The new global war on terror will largely be decentralised. The success of counter-terrorism operations will depend on the willingness and capabilities of nations to fight terrorism in their own countries, writes Brig Anil Gupta for South Asia Monitor
By Brig Anil Gupta (retd)
With the collapse of Islamic State’s dream of a caliphate and severe depletion of Al Qaeda (AQ), two icons of global jihadi terror, the focus is now turning to the emerging landscape of global terrorism. Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which rose to fame in 2014 after breaking away from its parent AQ, became the face of global jihad. After the killing of Osama Bin Laden, AQ lost its sheen and leadership of the global jihad.
Though they shared a common ideology, their differences grew with the rapid successes of ISIS overshadowing their rivalry. The golden era of the Caliphate announced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has now become history, with the defeat and territorial losses of IS in Syria and Iraq.
From available inputs, however, it is clear that ISIS has been defeated but not destroyed. Many fighters have returned to their native nations and others have redeployed in smaller groups in different parts of the world. The lure of foreign jihadists to fight for the Caliphate has nearly ended.
Meanwhile, AQ, known for its network of radicalised Wahhabi jihadists, trained in terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan and virtual leader of global jihad till 2014, has been enfeebled and is in decline. It has been badly decimated in the Af-Pak region, once its stronghold. Its actions are limited to sporadic terrorist acts by its associated groups and Lone Wolf operations. The rout of AQ has been compensated by regional groups and allies like Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent, Taliban, Haqqani Network, LeT, JeM and so on, effective in their respective regions.
While ISIS is transforming into a terror organization with a flat hierarchy, with cells and affiliates increasingly acting autonomously, al-Qaeda, despite the debilitation of Al-Qaeda Central, continues to exercise influence. Despite reverses, their hatred for the West, non-believers, democratic regimes and apostate Islamic regimes has not diminished.
There has been no significant reduction of issues that led to the rise of global jihadi terror groups. Improved technologies have facilitated better integration between global terror groups and local/regional insurgents spread worldwide. Growing solidarity among Muslims across the globe has given spur to regional resistance movements, like the one in Kashmir.
Though every radicalised Muslim is not an extremist, educated, unemployed radicalised Muslim youth continue to be attracted towards jihad, employing terror as a legitimate instrument of avenging the perceived injustice being done to members of their community. They have an entrenched belief that Sharia rule is the panacea of all ills and discrimination facing the Muslims. Though both global terror groups have been weakened, the end of global terror is nowhere in sight.
There have been fervent appeals in the recent years for jihadists to unite globally. Some members of both organizations have been willing and able to support each other in preparing attacks.
In a recent statement, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged warring jihadists to “unite and agree and gather and merge and cooperate and stack together as one rank” as “this is the basis of victory and salvation.”Zawahiri told terrorists in a video last year that unification against the “international satanic alliance” on a global front was critical: “Communicate, link up with each other and extend a helping hand to your Muslim brothers in all Muslim lands. This is the surest way to victory.” Zawahiri’s recent audio message—urging jihadist groups and mujahideen to “Unite and close your ranks with your Muslim brothers and mujahideen not just in Sham [Syria], but the entire world, for it is a single Crusader campaign being waged against Muslims the world over,” indicates the urgency for unity.
In such a situation, who will bear the mantle of leadership of global jihad? What will be its future? There are three likely scenarios. First, total integration of all terror groups into a single super-terror group or an ISIS-AQ Frankenstein, with unified central leadership and top-down control. Second, convergence of purpose at the regional level, with regional command and control, with separate identities. Third, the merger of the cadre of the two global terror groups with the local resistance movements in their respective regions/countries.
Given vast differences and ego-clashes that exist today between the leadership and cadre of the two global groups, the first two options are less likely. The third option appears more viable and a likely emerging future of global jihad, motivated by a common ideology of 'Universal Jihad'.
'Universal Jihad' will be directed against kafirs, democratic governments and man-made laws which are against the spirit of a strict form of Sharia Law in a specified region/area.
Distinctive terror groups, with a regional identity and spurred by a common ideology of 'Universal Jihad' guided, financed and motivated through a core central global leadership is what we are likely to face in coming years, until the root cause of jihadi terrorism is addressed by the international community.
A new breed of jihadists, radicalised and motivated through social media, ready to fight wherever they feel their Muslim brothers are under threat, will also be contributors to 'Universal Jihad'. The fight will be ideology driven and geographical boundaries will be no barriers. Such groups will also rise within a nation-state.
India will have to be prepared to face jihadists from other parts of the country joining their Kashmiri brethren. It would be a major challenge for intelligence agencies operating at various levels. The likelihood of an individual not affiliated with any terrorist group being able to inflict widespread loss of life through acts of terror will also increase. Internet will become the primary source of training, training materials, motivation, target nomination, technical know-how and coordination of terrorist operations that would aim at mass casualties and high visibility. Fund raising will mainly be done online. Information Technology will be exploited to enable connectivity with the core group, which is unlikely to remain stationary.
Terror threats will manifest in the form of lone-wolf attacks, use of vehicle-laden explosives and suicide attacks. “Terrorists probably will be most original not in the technologies or weapons they use but in their operational concepts i.e., the scope, design, or support arrangements for attacks,” a top US think-tank opined.
A concept likely to continue is a large number of simultaneous attacks, possibly in widely separated locations.The likelihood of terrorists using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), biological weapons in particular, will increase. With a view to cause mass casualties, the danger of bio-terror and use of mini nuclear or radiological devices looms large. With highly educated and skilled youth joining the jihad, chances of a cyber- attack can also not be ruled out.Terrorists are also likely to resort to the use of advanced explosives and drones. The use of a third dimension by the jihadi terrorists is a new challenge. Narco-terrorism is another challenge.
The new global war on terror will largely be decentralised. The success of counter-terrorism operations will depend on the willingness and capabilities of nations to fight terrorism in their own countries. The concept of “good” and “bad” terrorists will have to be sacrificed. Nations will have to ensure that their soil is not used for cross-border terror by organised terror groups.
Global cooperation on counter-terrorism will include intelligence-sharing, training and capability building. India’s strategy of signing bilateral agreements to fight terror is a step in the right direction in keeping with future challenges. However, a major overhaul in our internal security apparatus, including capability and capacity building, as well as issues relating to command and control, centre-state coordination and national consensus is urgently needed to meet the emerging challenges.
(The author is a Jammu based security and strategic analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).