|By Nilova Roy Chaudhury||Published: March 2017|
NEW DELHI. Terrorism is that modern scourge which, like disease, knows no boundaries nor respects any people, and can set back all development. Asia, where around 60 percent of the global population lives, has been plagued with a multiplicity of such threats to its security, from proliferating ideological, religious, ethnic, nationalist, political or sectarian divisions.
The global response to terrorism, therefore, has to emanate from Asia, which has a pivotal role to play in combating this transnational threat, said Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. A strong regional push from Asia would exert more pressure on the rest of the world to adopt a more cohesive framework to fight terrorism, Parrikar said in his inaugural address at the 19th Asian Security Conference (ASC), the flagship event organised by the Institute of Defence and Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
Acts of terror undermine development and growth and “terrorism remains the most pervasive and serious challenge to global security,” Mr Parrikar said. “While the threat of terror is transnational, the response doesn’t seem so,” he said, urging a strong, collective response to counter terror.
Afghanistan and India, he said, have been “the biggest victims of cross border terrorism and proxy wars for decades.”
“Terrorism is undoubtedly the single biggest threat to international peace & security,” he said, and “a coordinated global response is important.” Mr Parrikar was speaking March 6, while inaugurating the three-day premier security conference, the theme of which was ‘Combating Terrorism: Evolving an Asian Response.”
The response to this threat is “generally local and uncoordinated”, largely because of “conflicting definitions of terrorism and geopolitical constraints,” he said, which have stymied a global response.
To successfully combat terrorism requires a holistic approach, Mr Parrikar said. Tackling the financing of terror and countering the misuse of the internet by terrorist entities through social media were important steps in this process, he said.
Welcoming distinguished participants to the event, Mr Jayant Prasad, Director General of the IDSA, set the tone for the three day conference and outlined the aim of the deliberations and the theme.
The ASC, he said, aimed to understand geo-political realities and define the Asian and global response to terrorism; to identify ideologies and drivers fuelling the transnational resurgence of extremist violence and, in particular, the role of terror financing; to examine how technology was altering the nature of the conflict; to assess the threat of terrorism across Asia, from the Southwest through the South and Southeast; and to build a reserve of best practices in counter-terrorism efforts.
Security experts from across India and the world participated in the six panel discussions, speaking on issues as diverse as ‘hostage taking as a tool of terrorism and the methodology of negotiations,’ ‘the terrorism industry and its global expansion’, the challenges of ‘invisible jihad’, ‘women in Lashkar-e-Taiba’ and terrorism as a “family affair” ‘al Qaeda and the Arabian peninsula’, ‘technology and intelligence in counter-terrorism’, ‘tackling malicious profiling online,’ ‘Total strategic failure: Nato in Western Asia’, ‘Women and Da’esh’ and the ‘Economics of terror.’ There was a special lecture on cyber-security, by Gulshan Rai, the Indian government’s chief of cyber security, outlining the way in which the scourge has spread across the internet and into our lives.
Leading security practitioners and policy makers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Britain, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Sri Lanka and the United States, among others, were part of the deliberations, along with Indian experts. The Asian Security Conference has emerged as an important platform for brainstorming on
issues concerning Asia’s Security.
Describing security and counter terrorism as the “most defining challenge of our times,” Mohammad Hanif Atmar, National Security Advisor to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, sought a strong, collective counter-terrorism strategy.
Speaking of the need for collective investment in counter terrorism, Mr Atmar said, “Despite international investment in counter-terrorism, terrorism is growing its capabilities and presence in Afghanistan-Pakistan region.”
In a direct attack on the government in Pakistan, he said “We share the region with Pakistan, which has the highest concentration of terrorists anywhere.”
Collective CT strategy would not be short-term, but a ‘generational challenge’, requiring long-term planning. Its objective should be to end State sponsorship of terrorism by initiating coordinated political, strategic and military responses to destroy the flourishing sanctuaries for terrorist groups.
International accountability was a vital prerequisite to counter terror, Atmar said, but equal emphasis was needed for appropriate action at the national level through good governance, education, and infrastructure building, or what he called the “symbiotic confluence of three critical elements” to counter terrorism.
The perception that terrorism was associated with Islam was unethical and unhelpful, Atmar said, adding, “Collectively, the Muslim world is losing more people to terrorism than any other civilisation.”
Like India, Atmar stressed that the narrative of distinguishing between “good and bad terrorists” must end. Such distinctions help perpetrators to disguise themselves as victims and morph into a “Frankenstein’s monster.”
Afghanistan, he stated, was not confronted with a civil war, but a terrorist war, and an undeclared State to State war. “It is a drug war. It is a violent terrorist war. It is terrorism and extremism at its worst.”
