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2019-05-13

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Security Related Matters
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“The attacks in Sri Lanka underline the many cracks in the concept of a global War on Terror.” Security personnel inspect the interior of St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 22, a day after a bomb blast in the church. AFP  

The brutal attacks on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, for which the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, have reignited discussion on the global ‘War on Terror’. Scholars and officials across the world are studying the links of the bombers to the IS’s former ‘Caliphate’ in Syria, where at least two of the bombers are believed to have travelled, and several leaders have now called for a greater focus on the global dimensions of the counter-terrorism effort. The attacks in Sri Lanka, however, also underline the many cracks in the concept of a global ‘War on Terror’, and raise questions on what it has achieved in the time since the term was coined by former U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

First, the original mission that the War on Terror was named for is floundering. Not only has the coalition of about 60 countries that sent troops and offered logistical support for ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ failed to end terrorism in Afghanistan, it appears it is preparing to hand the country back to the oppressive Taliban regime that it defeated in December 2001. This, despite the fact there is no guarantee that the terror groups living in safe havens in Pakistan will not also have the run of Afghanistan once the coalition pulls out.

A new fault line in post-war Sri Lanka

The war in Afghanistan was only one of the many coalitions the U.S. led in the name of the War on Terror: 46 nations joined the ‘coalition of the willing’ to defeat Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, and 19 were a part of the coalition that ousted Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya in 2011. The U.S. and allied countries were sidetracked by the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, which led them to bolster anti-Bashar al-Assad groups in Syria. This eventually paved the way for the IS to establish a ‘Caliphate’ in territories in Syria and Iraq. The next coalition was formed to fight the terror of the IS. The number of global terror attacks (maintained in a Global Terrorism Database by the University of Maryland of events from 1970 to 2018) per year went up from 1,000 in 2004 to 17,000 in 2014. It is clear that the countries in question — Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Iraq — are far from free of the spectre of terrorism. Despite the defeat of the ‘Caliphate’ territorially, the IS or its franchises are appearing in new parts of the world. Sri Lanka is the latest on that list.

Second, rather than helping fight pan-Islamist terror groups, the War on Terror appears to help the IS and al-Qaeda more, giving them a footprint far bigger than their actual abilities. This helps them recruit and radicalise Muslim youth from around the globe, and allows them to own terrorists around the world as their own, as IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did in a rare video posted shortly after the Easter Sunday attacks.

Third, the narrative they build of a “fight for Islam” is equally false. According to the Global Terrorism Database, of the 81 terror attacks in which more than 100 were killed (high casualty) since 2001, more than 70 were carried out in Islamic or Muslim-majority countries. In a specific search of high casualty terror attacks on religious institutions since 2001, 18 of the top 20 were by Islamist groups on mosques. The War on Terror thus appears to be a concept peddled mostly by pan-Islamist groups and propagated most often by extremists of other religions as a motive for terror attacks, such as the 2011 Utoya island attack in Norway or the New Zealand attacks this year. Governments in countries affected by terrorism must not subscribe to this narrative blindly.

Easter Sunday bombings: Why Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka, for example, the reason the members of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) were successful in their diabolical plot had as much to do with the fact that intelligence inputs given by India were ignored as it did with the fact that since the defeat of the LTTE, Sri Lankan authorities had let their guard down and ignored growing internal fault lines. As a result, despite complaints about the speeches that suspected mastermind Mohamed Zahran Hashim made as a preacher of a mosque in Sri Lanka’s Eastern province, he went unchallenged. Police and intelligence agencies also failed to keep a stern eye on other NTJ bombers who were IS returnees, despite the fact that only about 32 Sri Lankans in all are believed to have travelled to IS territory.

Fourth, it is necessary for countries fighting terrorism to learn more closely from their differences, rather than try to generalise from experience. Comparing European states like the U.K., France and Belgium, where hundreds of immigrant Muslims have enlisted for the IS, to South Asian states like India, where Muslim populations are indigenous and only a few dozen are believed to have left for Syria, is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Indian officials have also claimed a higher success in deradicalising IS returnees, because they have enlisted whole families, neighbourhoods and local Maulvis in their efforts. In Bangladesh too, after the 2016 attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, government advertisements asked mothers to check on their children’s activities. This acknowledgement that radicalised terrorists are a part of a community is in stark contrast to the current debate in many European countries that are refusing to take IS returnees and their families back. Similarly, several Central Asian states propagate a much more hard-line approach on counter-radicalisation, by banning beards and hijabs, while China’s re-education internment camps in Xinjiang have raised questions about human rights. The success or failure of each of these approaches must be studied before deciding their applicability elsewhere.

Fifth, the world community must address contradictions in the War on Terror. For 20 years, the world has failed to agree on a common definition of terrorism at the United Nations. This has held up the passage of the Indian-sponsored proposal for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. Despite the fact that Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar has been targeting Indians incessantly for years, they must ask why China allowed his UN Security Council designation as a global terrorist only after mentions of his attacks in India were removed. They must ask why the U.S. is focused on billing Iran the “world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism”, while states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that have funded and sheltered Islamist terror groups are still treated as “frontline allies” on terror. And why, despite all their resources and expertise, the alliance of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand that share global intelligence was unable to see the impending threat in Sri Lanka. Unless the world is truly united on the issue and resolves such contradictions, the global War on Terror will only be as strong as its weakest link.

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

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