New Age Islam Edit Bureau
9 December 2015
Cynical in fighting terror?
By R. K. Raghavan
Call the IS bluff now
By Suhasini Haidar
Those who are leading the fight against terror need a strong helping hand rather than condemnation. If IS continues to strike terror in all of us, it is not because governments the world over have not tried every means to outwit a deadly outfit. It is because they have simply been outclassed and outmanoeuvred
In perhaps what has been his most difficult speech in recent times, U.S. President Barack Obama, told his nation on Sunday that he will not flinch from using his government’s military might to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or IS as it is more popularly known. This was in the context of the San Bernardino (California) killing of 14 people on December 2, 2015, by a couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, in what the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) identified categorically to be a terrorist attack.
The savagery — the two used assault weapons to mow down Farook’s colleagues — once again proved that we cannot rob the terrorist of the advantage of surprise that he packs in his armoury. He will strike anywhere he wants, especially when he confronts soft targets like the employees of the Inland Regional Center of the County Department of Public Health in San Bernardino, near Los Angeles, who had gathered for a training event and subsequent partying. The centre offers assistance to disabled people. This makes the attack on providers of a noble service to the disadvantaged in the local community all the more poignant.
Unpredictable and selective
Those who have watched and listened to Mr. Obama on television after similar gory incidents in the past — some terror-related and others the work of deranged, but dangerously armed, individuals who had run amok — may not have been convinced that the President had still the ability or the energy to handle terrorism imaginatively. On this occasion, Mr. Obama was not exactly the picture of assurance that he used to be. He looked jaded, and his brave rhetoric on television sounded perfunctory and superficial, despite the doubtless sincerity of the man. You can’t, however, fault him, because with the tragic frequency of such gory events even for an eloquent speaker like him, using appropriate adjectives and emotions to describe them will be difficult now.
Terror attacks are, undoubtedly, becoming increasingly unpredictable. More and more soft targets are being used to demoralise not only the community, but also law enforcement. The world strongly believed after Osama bin Laden’s liquidation, in May 2011, that we had seen the end of unremitting terror. Even experts have been proved wrong. As a relatively small outfit that does not boast of a central directing hierarchy, and with less than 20,000 active members, the IS is now holding most of West Asia to ransom. Its lure has become nearly irresistible to a large number of Muslim youths drawn from various parts of the world, including India.
“More and more soft targets are being used to demoralise not only the community, but also law enforcement.”
This phenomenon has baffled governments as well as intelligence agencies. It explains the ease with which Paris was attacked recently. Interestingly, while the Paris massacre was the outcome of coordinated action by a group of more than 10 people across Europe, the San Bernardino incident was the act of two lone wolves bound by matrimony. This contrast alone highlights how counterterrorism had become a nearly impossible mission.
I am not here to hold a brief for those in government who are accountable to protecting us, and who fail far too often for our comfort. I am merely pointing out the enormity and complexity of the task of defanging and destroying the IS and similar outfits across the world.
Challenge for intelligence
Farook and Malik were a nondescript couple who had aroused little attention prior to the incident. Farook, an inspector in the Department of Public Health, was an American citizen of Pakistani descent, and his wife Malik, a Pakistan-born legal resident of the U.S. This Pakistani connection, however slender it may be, should cause dismay to many detractors of the Modi government who assail it for its mindless hostility to Pakistan. Police investigation has revealed that Farook had gone to Saudi Arabia for Haj in October 2013. A Facebook entry now unearthed reveals how Malik had sometime ago pledged her allegiance to the IS. The couple, killed in the police chase after the incident, leave behind a daughter, less than a year old. How on earth could you expect such a young couple to indulge in this kind of violence? If this was not radicalisation of youth, what else was it? Also, one basic question. How did the couple get their firearms? Their case shows that firearms control in the U.S. is a cruel joke.
It is easy to fault the FBI, which covers domestic intelligence in the U.S., for having failed to identify the couple before the incident. When there is no information that the two had received any external directions to act the way they did, surveillance — physical or electronic — may not have helped. This is the complexity of the task that daunts intelligence agencies the world over.
