Who is a terrorist and what is Terrorism?

I have had a lifelong exposure to unconventional warfare, starting from erstwhile East Pakistan, Balochistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. However, I also have had considerable interaction on a personal level with many of those who are terrorists today and have spent a fairly long period of my time in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, were I continue to remain in touch with many friends. You are certainly not interested in my life history, but it is with this background of having personally viewed the phenomenon of terrorism from within and as the victim of it, that I share my views with you today.

I am not an apologist for terrorism, but I believe that we need to understand this phenomenon and what makes these people terrorists, before we can deal with them successfully.

Let me offer the conclusions that I arrived at which led me to formulate hypotheses, which are: the first hypothesis is that if we liken a terrorist organization to the human body, it has three distinct parts, the head, or the brain, the torso, and the limbs. Each of these is distinct in character, composition and motivational causes. The head is usually wealthy, from well-educated to very well-educated and in search of personal aggrandizement. He either is, or is a potential, megalomaniac, and sometimes a hypocrite who only pretends belief in the cause to further his ambition. The torso is middle-class, ranging from educated to well-educated. They are the idealists, with a conviction for the cause. They recognize the ugliness of their methods but believe that the ends justify the means. Quite obviously they form the backbone of every organization. The limbs are the soldiers. They are usually the un-empowered, the impoverished, illiterates who are taught to believe that even the means may be justified. They are the ones most often corrupted by corrupt religious injunctions.

My second hypothesis is that since the deity or God, in every religion, is the only being, whose injunctions are beyond question, therefore terrorism turns towards religion for justification, He becomes the tool to justify the perpetration and perpetuation of acts, which appear evil to those who are the victims but are glorified by the will of God for the perpetrators. Although this might be viewed as a hypothesis that applies solely to the Islamic world, but I am convinced that this would be equally applicable to other religions in other placesi. That the head may, or may not always, believe in the interpretation or misinterpretation of religion that he preaches, and might only pretend to do so, for its own ends. That the torso consists of a mixture of those who do and those who don’t, and those who don’t, allow it to be preached, since they believe in the cause. The leaders, usually hypocritically, twist religious edicts to justify their injunctions of evil. The mid-level leadership, or the torso, allows this misrepresentation, “in the greater interest of the cause”, while the limbs follow orders they are convinced are just, since their minds have been corrupted to believe this is their religious duty.

My third hypothesis is that, like the three tiers to a terrorist organization stated above, there are also three layers of terrorists: the terrorists of yesterday, who are already guilty of crimes and deserve to be “rooted out and punished”; those of today, who are trained and ready, but not yet guilty of crimes and could be prevented; and the terrorists of the tomorrow, the ones who are but potential. The last will swell in numbers if terrorism is not combated with caution.

Each layer and each tier merit separate treatment, individually and collectively. In the long run the world will need a total strategy to deal with this phenomenon, not one that attacks it in bits and pieces. If solely punitive measures are undertaken they will result in a self escalatory process that might become unending. While the terrorist of yesterday must indeed be punished, those of today can be prevented from acts of terrorism, and those of tomorrow, must be prevented from joining the ranks of terrorists. Little can be done about the megalomaniacs, be they of yesterday, today, or tomorrow, but they can be deprived of the torso and the limbs, essential for the head to function, by doing something about the cause they flock to, as well as the socio-politico-economic environment which nurtures the violence and hatred, leading to the recourse to terrorism. This will also prevent the megalomaniac from finding the necessary assistance. If a comprehensive approach is not adopted, as a worst case scenario, with each response to the next act of terrorism, and there will be a response to each indiscriminate punitive act if it is indiscriminate, there will be another, and yet another. A cyclic process that can snowball till it engulfs the world. On the other hand, the civilized society, in search of enhanced security, will proceed more and more towards living in a fortress, and, simultaneously, becoming the very terrorist it is fighting. What then are they fighting for?

As an example of the above, let us take a look at what is already happening in the U.S. and the U.K. as a consequence of this last act. The various anti-terrorist acts have again shifted the emphasis on human and individual civil liberties to greater rights to the state; individual accused of terrorism can, under these acts be held for varying periods without access to the due process of law, the very basic right of habeus corpus is denied to them, while those of state security agencies are increasing in direct proportion. The very morés of the civilized world are changing. Security is intrusive by definition. The more security a country seeks, the more human rights will have to be ceded. Simultaneously, in the wake of the events of 9/11 there was a public reaction against Muslims in general, and Arab Muslims in particular, which again serves to exemplify my earlier contention. While to the credit of both, the U.S. Administration and the media, it must be acknowledged that not only did they take cognizance of this emerging threat, they took immediate measures to downplay it on the one hand, and punish the perpetrators on the other. Could the terrorists have already won to the extent that the morés of civilized society are in the process of changing, because of their acts? Or has civilized society ceded itself voluntarily?

