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Terrifying means to terrible ends

The rage is giving way, gradually, to bewilderment and uncertainty, as America discovers the real contours and complexities of the "new War" that has been unleashed against it. It is a war that the US Defense Forces, with their overwhelming power and weaponry in conventional confrontations – their missiles, their smart bombs, and their nuclear arsenal – are extraordinarily ill equipped to confront. This is, moreover, the very first war in US history that has been initiated on American soil, and, notwithstanding the US response, that will continue to be fought there, at least in part. "Fortress America" has been breached, and will be breached again.

T.S. Eliot had written that any great work of literature fundamentally modifies our concept of all literature. That, indeed, is in some sense true of the unprecedented act of terror that has been projected into our homes across the world, and that has redefined the very idea of terrorism. The ambivalence, the nebulous and accommodating notions of a distant terror, the opportunism of alternating support and condemnation, the vacillating "interests of state" that characterized American attitudes and policies in the past, no longer sustainable, have suddenly been reduced to the rubble of the World Trade Center.

The enormity of what occurred on September 11, 2001 has yet to sink into the strategic community across the world, and it is unsurprising that the retaliatory strikes that everyone expected within days of the terrorist outrage in America have yet to materialise. They will come, eventually, of course. But without the indiscriminate savagery of the attacks on Iraq and Yugoslavia, and with entirely peripheral consequences on the terrorist networks and their activities.

"Terror Tuesday", as the multiple tragedies of that day have come to be called, has had a critical impact on the world of the terrorist as well – one that has yet to be clearly articulated, but whose contours are already visible in the policies and responses of some of the state and non-state entities who have found it expedient to exploit terrorism, particularly fundamentalist Islamist terrorism, in the pursuit of political and territorial objectives. It is, in this context, useful to mark a distinction between two broad categories of what have been referred to as "Islamist terrorists". The first of these can usefully be spoken of as instrumental, strategic or utilitarian terrorists – political actors who use terror to further clearly defined and limited strategic, territorial and political ends. Pervez Musharraf can safely be clubbed under this title, as can Yasser Arafat. The second category is of the truly fundamentalist or "Millenarian" terrorist, the man who is fighting, not for geopolitical goals, but for the "Empire of God", for rewards in the "other world" and for a Faith that reality, conventional morality and strategic calculations cannot penetrate. Evidently, these are not watertight classes, and strategic and millenarian motives variously influence different individuals and groups that engage in terrorism. To the extent, however, that the one or the other motive dominates, the aviation-suicide attacks in America have driven a wedge between those who conceive of terror as a strategic tool, and those who seek a "final victory" in God’s war. The utilitarian terrorist, by definition and design, uses limited doses of terror, in combination with other instrumentalities, to further political objectives. He is necessarily opposed to acts of terror beyond a certain scale, since their consequences can neither be predicted nor controlled. Thus, Pervez Musharraf finds it entirely expedient to promote a continuous low-grade terrorist campaign in J&K, as well as in other parts of India, in combination with diplomatic initiatives and occasional unconventional operations – such as Kargil – and sustained artillery exchanges along the LoC. However, when he finds that persistence in this course of action could threaten the very existence of Pakistan – as it currently does – he has no qualms about a temporary withdrawal or retraction of this strategy. The Islamist fundamentalist, however, is entirely insensitive to transient shifts of political advantage, and seeks to engineer the most extreme and dramatic incidents, incidents that will inspire, at once, dread, awe and emulation. As the Pakistani Brigadier S.K. Malik, in his book, The Quranic Concept of War, expresses it, "Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy (sic); it is the decision we wish to impose upon him."

The apocalyptic vision of the fundamentalist terrorist does not conceive of any limits to his violence. There is no target that is prohibited; no weapon that cannot be used. Neither the lives of his victims, nor his own, have any sanctity before the "divine purpose" he believes he fulfils. This, indeed, was the idea that was partly expressed by the Taliban’s initial response to America’s threats. If they are looking for one man, the Taliban said, they would not find him. And if they are going to attack an entire nation, they will find the hatred against America rise even further, and many more incidents would target its symbols. Clearly, the lives that would be lost in this game of ‘chicken’ – including, presumably, those of the Taliban leadership and cadres – have no intrinsic or overriding value in these calculations.

This is crucial to the realignment of forces within what has been referred to as "Islamist terrorism" in the past. Many "instrumental terrorists" – including the strategic leadership in Pakistan – have found it convenient to masquerade under the banner of Islam in their pursuit of their territorial ambitions. The carnage of September 11, however, has taken terrorism onto an entirely different plane, one where outcomes cannot be calculated with acceptable accuracy. Such strategic terrorists, consequently, will now find it necessary to distance themselves from Millenarian groupings, and this process of dissociation is already visible in the Pakistani and official Palestinian responses, as well as in those of many other "Islamic" nations.

At the same time, however, there will be a consolidation of the fundamentalist terrorist or Millenarian forces that may, increasingly, be brought under a single banner. Such an effort is discernible in unconfirmed reports that Osama bin Laden is now trying to project himself as "Sheikh ul Islam", a title earlier claimed by the Caliphs who were seen to be the last unified ‘commanders of the Faith.’

It is against this crystallizing network – one that is already believed to span across more than 60 nations – that the real force of international counter-terrorism operations will have to be directed. Despite the psychological satisfaction that massive bombing operations may provide to the US, these are not the responses that will defeat terrorism. The current war is a war for the minds of men. There must be an intensified dialogue between diverse cultures, civilizations and Faiths, and processes that can help reverse the indoctrination that is giving rise to intolerant and extremist interpretations of some of these. The main task, however, is to expose and neutralize terrorist networks in thousands of "little operations" across the world, arresting and bringing to trial each of the people involved in planning, supporting and executing terrorist actions. This, however, cannot happen in the legislative and judicial chaos that currently prevails within and between numerous collaborating countries with their widely differentiated legal systems. New international laws and norms that are legislated into national laws, to counter terrorism will have to be drafted and then implemented with levels of unprecedented efficiency. The international system will have to gear itself to the sharing of intelligence, joint counter-terrorism operations, and effective collaboration to identify, apprehend and prosecute terrorists, irrespective of their political affiliations and the notorious "interests of state" that undermine principled action everywhere.

India’s position here is most unfortunate. It is ironical that with the highest number of fatalities due to terrorism over the past two decades – a fact that we have been screaming to the entire world in our pathetic quest for international sympathy – we have no law against terrorism, and even existing instruments are being continuously blunted as a result of political vacillation and incompetence. Indeed, even if an international convention against terrorism gets drafted, India would be the weakest responder. We have no laws, no institutional will, utterly inadequate investigative and judicial processes and institutions, and a number of political parties that are openly sympathetic to the terrorist cause – including at least some that are members of the present ruling coalition.

(Published in The Pioneer, September 22, 2001)





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