One cannot brand intelligence and police agencies as total failures. Do we know how many terrorist attempts have been foiled? We don’t, because governments cannot go to town with their successes in having nipped some diabolic plans in the bud. Once in a while they do, however, let us know of some of their achievements. A very recent example is the arrest of a few Lashkar-e-Taiba cadres in New Delhi who are said to have been prowling around for quite some time to strike. It is said that one of their targets was Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We need to laud the Delhi Police and the Intelligence Bureau for this remarkable piece of work.
“One cannot brand intelligence and police agencies as total failures.”
It would be equally unfair to believe that anyone in Mr. Obama’s place could have done better. He may look drained out having led the nation for seven difficult years. That does not detract from the fact that he is trying to leave a deep impression on the nation in this vital area. Such is the highly insidious nature of modern terrorism that we can hardly expect from any government the kind of dramatic results we desperately want. I won’t go to the extent of what one CNN commentator said after the Sunday broadcast: the President’s fulmination could be greeted with laughter by the ISIL. That was a cynical and possibly harsh reaction flowing from frustration that no leader has been able to tame terror of the kind we saw in Paris, and now San Bernardino. A charitable response would be that those who are leading the fight need a strong helping hand rather than condemnation. If the IS continues to strike terror in all of us, it is not because governments the world over have not tried every means to outwit what has proved to be an outfit deadlier than al-Qaeda. Those in the administration in many countries have simply been outclassed and outmanoeuvred. Here, we need to recall the classic statement of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was out to get British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “We’ve to be lucky just once. You’ve to be lucky all the time!” This is the harsh truth of a problem that is getting increasingly out of hand due to radicalisation of young minds.
Mr. Obama was skating on thin ice while referring to Islam in his address. He laboured to convince his audience that great care should be shown while condemning those guilty of terrorist attacks so as not to defame a whole religion. He pointed out how a large number of Muslims themselves were victims of terror. While this benign outlook to Islam is unexceptionable, I thought we had gone far beyond these trite statements in outlining a future strategy.
“Citizens the world over are no longer willing to accept governments’ excuses for non-performance in any sphere.”
We must remember that as the head of state, Mr. Obama had precious little options, and especially in an election year. This is why all eyes are centred on Hillary Clinton. Will she toe Mr. Obama’s line, or will she up the ante by plumping for tougher measures, including enhanced surveillance, both physically and electronically? She cannot afford to seem/seen to be soft against some Republican rabble-rousers like Donald Trump. Before long, her dilemma is likely to become glaringly pronounced. Interesting times lie ahead for the U.S. voter.
The President’s statement that terrorism was still evolving in the form of IS and that counterterrorism had to adapt itself was striking for its home truth. In this context, increased gun control and greater use of technology seem to be of limited value in neutralising groups that are openly promoting and abetting the IS’s cause. But what about the lone wolves acting recklessly? There is no answer as yet.
In the final analysis, citizens the world over are no longer willing to accept governments’ excuses for non-performance in any sphere. This is particularly true of terrorism. They want hard results by way of prevention. They may be artless and naive to believe that terrorists can be extirpated, and that governments could do a lot more. But then they simply don’t want to be victims of religious fundamentalism. It is as simple as that.
(R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director.)
In the wake of the Paris attacks, it is significant that world leaders, most specifically the leaders of the U.S. and Europe are meeting twice this month to discuss a global strategy to fight Islamic State (IS) — once in Turkey for the G-20, and in France for the COP21 climate change conference. It is significant as France and Turkey are the two countries that have most recently faced the brunt of IS’ new offensive outside of Syria and Iraq.
In October this year, twin bombings near the Ankara train station killed about 100 people and then 129 died in the multiple shootings and suicide bombings on 13th November in Paris. But there is another link between the two countries, and that is their support to Anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria.
For the past four years, it is France’s moral and technical support and Turkey’s physical support, opening its borders for fighters to cross over, channelling arms and funds that have been most crucial to these groups. In 2011, President François Hollande was at the forefront of a possible intervention in Syria, and was readying his jets for an attack on Damascus and Syrian forces, when a vote in the U.K. parliament, and U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to approach his Congress, forced him to pull back.
President (then Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear Turkey would help in any way to bring down the Assad regime and it practically facilitated thousands of fighters who came from all over Europe and West Asia to stream into Syria.
