In anti-terror fight, the problem is the West

The most significant component of fighting terrorism is intelligence. Source: Reuters

The most significant component of fighting terrorism is intelligence. Source: Reuters

Ajai Sahni, terrorism specialist and executive director, Institute for Conflict Management, said the problem in forging an international coalition against terrorism is the duplicity of the West. He spoke in an exclusive wide-ranging interview with RIR.

RIR: Russian vice prime-minister Dmitry Rogozin visited India recently and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who expressed support for Russian efforts in struggle with terrorism. What does the terrorism problem mean for India?

Ajai Sahni:  As far as India is concerned we have been with terrorism for nearly three decades now. Our principal problem has been Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism. This is a movement which speaks in the name of Islam but is eventually controlled by the Pakistani state. This is a movement which has been particularly intense in Kashmir, but has also been active in other parts of the country. And this is a movement which responds to the strategic objectives of the Pakistani state. Whatever are the names of actual groups operating, they are all connected with their Pakistani controllers. Particularly the Inter Services Intelligence of the Pakistan army. We understand what Pakistan wants, we understand how Pakistan operates. So we can exert countermeasures on Pakistan.

This changed when Al-Qaeda came into this region. Because Al-Qaeda doesn’t follow the state interests of Pakistan. It has its own agenda. And that agenda is global. Nevertheless Al-Qaeda has failed in its efforts to extend its jihad to India. We have records of Osama Bin Laden referring to the need of jihad in India and calling on Indian Muslims to join the jihad going back to 1996. In these 19 years Al-Qaeda has failed to get any kind of traction in India. That doesn’t mean nobody from India went to join Al-Qaeda. In fact, one of the most powerful radicalization movements in India, the Students Islamic Movement of India had, in the early 1990s, declared Osama Bin Laden to be what they called “the ideal man”. But it (SIMI) had been more or less neutralized. Many SIMI cadres and leaders left India and now operate from Pakistan.

The next escalation came with an Islamic State. Islamic State is essentially the product of Al-Qaeda, a breakaway group from Al-Qaeda that was part of Al-Qaeda till 2013. It has the same global ambitions; it has the same ideology of jihad. What it brings to the entire dynamic of terrorism is an extraordinary brutality. This is not to say that Al-Qaeda and Taliban were not beheading people in the past. But Islamic State had brought a new, almost industrial scale to their executions. They brought a new way of theatrical violence, very dramatic violence. And this combines with the successes in Iraq and Syria. Now they want to bring their jihad to India. The essential problem in Iraq and Syria was the irresponsible interventions by western countries, destroying the capacity of the existing states. They came into Iraq, they completely destabilized it; they destroyed all institutions, all infrastructure, all state capacities. Then they initiated an opportunistic intervention in Syria and, over vast areas, they facilitated destruction of the state across very large areas, by providing weapons and resources to violent armed groups.

IS has not taken over many areas in direct major military confrontations with state forces. They had taken areas which were already had being controlled by other rebel groups, by getting those rebel groups to change their affiliation to the IS.

To come back to India, the IS has made this declaration asking for Indians to come to join their jihad in Iraq and Syria, and also to engage in jihad in India. This has had almost negligible effect. We have a population of over hundred and seventy million Muslims, but we have just 26 documented cases of people having gone to Iraq and Syria. Six of these persons are now known to have been killed; one came back to India and is in state custody. I do not think there will be very many more. If we are saying 26, there may be another 30, 40 or 50 over there.

RIR: You just mentioned a big number of Muslims living in India. What is the reason why Indian Muslim people are not so interested in IS propaganda?

Sahni:  I would not say that there is no danger because there may be a possibility of a larger number of Muslims going from India. This is because of the nature and character of the IS. Several things had attracted people to IS. One is its ‘military’ successes. The second is its brutality, its demonstrative violence. The third is the declaration of ‘caliphate’. In the first months it seemed that the IS was unconquerable. The truth was that they were not being resisted. The glamour of victory is slowly fading away with each defeat.

