Global Terrorism: How far Ideology plays a Role

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2018
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Efforts towards de-radicalization and counter radicalization require to be sustained to preclude the rise of a new age terrorism
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)
Thursday, April 5, 2018

Various dictionaries define the term ‘ideology’ differently. However, a broadly accepted definition is – “a set of opinions or beliefs of a group or an individual…..a set of political beliefs or ideas that characterize a particular culture”. Essentially it is the core belief of an organization which is adopted by individuals too and drives them to achieve laid out goals. Since terrorism is broadly defined as a means “intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”, an ideology assists in the pursuit of the goals.

Ideology enables organizations and movements which use terror as their central theme, in no small way. There are various reasons for this. Without an ideology terrorists cannot generate the passion to go beyond ordinary grades of violence which may be employed to achieve lower political ends.  Terror is all about lack of remorse and cold blooded hatred for the ‘other’;  to eliminate that ‘other’, his philosophy, faith, way of life and  belief needs a steely interior which primarily comes from ideology, the more radical the better. Closeness of affinity and commonality of understanding is essential in terror movements. There can be little scope for interpretations and choice. ‘With us or against us’ relate much more to non-state terror organizations than nations. Ideologies that terror organizations follow have shades of radical thought and not all are common. It may also be argued that states sponsoring terror do employ radical ideology as a major tool for motivation and binding, as also increasingly to link with surrogates in the case of a proxy conflict employing terror as one of its central tools.

Unfortunately any study on current terror organizations will have to focus on different shades of Islamist ideology drawing the ire of those who maintain that Islamist ideology is not the only one which is used in support of terror around the world. To offset some of the criticism one can also include a brief analogy of the earlier problem in Northern Ireland. If one is to classify the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a terror group because it justified the use of political violence to achieve its aims of a unified island then its ideology was essentially political tribalism. This ideology was for limited gains and was never pan-world in the manner that the Islamist ideology looks as the ‘Ummah’ or the Caliphate. However, that only adds weight to the argument that ideologies followed by terrorists are of different shades and nature.

The Al Qaeda probably understood the concept of ideology as a driving force far better than most postmodern non-state terror groups which have abounded since the end of the Cold War. It pragmatically following an Islamist ideology which cements its ranks, motivates its cadres and undertakes focused opposition to established orders in the areas of interest. 9/11 as its flagship operation was an example, as were many other smaller actions. The Islamic State (Daesh) attempted to take it beyond 9/11 faulting Al Qaeda for lack of commitment and clearer goals.

However, in the process of adopting its ideology Daesh went overboard. Its strength came from its alliance with the rump Baathist elements who escaped the scanner due to faulty conflict termination practices during the later stages of the campaign in Iraq, 2003-11. The leadership and ideology of Daesh came from the radically intense Islamist philosophy of Al Zarqavi who till his death in 2006 led the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQII), a strain of the Al Qaeda. Zarqavi had always believed that Osama bin Laden’s leadership lacked passionate commitment towards taking the battle deeper into the western citadel and controlling territory in the Arab heartland. Daesh ideology reflected that thinking. Although its Islamist ideology has been much more intense due to the territory it acquired in the Arab heartland (quite by default) and the inclusion of foreign fighters in a far bigger way, it is that very intensity which also led to its failure.

Islamist ideology enabled the meteoric rise of Daesh; without it the same degree of intensity may not have been achieved. The notion of the ‘Ummah’, in the form of a Caliphate, created the romantic appeal hard to be mirrored by any similar attempt to unite the followers of Islam who wished to take the confrontation with the rest of the world far beyond the comparative ordinary attempts. Daesh’s romantic appeal arising from its ideology was a not a lasting but rather a temporary phenomenon. The fade effect was as fast as the initial attraction. To have a lasting draw the appeal has to be transnational. It was, but the domination of the Arab influence within its ranks did not allow for this. The Islamist ideology Daesh adopted had extreme cruelty, depraved behaviour and material destruction as the core beliefs, harping on the necessity of breaking the ordinary human emotions of limitations about fear.  Subsequently fear itself rather than respect for core beliefs became the temporary glue; this could generate immense passion for a temporary period but could not last long enough.

The experience of Daesh in the Levant is likely to be studied by current and future terrorist leaderships the world over. Neither Daesh nor Al Qaeda is a phenomenon of only the past. Both are current and in competition in different parts of the world. The lessons are likely to absorb much faster due to modern day networks and social media. Absorption is one aspect but willingness to accept is another and intense competition may drive the nature of future ideology. There are also the counter action efforts by transnational and state authorities who too learn on the move. Countering such ideologies is their job and the networks to do that are equally strong. Daesh displayed an immense capacity to exploit modern technology and social media to run its psychological campaign to project its ideology. Its online and hard version of the flagship magazine – Dabiq, was known to be the instrument which attracted many to its fold. It will long be quoted in institutions teaching and researching mass communication. Yet, it may not be as simple to replicate this effort anywhere in the near future.

