Terrorism Update
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Footprints on the sand

Thousands, indeed, tens of thousands, have died over the past decades as a result of terrorism, and the footprint of this scourge now covers the entire globe. Yet appeasement remains the dominant paradigm of response. The March 11 serial bombings in Madrid demonstrated the enormous surviving power of international terrorism despite over two years of the ‘global war against terrorism’, as on a single day, the mood of a European nation and the outcome of a European election, were completely transformed. Spain’s support to the Iraq war became the central issue, and the electorate appears to have given the new regime an unambiguous mandate against future involvement in the war in Iraq.

This is a model that the Islamists will hope to replicate in other theatres, and Europe will not be their only target. The Madrid bombings resulted in a reported loss of 201 lives. But the electoral outcome in Spain – and the politics of appeasement it represents – will cost many times more in years to come. The eventual withdrawal of 1,300 Spanish soldiers from Iraq, as promised by the Prime Minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, will have little impact on the military capabilities of the Coalition Forces on the ground. But the announcement itself will have a huge impact on the morale of the terrorists who believe that they have engineered this ‘victory’ through a spate of coordinated attacks on a single day in Spain. It will, moreover, feed the fury of terrorists who will target civilian populations in other coalition countries in the hope that they may produce comparable reactions. Indeed, the terrorists will, even now, be calculating the potential impact of a similar campaign of attacks in the US before the presidential elections there.

Will Spain be ‘rewarded’ for its decision by future exemption as a target of terrorism? This appears to be the pacifists’ calculus, but it is based on a misunderstanding, both of the nature of terrorism, and of the Islamist objective with regard to Spain. Indeed, the reverse may well be true, and Spain could become a preferred target. Its vulnerability has been demonstrated, and will tempt future terrorist action. The new regime in Spain believes that the Madrid attacks were simply a ‘reaction’ to the preceding regime’s unpopular intervention in Iraq, and this has been the gist of a number of statements by Islamist terror propagandists, including the declaration that claimed responsibility for the attacks. But a broader reading of the extremist literature puts Spain at a central point in the conflict, as it is a territory that had been conquered by, and was subsequently lost to ‘Islam’. The reclamation of Spain is integral to, and is regarded as a ‘religious duty’ by, the Islamist extremist enterprise, and this will generate a far more sustained impulse to terror than decisions – justified or otherwise – to intervene in Iraq. Spain is, and will remain, a target of groups that are affiliated to, or who are inspired by the ideology of, the Al Qaeda. The strong Moroccan and Algerian presence in the country, and in other parts of Europe, moreover, means that the Al-Qaeda can recruit cadres within the continent, and will not have to bring them in from the Arab world or North Africa. It is useful to recall, within this context, that the involvement of Algerian and Moroccan supporters of the global jihad in Europe has been substantial over the past years. It is within this context that one commentator writes about the dangers of the European predilection "for throwing raw meat to pursuing predators to slow them down."

There are grave and rising dangers here. Even among those who have taken a strong position in the ‘global war against terror’, there is still a very limited understanding of the real nature of terrorism, and a high measure of ambivalence with regard to certain patterns of terrorism. Pakistan is, for instance, still provided substantial room for covert manoeuvres, despite its dismal track record, because it is willing to act as America’s hired help in the campaign to neutralize the Al Qaeda. The problem is, in fact, much wider. Through the year 2002, when tensions between India and Pakistan were particularly high (with massive military mobilization under Operation Parakram) there was a slew of Western diplomats and visiting dignitaries seeking weekly information on infiltration rates into Kashmir; the moment there was the slightest suspicion of a dip, they would demand to know what India was going to offer Pakistan ‘in return’, suggesting by implication that terrorists and sponsoring states were deserving candidates for reward if they were willing to dilute their activities, however temporary or marginal such mitigation may be. Amazingly, this position also appears to have been accepted by influential segments of the Indian leadership and ‘intellectual elite’ – India is, in fact, among the foremost appeasers of terrorism and its state sponsors in the world. We have paid a heavy price in lives for this. Sadly, an even greater price may have to be paid in future, as we plunge headlong into unprincipled and directionless ‘peace processes’ with the principal sponsor of terrorism in the region – Pakistan – in what appears to be little more than an effort to bribe terrorists and their sponsors to abruptly change course.

The difficulty is, in some measure, inherent in the nature of democracy, which telescopes perspectives into the short term, making it impossible for leaders to define policies or make calculations over extended periods of time. Every transient fluctuation must be projected for popular approbation in the unending quest for political survival – even if such fluctuations, and the claims based on them, are a falsification of abiding realities.

The war against terrorism is not a war of months and years; it will be a war of decades. Unfortunately, democratic systems do not appear to have the capacity to plan and consistently execute policy – especially on politically sensitive issues – over any period exceeding the election cycle. The jihadis, on the other hand, draw their inspiration from wars a thousand years ago, and imagine themselves engaged in wars that will last a thousand years into the future. There is another skew in the calculus of terror: for the ideological terrorist, nothing but complete annihilation constitutes defeat; while even small operational successes are claimed as victories. A man who dies in a terrorist operation is a shaheed; one who returns after a success is a ghazi. Operational failures are ‘God’s test of Faith’; operational successes are the ‘Will of God’. There is little within modern democracies – particularly in the affluent and self-indulgent West – that can stand against the ideological intransigence and impenetrability of such a position.

There is one more aspect of the irrationality of the ‘free world’s’ responses to contemporary terrorism that needs to be noticed: the obsession with ‘9/11 scale attacks’. The possibility of terrorism at the 9/11 scale, or worse, cannot be ruled out, and must be guarded against. But it must be realized that equal, if not greater, damage can be done by a sustained low-grade terrorist campaign against soft civilian targets. Indeed, such a campaign may even prove to be far more enervating: 9/11 mobilized America and much of the world to stand – however briefly – with determination against international terrorism. A low-grade campaign saps national energies, makes millions constantly fearful, and pushes up the pressure of those who seek ‘peace’ through appeasement.

These broad considerations, however, are persistently ignored in a world where all discourse is reduced to electoral sloganeering.

(Published in The Pioneer, March 20, 2004)





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