Ajai Sahni. Source: Artem SanzhievAjai Sahni. Source: Artem Sanzhiev

Very few people would be attracted by brutal actions like beheading people, burning people or things like that. But these actions have been rejected and criticized by the vast majority, not only of non-Muslims, but of Muslims as well. IS is being openly criticized. No one today speaks for IS among established Muslim nation states. Many Muslim nations have come together for the first time without thoughts of regional politics, to fight IS. The third fact is the ‘caliphate’ declaration which was popular among violently inclined Muslims, attracting a few to join the jihad in Iraq and Syria. But the declaration of the Caliphate has also alienated and offended the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

Again, from the richest terrorist organization in the world, it IS has now become one of the poorest proto-states of the world. What seemed to be great resources for a terrorist organization are proving to be very small resources for a state-like structure. They are finding it difficult to sustain their ‘caliphate’.

RIR: Can this change?

Sahni:  Yes, international events, internal events can change this. If suddenly there is some reason for some polarization in Indian society, then it is possible that some people could be attracted by IS. Number two, as I said, most of our problems have been Pakistan based and backed. Pakistan is a neighbouring state. It is an established state with substantial resources. It is a state which has very close ties with India, ethnic and cultural. They speak like us, look like us. With all these advantages, Pakistan has failed to radicalize the Indian Muslim population. Any resources that IS bring to India will always be much smaller then Pakistan’s. So, I do not see any dramatic escalation of the threat. The general trend in India, in fact across South Asia, has been of a decline in radical Islamist terrorism. It is more visible in India and Bangladesh. In Jammu and Kashmir in 2001, 4507 people were killed in terrorism related violence. This year, 163 people have been killed so far.

RIR: You know that any terrorist organization cannot survive without money and what we can see now, it’s quite surprising, that such a brutal and aggressive terrorist organization has quite active business ties, selling oil to Turkey and even cotton and art. So it looks like a kind of business syndicate that use terrorism as tools to make good money.

Sahni: No, I wouldn’t agree with this. Any army needs funds. Whatever the ideology, if you want to fight you need resources. So, every fighting organization will secure resources. Fighting organizations that are basically criminal in their orientation will derive resources from criminality. Now here we see a terrorist entity which controls significant production resources, including production of oil, other local produce like cotton, state and archaeological treasures. This does not make it a commercial organization. The fact that they are looting these resources is part of the broad criminal and terrorist enterprise they are engaged in. They are doing much worse to other human beings. IS is beyond redemption; it is an entity that needs to be destroyed. The problem is with the states that are engaged in these commercial transactions with IS.

RIR: India has a very strong system against illegal financing and partly it is also aimed to stop possible financing of terrorist organization. From Indian experience what steps should th international community take to prevent IS?

Sahni: When you move from national to international response, you move from a situation where domestic authorities have powers to enforcement to a situation where no specific authority has legal capacities and legal mandate for enforcement, where no entity can impose its legal will. The United Nations passes resolutions, but who will implement them? Which body is to judge Turkey’s present conduct? Who is to say that American or European interventions in Syria were wrong steps or the Russian intervention in Syria is right or wrong? In international affairs power is all tenths of the law. If you have the power to prevail, then you are right. If you do not have the power to prevail, then you are wrong. The political and security vacuum that has been created across Iraq and Syria is the environment in which IS could appear and flourish. This environment was created by the West. The West is in no position to take the high moral ground. Yet they tell Russia that their interventions are wrong and illegal.

RIR: Because they always like to tell this…

Sahni: Yes, That’s right. But they have no grounds to do so. If Russia had not intervened in Syria, the entire country would already have fallen to IS. It has been recognized only after the Paris bombings that may be this is not a bad idea to engage with Russia in the fight against the IS. Russia’s position on Syria has been far more consistent and coherent than the West. But it is only when their own people get killed that wisdom comes to the Eurocentric West-centric nations. As long as other people in distant places are being killed, they keep on talking nonsense about “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Now everyone knows who the terrorist is, what is right and what is wrong. Now everybody knows what is the threat of IS, because some people died in Paris. When a Russian airliner was brought down, all the western leaders said that this is the natural consequence of Russia’s intervention in Syria, that this was a lesson for Putin. But if you say Paris is a lesson for western intervention in Iraq and Syria, they would say: “Oh, you are supporting terrorism”. You see duplicity all the time,

RIR: There is a lot of talk about forming an international coalition against IS. But countries cannot find the compromise that could satisfy all sides. What is your opinion about possible way to unite all world forces against IS?

