in Iraq in 2014.

Tolerance is at dangerously low ebb in all our societies. We see signs of this in Europe and America as well. An inability of the world powers to agree on a common definition of terror and terrorism has been a major hindrance in international cooperation in tackling terror. Political correctness has been carried to absurd limits and we are not able to describe what is happening in West Asia as acts of intolerance, brutality and violence perpetrated by some Muslims in the name of Islam. The unwillingness of political leaders and society to truthfully and accurately describe such atrocities as the handiwork of Muslim extremists only hurts the interests of the moderates. It is this section of society that seeks international support to be able to stand up to this brutality in the name of Islam as these extremists chase their Armageddon. While many would reject the vision of the Islamic State, the fact was that this entity and Al Qaeda and various Islamic groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba have drawn on the scholarship of Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century to Sayyid Qutb in the 20th century, whom many Muslims considered as ‘religious leaders’. One of the major results of this politically correct narrative has been that counter-terror has become politicised.

Terrorism of the future

Terrorists and terrorism will evolve with time and as always prove themselves far more nimble than the State to adapt to new tactics and technology in the furtherance of their goals. They will evolve as the society evolves and as the State reacts to them. The ability to handle them will also depend on how the society reacts and how efficient and nimble the State is. Technology will continue to develop and improve, not along a linear path but exponentially. Learning to dream, think and act exponentially is going to be the new battle ground between the terrorists and the counter terrorists. Tipping points will be reached far more suddenly and sharply. Given the age old symbiotic relationship between crime of various kinds and terrorism, the two together will use these technologies far more quickly and efficiently. Financial transactions will move even faster than now, borders would not have to be crossed and worse, for the counter terrorists, he will not know the source or origin of the attack. And we are only talking of internet aided, computer based terrorists acting in a group with or without miniaturised robots.

 A lone terrorist acting similarly is a counter terrorist’s or counter-intelligence agent’s worst nightmare. And we are not even talking of artificial intelligence-based devices here. Far more is also the problem that while the terrorist and the criminal finds these methods price friendly, a counter to this runs into billions of dollars and massive manpower with limited chances of success. It was this fear that led Bertrand Russell to remark that, “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of pathological criminal.” This fear is becoming a reality of the 21st century.

The use of the social media has been maximised by jihadist organisations as they use 21st century technology to knock their people back to the 7th century. Al Qaeda has its own glossy magazine to inspire while ISIS has Dabiq. The content of the English version is designed for Western audiences and is therefore different from the one in Arabic. Quite often counter terrorist experts refer to the Internet as a “terrorist university”, “where terrorists can learn new technologies to make them even more effective in their attack methodologies.” (Marc Goodman, Future Crime – A Journey to the Dark Side of Technology and How to Survive It).

All this has made the task of the counter-terrorists and the Intelligence agencies extremely complicated and at times, seemingly hopeless. In Facebook, for instance, with its more than 1.5 billion members, uploading 350 million photographs with the ‘Like’ button being used six billion times every day. Google, the other giant which the world swears by today, processes so much data every day that if converted into books, this would reach half way to the moon from earth. This happens EVERY DAY. Is there an Intelligence agency in the world that can access all this data, sift it and then convert the rest into information which is then processed as knowledge and along with other inputs finally get them converted into actionable intelligence that is usable, against terrorists? After the 11 September, 2001 attacks the US security apparatus led by George Bush had gone into a massive revamp and reorientation overdrive of its security and intelligence systems. Not even the US, with all its financial resources and technology at its disposal, after having privatised intelligence collection and total electronic surveillance of all manner of transmissions, has been unable to prevent all terror attacks. That is how it is going to be in the future except that techniques, targets, sponsors may vary and may not be identifiable, making retaliation difficult, even impossible.

New war

“Future wars are unlikely to engage massive armies locked in prolonged battle for real estate. Attacks could now come by stealth, master-minded by some computer whiz kid along with some science graduate and the targets are our ways of life. The terrorist of the day wishes to use 21st century tools to push us all back to the 7th century. It is a highly unconventional war that the State hopes to fight only with conventional weapons or tactics. Unless the State learns to be flexible and agile, and unless there is full scope for cooperation internationally, it will always be an uphill struggle with the peak never really visible.” (Vikram Sood, The Changing Face of Asymmetric Warfare – talk at the USI New Delhi September 22, 2010).

This commentary originally appeared in The Defence and Security Alert.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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