As the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York collapsed in a conflagration of flame, dust and death, they have left a legacy of fear, hate and destruction that refuses to wither away. The origins of the attacks lie in the battlefields of Afghanistan, when three nations — the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — mobilised the forces of radical Islam against “godless” Communism. They thus unwittingly created a cadre of indoctrinated and trained veterans from across the Muslim world, and provided them with an organisation, Al Qaeda, and the charismatic leadership of Osama bin Laden. This jihad was also the first Muslim victory over a Western power in a few hundred years, assuring the faithful that Allah was once again by their side.
The Afghan jihad would now truly become a “global jihad”, but in ways its progenitors had not anticipated. For, it turned its wrath upon the three nations that had spawned it, by capturing Afghanistan and then spreading its tentacles to targets in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It also attacked US targets in East Africa and Yemen, before assaulting the homeland itself 15 years ago. The US response to 9/11 has left a bitter legacy. First, the US attacked Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban administration and its ideological mentor, Al Qaeda, that had led the assault on the US. This was done through indiscriminate carpet-bombing that killed thousands of innocent Afghans, even as America’s Pakistani ally carried away to sanctuaries at home the top leaders of these jihadi groups.
Frustrated at being unable to declare victory, the US now turned its weaponry on Iraq. It destroyed the country’s leadership, institutions and armed forces, and attempted to shape, on a time-honoured divide-and-rule basis, a new power structure that would be defined of communal and sectarian basis. As expected, the leaders of the disempowered Sunni community, themselves veterans of the Afghan battlefields, mobilised themselves for jihad against their American and sectarian foes. Ten years later, this movement of anger and vengeance evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The sectarian political structures, constructed by the US in Iraq that privileged the Shias, aggravated Saudi fears on Iran’s increasing regional influence, so that Saudi Arabia and Iran are now confronting each other across the Gulf.
They have mobilised sectarian alliances that are preparing for blood feuds, recalling events of a millennium and a half ago which have been imbued with a contemporary freshness. Their mutual animosity has led to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, which lie devastated through civil conflict fanned by external players.
This breakdown of state order has provided the space for ISIS to proliferate across the Levant, replacing the century-old Iraq-Syria border with a transnational “Islamic State”, described as a “caliphate”, thus laying claim to be the legatee of one of Islam’s oldest political and religious institutions. ISIS, with its slick use of social media, has attracted Muslim youth from across the globe, most of them allured by the promise of adventure and camaraderie and the prospect of participation in a historic enterprise that will create a new Muslim utopia, far removed from the squalid, marginalised and shiftless lives they have led so far. This has led to a proliferation of “lone-wolf” attacks in Arab, Asian, African and European cities.
For India, the encounter with jihad started 10 years before the Americans experienced it on 9/11. Pakistan used US and Saudi largesse for the Afghan jihad to mobilise a parallel movement for jihad in India to spread mayhem in the Kashmir Valley and disenchantment with India among its disgruntled population. But the US strategic partnership was not shaken by its ally’s association with this destructive force; in fact, it remained resilient even after 9/11, when Pakistan obtained a free hand to continue jihadi violence in India in return for its temporary abandoning of the Taliban administration in Kandahar. Thus, ironically, India after 9/11 witnessed an expansion of jihadi violence, mainly by Pakistani nationals, against the symbols of India’s democratic and secular order, culminating in the assault on iconic institutions in its commercial capital of Mumbai in November 2008.
India today has grave concerns, both about the regional security scenario and the implications of jihad for its domestic politics. The prospect of expanding conflict in the Gulf threatens India’s energy and economic interests and the welfare of its eight million-strong community that resides in the region. At home, there are concerns that India’s own Muslim youth might be seduced by jihad, get indoctrinated and trained by ISIS, and, on return, perpetrate acts of violence and terror, possibly in association with agencies and allies in Pakistan. The record so far suggests these apprehensions might be baseless. Though the Afghan jihad allured over a hundred thousand Muslims from across the world, no Indian Muslim joined their ranks. In our own time, when several thousand recruits have joined ISIS in Syria from West Asia and Europe, only a handful of Indians are amongst them.
This affirms that Indian Muslims continue to accept that their interests are best safeguarded in a democratic and secular India, and, whatever concerns they might have about their rights and aspirations due to militant Hindutva, they know those will be best addressed within the framework of the Indian Union and its Constitution. This understanding distances Indian Muslims from the doctrinal rigidities and disputes and the divisive politics of West Asia; it also ensures that Pakistan is not viewed as a model for political, economic or cultural emulation. US opportunism spawned the jihad that led to 9/11; its depredations in West Asia after the September attacks tore the fabric of the regional state order and unleashed subterranean anxieties, faultlines and animosities; they also made jihad, the ideology, its organisations and following, stronger and more resolute than ever before. Fifteen years later, 9/11 haunts the world and threatens not just the interests but even the values of the West and the East.