The Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka demonstrates how terrorists can find a soft belly and hit it hard. They have learnt the art of exploiting local conflicts to set off a perfect storm, thereby holding on to the limelight and maintaining relevance in the eyes of those who share their ideology. They channel the anger and grievances of local radicals, who then do the rest in their own way.
Al Qaeda developed a multilayered strategy of engaging local affiliates, serving as a nucleus while the latter could also pursue their independent local agendas. It seems that the militant Islamic State (IS) group has transformed this strategy by developing a nucleus-free global terrorist network, thus enhancing the impact of terrorism. The fear is that it will not remain local or regional in the near future. A global threat would require altogether different countering approaches.
It would require a comprehensive review of local conflicts and their scales, ideological and political factors, and the sense of humiliation and victimhood among marginalised communities. Equally important will be to explore vulnerabilities of individuals and communities to adopt extreme or violent measures to express their anger.
IS may have suffered territorial defeat but is still holding control in the grey areas of cyberspace. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is the latest victim of its ideological propagation. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have suffered the same. It will continue its focus on this region because of widespread communal and sectarian fault lines that can provide fertile grounds for developing terrorist cells. No one was able to prefigure that the Sri Lankan attackers had a link with IS-inspired individuals in Kerala. Since 2015, more than two-dozen Indians, including women and children, had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join IS. In recent months, IS footprints have been found in different parts of India including Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It has also been raising a flag for India-held Kashmir for the last three years, and covering atrocities in IHK in its publications.
There is a serious concern that IS will make inroads in IHK and manage a massive attack. If that happens, it will further undermine regional stability. One should not ignore that a war between India and Pakistan was one of Al Qaeda’s top priorities to prepare the ground for bigger change and create more physical spaces for itself. IS has many former Al Qaeda affiliates in its ranks who could suggest following this blueprint.
Pakistan is among those South Asian nations that have successfully dealt with terrorism, and has dismantled terrorist networks from its soil. But local, regional and global terrorist networks are still around and have been sustaining their operations at a critical level. IS in Pakistan is the local version. Many small sectarian and militant groups have contributed in developing these local IS structures in Pakistan. For instance, the National Thowheed Jamath provided a network base to IS in Sri Lanka. IS affiliates have already launched 22 terrorist attacks in Pakistan since 2015 and most were large in scale. In the given context, with IS changing its operational strategies, security forces have to be extremely vigilant.
There is also a risk that amid the ongoing crackdown against banned organisations, frustrated and hard-line members of these groups (mainly Jaish-e-Mohammad and Jamaatud Dawa) can initiate new militant formations or strengthen existing terrorist networks of Al Qaeda, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and IS. In this backdrop, the government should devise a proper plan about the future of banned groups.
In March, the government hinted at developing a comprehensive strategy to deal with banned groups. The policy is still awaited. In a recent press conference, however, the DG ISPR divulged that the policy to bring proscribed organisations into the mainstream was formulated on Jan 1, and funds for it were allocated in February. The statement does not give any sense of the initiative’s roadmap or methodology in terms of how these groups will be mainstreamed or dismantled. He also stated that that all madressahs will be brought under the state’s control, under the purview of the ministry of education.
It is not known when the relevant ministries debated these issues and when the federal cabinet approved these policy initiatives, but security institutions have been working with different religious segments for several months under the banner of Paigham-i-Pakistan, a document of counter-narratives to religious extremism prepared under supervision of the country’s premier security institutions. The army chief also reportedly met groups of religious scholars. These meetings give the impression that security institutions are determined to seriously deal with banned organisations this time.
However, the process of decision-making on all these issues should have been inclusive, since it is the civilian government that will ultimately have to implement these policies. For instance, madressah mainstreaming is a politicised issue. The previous government had extensive consultations with clerics and reached certain conclusions on the subject. It is not known whether those consultations were considered in the recent decision-making process. Secondly, since education is a provincial subject under the 18th Amendment, how can the federal government take the decision to put madressahs under the federal education ministry without initiating any legislative measures?
Apparently, it seems that the government itself is not interested in taking security-related matters into its hands; it already has a lot on its plate, including the economy and ‘accountability’. But it should at least bring the issue of banned organisations into parliament for open debate. As has been witnessed in the past, these groups resurfaced and took refuge in national narratives after pressure on them was released.
Security is as serious a business as the economy and accountability. One major terrorist attack can disturb many political and strategic calculations and hit the economy in an imperceptible way. The regional geopolitical landscape is already very volatile, and the threat of IS is becoming more dangerous and multidimensional for the region and the world. The state and society have to be focused, as the war on terrorism is not over yet.