Counter terrorism’s growing footprint
by Sandhya Jain on 20 Mar 2018 8 Comments

In July 2018, the United Nations will likely undertake its sixth bi-annual review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy that was adopted by consensus in 2006. In the dozen years that have since elapsed, terror attacks have spread all over the globe, challenging authorities with their shape-shifting tactics – bomb attacks at civilian targets, armed attacks on military camps, suicide bombers, gunning down school children in cold blood, taking hostages in popular café’s, weaponising heavy vehicles, even ferocious knife attacks – all of which are difficult to envisage and control.


The United Nations recognises terrorism as a scourge of our times, but has not been able to arrive at a uniform definition of terrorism. Upon reflection, this is not as astonishing as it seems, because terrorism does not rise from a single root. Since the turn of the century, the world has witnessed a plethora of groups claiming allegiance to and inspiration from a particular faith, and having the ability to act in service of its goal of world domination.


Unlike the rest of the world, modern India has suffered Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism spawned by its proponents from at least the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, an episode of such chilling barbarity that it led the Congress party to concede Partition. Sadly, the party thereafter tolerated controlled fundamentalism in Jammu and Kashmir and other places in a quest for political longevity, forcing citizens to ingest this poison harvest.


Simultaneously, India has been victim of a ruthless terror with non-religious roots, viz., Naxalism, or Maoism, a millenarian ideology that aggressively seeks to undermine the State while ostensibly representing rural and tribal grievances. In past decades, other nations have also experienced violence with differing origins and objectives. Hence, it is understandable that governments concur that terrorism cannot be conflated with any creed, and that a single definition cannot encompass religious and secular denominations of terror.


Having said that, most contemporary terrorist organisations claim loyalty to one philosophy; the most virulent is Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh (Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham). Many successful terrorists are professionally qualified, even from rich families; their motivations are religio-political and are driven by an irrational ambition to forcefully bring the world under a so-called caliphate based on an interpretation of the Koran that even Wahhabi Riyadh finds unduly extreme.


These groups have created a powerful and below the radar system of identifying vulnerable persons through social networks or social media, and selecting them for indoctrination. Recruits are encouraged to cut themselves off from family and friends and listen only to the mentor(s), which is how they end up in trouble spots like Syria. The most appalling aspect of this brainwashing is the luring of young girls to provide sex to the jihadi fighters, in defiance of all religious and cultural norms; some clerics publicly called for such ‘volunteers’ at the height of the ISIS’s power. These ‘volunteers’ are different from the girls /women abducted and raped by the jihadis in territory under their control. Alarmed at their continuing ability to make recruits, some Muslim countries have developed counter-radicalisation programs, with limited success.


International cooperation is imperative to defeat terrorism, and is the reason for ISIS’s seriously degraded capabilities today. But eradicating the scourge in totality involves tracking and severing its financial lifelines and resource-generating abilities (raising funds through front organisations, seizing oil wells and selling oil illegally, raiding banks, ransoming prisoners, etc.). Besides, all known assets of the organisations and/or key leaders have to be frozen, and nations harboring terrorists pressured to act against them or give them up.


The most important tool against terrorism is intelligence, especially real time intelligence, which can thwart attacks by timely intervention. Intelligence agencies the world over are upgrading their cyber intelligence systems as terrorist networks cannot function without technology for their operations, viz., recruiting cadre; disseminating propaganda through videos (Zakir Naik) or literature (Dabiq); showing off power through videos showing victims being beheaded or set on fire; planning and executing operations, transferring funds, et al. All these leave a digital footprint, however small.


Technology is therefore a near perfect solution to tackle terrorism while investing in improving human intelligence on the ground. At the India Foundation’s Counter Terrorism Conference 2018 (Changing Contours of Global Terror, 14-16 March 2018), renowned national and international experts discussed the collection, analysis and sharing of intelligence on terrorist organisations in real time, to neutralise threats.


One method under trial in some countries involves monitoring activity in, say, the cellphone tower of a particular site, such as a railway station or industrial installation. This is legally possible and doable. The technology involves looking for certain patterns amidst the plethora of mobile phones used by people visiting a station. Those making lengthy calls are filtered out.


Terrorists invariably make very brief calls to avoid being overheard or taped. They inform their handlers that they have reached a destination, and later report success or failure; this digital signature is how they are traced later. Sometimes it takes only a few hours to unravel a conspiracy and identify the culprits and the location of their handlers. Cyber sleuths ‘listen in’ at towers in sensitive public places and create Big Data platforms for Virtual Intelligence Collection and Analysis System (VICAS) for speedy responses.


Ultimately, the challenge is to ‘listen in’ in the vicinity of likely terrorist hideouts and share intelligence through Interpol; the technology is being constantly improved and is reputed to have thwarted attacks in some places. As the technology improves, it may be possible to monitor large public gatherings, such as Narendra Modi’s rally in Patna in 2014, where some bombs went off and others were recovered later, and protect innocent civilians.


However, an insurmountable problem remains the ready access to weapons by terrorist groups. So far, all weapons-producing nations have refused to bring ‘small arms under the ambit of international arms control treaties. These weapons are a major revenue earner for the nations concerned, and populate the illicit arms bazar. They are lethal enough to wreak havoc in crowded places, such as coffee houses. The failure to regulate their sales enables nations to distribute arms to proxy groups in order to achieve certain political objectives. This makes a mockery of all international counter-terrorism efforts and protocols. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy needs to revisit this issue with utmost seriousness.

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