It was in the month of Ramzan 2014 that there was an announcement about the establishment of the Caliphate. The new Islamic State followed this by uploading a video from the Chilean jihadi, Abu Safiyya, captioned “The End of Sykes-Picot”. The sleek video wanted to project a contemporary, cosmopolitan picture of Islam with a global reach. The Caliphate was going to be distinct from the decadent pro-Western rulers of the region.
It would wipe away years of humiliation and disgrace at the hands of Western masters and local monarchs. Democracy was a hoax and jihad would lead to true freedom with a 21st century Sunni Islamist utopia. Yet today almost everyone is familiar with the brutality and violence perpetrated by the IS that has dehumanised and spread fear from Ramzan 2014 to November 13, 2015 in Paris.
The present phase began with the sudden announcement by a relatively unknown jihadi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former detainee at US Camp, Bucca, who was released in 2009, under an amnesty along with thousands, because the Iraqi government did not have the resources to keep the detainees in their camps as the US prepared to depart. As Baghdadi was being led out of the camp, he is believed to have ominously remarked to his escorts, “See you in New York.”
The ISIS has not yet reached the US but, clearly, that is the ultimate goal as part of the larger dream of a world under their definition of Islam. Various insurgent groups have repeatedly spoken of this. Europe is a little more than a pit stop en route. But the Baghdadi phenomenon was not a bolt out of the blue.
This was something that was in the works for decades following the economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, which left the country crippled and the people angry with the West led by the US. The West ignored the proliferation of the jihadi groups since the 1990s, after the end of the Afghan jihad. This occurred at a time of the rise of radical Salafism seeking to re-establish control of the Holy Lands.
The Salafists accused “renegade” Arab rulers backed by the US and money from monarchs to have ceded territory to Israel. Instead, the Salafists sought establishment of ancient Caliphates. This was more than just sectarian warfare; it was about total control.
Baghdadi apparently took inspiration from Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the super-terrorist who was really a myth created by the Bush administration that sought to create reasons to intervene in Iraq. Zarqawi was the alleged link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda and was as much a creation of the powerful media as also an acquiescent world that was willing to believe the worst about Saddam. More than anyone else, the IS understood this power of the media and, nowadays, the power of the social media. Truth is of secondary importance, virtual reality delivers the message and fear is the key.
Paris as a target, one would think, had a mixture of goals. The attacks are possibly designed to weaken both the opposition to the IS and support to the US by creating a lobby amongst Europeans keen on staying away from the conflict in West Asia. The high-profile coordinated attacks were a few weeks short of Christmas, timed with the G20 summit and ahead of the climate conference. These were meant to be seen as a demonstration of capabilities beyond the regional boundaries of IS and attract more local volunteers. The other was to create chaos in the City of Lights with its residents having to forsake theatre, dance, music concerts for three nights.
Another interpretation was that these attacks were against people celebrating life. The terrorists were celebrating misery and death. Besides, one extremism feeds another and this would suit the IS.
As Europe seeks a response to terrorism there is talk of closed borders which could mean restrictions on the idea of EU. Even the Euro could receive a setback. There will be a rethink on refugees who are heading towards Europe, a redefinition of secularity and liberalism and a move to the right in many countries directly affected or with significant Muslim populations. French aerial attacks on Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS, were more a show of anger and perhaps not enough unless sustained, co-ordinated and supplemented.
Inevitably, the French will have to re-examine their security and intelligence mechanisms. Intelligence watch on terrorism is not the easiest of activities, especially when the attacks were planned in Belgium but were carried out mostly by Frenchmen of Arab origin. They would be able to move with ease and familiarity. GPS helps but nothing matches old-fashioned familiarity. Like all cities, Paris, too, has areas which are predominantly Arab, or immigrants from other former French colonies. In a recent discussion, the terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky mentioned that jihadi inspiration possibly comes from local neighbour-hood imams who run self-sustained cells much like those in Chechnya.
Electronic surveillance, which can give partial or sometimes misleading information, is no substitute to human intelligence in handling terrorism. This is the most difficult aspect of any counter-terrorism intelligence effort. It is not enough to penetrate a terrorist organisation. The cell actually involved in the planned terror has to be penetrated.
The route to successful penetration of a terrorist cell needs extraordinary skills, courage and a generous dose of luck; the path is replete with obstacles, failure and exposure. Terrorists have to be lucky once, counter-terrorists have to be lucky all the time. But it has to be done.
Fighting terrorism is not just the effort of the government alone. Society at large, especially the media and social media, must contribute as was shown in France over the weekend.
(The writer is a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency)
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