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The Implosion of International Terrorism

There is an internal mechanism of self-destruction in all terrorist movements, and this is increasingly manifested in the Islamist 'global jihad' today.

The Implosion of International Terrorism
The Implosion of International Terrorism

The Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) was awarded the M.L. Sondhi Prize for International Politics, 2007 at  India Habitat Centre on April 19, 2008.  The previous year's prize winner was Ashley J. Tellis. The following presentation was made by the ICM President, KPS Gill, at the award ceremony.   

I would like to thank Mrs. Madhuri Sondhi, the M.L. Sondhi Memorial Trust and the selection committee for awarding this year's M.L. Sondhi Prize for International Politics to the Institute for Conflict Management.

It is a tribute to a vision that we shared with Professor M.L. Sondhi that the Institute for Conflict Management has today been singled out for this honour in his memory. Professor Sondhi was intimately connected with the Institute, as a founding Executive Committee member as well as a constant counsellor, who aided and shaped our activities from the moment of the Institute's inception to the time of his unfortunate demise. 

Professor Sondhi was a relentless advocate of peace, and I have often been thought of as a man of war--yet we met on the hard ground of reality and in the recognition of the Byzantine realities with which humankind was confronted in an increasingly complex, interlinked and interdependent world. My life has been spent in conflict and strife--and still continues to be immersed in the study of these aspects of the human condition; Professor Sondhi committed his own life to the pursuit of peace, with dialogue and diplomacy as his principal instruments. But we were both pragmatists and while both the soldier and the scholar may yearn fervently for peace, we recognized the world's wars and conflicts cannot simply be wished away. 

More than anything else, this award is recognition of the quiet--often unrewarded, but always poorly rewarded--work that many young scholars have done at the Institute to create, out of very little by way of resources or infrastructure, the world's largest open-source database and most authoritative bank of information and analyses, on terrorism in the South Asian region. The M.L. Sondhi Prize will be a source of tremendous encouragement and pride for those who continue to labour at the Institute with extraordinary dedication, and those who have contributed to its growth in the past. 

Terrorism is a subject that troubles us all, indeed, unsettles us, creating gross imbalances of judgement and response--and there are profound psychological reasons why this is so. The impact of an act or movement of terrorism can never be fully grasped by a theoretical understanding. The psychological fragmentation that such terror triggers must be experienced if it is to be fully understood. In peaceful rural societies, I have personally witnessed the havoc a single AK47 can wreak in a village, destroying all aspects of order and hierarchy; blood betrays blood, and all loyalties, all values, all ties of family, affection and love, disintegrate under the impact of terror. Each act of terror reminds all those who witness it--and in our world of instant media, millions bear testimony to each outrage--of their own mortality, producing chronic states of emotional distress, a pathological growth of anxiety, and a collapse of self-esteem that can envelop entire regions and societies. The truth is, the impact of the introduction of sophisticated and extremely lethal weaponry in the hands of people who have no qualms in using it ruthlessly against civilians for the purposes of creating terror, cannot even be imagined except by those who have actually experienced it.

I have written elsewhere of the Societal Stockholm Syndrome, a pattern of submission, resignation, acceptance and eventual justification that becomes a necessary survival strategy under extreme, lawless and pervasive threat. Terrorism has the capacity to produce, in large masses of men, a widespread belief in the futility of resistance and a loss of faith in the state and its agencies and their ability to protect life, liberty and property. These patterns of thought gradually create a denial among the people of their own fear, and an increasing justification of the terrorist cause. Not only a people, but the leadership and the state itself become increasingly susceptible to this sentiment of futility, the implicit justification of terrorism--as in the various 'root causes' theories advanced--and the erosion of the will to fight across the nation. At the height of terrorism in Punjab, there were whispers in the corridors of power in Delhi that India had 'lost the hearts and minds of the people' and it was only a matter of time before the territory would also be lost. Today, as not even the vestiges of the Khalistani ideology are in evidence in Punjab, these defeatist sentiments seem absurd--yet, they were a palpable reality to many at that time. 

This is the power of terror--and it has been enormously been enhanced by the character and content of contemporary media, with their overwhelming focus on the sensational, and their near complete ignorance of context and lack of historical memory. As even remote incidents of terrorist attack are brought dramatically into our homes through television, death anxieties proliferate among the population, whipped up into near hysteria in the wake of each new incident of violence. The political leadership and security establishment--riddled with information discontinuities of their own--are not immune to this process, and this has compounded policy and strategic errors across the world. 

