The writer | Credit: Gateway House

The writer | Credit: Gateway House - Photo: 2016

Counter-terrorism – South East Asian Style

At the recent counter-terrorism conference in Jaipur, a star-studded galaxy of policy makers, security analysts and law enforcement officials debated on tackling the Daesh threat. Some of the most positive steps to counter the terror propaganda came from South East Asia and India’s neighbourhood

By Sameer Patil

“कोई बेगुनाह फंसे नहीं, और कोई गुनहगार बचे नहीं (No innocent should suffer and no guilty should escape),” will be the cornerstone of India’s counter-terrorism policy, as stated by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, in a fitting end to the India Foundation’s Counterterrorism Conference held in Jaipur on February 2-3, 2016.

This annual conference, now in its second year, has stepped up its profile. The big guns from the government were all present: the President, the Home Minister, the National Security Advisor, the Foreign Secretary, the Governor and the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, in the company of an estimated 350 policy makers and ministers, law enforcement officials, academics, scholars and media from 25 countries.

In Rajasthan’s picturesque setting, they deliberated on an issue – terrorism – which has long ceased to be a mere law-and-order problem. Among the foreign delegations, the most notable presence was that of the Chinese delegation, keenly noting down its observations. The most notable absence was any representation from Pakistan – academic or media, despite being invited.

The theme this year was “Tackling Global Terror Outfits”, keeping in mind Daesh, also known as the Islamic State, claiming numerous headline-grabbing attacks in the West. Its prolific use of social media for propaganda has further complicated the “battle of narratives”. President Pranab Mukherjee in his inaugural remarks set the tone with his emphasis on the political management of terrorism, conducted by countering its ideology and dealing sternly with the state-sponsors of terrorism.

Yet through the conference, despite strong innuendo, no one save for the Home Minister Singh said the ‘P’-word. Only Singh categorically “named and shamed” Pakistan for India’s terrorism woes.

There was a great debate on the presence of Daesh in India, with varying numbers of recruits put forward: 530 recruits by one account, and just 30 in another vigorously countered account. Whatever the number, it was clearly agreed that India’s own response to the Daesh threat was characteristically half-hearted as it chased Daesh sympathisers and recruits, without addressing local causes for its popularity.

An American scholar, meanwhile, provided an interesting data point: 6,000 recruits – the highest number of foreign fighters within Daesh – came from Tunisia, often considered as a success story of the Arab upheavals. But the country’s economic problems and soaring unemployment of 40% are clearly contributors. Tunisia has now built a 250-km.-long wall of sand to prevent its citizens from travelling to terrorist training camps in adjoining Libya.

Multiple references were made by scholars to the international community’s – i.e. the West – shifting focus from one terrorist group to another: first the Taliban, then al-Qaeda and now Daesh – and the selective approach to the problem, relegating attacks by groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria to mere footnotes. This has prevented the formulation of an effective definition and response to counter terrorism.

The point was brought home bluntly by Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief. He warned that just as Daesh is the current flavor of international terrorism, the Afghan Taliban too was there once but is now a forgotten threat, leaving a battered Afghanistan to fend for itself against a resurgent Taliban.

The conference provided a firsthand glimpse of the determined efforts made by South East Asia – home to 240 million Muslims – to battle the extremist narrative and violence emanating from West Asia.

Here, Malaysia and Indonesia have taken the lead. Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed, the Malaysian Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, said his country was setting up a Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communications Centre in Kuala Lumpur. The centre will use cyber space to engage with Muslim youth to counter terrorist propaganda used to recruit foreign fighters and raise funds.[6] Another Malaysian initiative was the Global Movement of Moderates, a forum to foster international interfaith dialogue.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim state, is concentrating on community awareness programmes, reaching out to clerics and empowering locals with incentives and messaging to counter those seeking the path of violence.

This is combined with the traditional counter-terrorism approach such as immigration controls, intelligence-gathering and sharing to keep an eye on saboteurs. In addition, both South East Asian democracies are in various stages of implementing and improving de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes for Daesh sympathisers.

Closer home, Bangladesh’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Md. Shahriar Alam, laid out a similar approach of engaging local religious scholars to counter the violence being preached by extremist ideologues and modernising the madrasa curriculum.

This is a critical step, as one Indian scholar said, for “It is true that madrasas…do not overtly preach violence and terrorism. But it is also true that (its) text books…do preach supremacism, xenophobia, exclusivism and intolerance.”

These positive steps should become the template for the hotspots of terrorism, namely Pakistan and West Asia, to emulate. For these Asian tigers can not only show the way to economic prosperity, but also be the guiding star for regional and interfaith harmony.

*Sameer Patil is Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict & Terrorism studies, Gateway House. Prior to this, he was Assistant Director at the National Security Council Secretariat in Prime Minister’s Office, New Delhi. Sameer has interned at the Indian Pugwash Society and the M. L. Sondhi Institute of Asia Pacific Affairs.

This article was first published by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read the original article here.” (INPS | 18 February 2016)

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Photo: The writer | Credit: Gateway House

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