Guest Column | Right Steps

Timely and concerted effort has to be made to curb the menace of radicalisation

Somesh GoyalSomesh Goyal

The meteoric rise of the ISIS as a mean nihilistic terror machine relying on meticulous planning, extreme violence and efficient execution, use of technology and internet to cast its web across the globe by attracting youth from more than 85 countries to establish the Islamic caliphate has brought ‘radicalisation’ in sharp focus. The western security experts, statesmen and media persons have repeatedly underlined the global concern about increasing radicalisation of citizens, particularly the youth from almost every continent. The security discourse was hitherto confined to ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ elements or groups who challenged the establishment and did not eschew armed response to espouse their cause.

However, the growth of the ISIS has made the world sit up and ponder over the threat of radicalisation of minds of recruits by the ISIS, which has taken senseless violence to unprecedented levels. Strategies to ‘degrade and destroy’ the ISIS are being devised particularly by the western countries as the ISIS’ ire is primarily targeted against them.

According to the recently released US Congressional Research Report on the ISIS and the Soufan Group’s assessment of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, as many as 16,000 foreign volunteers from 90 countries traversed to Syria since January 2012 to be part of the ever swelling rank and file of the ISIS. From 12,000 foreign warriors in 2014, the figure has jumped to a whopping 30,000 in 2015. Western Europe, Russia and Central Asia’s contribution has more than doubled in the last one year.

The Indian figure pegged between 23 and 50 fighters may not be alarming but leaves no place for complacency and calls for formulating a comprehensive strategy to counter what David Ignatius, the American journalist, defines as religious, psychological and technological faces of ISIS. There are inputs that ISIS is trying to forge an alliance with terror outfits operating in India like the Indian Mujahedeen, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI), etc. Ansar ul Tawahid a break-away group of the Indian Mujahedeen is already operating with the ISIS. The large Indian diaspora in the Gulf is also a soft target for the ISIS recruiters. Scores of ISIS sympathisers have been identified in India that are targeting young technocrats and youth with venomous propaganda and online indoctrination. In November 2015, the intelligence agencies uncovered Ansar-ut Tawahid (AuT), a terrorist group with links with the ISIS, using online propaganda in West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh to woo the rural youth. What surprised the intelligence agencies was that the terrorist outfit used Bengali as a medium to reach out to the target audience. The ISIS translation of its propaganda material in Mandarin for the Chinese audience is also well known. It is gratifying that intelligence agencies of several states like Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, etc. have successfully interdicted homegrown prospective ISIS fighters and apprehended some recruiters. The net savvy approach of the ISIS and use of social media does not undermine the importance of institutions like some madrasas in sowing the poisonous seeds in the young and impressionable minds particularly in the rural and semi urban India. A careful yet unobtrusive watch needs to be maintained on some of these institutions.

Extremist outfits including the ISIS have followed the model of advancement in the field of education. If you cannot go to a school, you have several courses offered online by the best in business. The schools of jihadi terror and radicalisation, often identified with madrasas, have started effective distance learning programmes in hardline Islamic teachings, reinforcing perceptions of alienation, discrimination and persecution, assembling of bombs and improvised devices and so on. The ISIS has attracted well-educated technocrats to run its cyber operations and social media efforts. Most of the radicalisation today takes place in the cyber space. Proliferation of smartphones and greater penetration of internet even in the rural landscape has made the jihadi literature easily available to inquisitive surfers and there are the ISIS monitors ready to help online those interested in a wide array of subjects from religious teachings to making of bombs. The recent case of radicalisation of a 16-year-old girl from Pune is a case in point. The ISIS’ latest publication, an e-book ‘Muslim Gangs E-book 1: How to Survive in the West’ has been seen and downloaded by any number of youth. The police cyber cells have blocked scores of websites and pages on social media disseminating ISIS literature.

Some kind of romanticism is attached to jihadi activities. More and more use of audio and video bytes of militants in a Zorro like mask and army fatigues with guns in hands on whatsapp and other social media platforms entice the young to militancy. They appear to be the new apostles of faith imbued in Kamikaze spirit ready to blow themselves at the order of their commander in the service of their faith and to attain paradise populated with nubile beauties. Burhan Muzafar Wani, 21, son of a school principal and resident of Tral town in South Kashmir is the face of Kashmir’s new generation of tech-savvy militants. His pictures are almost on every platform. He alone has been able to inspire around 50 new recruits in the terrorist ranks in Kashmir. Numerous social media accounts and sites are dedicated to recruitment and training of new individuals and cells. The reach of the extremist schools is so vast that ordinary looking citizens and youth earning bread for the family devote their spare time to spread the message of the ISIS and also to actively carry out operations for the dreaded outfit.

For any de-radicalisation programme to be successful, it may be necessary to understand what is radicalisation. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police defines radicalisation as “the process by which individuals — usually young people — are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views. While radical thinking is by no means problematic in itself, it becomes a threat to national security when citizens or residents espouse or engage in violence or direct action as a means of promoting political, ideological or religious extremism. According to the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the grievances that fuel radicalisation are diverse and vary across locations and groups. Radicalisation frequently is driven by personal concerns at the local level in addition to frustration with international events. The UK Home Office defines radicalisation as “the process by which people come to support terrorism and violent extremism and, in some cases, then join terrorist groups.”

We also need to understand that radicalisation is not brainwashing. Radicalisation is voluntary. The line is crossed knowingly and willingly with the full knowledge that it is a one-way ticket and the journey is riddled with risks and ultimate death. Brainwashing, on the other hand, involves changing one’s beliefs against one’s wishes.

India boasts of the second largest population of Muslims after Indonesia. Fortunately, India for centuries has cultivated an environment of inter-faith co-existence and tolerance. Stray incidents of motivated and mischievous acts have not been able to rock the boat. There is need for all – the governments at the centre and states, civil society, non governmental organisations, opinion leaders, educational institutions, religious bodies and clergy – to speak in one voice to carry the tradition forward so that radical elements do not find easy ground to entrench themselves. It was heartening to see over a thousand maulanas condemning the Paris attacks. However, one word of caution for them is that they should desist from commenting on what happens outside India. If the debate is restricted to local issues alone, the youth will not get wrong notions of global persecution and frustration paving their way for radicalisation.

Following the Paris carnage, the response to the ISIS appears more retributive in nature. Use of force to crush the known ISIS hideouts and locations is very important. Equally important would be to cut off supplies of arms and ammunition and access to finances to choke its resources to acquire more weapons of mass destruction. Nearer home, the funding of the so called social organisations and some notorious madrasas may also be investigated to see that dirty money from suspected sources from abroad is not used to fan radicalisation through thousands of unrecognised madrasas mainly on the international borders with our eastern neighbours. Modernisation of madrasas should be given top priority not only by the government but also by the Muslim community. The country can ill-afford to have a sizeable population which has not received mainstream education. Such ill educated and unskilled youth are prone to unemployment and more vulnerable to bigotry and indoctrination.

Another important step to fight the ISIS at all levels will be to improve international cooperation in sharing intelligence and to provide an effective legal framework to deal with such groups across international boundaries.

The western world will have to fight a cyber war with the ISIS to limit radicalisation, recruitment and glorification of the exploits of the ISIS. The Indian concern should be to deny unchecked reach to the social media sites that spread hatred and promote radicalisation. The police cyber cells should be alert to identify social media sites and pages disseminating ISIS agenda and block them before damage is done. Secondly, some intelligence or security agency could be tasked for counter propaganda to wean gullible youth away from the message of hatred and violence. Muslim organisation and ulema may be encouraged to use social media to foster nationalism and preach true tenets of Islam castigating senseless violence.

While serving in the Kashmir Valley, I often wondered at the lack of awareness campaigns about the Central government’s commitment to development of Jammu and Kashmir. No overt or covert efforts were made. No advertisements in the vernacular or national newspapers did anything to bridge the gap in the perception of the Kashmiri brethren. National media – both print and electronic – have a responsibility to strengthen the secular discourse by not succumbing to partisan political gains aimed by some unscrupulous individuals or parties. The national broadcaster could also pitch in with dedicated weekly programs featuring respected community leaders and religious preachers to carefully build a perception of inclusion in our country.

The school curriculum must include lessons in inter-faith understanding and respect for all religions and sects. Celebration of all festivals in schools will leave deep impressions in the minds of future nation builders. In fact, some national integration programmes should be devised to radicalise, if I may use the term, the youth in nationalism.

A decade ago an organisation was given a quiet burial which was raised with the precise mandate of fostering nationalism, sense of integration and security and shaping perception among the border population in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression. The community outreach and national integration programmes of this organisation were tailor-made to suit the local requirements. Special Service Bureau was unceremoniously wound up and remodeled as Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) – a uniformed border guarding force. The civilian component that rendered yeomen service to the nation today is a dying and beleaguered cadre. In the face of the menace of ISIS radicalisation, a leaf may be taken out of the Special Service Bureau to fashion a time-tested response to the wanton indoctrination. It has been my experience that uniformed or combatised personnel are neither suited for these jobs; nor can they supervise or lead such operations, which I dub as ‘positive subversion’. An initiative to set up a small cell at the central level or at the state level under a mature intelligence agency will ensure positive dividends. The retired operatives of the earlier SSB still retain some fire in their bellies and can be framed to train and guide the new breed of perception shapers.

The process of de-radicalisation will bear fruit in the long term. It provides no quick fixes. Alongside the softer options, the security agencies have to keep their powder dry. Capacity and capability building, training and equipping the security forces must go on unhindered by lack of will and resources. The intelligence agencies will do well to do some ‘intelligent randomisation’ to identify the vulnerable groups, locations and targets for the ISIS and prepare a well rehearsed response mechanism to ward off a strike by the deadly ISIS.

(The writer is director general of police, Prisons & Correctional Services, Himachal Pradesh. Views expressed are personal)