Terrorism has swiftly outsmarted geographical confines, and this explains the spurt in multilateral cooperation on counterterrorism. In light of appalling terrorist activities in her backyard and the ongoing truculence in Jammu and Kashmir, it is now time for India to take a leadership role in shaping South Asia’s counterterrorism strategy. As part of this effort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to chair the BRICS leaders’ outreach meeting with BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) counterparts in Goa and he is also pushing an early ratification of the BIMSTEC Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.
Barry Buzan and Ole Waever coined the term ‘regional security complex’, which suitably explains South Asian security dynamics. There is a need to produce sturdy institutional machinery on counterterrorism for this region. Terrorism in South Asia has been seeded in trends of religious extremism, proxy wars and state sponsorship, and this warrants a comprehensive scheme tailored to its unique social, cultural, and political needs. As SAARC’s embarrassing inadequacies are increasingly coming to the fore, can BIMSTEC be the next best bet to forge counterterrorism cooperation in this region? A vital prerequisite for this to happen is India acting in the capacity of a front runner in counterterrorism initiatives. This may sound ambitious, but the likelihood of this eventuality cannot be ruled out.
To elaborate on instances that prove how every South Asian country has been grappling with terrorism and why it is precisely the ripe time to talk about real regional counterterrorism cooperation, let us briefly look at the states in South Asia, one at a time. Afghanistan is still trying to emerge from the grips of Taliban. 12 Nepalese soldiers were killed by terrorists in Kabul in June and India is yet to fully strategize on counterterrorism. Dhaka saw one of the biggest jihadist attacks at the Holey Artisan Bakery in July this year and Bhutan was a refuge for NDFB terrorists until they initiated a stern crackdown, so was Burma.
The Maldives, meanwhile stands at a toxic brink against the backdrop of civil unrest from Abdulla Yameen’s declining support. In fact, shaky domestic appurtenances in Maldives have bolstered radicalization against the authoritarian president. The open Indo-Nepalese border only increases the security threat. Sri Lanka has had extremists under the larger umbrella of the Tamil Tigers carry out suicide bombings, assassinations and massacres until their defeat in 2009, even Mauritius faced a security threat earlier this year when ISIS directly channeled a mail to their Prime Minister’s Office.
There have been various regional counterterrorism cooperation efforts in South Asia in the past. SAARC attempted to implement measures against terrorism in the shape of the 1987 Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, which was updated in 2006 by an Additional Protocol. These measures include setting up of the Terrorist Offenses Monitoring Desk or STOMD, the Drugs Offenses Monitoring Desk or SDOMD, and the Expert Group on Networking between Police Authorities. Despite these advances, SAARC has failed to iron out regional complexities. The reasons behind them include but are not limited to the clause forbidding discussion on bilateral issues (for instance, the question of J&K) and continued obstruction by Pakistan. Coupled with this is Islamabad’s inability to disband support to terrorist organizations which are freely prospering on her soil; this lies at the very heart of South Asian security threats. Other states in the region cannot wait any longer for Pakistan to rectify her course.
In 2009, BIMSTEC member states entered into the Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking, but only India and Bangladesh ratified it. The Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism and Transnational Crime or JWG-CTTC under BIMSTEC is comprised of four sub groups on intelligence sharing, combating terrorist financing, prevention of illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and precursor chemicals and legal and law enforcement issues.
But the mere signing of treaties is not enough to combat terrorism. The real battle is to gather political will and align forces. The BIMSTEC counterterrorism machinery, if it ever exists, should not entirely discard the window of external and multilateral assistance. However regional efforts should not be dependent on other states or even the United Nations. One can deliberate on the possible ways in fostering such intersectional partnerships, but BIMSTEC member states should not base their counterterrorism narrative entirely or even largely on these.
Completing what could be now characterized as the half-baked groundwork on counterterrorism is important not only for its own sake, but because it could be used as the starting point to further bolster South Asian security cooperation. National and regional strategies are two complimentary parallels for any successful counterterrorism machinery. The former includes legislative tools and policing, while the latter includes regional strategic integration, collective action, and law and enforcement convergence between states. BIMSTEC member states should strengthen both. What has to be acknowledged by all is the terrorism dagger dangling above their heads and that the best way to get rid of it is by pooling regional forces.
After they fully absorb the need to strategize together, they should engage in dialogue and work towards building consensus on policy, modus operandi, law and intelligence sharing. This has to be supplemented by the more difficult task of defining terrorism with as much specificity as possible. A regional forum on counterterrorism should be set up with sharp division of duties, a special counterterrorism task force should be effectuated and joint military and paramilitary exercises should be initiated for sterner border control.
India is the obvious choice to lead counterterrorism initiatives. India is the only state that shares borders with all other member states. Though some have listed India-centeredness to be one of the problematic features of South Asian security environment, this arguably only warrants India assuming greater responsibility to combat terrorism in South Asia. While the terror attacks in Mumbai exposed the inefficiencies in both India’s preparedness and her response, an inevitable reality is that other member states are even farther away from leading the battle against terror.
Given its economic might, political will and geographic reach, now is the time for India to not only strengthen her own counterterrorism efforts but also lead the regional counterterrorism superstructure. This will definitely mandate a lot of backbreaking by India and she also needs to take this not as a bid at self-enrichment but as a battle against terrorism. India via BIMSTEC should outline her efforts in targeting every single frontier of terrorist organizations in terms of funding, training, weapons, sanctuaries, mobility, communication channels and most importantly, ideology.
Parnal Vats is a lawyer currently working for the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank based in New Delhi.