Fortress Europe has been breached twice this year from one of its strongest walls, France, which is no stranger to terror attacks. The format of the most recent attack, blueprinted and tested in Mumbai, will arguably become the mainstay of terror in the foreseeable future. From the perspective of lethality, avoiding premature detection and leveraging the shock factor, these strategically targeted “small-team raids” are a paradigm shift in doctrine by terror outfits across the spectrum. Therefore, a rewrite of our own becomes necessary.
Strategists as well as the political and security leadership continue to christen these attacks based on their location. So we have the Madrid attack, followed by the London attack, the Mumbai attack, and so forth. However, labelling them in this way veils the fact that while each attack saw the targeting of the people of a particular city by a different terror group, the underlying motivation, training, ideological guidance and other essential ingredients of waging war have the same fountainhead. Therefore, each attack must be given the same degree of global mindshare, regardless of the target city. But, unfortunately, the war on terror has its own caste system — so the killing of innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, India and France are associated with different degrees of heinousness and result in varied reprisals. While the world gets enraged by the attack in France, it all but forgets the one in Lebanon — though both happened in the same week. That won’t do. Because the tactics learned and perfected in Mumbai will invariably be deployed in Paris. Terrorists freed from Indian prisons after hijacking Indian planes will go on to kill American citizens. The strategy of treating some targets as “expendable” and others as “outrageous” is itself divisive, and must change.
Second, the world leadership must make up its mind on the “good” and “bad” guys. It has never been easy to differentiate between terrorists and freedom fighters. Many world leaders and political parties have been labelled as both. But if policy is pursued without some clarity on the battle lines, characters and narratives, the world will keep creating monsters who will have to be killed by yet other monsters who, in turn, will necessitate the creation of more monsters. The Taliban, Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, LTTE, Hamas, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Naxals, Hezbollah, etc, have all had or continue to get political and/ or state patronage. So, to feign incredulous surprise at their growing capability is not just hypocritical, but also suicidal.
Most importantly, world leaders need to stop being too clever by half and realise that the narratives they build to justify the genies they create are so specious that no one knows what to believe anymore. The world can’t be expected to believe that Pakistan, whose battle against terrorism the United States continues to fund, was unaware of harbouring the world’s most dangerous terrorist for years. Pakistan continually denies its complicity with terrorism while actively abetting it. For that matter, how can the IS generate the kind of revenues it does without “good” nations buying its contraband oil? Similarly, the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found at the end of the world’s most expensive military campaign makes it difficult to believe future cries of “wolf”.
Third, the IS, al-Qaeda and LeT are waging a far more nimble and strategic campaign than we appreciate. France’s implementation of border controls after the latest attack has effectively challenged the principles of free trade and movement across the continent, which was the basis of the European Union. Whether undermining EU solidarity was a strategic objective of the Paris attack is moot. The fact that it has exacerbated tensions between ethnic communities in Europe and even ideologues in the same country cannot be ignored — the IS most certainly won’t. It will seize the various issues that will come up as a result of this attack — refugee influx, internal dissent, Islamophobia, radicalisation of indigenous terrorists — and blend them to create the “perfect storm”, force multiplying its brisance. This kind of “opportunity spotting and leveraging” is conspicuous by its absence among countries and security agencies, which are still siloed, cumbersome and myopic in their responses.
Lastly, and without meaning to sound alarmist, it is also important to understand that we are in the midst of a global war. This is as close as it gets to World War III. We will be missing the woods for the trees if we continue to treat these terror attacks as discrete events that appear to be only loosely connected. On the contrary, these are manifestations of a much wider series of fundamental changes taking place across the globe, cannoning into each other. The IS’s redrawing of the map of the Middle East, the surge of displaced populations across the world, the rise of fundamentalism and radicalisation, regime changes, energy and resource crises, migration forced by climate change, rapid urbanisation and skewed distribution of wealth are all interconnected. Any plan to solve only part of the problem in isolation will result in the situation careening further out of control. The world is one family and one battlefield. And that is why we need a unified doctrine among allies.