The Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists have once again struck in a European capital. It carried out two bomb attacks in Brussels — one in the airport and the other in a crowded metro railway station in the city on March 22. At least 31 people were killed and 300 wounded in the attacks. The media quickly dubbed it as revenge attacks for the capture of Salah Abdeslam, who had eluded arrest four days earlier ever since he took part in the November 15 Jihadi attacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed. Revenge or not, Brussels attack is of special interest to India as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Brussels on March 30 to attend the 13th India- European Summit meeting. The PM has stuck to his schedule despite the terror strikes. What really matters is the understanding gained from the Brussels attacks about the Islamic State’s operational capabilities, intentions and sustainability in the face of loss of territory and oil resources and infrastructure in Syria and Iraq.
In the long term for India, understanding Islamic State’s ability to churn up India’s already murky terrorism scene aided and abetted by Pakistan’s Army and its Inter Services Intelligence would be more important. The Brussels attacks have sent a strong message to the world at large that the ISIS is still capable of delivering a strong blow in a European capital at a time of its own. This indicates the durability of the Islamic State although it seemed to be fighting on the back foot to hold on to its possessions in Syria ever since Russia entered the war with massive air strikes in aid of the Syrian government forces fighting to regain lost territory. The Islamic State is said to have lost as many as 20,000 cadres in the war.
The US has stepped up air strikes to beef up the Kurdish Peshmerga militia attacks on the Islamic State. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which in the past had ignored the flow of assistance from their countries to the ISIS, have also taken action to round up local Islamic State sympathisers and plug support conduits after the ISIS struck in Saudi Arabia and Turkey targeting the Shia minority.
In spite of setbacks, the ISIS has managed to retain initiative to strike in a European capital in dynamics of power play in Central Asia. The first relates to the adverse effects on the US-Saudi relations as a result of the lifting of US sanctions against Iran, which could weaken their coordinated strategies to defeat the ISIS. The growing schism between Iran and Saudi Arabia is yet another aspect of the failure of the global community to get its act together to eliminate Jihadi terrorism.
Whether it would ever be able to do so remains a moot question if we look at the pattern of global war against terror. There is also the conflicting world view reminiscent of the Cold War days emerging between the two large groups — one led by Russia and the other under the US and its Gulf allies supported by the European Union — that are supposed to be fighting ISIS. Their strategic agenda includes the use of any potential divisive issue to dominate regions considered strategically important. This seems to have overtaken the common interest in eliminating Jihadi terrorist threat.
Notwithstanding the mouthing of a whole range of cherished ideals from equality, religious tolerance, democratic governance and human rights, the two camps do not mind sacrificing the very same ideals to further their agenda. They have not hesitated to use existing latent sectarian, religious and ethnic divides and animosities to stoke the embers of conflagration impinging upon the war against the ISIS as well. Typical is the revival of Shia and Sunni sectarian divide within communities that had managed to coexist in relative peace for decades even under some of the worst authoritarian regimes.
Thus the region is in danger of continued instability that can only delay the elimination of the Islamic State as the sectarian divide has become an important rallying point for mustering support to the two groups ostensibly fighting the ISIS. We have the curious sight of the American taxpayer footing the bill for arming insurgent groups like Al Nusra, which have Al Qaeda parentage, to fight the Islamic State while Hizbullah, a Shia outfit fighting the ISIS is dubbed as a terrorist group.
The art of doublespeak has become their new normal; otherwise it is difficult to understand the US President condemning Pakistan for furthering Taliban terrorism while the US Senate was seriously considering a deal to sell F- 16 fighters to Pakistan, the very same country that is accused of promoting terrorist attacks against its neighbours.
Coming back to the Brussels attack, some home truths are emerging about the nature of war on Jihadi terror which would be useful in our own fight against terrorism. After Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in the US, Jihadi terrorists had carried out shock attacks in London, Paris, Madrid and now Brussels. They have been able to do this despite tightening of security measures after each major attack, stringent counter terrorism laws, use of technology aided surveillance and tracking devices, sharing of intelligence inputs and exchange of data on potential Jihadists among the population.
It is not that the measures are useless, but they shown the glaring inability of democratic governments to translate improved security environment to tangible advantage against terrorism. Jihadists have used the very same democratic environment that ensures equality of all citizens, penchant for citizens’ privacy, rule of law and ponderous process of criminal justice system to elude arrest.
For instance, the US intelligence agencies had passed on information about the el-Bakhroui brothers as potential terrorists to Belgium where they had a criminal record. Yet it made no difference to the country’s inability to prevent the attack. This underlines the wrong priorities of European governments in the fight against terrorism by putting privacy of citizens to override the requirements of preventive action to thwart terrorist attacks. As a result, European countries have failed to share vital information on potential terrorists.
The writing on the wall is clear: fighting Jihadi terror in Europe is going to be a long haul as more and more brainwashed ISIS cadres are returning home to Europe now as the Islamic State’s fortunes in war are fading. Though India is not even listed among the countries providing 20,000 foreign volunteers to the ISIS, it has to maintain vigilance against the Jihadists gaining a foothold in the country.
Prime Minister Modi had proposed adoption of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism at the G-20 summit at Antalya in Turkey last November. The plan aims at evolving a coordinated international system responsive to the dynamics of terrorist threat in different countries. It addresses four core issues: cutting off sources of supply of arms to all terrorist organisations across the globe, isolation of countries that offer sanctuaries to terrorists and neutralise terrorists’ use of cyber space through networked action. The plan presented by Modi after Paris attack gains more relevance now. It is heartening to see the efforts of the government to encourage Sufis, who form the bulk of Indian Muslims, to come out against Jihadi terrorists are paying off now. We need to encourage and sustain these efforts without pandering to extreme views of Hindu right wing and conservative Islamic elements.
Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. A version of this article was first published in Asian Age dated 27 March 2016. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.