There are three sets of terrorists in Afghanistan and between 40-45,000 terrorists in the country, waging war against the Afghan state. 20 out of 98 major terrorist outfits are operating within the Afghanistan region.
Afghan terrorists include the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network; Pakistani terrorists include the LeT, JeM, SSP and TTP, among a host of others; while Da’esh and Islamic State are “an enemy of us all,” he said. These outfits also need relationships with rogue State elements that provide them sanctuary.
Terrorist groups based in Pakistan are threatening Afghanistan and other countries in the region. Lack of a regional cohesive response to terrorism is making the challenge worse, the Afghan NSA said. A coordinated response, involving both military and diplomatic elements, was vital at the global, Islamic, regional and national levels.
“Afghan peace and reconciliation would be the most effective global anti-terrorism strategy,” he said. “Russia, China and Iran we consider friends of Afghanistan: we would welcome their influence for peace, not war. We would like to involve India in that dialogue,” the Afghan NSA said.
There is no “empirical evidence that Da’esh and Taliban are enemies today. These terrorist outfits are mutating constantly. Don’t expect one terrorist to take on another terrorist,” Mr Atmar said, cautioning some countries, like Russia and China, from talking to one set of terror practitioners to take on another set.
Participants across panels during the first two days viewed the rise of Da’esh as an unprecedented event in the geopolitics of the West Asian region, and indeed, the world. Analysts repeatedly pointed out that the terrorist outfit, also known as Islamic State, had challenged the existing regional political order by trying to redraw boundaries in the volatile region. Even if it is defeated as an entity, its surviving fighters could go underground, return to their countries of origin, and mutate into another, equally radical organisation.
Advocating the need for security and economic prosperity in West Asia, Ambassador Hossein Sheikholeslam, Advisor to the Iranian Foreign Minister, said in a special address March 7 that socio-economic imbalances were responsible for political uncertainty in the region.
West Asia had been a victim of Western arrogance and colonial intervention for decades, he said, and their continued meddling was the root cause of political conflicts in the region. Speaking about the ongoing crisis in Syria, he said Iran and Syria share a common political and strategic outlook. It was for the people of Syria to decide their own future.
The session on ‘Regional Perspectives—South and Southeast Asia: The Growing Spectre of Terror’ saw speakers from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka outline how they had tackled major incidents of terror, while one spoke of how Colombo had managed to vanquish the deadly LTTE. The participants talked of best practices adopted by them to curb the spread of terrorist organisations.
Also on the same day, while speaking on West Asia and the Caucasus, participating analysts at the conference highlighted the clash of interests among powers involved in the ‘New Great Game’ for influence in Central Asia. They also highlighted large-scale drug trafficking along the northern transportation route from Afghanistan to Russia as one of the major causes of instability in the region.
Expert panellists urged the international community to agree on common denominators to formulate a single counterstrategy for violent extremism. They opined that political communities should attempt to reach out to the nations and ethnic sections that are potentially prone to radicalisation.
Citing external interventions as one of the major causes for increasing radicalisation of youth and terrorism in the region, participants urged greater regional and international cooperation to systematically eradicate religious extremism.
Regional cooperation on combating terrorism could be the ideal confidence building exercise for Asia, which has its own multiple fault lines. Participants opined that the problem of extremism and radicalism could not be resolved only through military interventions, as these could only get rid of the symptoms and not the root causes, which are the outcome of social, political and economic grievances. They suggested that effective military strategies need to be adopted to counter strategic threats without risking major financial and human costs.
Among the common denominators, identified by the participating analysts for an effective counterterrorism strategy, was discouraging religious extremism, having proper legislation in place to protect minorities, refusing terrorist sanctuaries and use of non-state actors, and national action plans against terrorism.
The expert panellists suggested that a counterstrategy for extremism required action at four levels; global, the Islamic world, regional, and national; the gathered security experts, practitioners and policy makers unanimously agreed that religion needed to be de-linked from terrorism.
The counter-narratives needed to go beyond religions, to the connected political, historical and psychological issues.
Lack of socio-economic development, inadequate education, heightened poverty, corruption, and misguided nationalism were cited as some of the key drivers of extremist ideologies. Exclusion of minorities from mainstream politics, rising religious chauvinism, and lack of an ideological response to the extremist school of thought, were among other factors.
Recognising the critical role of technology in fuelling terror, several panellists detailed how technology acted as an enabler and feedback mechanism to identify target audiences and to reach out to them. It was vital to develop multi-disciplinary approaches, including capacity-building of law enforcement agencies, and strengthening of public-private partnership to counter terrorism.
The 19th edition of the ASC concluded March 8 with a strident appeal for a coordinated regional roadmap that would lay the foundation for a unified global response to counter the 21st century’s greatest challenge of violent extremism.