Global Counter-Terrorism & The Role of Democracies

  • B. Raman

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It is the calculated, targeted and indiscriminate use of intimidatory violence to achieve an objective, which could be political, economic, social or religious or to give vent to anger arising from political, economic, social or religious reasons. A terrorist gives vent to anger on behalf of a group or a community.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It is the calculated,  targeted and indiscriminate use of intimidatory violence to achieve an objective, which could be political, economic, social or religious or to give vent to anger arising from political, economic, social or religious reasons. A terrorist gives vent to anger on behalf of a group or a community. The violence is indiscriminate in the sense that it makes no distinction between the State and the society and between the security forces and other representatives  of the State and the civilians of the society, who have nothing to do with the State.

There has rarely been a period in modern  history, when the world has not been confronted with terrorism--- somewhere or the other, in some form or another, in some intensity or the other , for some reason or the other. As Jean-Francois Mayer, a Swiss historian, remarked in an address at the Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on January 29,2004, terrorism ebbs and flows and keeps undergoing many mutations. He made a distinction between terrorism used in singular, which refers to a technique for achieving objectives, and terrorisms in plural, which refer to the various mutations of this phenomenon.

There is no terrorism without a perceived grievance,which could be real or imaginary, justified, partly justified or totally unjustified. The prevention of terrorism in a State,whether democratic or totalitarian,depends on:

  • Firstly,the sensitivity of the State to the grievances of the aggrieved sections of its population and its willingness to redress them to the extent possible.
  • Secondly, the willingness of the aggrieved to admit that there cannot be a total satisfaction of their grievances by the State and hence a compromise is necessary.

Rigidity in approach and an unwillingness to seek areas of convergence between the State and the aggrieved provide the trigger for terrorism.

Terrorism, which is totally indigenous without any outside inspiration or influence, is easier to handle than terrorism, instigated or inspired or  influenced and aided from outside. The external trigger and/or influence could be from like-minded non-State actors or from interested States.

Trans-national non-State actors provide the external trigger for reasons  of ethnic, communal, religious or ideological solidarity. The external trigger provided by other States takes one of the following forms:

  • Calculated sponsorship and/or use of terrorism to achieve a strategic or a tactical objective.
  • Tolerance of terrorism, often such tolerance amounting to complicity, for tactical reasons.

Pakistan is a good example of the first category. The pre-2003 Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh are good examples of the second.

Counter-terrorism is a mix of three approaches depending on the circumstances:

  • The counter-terrorism approach, which treats terrorism as a phenomenon, with  political, economic, social, internal security  and other dimensions and seeks a holistic approach to all these dimensions.
  • The counter-terrorist approach, which focusses essentially on the internal security and law and order dimension and concentrates action against terrorist organisations and their leaders and members till they become receptive to a counter-terrorism approach.
  • The counter-external trigger approach, which seeks to neutraliase the external trigger through diplomacy, persuasion, pressure or action on the ground in exercise of the right of active defence, which has been recognised by past UN resolutions.

The difficulties in dealing with the external trigger have been aggravated by the emergence of Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF), both led by Osama bin Laden, as the non-State wielders of the external trigger of jihadi terrorism, with the sponsorship, support or tolerance of States such as Pakistan, the former Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and the pre-2003 Saudi Arabia.

The IIF formed by Al Qaeda and a number of jihadi terrorist organisations of  Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, West Asia and South-East Asia in 1998 marked the adaption of the united front tactics of international communism to the jihad being waged by Islamic terrorist groups in different countries of the world for achieving certain objectives.

Some of these objectives are purely domestic in nature such as the demand of the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for autonomy or independence for the Muslims of southern Philippines, the demand for the islamisation of governance and administration under the sharia in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the West Asian countries etc.

Some others  are of a trans-national or pan-Islamic nature such as the formation of regional Islamic caliphates bringing together under a common rule the different Islamic countries of the region and the identification of what they look upon as the common enemies of Islam in order to wage a united armed struggle against them.

A united trans-national jihad against their common enemies to achieve their common pan-Islamic objectives, while at the same time continuing to wage separately their individual jihads for achieving their domestic objectives, is the defining characteristic of this jihadi united front inspired and led by Osama bin Laden.

Initially, when the IIF was formed in 1998, they identified only two so-called common enemies of Islam---the Crusaders and the Jewish people. In concrete terms, it came to mean the USA and Israel. In subsequent years and particularly after the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition  last year, this list has been expanded.It now includes the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Australia too.

Though India does not figure in their  list of the so-called common enemies of Islam, the fact that five of the Pakistani jihadi terrorist organisations have joined the IIF adds to the threat faced by India from trans-national and cross-border terrorism. Moreover, for the first time since the IIF's formation in 1998,one of its statements of last year, attributed to Ayman-al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, who is bin Laden's No.2, contained anti-Hindu remarks. Another statement attributed to bin Laden cited the alleged support of the US to India on the so-called Kashmir issue as one of the reasons for the anger of the Muslim people of the world against the US.

After the occupation of Iraq by the US-led coalition, some of the Islamic countries of West Asia such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan have also come to be looked upon by the IIF as the common enemies of Islam despite their being Islamic countries because of their perceived collaboration with the USA for enabling it to achieve its strategic objectives in this region.