De-radicalization and counter radicalization steps by state authorities have off late gained much traction in affected countries to limit, counter or remove the narratives which have been spun by Islamist organisations. Yet these remain slow to take off and the feasibility of Islamist terror groups remaining ahead in this loop are far brighter. There are reasons for this. The study of Islam is a challenge as there is so much left to interpretation and justification, with few black and white examples. The clergy is unwilling to play a transformative role which is necessary to bring about a turn around. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz, in 2014, condemned Daesh and its practices as un-Islamic. However, the follow up to such statements was rarely done with any degree of earnestness. In India the Deoband seminary condemned any terrorist operation as being against the tenets of Islam. Yet again, a one off statement carried little recall and weight of seriousness. If the Islamic clergy, especially from the Sunni Wahabi faith sect, is mindful of the harm being done to Islam by transnational terror organizations, misusing Islam and its tenets under their own concocted interpretations, it should  rise to repeatedly condemn such acts through frequent inter sect meetings among followers of Islam. Much seriousness to counter the ideology, which Islamists follow and wish to label as Islamic ideology, is needed and it requires visibility, continuity and constant review.

One such serious attempt as recommended above was made in the land to which the AQII leader Al Zarqavi belonged, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Under its well educated head of state and monarch, King Abdullah II, Jordan hosted at the Royal Court a gathering of 200 clerics and men of letters from different sects of Islam, in 2004. With deliberations between them emerged the Amman Message which essentially had three sub messages to the Islamic world and equally to people of other faiths. Primary among these messages was the countering of the idea of ‘Takfiri’, or the practice of declaring a Muslim an apostate if he did not follow the particular path of a sect. The Amman Message forbade ‘Takfiri’ against anyone who swore by the five pillars of Islam. The attempt by some sects and sub sects to garner the ideological space of Islam to only their belief through this abhorring practice was condemned. Similarly other aspects of the Message focused on regaining the moderate street of Islam once hijacked by radical elements and accepting all Islamic schools of jurisprudence. It took fourteen years for the Amman Message to reach India and be publicly spoken about once King Abdullah II of Jordan visited the country in end of Feb 2018 at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This reflected the weakness of the moderate street or simply its callousness and inability to comprehend the seriousness of the existential threat facing many moderate Muslim countries from ideologically driven Islamist terror groups.

Currently we are witnessing a turnaround taking place within Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the two holiest sites of Islam. Smitten by increasing criticism of the world at large, of its policies concerning the sponsorship of what are perceived as some ideologies which drive radical organizations, its young Crown Prince has chosen to pragmatically alter the approach.  He has withheld financing of some institutions considered as core entities for promotion of ideologies which drive terror organizations. He has also brought about dilution in gender practices and other domains which may alter perceptions about the core ideology followed by the custodian of the holy sites. How far these steps gain traction will be contingent upon the support from the clergy and the manner these will be projected to those who follow radical ideologies and provide the support base for global terror organizations. The concept of ‘Ijtihaad’, or radical re-contextualization in the interpretation of Islamic laws through exertion and application of mind by Islamic jurists is something modernists within Islam dream of. The success of Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia or King Abdullah of Jordan in the pursuance of their different paths towards promotion of moderate Islam will create the right narratives and hopefully rob transnational terror organizations off their radical ideological appeal. It’s a generational change which will bring this and patience and persistence are the only qualities which need to be on display.

This analysis will be incomplete without a specific sub analysis of the threats from radically motivated terror groups who threaten India. As one of the first nations to be affected by trans-national terror it needs to be remembered that Pakistan chose to target India employing terror groups with an intent to cause negative sentiments against India’s  huge Muslim minority. Sending sponsored terrorist groups to fight a proxy war against India would not have resulted in the desired effect without infusion of radical religious ideology among the inducted groups and the local proxies. The benign Islamic faith as a glue to cause turbulence may not have resulted in such notions as ‘fight for Islam’ or ‘Islamic brotherhood’. Pakistan’s enduring message to the people of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) has always been the notion that they are linked to it because of the common following of Islam. A billboard displayed at the Kaman Aman Setu bridge on the POK side quotes as a message to visiting Kashmiri citizens –

“Pakistan se rishtakya, yailahailalah” (your relationship with Pakistan is based on the commonality of the Islamic faith)

 With this in mind it adopted a strategy of altering Kashmir’s benign ‘Sufist’ Islam to a more virulent form of ‘Wahabi’ Islam, causing a very large number of mosques to change their orientation. This has helped to create a support base for the radically oriented terror groups which are regularly infiltrated into the conflict zone. These terror groups function on the adrenaline provided by the ideology of religious extremism. The phenomenon occurred early, even as the world was coming to grips with the understanding of the dynamics of what has come to be referred colloquially as ‘Jihadism’. Unless Indian security experts regain the lost space for the ‘Sufist’ ideology to return and neutralize the gains made by the radical Islamists in the Valley it will be difficult to dilute the terrorist support base. It is understood that measures are afoot to give de-radicalsation and counter radicalisation more focus. Yet, without hands on involvement of the Indian Muslim clergy this will be a long struggle during which strident efforts by Pakistan will continue.

Lastly, the global terror scene is witnessing greater infusion of ideology to bring terrorists and potential recruits together on a common platform. The counters to this are unlikely to be sufficiently robust at this stage as realization of the actual threats of ideology as a driver of transnational terror has yet to emerge. Efforts towards sensitization on this crucial issue must continue irrespective of failure from time to time. New age terrorism infused with ideology is far too dangerous to allow its proliferation to go unchecked simply due to non-realization of the threat levels.