Sahni: The more IS commits acts of terrorism against the Western world there will be more and more demand for an international coalition. It doesn’t matter how many Russian aircrafts are blown up or how many Russian people are killed because Russians are, like other people of the world, lesser people in the eyes of West. So, as long as terrorism is hitting others, there will always be a justification. Putin is a dictator, Russia is intervening in Ukraine, Syria, so terrorist acts directed against Russia are justified. But when these things hit the West, then they start to tell the whole world: “Why do you not find consensus?” When India was screaming that they were giving safe haven, support, training and money to Khalistani and Kashmiri terrorists, nobody listened. Everybody said: “Oh, we don’t know whether these are terrorists or freedom fighters”. But now suddenly, everyone knows what a terrorist is. As long as their own lives are not at risk, they do not know or care how many hundreds of thousands of peoples are killed and displaced in West Asia, in Africa, in South Asia, in other parts of the world, where lesser human beings live. That is the problem about getting an international consensus. The problem is the West.

RIR: And what about India? Indian troops are actively participating in peace-keeping operations under UN all over the world. So is India going to join an anti-IS war?

Sahni: I do not think that India would participate in any kind of operations in Iraq or Syria unless there is a clear UN mandate, unless they are called in a situation where they can engage under clear and definite command of a UN body, which is not the command of any Western powers or coalition, such as NATO. I do not see any great advantage in India joining this fight. India doesn’t bring any extraordinary resources into the equation. By putting boots on the ground, India would not improve the situation. In fact, it would potentially create further destabilization, because it will be seen as an external power with a particular cultural profile intervening over there. It would also cause possible disturbances within India. Later, when military operations are over, and when we will are speaking of processes of reconstruction, stabilization or maintenance of order, at that stage, India could productively participate.

RIR: How do you assess Russian intervention in Syria?

Sahni: If Russia had not intervened, IS would have captured all of Syria by now. I feel that the only sane policy in Syria was pursued by Russia. All western interventions in Syria and Iraq have been lunatic and irresponsible, and have created the situation in which Russian intervention was very much necessitated.

RIR: There have been talks between India and Russia about terrorism. What do you think about Indian-Russian cooperation against terrorism and in what form it could be realized?

Sahni: There is a big problem about all these talks of international cooperation and international coordination. The most significant component of fighting terrorism is intelligence. And the intelligence agencies, by their very nature, are closed entities and are not willing to open up to outside agencies. Number two, it is not only India and Russia who have spoken of coordination and cooperation, signed agreements for better intelligence sharing. We have signed such agreements with [several other countries as well. The point is, how will we implement these and to what extent will they translate into real operational cooperation? We cooperated very extensively with America in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Cooperation in this case served both of us, as Americans were also killed in that incident, and many Indians had also lost their lives there. From time to time we share some elements of our intelligence with other countries and we do it with Russia as well. If our agencies are aware of any specific threats of terrorism to Russia, I’m sure our agencies would inform Russia, and Russian agencies would do the same in case there is some specific threat to India.

RIR: What do you think about possibility of this IS conflict in Afghanistan?

Sahni: I do not consider it very significant. Whatever had been done in Afghanistan or Pakistan, IS is not creating any new capacities, it’s not transferring any resources from Iraq-Syria to these regions. Certain groups of Taliban or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan were dissatisfied with the leadership and had broken away and started calling themselves IS. It’s not somebody coming from there (Syria/Iraq), no resources are coming from there. People who were killing people are still the same, they are now doing it under a different flag.

IS is just another terrorist group. We should realize this: the more space we give to IS, the more extraordinary or exceptional it becomes. We are empowering it, by ceding operational spaces. These are just murderers with weapons and arms which they have received, directly or indirectly, from the West. They do not manufacture their own weapons or ammunition. If you deny their access to weapon or ammunition, how long will it last? If you want to focus on IS resources and capabilities, you should concentrate your own intelligence resources on identifying the entities that give weapons and ammunition to IS.

Even after 9/11, everybody continues to play the same games. They classify some terrorists as good terrorists and call them freedom fighters, as long as their own interests are not threatened; others, who do harm to the Western powers, are ‘bad terrorists’. All human behaviour is complicated, and so is terrorism.

The essence of terrorism is the intentional targeting of civilians.

Today America is saying Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliate in Syria, is acceptable in Syria. If Al-Qaeda can defeat IS and take over the state from Assad, then we are willing to accept it. Today they have forgotten that Al-Qaeda was their greatest enemy. So we are not looking at this as a global issue or global challenge. 

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