Before proceeding to my fourth hypothesis I find it essential to digress a little and attempt to explain the word “fundamentalism”, which in its current usage I am opposed to. The term fundamentalist would apply to one who returns to the fundamentals of his/her religion and no religion fundamentally preaches violence. A Christian fundamentalist might be a hermit or a Saint, a Hindu fundamentalist; a Buddha in search of Nirvana, and a Muslim fundamentalist a Sufi: these people preaching religious militancy are in fact no more than bigots, religious bigots. It is however essential to point out that bigotry is not the exclusive domain of either the uneducated or those holding strong religious beliefs; the percentage of educated bigots would perhaps outnumber those of the uneducated ones and there are a large percentage of bigots among those who hold no religious beliefs, though probably a lesser percentage than others.

My fourth hypothesis needs a lengthier explanation and is based on the earlier hypothesis that the leader of such organizations seeks political power. In India, the Sangh Parivar provides the undisputed national leadership of the ultra-right wing element, the Vishva Hindu Prashad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and the RSS are all members of the Sangh, which resorts to the use of terror and violence based on religion, which is referred to as “communalism” in India, as opposed to “fundamentalism” when referring to Muslims. However, it is content to wield power and authority, which is considerable, covertly, rather than overtly. It manipulates the RSS and even the BJP, but does not seem to seek a direct role in government. It has been responsible for inciting the Hindu community to their recent violence against the Christian community, and in the case of the communal violence against Muslims, including the famous “Babri Mosqueii” issue, in which the Hindus claim that, during the Mughal rule, the Muslim Mughals constructed a mosque at the site, that used to be the temple of “Ram”, the Hindu Godiii. While the individuals are as hypocritical in their misuse of religion, and personally ambitious as any other, in this part of the world, they are unique in not seeking a direct political role in India, probably due to the realization that the body politic of civil society in India will never accept them.

In Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran, is again the undisputed leader of the LTTE. His control is absolute, and he poses as much of a threat in the Tamil-Nadu, the Indian state as he does in Sri Lanka. He, too, is a megalomaniac, in search of personal aggrandizement. The present Sri Lankan government appears more determined to make some kind of peace with the Tamils and will almost certainly end up giving them greater autonomy, with Prabhakaran as the ultimately powerful individual of the Tamil dominated north.

In Afghanistan, Mulla Omer was a creation of the times. It is my opinion that he was not in search of personal aggrandizement to begin with, but, when the opportunity was thrust upon him, he accepted it. In all likelihood, he is also not a hypocrite, which is why the Taliban government was so representative, to begin with. In fact, he fits into the category of people who form the “torso”, in my hypothesis stated above. It is probably for this reason that Osama was able to mould him to his liking. If alive and with Osama, which is more than likely, if they are both alive, he will, almost certainly by now, have been absorbed at his rightful place: the mid-level leadership of Al-Quaida.

By contrast, in Pakistan, there is no single national leader. There are a number of factions, each with its own leader and a relatively small following. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which is the largest religious political party, is really rather benign and non-violent, though it is the best organized, has street power, and has supported the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in its struggle for independence in Indian Kashmir. However, its leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed typifies the kind of person seeking political power, which he was unable to obtain through the process of elections until the most recent one, through the threat of religion. Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Jamiat-Ulamai-Islam, Maulana Tahir-ul Qadri etc; are all examples of the same kind. They would be prepared to make their pacts with whoever they could, to obtain a political role. While the leadership of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen will seek a political role in an independent Kashmir, those of the Jaish-Muhammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba are mere puffs in the wind. The recent Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan are also not a unifie, monolithic organization. While Baitullah Mahsud is the bet known, but Fazlullah rules Swat, Maulvi Nazir, the Wazir tribe, and the Mohmand tribes have a number of individuals vying for leadership. They are all propped up by others, and begin to see themselves as larger than they actually are. These are, therefore perhaps the ones most difficult to understand, since they have no end or aim in sight; they will perpetuate conflict merely for having something to do in the service of God.

While all the foregoing supports, or at least, does not refute my earlier hypotheses, this summary of the region also brings one aspect starkly to the forefront, which is my final hypothesis: while South Asia has its terrorist organizations, in almost all countries, these organizations are confined to posing threats within their own countries or neighboring ones, within South Asia and thus in search of political roles within their own countries. None of them have the leaders with the ambition (so far), nor the potential or ability to threaten the outside world. However, given someone like Osama, these individuals can feed the torso and limbs of his organization!

It is with this background that I undertake this study of religious militancy, a struggle for freedom from oppression, a struggle for the right of self determination and their relationship to the modern concept of terrorism. Let me add here that my “interviews” with these individuals who provided me the insight into their world were not formal interviews, nor was I a journalist; in most cases I was myself: a serving military officer, and in others I was incognito, I could not, therefore take notes during the interviews, sometimes not for hours, even days after these. Consequently, where I fail to attribute names to my sources, it is not only because they sought anonymity, which some did, but also because I have not recorded the names or hesitate to attribute the words of one to perhaps another. However, I will attempt to give you a view of the world through the prism of their eyes, perhaps an understanding of the people and what they actually want, while attempting to refer to my hypotheses in the course of the study.

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