Counter terrorism strategies need to adopt different tools

Beyond boundaries

Are there ‘ends’ to terrorist entities, even to terrorism itself as a major phenomenon of our times? One particular stream of terrorism studies is engaged in this line of research and it may be useful for us to look at their findings.

First, a word about the field itself. It should not be a surprise that the last decade has seen a huge spurt in terrorism related research in think-tanks and universities all over the world. We in India had known and suffered from terrorism much before the 9/11, but the attack on the US changed much in the politics of terrorism and so it did in terms of in-depth studies and research too.

Just as terrorism is a many-headed monster, the field too is multi-faceted, and among its many specialisations are: political—the demands and justifications of a terrorist group;  international—the networks and support systems that sustain them abroad; anthropological—the sociological and psychological aspects of terrorists; operational—the nitty-gritty of terrorist acts and the intelligence and police work in countering them, the pattern of money-flows; and many more.

Another important point needs to be made at this stage. Terrorism by its very nature is a politically contentious concept and it should not be entirely surprising therefore that there is no internationally agreed definition on it, though there are many definitions. It is a form of political violence that needs to be differentiated from a criminal act or an act of war, both of which also involve death or damages. Terrorism in the mind of the perpetrator is linked to a political purpose, whether liberation, or revolution, or revulsion with the state of the world.

Some form of justification

However heinous the terrorist acts may be, in the mind of the terrorist there is some form of justification. In the last decade the real advance that has been made in the international community is in reaching near agreement on the notion that “nothing can justify the terrorist act understood as affecting the innocents; no ideological, political, religious, social or any other cause can be invoked to justify terrorism.”

Though there is thus a dense jungle of concepts in a study of terrorism, we are limiting ourselves to only one aspect here, the conditions which hasten the end of terrorist outfits. Empirical research shows that there are several ways in which this can happen.

The goals may get realised: If we remember that historically national liberation movements were termed ‘terrorists’ when fighting for freedom, it is easy to see that the fulfillment of the political objective is one way when so called terrorism comes to an end in such cases.

Examples are violent struggle against foreign rule as in Algeria or against the Apartheid policy in South Africa. (Most countries achieved freedom through violent struggles unlike us).  A major case today would be with the Palestinian organisations but it is a difficult question whether terrorism on the part of some of them will come to an end if and when there is a political resolution to their problems. We have other good examples of our own at the sub-national level, of violence against innocents coming to an end as in Mizoram and Punjab.

Support base dries up:  Terrorist entities with specific political demands need support, both moral or material, from at least a section of the population to keep them going.

There are examples where over a period of time, the people get fed up or weary, and support dries up. Examples are the Shining path in Peru, the Basque movement in Spain, to some extent the IRA in Northern Ireland. The pro-Khalistani organisations are our own example. In these cases there may be occasional acts and outrages, but there is the hope that the end will come gradually but inevitably.

Operations get choked up: As a result of efficient intelligence and police work combined with weaning away of the support base, the effectiveness and the operational capability of an organisation can get choked. This can happen especially when there is no cross-border support or safe haven to sustain a terrorist entity.

Leadership is eliminated:  Though terrorist organisations will contend that their cause will sustain them beyond an individual, the role of the ‘leader’ cannot be minimised. Deaths of Prabhakaran and Osama may mean a decisive blow to LTTE and AQL in the medium term.
Counter terrorism strategies should employ a mix of these scenarios and  attendant tools.

The notion of a ‘war on terror’ is now seen by academics as a foolish and misleading concept. Terrorists don’t wear uniforms, do not have a command structure, and are thus not an ‘enemy’ that you can see, to wage a war. The ‘war on terror’ is a rhetorical devise like the ‘war on poverty.’

What is more useful as a concept  are ‘measures against terrorism’ and there are multiple measures. Using them, there can be hope that individual terrorist organisations may come to an end gradually and incrementally. Whether terrorism as a phenomenon itself will continue to haunt us is a question to be examined on another occasion.

(The writer is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at

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