January 04, 2016

Like 2015, 2016 has also not been off to a very good start. Currently, an Indian air force base is under attack in Pathankot in the Indian state of Punjab. The attack, which began on January 2, is still on going with four terrorists of the Jaish-e-Mohammad already killed by security forces. Two suspected terrorists are still holed up in the base. In the first week of this year alone, there has been a shooting in Tel Aviv and Mogadishu and a suicide bombing in Kabul, followed by an attack on Indian territory.

What do terrorists hope to achieve by these consistent attacks on state and civil society? Are they being successful in achieving their aims?

Before I start attempting to answer these questions, I must introduce some caveats. First, it appears that most acts of terrorism these days originate from groups that claim an Islamic justification for their actions. I will stress here that it is extremely important to rationally locate the actions of such groups not in the context of a particular religion – in this case Islam – but in the context of political events that have contributed to the rise of radical groups (like ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Al Qaeda and the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan) in various parts of the world. In essence, the argument that goes something like, “all acts of terrorism are done by Muslims” is dangerous and misleading, apart from being an extremely lazy argument, simply because the “Muslims” that are part of terrorist groups are there because of political and economic reasons that are later embedded in a particular religious discourse. Undoubtedly, political demands when embedded in a powerful religious discourse, end up having much power and purchase on the minds of young people in a process not very different from the type of political and economic disillusionment that fed into the rise of National Socialism in Germany after the First World War. Second, I add a corollary here that not all Muslims are terrorists. In fact, most Muslims in the world live in democracies and are clearly not part of any terrorist outfits. Third, many Muslims are women and do not have a strident role in political life in many parts of the world. Fourth, I focus explicitly on non-state terrorism, i.e., I am trying to understand some aspects of terrorism, which do not emanate from the coercive state apparatus in any part of the world. A discussion of state terrorism in the form of unrestricted counterinsurgency operations needs a separate body of work.

Acts of terrorism, to be successful, rely on the internalization of fear in a targeted local population. Acts of terrorism are scripted to breed uncertainty, decrease social trust, and in doing so, fracture social capital between groups in society. I will run through this logic a little more clearly. Suppose for a moment that a group conducts a terrorist attack in a shopping mall. In doing so, 40 people die while running errands when a powerful bomb goes off. The snowball effect of this event occurs in the following way. First, people develop a natural fear of public spaces and such attacks in marketplaces disrupt everyday life for individuals. This creates a state of exception where even the smallest public obligation (like buying milk, and, on another level, voting in an election) becomes a risky endeavor. Terrorists win when they increase the transaction costs involved in an individual living a good, healthy, fear-free life.

Second, when an act of terror takes place the coercive and political apparatus of a country can pretty much focus on little else. The French police last year were completely engaged in a massive manhunt for the Paris attackers. The same thing happened in Boston in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing. Similarly, after 9/11 the NYPD, and the FBI were both massively engaged in finding the culprits. By engaging the state fully and demanding the state’s complete attention and making security the primary concern of the state (above things like healthcare and development), terrorists win.

Third, on the political front, politicians are required, after a terrorist strike, to show strength. Post 9/11, the American government introduced the Patriot Act (2001) that allowed intelligence agencies to peek into people’s houses and inform them later, followed by an expansion of the Patriot Act, which could legally compel service providers to share information about particular individuals. Similarly, in 2008, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court could undertake “warrantless” monitoring of American citizens’ foreign phone calls and communications. Airport surveillance was increased internationally post 9/11 and the Department of Homeland Security gained more rights to access information about citizens. Terrorists win when they empower the state to act in the best interests of its citizenry and in doing so the state deprives its own citizens of civil liberties. This is how terrorists not only win, but they also turn the legitimate state apparatus into a handmaiden of their project of fear 

Fourth, terrorism is successful because it does not follow a set pattern. A terrorist strike cannot be accurately predicted (unless one has access to some really good intelligence) and because of this intelligence, police and military agencies work overtime in trying to pre-empt an attack. This also means that preventive arrests take place, people are tortured for information and the security apparatus wrongly detains many people, who have no real link to terrorism. This has happened in most countries of the world, which have faced active terrorism. Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Manipur and Assam are states in India where the search for information about insurgents and terrorists has led to enforced disappearances, fake encounter killings and wrongful arrests. This is also, how terrorists win. They compel a policy shift in the state’s worldview. The state begins playing an odd role – it is a protector and a persecutor of its own citizens.

Fifth, terrorists win because we being to self-censor – what people say and how they live begins to change. Terrorists, when they start out, only have political demands embedded in an ideology that rides on the barrels of a few guns (mostly guns for hire). Over time, the few guns are enough to force people to comply with their ideology. In this way, local consent is manufactured by force. Take for instance, Punjabi terrorists in the 1990s demanding that all schoolgirls be fully covered. Most schools enforced dress codes. Similarly, the Taliban implemented dress codes wherever it operated. So has ISIS. Non-compliance with these new social codes is punishable in various ways, including public executions. Terrorists need local compliance. This is the only way they can keep operating because they need to make sure that the local population will shelter them and hold their secrets. The local population constitutes the recruiting ground for new soldiers. This is precisely why someone like Malala Yousafzai appears as a threat to terrorists, because she represents non-compliance with their ideology. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, many news channels refused to show pictures of the controversial cartoons. Anchors were allowed to verbally describe them. The logic was a protectionist one – the news channels did not want to be similarly targeted. However, in the bigger scheme of things, this was an act of self-censorship. The terrorists won because they could get some of the biggest world news organizations (like CNN) to agree with their agenda (that the cartoons were offensive and blasphemous and blasphemy is punishable by death).

