Terrorism has always been a weapon of the weak. For all the preparation, money and ‘sacrifice’ that go into shows of astounding brutality, the terrorists don’t seek a military victory but a 'moral’ defeat of the state.
The battleground is largely psychological. This theatre of the absurd is enacted for an amorphous audience of potential victims who can’t stop thinking ‘it could have been me.’ Thus every act of terrorism is also a form of communication.
From 9/11 in the US to 11/7 in Mumbai, the tactics have worked: First, a spectacular act exposes the state’s vulnerability. It scores a psychological victory for the perpetrators. Secondly, it pushes the state to clamp down on the catchment of probable sympathisers, causing discontent. Finally, the event polarizes opinions, leading invariably to curbs on civil liberties. Any repression or backlash is a bonus for the terrorists because it further charges up their constituency of adherents and admirers.
The scariest among recent global trends is the creation of “sleeper cells” through a sustained policy of incitement, indoctrination and brainwashing. The liberal West figured out the hard way that the terror modules that perpetrated train/ metro massacres in Madrid and London involved local youths with modern education. The 9/11 suicide squad remained dormant for a year and a half.
Some of the bleakest events around us are now beginning to unravel how homegrown terror modules are firmly rooted in local conditions despite global links. The UK and Spain have large constituencies of disheartened minority youths. In Europe alone, various intelligence agencies estimate that the number of Al Qaida sympathisers could be in tens of thousands.
In India, the number of sympathisers is anybody’s guess but the Home Ministry dreads that hundreds of sleeper modules are spread over this vast country. The clandestine nature of sleeper cells makes traditional policing almost redundant. If secrecy is vital for the existence of sleeper cells, timely intelligence is pivotal for preempting their sudden strikes.
The new counter terrorism operations require more information, intelligence, technology and technique rather than heavy weaponry or force. We need more ‘inclusive’ policies for the minorities but we can’t continue to dilute anti-terror laws for political considerations.
The biggest challenge for any liberal democracy, battling terrorism, is to stay democratic. Eminent terrorism expert Paul Wilkinson wrote way back in the seventies: “Any ‘bloody’ tyrant can solve the problem of political violence if he is willing to sacrifice all considerations of humanity and to trample down all constitutional and judicial rights.” That is why the civilised world seeks any means to combat terrorism other than suspension of democratic procedure.
For this, a liberal democracy must make sure that its antiterrorism measures are targeted only at the terrorists. It is vital to coordinate all anti-terrorism intelligence, strategies and operations under the unified command of a new ministry of internal security that can learn from its successes and failures and can be held accountable if collateral damage becomes a matter of common occurrence.