Features | Security | South Asia

Terrorism Down, But Not Out

Al-Qaeda is on the back foot, says Sunny Peter. But if the US eases up, other groups will soon step into its shoes.

By Sunny Peter for

Almost ten years into a full-on war on terrorism in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda has been dispersed. Indeed, the United States is now confident enough that it has dealt a significant enough blow to militants that it has shifted its focus to transferring the burden of confrontation and development into local hands under an Af-Pak policy expected to pave the way for a NATO pull-out from active conflict.

However, although in disarray, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are far from destroyed—a fact that raises troubling questions about Afghanistan’s ability to meet its objectives. And if Pakistan is, as some have charged, continuing its dalliances with terrorist groups, Jihadism will continue to pose a clear and grave danger not just to South Asia, but to the rest of the world.

For regional neighbour India, the risk of terrorism comes from a peculiar concoction of politico-religious Islamic radicalism riding on the back of an already powerful crime syndicate. D-Company is led by one of the world’s most-wanted men, Dawood Ibrahim, who is now believed to be safely nestled in Pakistan (although Pakistan denies any knowledge of him).

India may not yet face a direct threat from al-Qaeda, but it is still forced to contend with Lashkar-e-Taiba( Army of the Righteous) and its syndicates, which currently operate in India. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been accused of backing the group as a way of targeting Kashmir and particularly India. But many experts, including in the United States, now feel that even if there were a resolution to the Kashmir dispute, it would no longer satisfy the group’s aspirations. Indeed, with operations in an estimated 21 countries, Lashkar-e-Taiba is bound to look for a larger role in efforts to create a Pan-Islamic world order.

With Muslims comprising more than 13 percent of the country’s population, the government in India (at the central and state levels) can ill-afford action that’s seen as alienating this politically important sector. Communalism is still a volatile issue, with the potential to drive the country toward carnage. But it’s the spectre of such carnage that has meant that all counter-terrorism efforts in India tend to get stuck in a quagmire, with policymakers caught between accusations of appeasement on the one hand, and fear of estranging the country’s Muslim populace on the other.

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The terrorist threat in Southeast Asia, meanwhile, is quite different. Here, al-Qaeda has been the mentor, including to outfits such as Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Society), another force that has a presence beyond the borders of the country it is most associated with. JI was created and launched in an effort to create an Islamic community or brotherhood, with the ultimate aim of creating an Islamic caliphate of Southeast Asian countries.

In Indonesia, JI started by establishing a seemingly innocent network of religious schools to promote its ideology. Indeed, analysts believe that at this point, JI was more an aspiration or state of mind than a de facto organization. But this aspiration has not always been a coherent or consistent one, and JI has since its beginnings been a victim of conflicting internal views (there has always been a vertical split within the organization—one that has supported violence, the other fearing that this is counterproductive). This split is the reason the Indonesian government was initially reluctant to act decisively against the group, even though it was operating within its territory, although a series of bombings stirred the government from denial to taking concrete action.

Since it started to take action, Indonesia has successfully carried out massive counter-terrorism operations through centrally coordinated, tactical and operational response teams—initiatives widely seen as a fine example of how to combat terrorism.

Neighbouring the Philippines, meanwhile, has had to contend with multiple terror groups operating either independently to achieve local objectives or with pan-regional intent. However, apart from the JI, none of the groups appear to be driven by concrete ideology. Organizations such as Abu Sayyaf, for example, which operate on the fringes of Islamism, are seen by analysts as essentially criminal entities driven by the quest for profit.

The governments of Southeast Asian countries have, for their part, been emphatic in their approach to counter-terrorism and steps have been taken both at the national and regional level to combat the problem. Regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also been a major help in assisting with implementing effective mechanisms for countering such groups and managing potential conflict between countries, a support system lacking in South Asia.

It’s clear, then, that Southeast Asia has actually been something of a bright spot in the so-called War on Terror, with al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates disrupted or dislocated. This has constrained groups like JI, and forced them to find their own means of funding to achieve local and regional objectives.

All that said, regional governments can’t be complacent—the threat of Jihadism remains as new cells have been discovered that are still active throughout the region and which retain the motivation and capacity to continue their activities.

Jihadists are a radical minority who operate at the edges of Islamism, but it’s their tenacity to use violence that secures them front-page coverage. Hit hard by NATO operations in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have lost much of their sheen, and it can be safely assumed that their ability to make a run at Kabul or carry out a crippling large-scale attack anywhere else in the world has been significantly degraded, if not fully neutralized (the recent failed car bomb attack on New York underscored this point).

This success is what is likely behind, at least in large part, Obama’s plan to draw down troops in Afghanistan, the first time such a possibility could realistically be considered since operations began almost a decade ago.

There are now two options with this new Af-Pak policy. The first would be an early NATO pull-out that leaves the beleaguered nation’s fight against the remnants of the al-Qaeda and Taliban in the hands of the country’s half-trained armed forces, which are under the command of an apparently corrupt administration. Under such a scenario, the United States would maintain a skeletal presence for smoking out Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda members. The US knows that such an operation would have to be covert, and may not be able to depend on Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies.

The other scenario would be for the United States to maintain more of a presence in Afghanistan until the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban had been completely annihilated, though the Obama plan makes this look unlikely.

Either way, the failure of al-Qaeda does not eliminate the Jihadist threat, although it does change things up quite a bit. With the apparent demise of al-Qaeda, ragtag splinter groups of Islamic militants will be left in its wake. Many of these smaller factions will either end up dying fighting on the fringes, or shift their focus to the ‘next best’ terror group. This makes it all the more likely that Lashkar-e-Taiba will assume a much more central role in the global terrorist network.

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Radical Islamists, particularly in Southeast Asia, are bound to look beyond the failing al-Qaeda for moral guidance and material support, and Lashkar-e-Taiba looks most likely to fill the vacuum. Indeed, the group’s apparent interest in attacking foreigners and expanding its global reach are indicators that this process is already underway.

And within Pakistan itself, Lashkar-e-Taiba is already a troubling presence. The ISI appears to be in denial over the threat Pakistan faces, and there’s a growing feeling that state forces in Pakistan are increasingly unable to act effectively against the group.

This makes the Obama administration’s apparent desire to cut short the fight against militants all the more troubling. Call it the burden of history—the United States is the only country that can proactively lead the global effort to curb Jihadism. But if President Obama forgets this now, the United States will see US boots returning to Asia continent sooner rather than later.