While neither accepted the fact openly, there is no doubt that it is those actions that most weakened the Assad forces, and more importantly strengthened the hand of IS. Coupled with the IS gains in Iraq where the U.S. itself admits its disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2003 was a major factor. These fighters were boosted by the overthrow and then killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya by Islamist rebels, who received support from NATO strikes, and later moved from Libya to Syria in large numbers to join IS forces.
But despite the gains IS has made, establishing its own quasi-government in Raqqa, amassing land and oil installations in both Syria and Iraq, and carrying out the most brutal pogrom on non-Sunnis everywhere, the target for the U.S. and Europe has remained fixed on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Even when it emerged that IS was engaged in institutionalised rape of Yezidi girls and establishing a massive slavery market, as IS showed video after video of how it killed its hostages, burning a Jordanian pilot alive, drowning others in cages, beheading many on camera, these countries maintained that Assad was the biggest threat, and that they could only truly fight IS once his regime was gone. But that was then, and this is now.
It is significant that in the wake of the attacks on their civilians, France and Turkey are the two countries that are making the biggest shift in their positions. Over the past month, the Turkish Parliament has authorised Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for strikes on IS territory, including sending ground forces if necessary, while within days of the Paris attacks France has carried out the most heavy bombardment of Raqqa, something it had criticised Russia for doing only a few weeks before.
A joint statement issued by France, Turkey, the United States, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Britain on October 3 had called on Russia to cease its bombardment of Syria, and focus “only on ISIS”. None of those calls for restraint are being heard anymore, as President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and other leaders have met with President Putin, calling for a united front against terrorism. It is hard to understand how these bombings will be any more successful than the U.S. coalition has been in the past year given that there is no coordination with forces on the ground.
The U.S.-backed strikes in Iraq have been successful, to the point of liberating Sinjar from IS, only because Iraqi forces have been providing intelligence and back-up from the ground. It is only a matter of time before the West accepts that it needs similar support from Syrian forces of the Assad regime on the ground if it wants an early outcome to the war on terror.
'The West has to acknowledge its mistakes'
What is also clear is that the West has to acknowledge its mistakes of the past if it seeks to secure the future of West Asia, and in the process secure its own cities against the terror wreaked in Paris.
The first is to accept that its interventions for regime change of secular governments in Iraq, Libya and Syria have only strengthened Islamist forces in these countries. Replacing one brutal dictator, with equally if not more brutal chaos is hardly cause to declare victory, as the U.S. and its allies have done in the past.
The second is to question the free pass given to Saudi rulers, who have funded radical Islamisation through Madrassas around the world, and in the Syrian case, funded militant Islamic groups in order to counter Iran’s influence there. In South Asia, the effects of similar funding are apparent in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives as well. The U.S., in particular, must ask the question: what would its response have been if the 9/11 attacks had been carried out by 15 nationals of any other country, who were funded by a terrorist leader who belonged to one of the richest groups in that country? The same country has carried out months of air strikes in Yemen this year, reducing the country to rubble without even the semblance of a U.N. mandate, or of serious distress from the West over its actions.
The third double standard the West should acknowledge is in its expectations from other countries that face the same terror that they do. After the 9/11 New York attacks, the U.S. struck across Afghanistan and demolished the Taliban regime there. After the 7/7 London bombings, Britain increased its presence in Afghanistan and stepped up the strikes. After the Paris attacks, France is vowing a “pitiless revenge” on IS, and has already started the bombing in Syria. Yet, after the Mumbai attacks, the West only counselled restraint to India, which, to India’s credit it would have kept anyway. What’s worse, India’s repeated demands for the U.N. to effect the prosecution of Hafiz Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba have received only polite lip service. Instead, the U.S. government agreed to a plea bargain for one of the attacks key planners David Headley, and when the operations commander of the 26/11 attacks Zaki-Ur-Rehman Lakhvi received bail in Lahore this year, the U.N. refused to even investigate how the Pakistan government was able to evade its strict sanction regime. When the Paris attacks occurred, everyone remembered Mumbai, especially the subsequent Osama Bin Laden directive to his followers to carry out “Mumbai-style” attacks in the U.K., Germany and France. It would be better if they remember also, what they have done since then.
It is time to call the West’s ISIS bluff now, so that no country’s citizens suffer what the people of Paris did on Friday the 13th again.
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