Islamist terror: Where are we now?
In medicine, the goal is either to cure a disease completely or prevent it altogether. A third option is to keep incurable ailments, such as chronic arthritis, within manageable limits with a ‘maintenance dose’.
It’s been nine years on since 9/11. The current state of the so-called Islamist terror is much like arthritis in a patient on maintenance dose for nine years: the problem is largely controlled, but nowhere close to being wiped out.
Al-Qaeda and its acolytes retain a stubborn critical mass. So, in coming years, we should expect the global terror machinery with a less-than-sparkling prowess, but active nonetheless.
The situation is not so bad, after all, or as bad as it sounds. There has not been a repeat of 9/11. But terrorists will strive to plot such spectacular attacks as Mumbai’s 26/11.
Think about the swine flu epidemic. When it set off in Mexico, world over, people were rattled. On Delhi’s Metro trains, panicky commuters were seen masking themselves to stave off an infection. The disease has since been largely subdued, but still, somebody, somewhere can get infected. Global terror is now no more threatening and deadly than the swine flu.
Security agencies foiled an al-Qaeda plot of Yemeni origin to blow up cargo airplanes with bombs hidden in printer-cartridge parcels. The devices were pin-pointedly located in cargo sheds in Dubai and the UK. Click here.
The parcel bomb tip-off apparently came from an al-Qaeda fighter de-radicalised by the Saudis, but one who had re-joined terror ranks, pointing to the possibility of him being a double-agent or a mole.
This means counter-terrorism is working and tip-offs are getting more precise.
There are several upsides in this war against terror. One, Islamist terrorism does not enjoy the support of a single regime in countries they have roots in. The Saudis, Bahrain, Jordan, Emirates, Yemen, et cetera, are not just opposed to the “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” group but are also bent on crushing it. South East Asian nations, such as Indonesia, too are on the right side of the war on terror.
However, the downside is that global terror has proved to be resilient. Moreover, collateral damages involving civilians from strikes launched by NATO or the US only evoke public anger. An elusive end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means the “cause” remains alive. A drone attack in Yemen recently killing civilians, for instance, fuelled a tribal uprising.
It’s simply impossible to stub out terror by killing each one of the bad guys. It will take resolution of regional conflicts too. A particular danger is that the US-led war on terror represents as some sort of an attempt to take over Muslim territories to many Islamist insurgencies and even to non-radical societies.
How to tackle terror without appearing to threaten Islam itself? This is what those leading this war should think about.
What began as a jihad to eject the Americans from the Saudi and Palestinian lands is now increasingly a fight to remove them also from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Click here for the original 1996 fatwa of bin Laden, which is officially accepted by the US as one of his motives.
(For those interested in studying the forces that spurred Islamist terror, this fatwa is an interesting read. Laden mentions instances of horrific suffering of Muslims, including killing of tens of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I do not know if Laden knows this or not: it was America that stepped in to save ethnic Bosnian Muslims and stop the massacre.)
To say — as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has, that some Muslims are fundamentally opposed to the West and therefore will always try to destroy it is simply a sweeping statement. Click here.
Blair must remember that mentioning “America” and “Canada” can evoke very different reactions among Muslims, as a Gallup poll had found. Muslims in some countries may still snap at the mention of US, but would simply appear unaffected and opinion-less at the mention of Canada. Both equally fit the frame of being “North American, Western countries”.
Blair is largely talking rubbish when he says Saddam Hussein may not have had “weapons of mass destruction” but had the intent to acquire them. How do you prove intent? North Korea has a belligerent nuclear weapons mission. Now, should it be invaded?
Blair now faces trial in his own country for his decision to invade Iraq. And for Bush, who has said that the world was anyways “better off without Saddam”, one could say that might be true of Bush himself, for the sake of argument.
Indeed, America under Bush and Obama are two very different Americas.
In Iraq, deadly bombs continue to go off in what is essentially a conflict fitting snugly in the definition of a civil war between Shias and Sunnis. In Afghanistan, the fight continues to be and will be about ousting Americans from Afghan soil.
In Pakistan, terror is directed against a regime seen to be siding with the Americans. However, frequently, it is difficult to guess who’s fighting who there. In recent months, several deadly attacks in mosques and shrines betray signs of Muslim sectarian clashes.
So, now we are left with two broad strands of terror: one that is directed against the US and the second one that comprises Islamist insurrections directed against their native regimes. The inter-operability and networking among them are threats to look out for.
Americans, who pulled out of Iraq in August, say they foresee the terror machinery reduced to an “irreducible minimum”. This means that terror attacks will continue at a sub-optimal level.
I believe the war on terror, led by America, is going to change course once President Obama manages to pull out of Afghanistan or “draw down” from there, as the Americans call it. It will be less about direct intervention, as in Iraq, and more about counter-terrorism cooperation.
The US will and should work closely with regimes in trouble-spots, such as in Yemen, where the Americans pumped in $300m this year.
On the other hand, Islam itself is evolving and Islamic regimes in Muslim countries are creating capacities for educational, economic and social opening.
For Islam-baiters, an Islam not at odds with modernity may sound unbelievable. However, Samuel Huntington — whose Clash of Civilizations was about an Islam fundamentally pitted against the West – had also once said that if there was one religion he wasn’t sure would be able to handle modernity, it was Roman Catholicism. Christianity has traveled far from where Huntington had left it. So will Islam.