The international hysteria has augmented manifold after 9/11, driven by Western media and leaderships abruptly shaken out of their prosperous complacence by a new way of war--a virtual Revolution in Military Affairs--that they had failed to envisage. Suddenly, distant conflicts, in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir--long justified by the West as 'freedom struggles'--became global terrorist threats and parts of an international Islamist jihad. Today, a wide array of acts of violence--terrorist, insurgent and criminal--are immediately subsumed within this category of 'international terrorism' or Islamist jihad, with little effort at judicious examination. The threat of what is now redefined as 'international terrorism' is, moreover, seen as being global and pervasive--without any examination of whatever evidence may exist to back such an appraisal. On many accounts, the threat has now magnified to the beginnings of Huntington's apocalyptic 'clash of civilisations'.

It is crucial that rational judgements and a considered approach prevail over such sentiments, if terrorism as a tactic of war is to be effectively resisted. Objective assessments are necessary, and there are three particular aspects that I will emphasize today, in this context.

  • The first is that the shock, the psychological and emotional impact of international terrorism, far exceeds the actual material and human damage it inflicts. The reality and impact of terrorism has, in fact, been vastly exaggerated in recent years.
  • The second is that international terrorism has done--and continues to do--infinitely greater damage to its sponsoring and supportive states and societies than to its targets.
  • Finally, terrorists are able to secure some of their objectives principally because the target states and societies fail to appreciate these realities, and succumb to the distress, horror and revulsion that the murder of innocents provokes, responding in panic, and ignoring the basic imperatives of a systematic, systemic and strategic reaction to the challenge. 

The Scale Of Terror
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western triumphalists constructed a myth of imminent world peace, announcing "the end of history" and a permanent victory for the liberal democratic ideology and its underlying Western culture. 

But this was just self-serving nonsense concocted by servile intellectuals, committed to the glorification of a particular ideological position. The reality is, mankind has never been at peace, and there was no reason, as the 20th Century approached its end--and when these Panglossian narratives were dreamed up--to believe that the nature of man had suddenly been transformed, or that a permanent and harmonious equilibrium had been reached within the world system. Indeed, the collapse of the order that prevailed through the Cold War years provoked a necessary instability, and the disarray we are currently experiencing across the globe is essentially the dynamic of an uncertain transition to a new order--and one that will be as fraught with tension and instability as the Cold War equation, if not more so.

It was the entirely unrealistic expectations of post-Soviet make-believe, combined with the anxieties aroused by the nature of terrorist violence, that have resulted in the hysteria over and the excesses of estimation of the international terrorist threat.

A quick look at some of the great wars and upheavals of recent history--after the two World Wars--is sobering in this context. One study lists at least 64 conflicts in the post-World War II era, each with fatalities in at least the tens of thousands. A sampling of some of the bloodiest conflagrations of our age would include:

  • The Communist regime in China, over the period 1949 to 1976, is estimated to have killed nearly 40 million people. 
  • In Soviet Russia, 10 million lives are believed to have been lost to Stalinism and post-Stalinist purges. 
  • Between 1962 and 1992, violence by the Communists, genocide and manmade famines killed 4 million in Ethiopia. 
  • 3 million were killed in the Pakistani genocide in what was then East Pakistan, before the creation of Bangladesh.
  • The Korean War, between 1950 and 1953, killed 2.8 million.
  • Civil wars and genocide have claimed 1.9 million lives in Sudan. 
  • 1.87 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge and the civil war in Cambodia.
  • 1.8 million people were killed in Afghanistan through incessant strife, first against the Soviets, and thereafter in internecine warfare and by the Taliban, between 1980 and 2001. 
  • The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s cost a million lives.

The US Department of State's data on fatalities in 'international terrorism' over two decades between 1985 and 2005 yields a total of 27,137 dead. This is an under-estimate, since terrorist attacks in many theatres, such as J&K, were excluded in US estimates till some years after 9/11, from the listing of 'international terrorist' incidents. Jammu & Kashmir itself, according to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, has seen 41,843 fatalities between 1988 and March 31, 2008, including 14,457 civilians killed.

Significant and tragic as these fatalities are--and the disruption of millions of other lives is immeasurable--they need to be contextualised against the broader history of human strife. Within this context, international terrorism is yet to attain--and, indeed, can never attain--the lethality of conventional warfare between states.

It is useful to note that, over the period 1988-2008, the world has experienced an estimated 221 wars and civil wars, among which the current war in Iraq war alone has resulted in between 100,000 and a million deaths since 2003; the conflict in Darfur has caused between 200,000 and 400,000 deaths, again, since 2003; and the war in Congo, between 1998 and 2003, resulted in between 3.5 and 4.4 million deaths. Between 1950 and 2007, conflicts across the globe have consumed an estimated 85 million lives--the so-called catastrophe of 9/11, which saw about 2,800 fatalities, and the toll of international terrorism need to be assessed against this wider context. 

My intention, here, is not to play down the threat of terrorism and the havoc it undoubtedly wreaks, but to emphasize that it is only one of the forms of the violence that has afflicted humankind throughout history, and that it needs to be studied in its realistic dimensions, and not in the emotionally fraught state in which it is ordinarily approached, even in the policy and security community. 