Sixth, terrorism is not only violent and political. It is also social. Many ideologies that harbor insurgent or terrorist groups also want to change social relations in society. Whether it is the Maoists in India that want overthrow the state and give land to the tiller, or whether it is the Tehrik-e-Taliban that wants compliance with full Sharia (amongst other things), such groups aim at altering social relations. Sadly, the biggest victims of terrorism are usually women. A terrorist ideology also has a strange gendered logic. In almost all cases, terrorist groups call for a radical change in the behavior and dress codes for women, but also re-script the roles that women can play in society; in most cases dragging women back to the dark ages. The Taliban did just that, as did the Khalistan movement, as do the Maoists (although some think that the role accorded to women under Maoism is more progressive. Agreed they can tote gun and wear pants, but reports indicate female Maoist fighters are still cooking and cleaning for the most part.) In this manner, terrorists win because they can change the way women live their lives and deny them access to the achievement human capabilities 

Seventh, I will go back to a point I made earlier in this piece. Terrorists win because they are able to create or exacerbate existing rifts in society. For instance, every act of “Islamic” terrorism feeds the right wing. Therefore, in France, all its show of solidarity following last week’s attacks notwithstanding, it is almost inevitable that an ordinary Frenchman will begin to view people of certain races as untrustworthy. This was true in many cases in the United States after 9/11. It is true of India, where trolling the right wing’s Facebook profiles only shows Muslims in a terrible light as violent and hypersexual. After every act conducted by ISIS and Al Qaeda, the members of the Hindu right amplify their commentary.

I must reiterate that these are illogical responses to acts of terrorism. An entire group should not be held responsible for the acts of a small number of people. This is not because we all need to hold on to secularism or some such ideology. It is because the logic does not make sense. Take for instance, the issue of rape. We don’t hold all men responsible for one act of rape now, do we, or even for one million? However, most rapes are committed by men against women. So why don’t we apply the “all Muslims are terrorists logic” to the issue of rape and suggest that “all men are rapists”.

We don’t do so because we understand that such an argument lacks basic logic. Similarly, the logic of “all Muslims are terrorists” also lacks basic common sense. It is virtually impossible for all people of a particular community to be involved in acts of terrorism. Further, as I have mentioned before, these acts of terrorism may use religion as a legitimating discourse, but need to be placed in the local political and economic contexts in which they arise.

If we don’t do this, we allow terrorists to win. This is because they want to alienate their group or tribe or class. Every act of terrorism, when it leads to common people believing that another group is dangerous or untrustworthy, has succeeded because one doubting individual giving into paranoia and acting accordingly in a bigoted fashion, is all it takes for an “othered” person to think that there is some logic to a radical terrorist ideology. It makes the person vulnerable to recruitment, because the othered person has been discriminated against and feels like less than a citizen or an individual.

In fact, I will end with this. The current discourse of worldwide terrorism brings to our minds a slightly altered version of the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations – Islam versus the Rest (instead of Islam versus the West). I choose to see 9/11 as a particularly effective tipping point or critical juncture in the evolution of Islamic terrorist organizations worldwide. The fall of the Twin Towers brought in its wake, the invasion of Afghanistan where counterinsurgency operations fragmented a fragile Taliban and turned it into a hydra-headed entity. In a similar fashion, the group we call ISIS today was originally known as the Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq was one of the few groups to launch a spirited defense of Iraq against the US invasion. Now, what we miss sometimes in the discussion on terrorism is that terrorist outfits are not markedly different from mafia organizations (except for all that stuff about ideology). In fact, like mafia organizations where one-upmanship is often decided based on who has the most guns, money or local power, terrorist groups too have a pecking order. The current competitive market in terrorism means that groups are trying to distinguish each other through the practice of more memorable violence (like the Charlie Hebdo attacks or the Peshawar attacks in December 2014). They need to do so because this is the only way in which they can be heard, become popular enough to attract recruits and distinguish themselves from other similar groups.

These acts of terrorism are not going to end anytime soon simply because existing political scripts about the resolution of conflict deal with inter-state conflict, not with homegrown terrorist groups. The existing liberal political discourse has currently drawn the short-straw because it cannot think in terms of combating terrorist threats at the level of discourse without in a weird way also justifying acts of terror by siding with Islam (in an attempt to defend it) or by decrying American foreign policy for creating all these groups. But what we need to focus on is to try evolving political languages that try to identify the logics of terrorism across the world and find solutions that would lead to a disappearance of terrorist groups. The standard political response of states across the world has been to answer non-state terrorism with terrorism of its own (like the Pakistani army stepping up counterinsurgency operations in North Waziristan after the Peshawar attacks). However, there is good evidence that this has not worked very well.

(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.)

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