There are certain defining characteristics of the common ideology and modus operandi of the members of the IIF:

  • Their shared perception that Western style liberal democracy is anti-Islam because it says the ultimate sovereignty vests in the people. According to them, ultimate sovereignty rests with  Allah.
  • Their common determination to rid Islam of what they project as the distorting inflences of non-Islamic religions and cultures. Hence, their attacks on Chrtistians, Jews,Hindus and Buddhists and on their places of worship and monuments.
  • Their anger against the USA and their call for weakening and defeating it and for eliminating its influence from the Islamic world.
  • Their use of terrorism not only as a means of achieving their political and/or religious objectives, but also as a means of retribution against their identified common enemies. Their emphasis on terrorism as a means of retribution and the consequent coming into vogue of what is called punishment terrorism have consequently reduced the scope for political solutions to persuade them to give up terrorism.
  • Their readiness to resort to catastrophic or mass casualty terrorism without worrying about any adverse effect on public opinion  and their quest for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They look upon the nuclear weapon not as a weapon of deterrence which should be available to a state, but as the ultimate weapon of retribution which they should not hesitate to use to protect their religion, if necessary.

The advent of the IIF and the role of Al Qaeda in organising and executing the terrorist strikes of September 11,2001, in US territory had the following positive sequel:

  • The declaration by the United Nations that terrorism constitutes a threat to international peace and security.
  • The recognition that terrorism is an absolute evil and cannot be justified, whatever be the cause.
  • The realisation that the new mutation of terrorism in the form of Al Qaeda and the IIF, with their trans-national networking and united front tactics, cannot be neutralised without a similar networking of the member-nations of the UN and the waging of a united counter- terrorism campaign.
  • The realisation that action against the  external trigger has to be an important aspect of this united counter- terrorism campaign. Amongst the various components of the external trigger specifically identified for counter-action were external funding and external sanctuaries for terrorists.

Unfortunately, this positive sequel has since  come to be diluted by the following factors:

  • The overwhelming emphasis on the military approach by the US-led coalition to the exclusion of non-military approaches.
  • The almost overwhelming focus on action against terrorism perceived as posing a threat to US nationals and interests to the exclusion of similar determined action against terrorism posing a threat to other countries and their nationals.
  • The enlisting  of countries such as Pakistan, which have sponsored and used and continue to use the Pakistani components of the IIF, for achieving their strategic objectives, whether directed against India or Afghanistan, as allies in this so-called war against terrorism. If terrorism is an absolute evil, so is state-sponsorship of terrorism. After 9/11, the international community has rejected arguments that one nation's terrorist can be another nation's freedom-fighter. It is still to reject with equal vehemence the argument that one nation's state sponsor of terrorism can be another nation's strategic ally against terrorism.
  • The occupation of Iraq, which has strengthened the motivation of these terrorist groups.

The UN Security Council itself has admitted that at least a half of the 191 member-states of the UN has not reported about their implementation of the provisions of its resolution No.1373 against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other international terrorist organisations. By a resolution passed unanimously on January 30,2004, it has called upon these states to report compliance by March 31,2004, failing which it has warned that they would be named.

It is now more than two years since this resolution was passed in September 2001. These States have not bothered to report compliance so far. Why should there be any hesitation in naming them even now and in initiating any punitive action against them?  Where is the need for giving them two  more months? It is such reluctance to act against errant States that has been responsible for the failure to deal effectively with global terrorism.

The liberal and secular  democracies of the world have been the special targets of this new variant of global terrorism. It is not without reason that the Pakistani components of the IIF sought to attack the Legislative Assembly of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in October,2001 and the Indian Parliament in December,2001 and to disrupt the elections in J&K in October,2002. The successful functioning of the Indian democracy and the enthusiastic participation of all sections of the Indian population, whatever be their religion, in the democratic process negate their ideology and propaganda.

Since 1956, India has been confronted with insurgency, terrorism and a hybrid variant of both in different parts of its territory. The Indian democracy has seen the various mutations of terrorism--separatist, ethnic, ideological and religious. The withering away of ethnic/separatist terrorism in Mizoram and of religious terrorism in Punjab and the current dialogue of the Government of India with representatives of aggrieved organisations in Nagaland and J&K are good examples of how a democracy should deal with terrorism, whether indigenous or global--through a mix of firm action on the ground to demonstrate that terrorism does not and will not pay, a healing touch in dealing with the alienated sections of the population by making a clear distinction between the terrorists  and the community or the religion from which they have arisen and a readiness for a dialogue to reduce their alienation. A successfuly-functioning democracy and a well-governed and a well-administered state provide the best antidote to terrorism.

However, the Pakistani state-sponsorship of the various components of the IIF and their use against India for trying to achieve  Pakistan's strategic objective against India continue to create difficulties in the way of India's attempts to deal with the international jihadi terrorism. Unless such errant States are effectively dealt with by the international community, the new variant of terrorism, originating from the soil of Pakistan and Afghanistan, would continue to keep hundreds of innocent civilians all over the world bleeding and pose a threat to international peace and security.

The time has come for a careful review of the global campaign against terrorism, identify reasons for the inadequate results and the States responsible for its continued survival and initiate mid-course corrections. In this exercise, India, Israel and the US, as the most shining examples of successful democracies and as the common targets and victims of the global terrorists, have an important role to play. Australia, another great democracy, too can play an important role in this. It is not yet a victim of this new variant of terrorism, but is already one of its targets.

Organisations such as the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the American and the Australian  Jewish Committees (AJC) could make a useful contribution to this exercise by a sharing of their knowledge and expertise and by a joint study of the problem and the needed mid-course corrections. (3-2-04)

(Text of a presentation made at a symposium of Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the American  Jewish Committee (AJC) at New Delhi on "Democracies and the Challenge of Co-operation for Peace"  on February 3,2004, 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail: )

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Observer Research Foundation.

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



More Commentaries: