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The Iraq War and the ‘Deluge of Terror’

Reprinted with permission from South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR) Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 1, No. 36, March 24, 2003

As the war in Iraq intensifies, reports of ‘peace demonstrations’ as well as more explicitly anti-US and Islamist extremist protests accumulate across South Asia. These have been given great prominence in the media and have fed Western apprehensions that the Iraqi campaign will give rise to new armies of anti-US, anti-West, Islamist extremist terrorists, and a radical escalation of terrorism in the foreseeable future, as Muslims express their ‘anger’ against America’s ‘unjust war’.

It is significant that the intensity, spread and participation in these demonstrations across South Asia, and even in Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been muted, and does not compare with the violence in, for instance, Cairo, Bahrain or even Brussels. More significantly, the scale of protests witnessed in much of Europe has been immensely greater – in UK, for instance, an anti-war demonstration in February brought together an unprecedented one million protestors, and demonstrations on March 22 again mobilized an estimated 200,000 – 400,000 protestors. The most significant and inflammatory of the protests in South Asia have been in Pakistan, particularly in areas currently under the political domination of the fundamentalist and pro-Taliban Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), including Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province – areas that have been characterized by substantial movement of pro-al Qaeda elements as well as suspected areas of major re-location of al Qaeda and Taliban cadres. But even the MMA’s ‘million march’ could put together only ‘several thousand protestors’. It was on Sunday, March 23, in Karachi – the Pakistani Port city worst afflicted by sectarian and terrorist violence – that the ‘largest’ of such protests took place, with the participation of an estimated 70,000 protestors. It is useful to note that a demonstration of this size, by South Asian standards – a region that often witnesses million-plus political gatherings and demonstrations – is at best, minor. There have also been small, though provocative, meetings, with substantial inflammatory rhetoric, at various locations in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. In addition, sermons after Friday prayers in some mosques across the region have tended to focus adversely on the US led war, and at least some of these have contained incendiary calls for violence against the US and Western allies.

The anti-war demonstrations have, however, gone well beyond the Islamist extremist / fundamentalist constituency in South Asia, as in much of the world. But this represents nothing more than the broad political uncertainty and ambivalence over the morality and legitimacy of the US led campaign, concerns that have been widely expressed even among the people in the countries that constitute the primary Coalition partners – USA, UK and Australia. These wider demonstrations have articulated apprehensions about, but do not, in any measure reflect or impact on, the potential for escalated terrorist action as a ‘reaction’ to the Iraq War.

Apprehensions of a ‘deluge of terror’ in the wake of the Iraq campaign are, however, substantially misplaced and are located in a misunderstanding of the nature of terrorism in general, and of Islamist extremist terrorism, in particular. The defeat of Saddam Hussein cannot, on detached assessment, be expected to provoke any great rise in anti-US terrorism sourced in South Asia. Indeed, the very opposite holds true, and evidence of US weakness and vulnerabilities, either during the Coalition campaign in Iraq, or in general, would tend to encourage greater militant opportunism, particularly among the communities and countries where extremist Islamist mobilisation has already reached an advanced stage, with Pakistan and Bangladesh as the core areas of such risk in this region.

This does not, however, exclude the possibilities of opportunistic strikes against Western targets during or after the Iraq campaign. Such strikes would exploit the existing pool and potential of trained terrorists, but do not significantly reflect any dramatic increase in this pool, or in recruitment to terrorist ranks. The fact is, terrorists strike when and where they have the capacity to strike, and they strike at the maximal level of destructive force available to them. That is the nature of terrorism. War or no war in Iraq, the trajectory of terrorism will be defined by the capacities of its executors.

These capacities do not depend on any pool of shared ‘Muslim grievances’ – real or imagined. A sufficient – indeed inexhaustible – pool of such grievances already exists and the actual transformation of these into terrorist cadres and actions depends on two specific variables: the intensity and success of the process of terrorist mobilisation, including their demonstrable abilities to strike critical targets and to instil a sense of confidence and imminent victory in their sympathetic constituency; and, conversely, the success and effectiveness, or otherwise, of the world’s counter-terrorism responses. In the post 9/11 phase, the incidence of international terrorism has shown declining trends, not because the pool of Muslim resentment suddenly contracted or evaporated, but rather because increased, though still inadequate and selective, international cooperation in counter-terrorism campaigns severely circumscribed the capacities of terrorists to operate and strike. This was also substantially a consequence of international pressure on supporters and state sponsors of terrorism, which limited the impunity with which such entities could extended assistance in terms of safe havens, infrastructure and opportunities for terrorist recruitment, training, finance and weapons’ supplies.

Fears of a radical ‘intensification’ of Islamist extremist terrorism located in this region in the wake of the war in Iraq are, consequently, mistaken. The threats emanating from extremist factions in Pakistan and Bangladesh – and strongly projected by the state apparatus in Pakistan as justification for the continued dictatorship in that country – are no more than threats.

It is useful, in this context, to recall the words of a Pakistan Army Brigadier, S.K. Malik, who elaborated on his county’s philosophy of terrorism in his book, The Islamic Concept of War – a book that includes an authoritative foreword by the then Pakistan President, General Zia-ul-Haq: “Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy (sic); it is the decision we wish to impose upon him.”

If the fanatics of the MMA and of the array of extremist and terrorist organisations operating out of Pakistan, or their affiliates in Bangladesh, India and elsewhere, had the power to strike and destroy America or its allies, they would already have done it. And if they are ever able to convince themselves that they do possess such power, it is certain that they would use it. The simple reason why they do not do so is because they lack this power, and are aware of this deficiency. It is precisely this deficit that will ensure that, even after the Iraq war, they will continue with the excesses of their rhetoric, but will fail to escalate their campaign against US and Western targets. The essence of this failure is nothing more than the lack of the necessary capacity. To the extent that they are able to secure this capacity, they would target the US even if America became the most pacific nation in the world. The Islamist terrorist agenda is more inflexible than most of us imagine, and its ends are defined, not in terms of the transient political parameters of the discourse of international relations, but by a perspective rooted in religious absolutisms that will endure long after the reverberations of the crises of transition in Afghanistan or in Iraq have come to an end.