The Paris terrorist attacks, which killed at least 129 people, have raised the global threat perception of the Islamic State (Isis) or Daesh, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and apprehensions of similar acts on Indian soil. Such fears have been around for over a year and a half, particularly since this group captured the Islamist extremist imagination and world attention by the seizure of Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014, and with atrocities that its own publicity cell documented in detail, slickly packaged, and projected globally through the Internet. The declaration of a ‘Caliphate’ and dramatic territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, with the decimation of a number of competing Islamist terrorist groups operating in the region, contributed to a larger-than-life image of this group — despite its mounting losses and inability to demonstrate its fighting superiority against any determined resistance, including the most recent loss of Sinjar, Iraq.
From an Indian perspective, it is useful to note that a minuscule number of individuals from this country have been sufficiently inspired by these diverse antics to join, or attempt to join, Daesh, and most of these were in the first few months after the fall of Mosul. Such things now appear to be on their way out, though the occasional Daesh flag, poster or scrawl on the wall can be found in fairly dispersed locations across India. Several, presumably internet-addled, young persons have been identified before they were able to impulsively act on their terrorist fantasies, and a fairly sensitive, velvet-glove approach, involving families and local communities, has been adopted for their rehabilitation, and appears to have been quite efficacious. There is no indication that any significant ‘army’ of radicalised Muslim youth, provoked by the Daesh propaganda, is likely to rampage across India in the foreseeable future.
It is useful to notice, in this context, that an Islamist terrorist movement, backed by a force immensely more powerful and proximate — the Pakistani state — has been attempting to penetrate India for decades. It has succeeded, in significant measure, in destabilising Kashmir, but has had extremely limited success elsewhere. Further, al-Qaeda, the predecessor organisation that was thought to be leading the global jihad’ before it was upstaged by its own breakaway, Daesh, had been attempting to incite and extend its jihad into India, at least since 1996, with a remarkable lack of success. There is no reason to believe that a distant and culturally dissimilar entity such as Daesh will have an exponentially greater success than these antecedent troublemakers. Crucially, Daesh has created no new capacities, and transferred no new capabilities or resources to South Asia, even where existing terrorist formations have chosen to transfer their allegiance to it. Factions of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in Pakistan, and of the Taliban in Afghanistan have sworn loyalty to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed ‘Khalifa Ibrahim’, but they continue to do precisely what they were doing before this transfer of fealty.
There is, of course, the residual threat that some groups of hotheads may attempt a copycat event of the Paris attack. But such models have never been lacking in the past — the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai are a case in point — and have not produced any dramatic initiative along these lines.
It is, however, never possible to identify every potential trigger or source of terrorist acts, and a latent risk must always be assumed. Here it is necessary to make a distinction between risk and vulnerability. While risks can only be approximated, vulnerabilities are far more obvious — and endemic. Indeed, decades of sustained terrorism have had little impact on India’s establishment and its intractable resistance to improving the country’s internal security systems. Despite the torrents of rhetoric and policy announcements after Mumbai 26/11, there has been little substantive improvement in security and intelligence systems, and our vulnerabilities remain as great. While a few cosmetic projects have been implemented, the fundamental deficits in policing, in capacities of first responders, in intelligence capabilities, in technical and technological profiles, have all, at best, been marginally altered. Several critical projects have been implemented fitfully, and with such a lack of coordinating vision as to be entirely ineffectual; others remain stalled. Perhaps the single-most important of these is the Crime and Criminals Tracking Network and Systems, and the adjunct National Database on Crime and Terrorism, which have been languishing since 2009, and have seen the Centre entirely abdicate its responsibility since the commencement of the Modi government.
After each major attack there is much hullabaloo in the Indian security establishment about the lessons that can be learned from the ‘superior responses’ and institutions of the West. Hence, much talk of ‘community policing’, ‘deradicalisation’, SWAT responses and, of course the (now happily forgotten) National Counter-terrorism Centre. In truth, some of the best lessons we can draw from Western examples is what not to do. If the West finds itself, today, mired in Islamist terrorism, it has only its own policies and practices to blame. Indeed, while we may seek to acquire some technologies of response from the West, if there is a model that demands our close attention and research, it is, for all its deficiencies and flaws, the Indian model. We would be best employed in studying, at a time when hundreds and even thousands of radicalised youth are going from Western countries with tiny Muslim populations to join Daesh, the reasons why, with among the largest populations of Muslims in the world, and despite the continuous provocations of our neighbourhood exporter of Islamist terrorism, Muslims in India remain overwhelmingly resistant to the siren call of extremism.
Ajai Sahni is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal and an expert on counter-terrorism
The views expressed are personal