The past year saw the terror attack on a convoy of security personnel on the arterial Srinagar – Jammu national highway in Pulwama, which killed 40 personnel of the Central Reserve police Force (CRPF) as a critical juncture. This attack in February started the year off with a crisis that shadowed India’s security posture for the rest of the year, and eventually led to the Balakot air strikes targeting terror camps in Pakistan. This not only was an unprecedented reaction, but also added new dimensions to India’s counter-terror thinking.
According to the Global Terrorism Index 2019, published by Sydney based Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP), deaths from terrorism have more than halved over the past four years, but with the number of countries being affected by terrorism increasing. India, as has been since these rankings were introduced by IEP, remains in the top 10 countries (at number 7) affected by terrorism even as it has improved over the past few years, and is expected to continue to do so in the coming decade.
The main threat from terrorism for India remains that of cross-border, state-sanctioned terror emanating from Pakistan, and mostly troubling the population of the Kashmir valley. The abrogation of the state of Jammu & Kashmir in August this year, and the prevailing political situation in the region from a security point of view still has to play out in its entirety. According to the 2019 index, Jammu & Kashmir was India’s most impacted state, with 321 attacks in 2018 taking place in the state resulting in 123 deaths.
However, challenges for both terrorism in India and terrorism from an international perspective are diversifying. Globally, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) geographically in Syria and Iraq witnessed a remission, and the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in October in a US Army raid in northern Syria. However, despite the significant losses, the ideology and viral design of ISIS’s brand has not diminished beyond a point. In fact, recent attacks in Africa’s Sahel region in Niger and Burkina Faso by ISIS affiliates has shifted attention to western Africa as a potential red flag in international terrorism over the next years. Amidst all this, Al Qaeda has also worked to consolidate its legacy, which had suffered a setback on sidelines of the ISIS story.
More than the traditional fronts of challenges posed by terrorism, newer avenues such as the online sphere is where a lot of attention may be focused over the next few years. Countering terror groups online has proven to be difficult, with bad actors using the same services and technologies that we do to communicate with each other to further their messaging. The ‘social’ in ‘social media’ is an increasingly challenged term. From the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which was for the first time live tweeted by the Al Qaeda aligned terror outfit Al Shabaab, to ISIS using the communications app Telegram almost as its virtual headquarters, the challenges for the online ecosystem as market driven businesses meeting ‘social’ spaces and state agencies to counter the same without impending on people’s rights remains a grey area of policy makers.
India has particularly been lagging in this space; with a hotchpotch of directives to form new agencies to counter the same without reforms to bring in the best talent has led to big gaps between thought and action. Today, a company owning a communications app could have more than 10 million users but only one or two people running the software, giving no capacity for them to filter content or to weed out unwanted users and materials. This convergence of technology with terrorism was popularised by ISIS, and will, without fail, be emulated by both newer terror groups and older ones who will see benefit of such disruption in their geographies. From the confinement of personal apps to the vastness of power grids, the gamut of threats posed in the cyber world will surpass the threats posed by traditional terror practices at least in India due to the lackadaisical approach to this field by the prevailing security architecture.
Another new area of concern globally has been the rise in violence and acts of terror from the far right. As per the data, in 2018 the number of incidents of far-right terrorism in the West increased by 320% over the past five years. In the first nine months of 2019, 77 people were killed from far-right terrorism compared to 11 people killed from the same a year before. The shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white supremacist which killed 51 people and was live-streamed on Facebook brought to the front a new challenge in countering terrorism from ideologies fuelled by anti-immigration, xenophobia, fascism, racism and so on. The fact that New Zealand had no real history of terrorism prior to this raises new pockets of concerns, including exclusionary attestation between the term terrorism and Islamist groups.
In India, the rise in majoritarian politics may also pose a challenge to the state against terrorism and violent extremism. Creation of an atmosphere where minorities feel vulnerable, few cases of persecution and cases of lynching of Muslims in Indian states may lead to the country’s Muslim community becoming a sitting-duck target for Islamist terror groups to court. Historically, Indian Muslims have shunned these groups and their ideologies, with less than 180 cases of Indians named in pro-ISIS cases, while Western countries such as France and Belgium had far more by a few hundreds.
Nonetheless, formation of entities such as Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent in 2014 ((AQIS), with the group referencing the 2002 Godhra riots while announcing its establishment), the social-media stirred rise of terrorists such as Burhan Wani in Kashmir, and an unnecessary and unrequired magnifying glass on India’s Muslim population as one that may be seen in trouble from majoritarianism. The recent comments by Al Qaeda chief Aymen al-Zawahiri on Kashmir, and the regular circulation of news articles of lynching against Muslims in pro-ISIS ecosystems online could create an unwarranted security situation in the future. While globally, competing Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS have largely failed in India, they may look into the country with a reenergised mandate backed up by the broad stroke rise of majoritarian politics coupled with the political marginalisation of the Muslim community being played out in certain sectors of India.
Overall, the prognosis for terror threats to India in the coming decade are not drastically different or new to the ones faced in the decade gone by. However, approach to counter-terrorism in India must not be myopic by encapsulating most of the thought and practice bandwidth to Pakistan, even though it remains the biggest security threat as far as terrorism goes. New Delhi must factor in global terror narratives as critical ancillary support structures to understand cross-border terror and localised narratives as well, and going forward, dismiss the practices of seeing one and the other in individual capacities. There is no way to accurately predict the trajectory of terrorism, however, the next decade for India should be one where capacity must be deployed to catch up with the threat perceptions from the previous year’s first, before any traditional attempts to re-invent the wheel in its counter-terror knowledge and practices.
The author is a Fellow with Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Views are personal.
This article was first published on ORF.