India’s fight against terrorism

Al-Qaida's aging leaders are struggling to compete for recruits with Islamic State. Nevertheless, India must prepare itself for all sorts of terrorist threats, not least terrorist re-emergence in Afghanistan. What role might NATO play in this?

Basudev Mahapatra
16 October 2014
The Indian Army's 5th Gurkha Rifles

The Indian Army's 5th Gurkha Rifles. Michael J. MacLeod/Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.The issue of Islamic terrorism has once again become India’s primary concern since the Al-Qaida (AQ) chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video released in September, announced the launch of "Qaedat al-Jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya” or al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent to carry out jihadist activities in India and countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar (also known as Burma).

Some of the states of India named specifically for jihadist activities were the north-eastern state of Assam, western state of Gujarat, which is the home state of India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, and Kashmir, the Himalayan state that has been the flashpoint of hostilities with Pakistan.

Al-Zawahiri, the AQ chief, addressing the Muslims of the subcontinent as “Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh,” said, “we did not forget you in AQ and will liberate you from injustice and oppression.”

The video released by AQ chief came at a time when India was in shock over the news of death of an Indian Muslim youth in Iraq while fighting with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now called IS. The deceased youth was one of four Indians reported missing and suspected of having joined ISIS forces.

Indian intelligence and police agencies reported that they believed these youth were enticed by propaganda materials shared through various online media. It seems obvious enough that Al Qaida would adopt similar methods to attract Indian youth into its own fold through allurements and emotional appeals in the name of religion.

Since its decline in Afghanistan, after the military intervention by US and NATO, Al Qaida did seem to have lost its base in Asia, only having some presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions. But in the course of time it has expanded its activities to several Arabic and African countries. The Islamic State (IS) was believed to be a part of Al Qaida in Iraq till it claimed its independent identity as a caliphate and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a “caliph.” Now counter-terrorism experts say al-Qaida's aging leaders are struggling to compete for recruits with Islamic State, which has galvanized young followers around the world.

The release of the video came at a time when Afghanistan, previously the political base of Al Qaida, was undergoing a situation of political uncertainty with both contenders to replace Hamid Karzai as president, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, claiming themselves winners. US secretary of State John Kerry then brokered the deal to form a government of national unity where the election-winner will be president, but the loser (or his nominee) will be “chief of the executive council.” After two years, according to this deal, there will be a loya jirga (a gathering of tribal elders, local power-brokers and elected officials) to approve constitutional changes that include the creation of the post of prime minister. He would rank below the president but have executive powers.

In such a situation, the clash between the two leaders for the exercise of power might continue and the political situation might rapidly deteriorate. Before the end of 2014, the Afghan people are to take responsibility for their own security, and so the probable political uncertainties in Afghanistan could make the situation advantageous for Al Qaida to re-emerge.

It’s a known fact that India has substantially increased its engagement with Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government. It’s expected that India will be the major influence in Afghanistan by the time the US shifts it role from combat to support. So, India’s growing influence may deter Al Qaida’s re-emergence to power in Afghanistan. This could be another reason behind al-Zawahiri’s idea of floating a sub-continental wing, to keep India engaged in dealing with its own issues instead of exercising its influence in Afghan affairs.

However, in the current state of politics in India and the neighbouring countries, it would not be easy for Al Qaida to ensure growth in the subcontinent because the majority of the Muslim population of the country is scared by any such announcement from al-Zawahiri. According to the Press Trust of India (PTI), Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House, said in reaction to the Al Qaida video, “We do not regard the announcement as an indication of new capabilities by al-Qaeda, which has long been active throughout the region.”

“We have seriously degraded al-Qaida in the region, and will continue our efforts against the group and affiliates that pose a threat to the American people,” Hayden added.

But India must keep itself prepared for all such terrorist threats which still do represent an issue in the country. As observed by KPS Gill, the former director general of Punjab police and president of the Institute of Conflict Management, “Independent India's history is replete with examples of the state's unpreparedness for the challenges of terrorism and armed violence, even where the emergence of the most vicious movements was abundantly augured. We appear, today, to be standing at another such crossroads, blissfully unready.”

“Nearly six years after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, despite a flurry of erratic and uncoordinated initiatives, India's vulnerabilities to terrorism remain unchanged,” said Gill adding, “A colossal augmentation of capacities and capabilities in the intelligence-security systems of the country has long been overdue. This is an imperative that can now be deferred only at the risk of India's integrity.”

Diplomatic measures

While it is necessary for India to effect changes in its internal security architecture and further empower its intelligence and investigation agencies for enhanced preparedness, some diplomatic measures are also needed to counter terrorism in the whole continent. Establishing a relationship with international bodies like NATO, as a terror-combating measure, may open up more possibilities for combating terrorism.

From what was stated by Michael Ruehle, now the Head of NATO’s Energy Security section, in 2010, NATO would welcome such a relationship to ensure a terror-free Asia and establish peace in the region.

Endorsing Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s argument of transforming NATO into a consultation forum for global security issues by developing closer relations with all major global players, including India and China, Michael Ruehle said, “NATO’s leadership of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not only brought the Alliance to China’s borders, it has also created much greater interdependence between NATO and India. As a major international donor, and given her considerable civilian presence in Afghanistan, India has a strategic interest not only in the security that ISAF forces provide, but also in the stabilising influence which NATO’s engagement brings to the region around Afghanistan. NATO’s long-term success in Afghanistan, in turn, hinges on the success of the civilian reconstruction efforts that India and others provide.”

Since most of its friends in the continent and its long-time friend, Russia, wouldn’t appreciate such a move, India may or may not buy into Ruehle’s plan, but India’s involvement in a coalition of nations in the subcontinent or the continent, with the specific objective of fighting against terrorism is surely inevitable sooner rather than later.

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