What needs to be understood from this limited sampling of data is that terrorism does kill, outrage and horrify us--but it does not, indeed, cannot, prevail upon the target state, except where the latter's leadership suffers a collapse of will, and capitulates. The essence of terrorism is that the terror it provokes is altogether out of proportion to the material and human damage it inflicts. This must be understood if rational responses are to be devised--and we are not to succumb to the present and widespread hysteria regarding the issue.

The Implosion: Islamist Perpetrators, Muslim Victims
here is an internal mechanism of self-destruction in all terrorist movements, and this is increasingly manifested in the Islamist 'global jihad' today. While the so-called jihadis constantly invoke Islam in their struggle, the reality is, their actions cannot be reconciled with any internally consistent ethical system, or with the teachings of the Qur'an. This, indeed, is why, with an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, the forces of Islamist terrorism number no more than a few thousand. More telling is the fact that, today, Islamists kill far more Muslims than they do their declared enemies, the Christians, the Jews and the Hindus. Brian Crozier has noted, in another context, that, "where revolutionaries find it necessary to kill more people on their own side than the enemy, it must be presumed either that their cause is widely opposed or that, at least, it leaves the population indifferent."

Such fratricide is not unique to Islamist terrorism alone, but has eventually afflicted almost all terrorist and insurgent movements of the recent past. The Khalistanis in Punjab were a case in point--nearly 67 per cent of all fatalities inflicted by the terrorists were Sikhs. In Kashmir, 90 per cent of all civilians killed by the terrorists are Muslims. While the class composition of victims is far more difficult to document, the Advocates Committee on Naxalite Terrorism in Andhra Pradesh noted that "the largest proportion of the victims of Naxalite violence are drawn from the very classes and communities they claim to be protecting and fighting for."

The 'implosion of terrorism' has another aspect that demands attention--as with revolutions, it consumes its own children and, one may add, parents. Pakistan is perhaps the most dramatic case in point. It is Pakistan that has, par excellence, harnessed terrorism as an instrument of state policy for the past over two decades. Today, Pakistan is in the grips of a violent 'blowback', what one Italian publication (Limes) has described as Il Boomerang Jihadista or the Jihadist Boomerang. According to ICM data, at least 3599 persons were killed as a result of terrorist violence just last year. Another 1,103 persons had already lost their lives to terrorist violence by March 31, 2008. Islamist terrorism within Pakistan has risen sharply over the past years, with 189 related fatalities in 2003; 863 in 2004; 648 in 2005; and 1471 in 2006, yielding a cumulative total of 7,873 between 2004 and March 31, 2008.

More significantly, the Taliban--al Qaeda combine has disrupted administrative and military control over vast regions in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and has significantly undermined faith in and the confidence of the Army which had dominated all aspects of life and politics in the country since its very birth. While its neighbourhood has, no doubt, suffered immensely as a result of Pakistan's Islamist terrorist misadventure, it is Pakistan itself that is, today, confronted by an existential threat, while its dreams of conquering Kashmir and creating a proxy state in Afghanistan lie in ruins. 

The reality, across the world today, is that while non-Muslims are the proclaimed targets of the Islamist extremists and the so-called global jihad, it is Muslims who are its principal victims. The jihadis and a misconceived stream within the Western rhetoric on the subject has sought to project contemporary international terrorism as a part or the beginnings of a global 'clash of civilizations', a war between the so-called Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. But in doing this they raise a bogey that does not exist, they falsify reality, and they impute far greater power to the Islamist extremists and terrorists than they actually possess. 

It is useful to note that the Islamist or Islamist-nationalist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be included within the definition of international terrorism, though they share some ideological moorings with the principal international Islamist terrorist groupings, and some insurgent and extremist groups there do engage in terrorist activities directed against civilians and sectarian rivals. Significantly, even if these are included, the fatalities inflicted on target systems--which must be conceptualised as the Western powers, including American and coalition forces located in these countries--remains minimal.

There is a growing realization on these distortions within the Muslim world today, though they continue to be ignored in the Western mainstream discourse. Powerful voices have arisen, at great risk to those who dare to speak out, and they are articulating the dissent of the majority of Muslims against the violent minority that has hijacked their religious identity and harnessed their Faith to a narrow, extremist and destructive vision. 

Thus, Ziauddin Sardar, a British writer of Pakistani origin, declares, in an article titled "Islam has become its own enemy":

Terrorism is a Muslim problem… Yet… Muslims have stubbornly refused to see terrorism as an internal problem. While the Muslim world has suffered, they have blamed everyone but themselves. It is always 'the West', or the CIA, or 'the Indians', or 'the Zionists' hatching yet another conspiracy. 

Sardar notes, further, 

…the bulk of victims of terrorism are also Muslims, 11 September notwithstanding. This is particularly so when we consider that violence and brutalisation has become the norm in unending quests for self-determination in such places as Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya.


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