Extremism and Counter Extremism

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By

Khalid Iqbal[1]


Extremism comes in various forms. Ethnic and cultural conflicts have historically played a significant role in brewing extremist attitudes. Religious appeal makes extremism lethally potent.

Extremism is a state of mind, it is an attitude. It may be based less on facts and more on perceptions. It is founded on judgemental deductions, which may or may not be correct and accurate; generally these deductions revolve around myths. Negative attitudes, often, arise out of real facts or imagined perceptions regarding inequitable and or unfair treatment, deprivation of economic equity and lack of an even playing field for access to opportunities. Moreover, frustration emanating out of lack of compatible knowledge, market friendly skills and opportunities required to get going along the mainstream economic activity contributes towards creating a negative mindset. Extremism feeds heavily on these causes.

In addition, stereotyping, discrimination and communal segregation are strong supplementary factors. Inadequate enfranchising of backyard communities into political system also breeds and accentuates pessimist attitudes leading towards extremism.

Traditional agents of horizontal and vertical polarization interact with these socio-economic as well as political inadequacies and create a complex mosaic that is conducive for breeding as well as ideological hardening of extremist cells. Once religious alignments lend themselves to become vehicles for processing, patronising and projecting extremism, the ideological hardening begins to draw its strength from the delusion of divine blessing. In such cases, use of military power as the only instrument to counter the extremism does not work; rather it enhances the number of sympathisers of militants. It indeed boosts the extremists churning sources, which go into surge production, both in terms of physical numbers and emotional hardening.

Such environment provides an opportunity to the vested interests to coax the under privileged groups towards harbouring a perpetual hatred towards the privileged ones. Later, this feeling is reinforced through emotional exploitation.

Functioning of multiple education systems with divergent curricula also creates problems in the long run. Some curricula have comparative advantage over the others in the context of access to opportunities and power. On the lower end, there are curricula which do not prepare the students for smooth integration into mainstream socio economic strata. Hence, over a period of time, former students of inadequate curricula emerge as an under privileged lot. Being alumni of a common educational system, they evolve and associate themselves with a group identity, based on their form of education. Frustration then leads them to extremism en-block.

Unfortunately, syllabi of most religious seminaries do not emphasise on imparting requisite enabling knowledge, skills and expertise to the students for their post school life. These schools would indeed do a great job if besides religious education, each student is enabled to master one skill, like mechanic, data entry operator, agriculturist, tailor etc. Otherwise, only a limited number of these boys can be accommodated in the available slots of teachers in religious schools or as prayer leaders in mosques. While top performers are absorbed in these limited slots, the remaining mass is left high and dry. What a frustration, in deed, to know at the end of years long education that they have no where to go, no jobs, and thus hardly any social growth. The bubble created by the seminaries of imparting the best knowledge bursts as soon as these boys step into real life. Hence, once they are aware of the reality that they have rather limited socio-economic prospects, they are ripe for brain washing to take up the holy (read unholy) tasks for ensuring at least better opportunities in the life hereafter.  Of course, those not educated at all are worse off. They become a fodder for class struggle, that at times meshes into overall extremist conglomerate.

Stereotyping the groups on the basis of ethnicity is another very potent source for extremist breeding. Though this factor is not very prominent in the current spate, we have had considerable experience of this category of extremism as well. Ethnicity based extremism cuts across the conventional vertical strata of that particular community, however, breeding of extremists remains confined to the aggrieved community.

Resistance against foreign occupation is another aspect that has the tendency of pushing the boundaries, of an otherwise legitimate struggle, to protrude into the realm of extremism. More often than not, the occupation forces term the freedom fighters as extremists. As activities of freedom fighters and extremists may produce similar end effects, the distinction between the two is a matter of respective political alignments. Both freedom fighters’ struggle and extremist elements’ actions tend to spill over to adjacent countries. Both are sustained by across the border support.

Depending upon ethnic and political disposition of the people and governments of adjoining countries, these activities attract varying degree of support, jockeying between benign support to active militant involvement. Pakistan is facing the brunt of the spill over of the Afghan freedom fighters since Russian occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, as well as the after effects of its current occupation by foreign forces.

At times, fallout of a significant event of global magnitude instantly changes the perceptions about extremism. For example, 9/11, 7/ 7 and the Mumbai attack remarkably changed the concept of extremists and extremism. Islam began to be projected a near synonym of extremism and Muslims were portrayed as near equivalent of terrorists. Feeding on the faulty concept of clash of civilizations, the thesis was promoted in a remarkable concert by all haters of Islam and Muslims. This stereotyping still continues to haunt Muslims, the world over.

During the Munich Security Conference 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron made a belated yet very pertinent comment by clearly distinguishing Islam from Islamist violent extremism. He acknowledged that many of Britain’s home grown terrorists are not the product of failed integration, but rather “have been graduates and often middle class”. Historically, extremism has never been confined to any particular religion or ideology; it belongs to every religion and culture. Duke University and University of North Carolina published a study on terrorism in February 2011. It revealed that in 2009, more non-Muslim Americans were involved in terrorist plots than Muslim Americans; last year there were more than twenty plots by non-Muslims.

The ‘Triangle Centre on Terrorism and Homeland Security’ has confirmed that tips from the Muslim American community resulted in prevention of potential terrorist plots in forty-eight of the 120 cases involving Muslim Americans. Data from the ‘Muslim Public Affairs Council’ also indicates that the Muslim community helped and assisted law enforcement in preventing 75 percent of all al-Qaeda related plots since December 2009. Moreover, American Muslims involved in terrorist acts dropped by more than half as compared to 2009.

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Centre, said, “Americans should take note that these crimes are being perpetrated by a handful of people whose actions are denounced and rejected by virtually all the Muslims living in the United States.”

Mark Fallon, a thirty-year veteran of federal law enforcement and counterintelligence, says the Muslim community has provided a “significant level of cooperation” in combating terrorism; he is worried that the rhetoric from some critic’, like Representative Peter King, risks alienating a segment of American population that “needs to be part of the solution.” He is of the opinion that the process of radicalization, or “violent extremism,” is usually a function of conditions highly personal to the subject, rather than ideological.

Robert Pape, a political scientist of Chicago University, has carried out an in depth study on the genesis of extremism. His study is based on data from over 300 suicide terrorism campaigns executed around the world as well as on the information regarding more than 450 individual suicide terrorists. His findings show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. Rather, all suicide terrorist attacks had a specific political objective in common: ‘to compel foreign countries to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.’

Robert says, “In general, suicide attackers are rarely socially isolated, clinically insane, or economically destitute individuals, but are most often educated, socially integrated, and highly capable people who could be expected to have a good future”. Out of the sample of his study of suicide terrorists, only 21% were ‘Islamists’.

Self-sacrifice or suicide missions have a very long history. In 1831, During the Belgian Revolution, Dutch Lieutenant Jan van Speijk detonated his own ship in the harbour of Antwerp to prevent its capture by the Belgians. In 1943, Clarence Cull was charged with attempting to assassinate President Roosevelt by suicide bombing.

World War II saw use of Kamikaze pilots on suicide missions by Japan. Over 7000 Kamikazes flew such missions. Acts of Kamikaze were glorified by carrying out ceremonies before their departure on these one-way missions. During the Battle for Berlin, German Air Force flew “Self-sacrifice missions” against Soviet held bridges.

Viet Minh “death volunteers” were used against the French colonial army. In May 1967, US Marine Commander was also of the view that North Vietnamese were using suicidal tactics in their attack.

A former associate director of the ‘Regional Centre for Strategic Studies’ in Colombo, Suggeeswara Senadhira, also rejects the idea of linking suicide attack with any religion. He writes, ‘during the Lebanese civil war, around 70 percent of suicide attackers were Christians’.

LTTE perfected the art of suicide bombing. They were considered as the most dreaded and successful terrorists organisation due to their suicide squads. Famous victims of LTTE suicide bombers included; Sri Lankan President Premadasa and a former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. LTTE invented the suicide vests. Around thirty percent of LTTE suicide bombers were women.

Lindsey O’Rourke, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago has also declined to accept the link between religion and suicide bombing. She wrote that more than 85 percent of female suicide terrorists since 1981 committed their attacks on behalf of secular organizations; many grew up in Christian and Hindu families. She also found out that motivating factors for female bombers are similar to those of male bombers. Around ninety five percent of female suicide attacks occurred as part of military campaigns against foreign occupying forces, suggesting that the chief motive has been to create or maintain territorial sovereignty for a respective ethnic group.

Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) had used the concept of human bomb; people were forced to drive car bombs into British military targets. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party based on revolutionary socialism and Kurdish nationalism also used suicide bombing in its campaign against Turkey for establishing an independent Kurdistan.

There were no suicide missions during the Afghan resistance against USSR. However, when suicide attacks made a debut in Iraq, Afghans also started such attacks against the occupation forces.

In 2010, Andrew Joseph crashed his plane into a building which housed ‘US Internal Revenue Service’ in Austin, Texas. In his suicide note Joseph mentioned his long running feud with the organization. In the US close to 350 school shootings have taken place since 1992, in a majority of these incidents, the attackers killed themselves.

In 1995, Chief Minister Beant Singh of East Punjab, India, was killed by a suicide bomber; Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh outfit claimed the responsibility. Likewise, Bal Thackeray, head of the Hindu extremist outfit Shiv Sena called upon Hindus to form suicide bomber squads. He said suicide bombers, along with bombs planted in Muslim neighbourhoods, were needed “to protect the nation and all Hindus.”

One of the largest ever opinion polls conducted by Gallup in the Islamic world foun that over 93 percent Muslims condemned the 9/11 attacks. Among the seven percent who viewed these attacks as “completely justified”, none supported their stance with religious reasons; rather, they expressed their fears about American plans for occupation and domination of the Muslim world. As per Gallup, “Politics, not piety, differentiates moderates from radicals” in the Islamic world.

M. Zajam, a Patna-based freelance columnist, in his article ‘Suicide Missions: Nothing Islamic About It’, has chronicled a long list of historic incidents of terrorism to carry forth the point that terrorism is not confined to any single society or religion. He says, ‘Thanks to media and some groups, Suicide missions are projected to associate only with Islam. It is forgotten that neither Muslims are the first one to use it or will be the last one’.

Suicide missions are the ultimate manifestation of extremism and terrorism; these missions have been carried out irrespective of religious inclinations or geographical limitation. Unfortunately, Islam bashers are projecting Muslims as having invented, patronised and monopolized extremism and terrorism; indeed nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a need for a concerted campaign to correct the perspective.

While countering extremism, states co-opt counter balancing segments of society. At times, a portion of the local population is drafted for a combative role in counter extremism campaigns. This creates new alignments. If these armed gangs are not effectively demobilised at the end of a counter insurgency operation, they degenerate into thugs and their leaders become war lords. This situation sets into motion a new cycle of incubation for extremists. The shabby conclusion of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan presents a pertinent case study.

A post Soviet government was hurriedly cobbled together in Afghanistan, without demobilisation armed band. As a result some legendry Mujahadeen leaders turned into opportunist warlords. It was a reactionary attitude against bad governance that resulted in the rise of the Taliban, the current brand of ‘so called’ extremists.

Society and state need to be on perpetual watch for discerning the emergence of extremism. Even during periods of social tranquillity, one has to watch out for indicators of extremism in its incubation phase. Society at large has to overtly adopt an anti extremism attitude to keep the perpetrators of extremism marginalised through anticipatory measures. The State has to follow a comprehensive strategy to ward off manifestations of extremism in the short as well as long term perspective.

Eradication of extremism is a tall order; it requires a mammoth effort encompassing a multi discipline and multi dimensional approach. Within the overall broad counter extremism strategy, five phases operate in mutually complementary and interlocking ways. These are prevention, containment, curtailment, elimination and consolidation phases; encompassing immediate, short, medium and long term objectives. These phases need to be meticulously formulated and set into motion in various combinations, on case to case basis. In chronic situations, the first four need simultaneous employment, and are required to be kept on fast track.

The preventive phase is an all pervasive and perpetual phase. It continues to make supplementary contributions even when other phases are functional. Prevention comprises of monitoring the factors that could contribute towards extremism and keeping the proliferation and effects of these factors below boiling point. Some of these indicators are hate literature, appeal of intellectually dishonest demagogues, larger than life charisma of clergy based agitators, socioeconomic indicators, hatred promoting customs and traditions, exclusive claim to self righteousness, etc. These indicators need to be managed through indoctrination, statutory measures and constructive social engagements. If this phase is well managed then half the battle against extremism is won.

The preventive phase requires institutional and structural support at local, national and international levels. This requires an elaborate monitoring and intervention system, including control over trans-border movement of men and material. State intelligence systems alone cannot perform these actions until societies also join hands.

The containment phase comes into play when preventive measures are unable to keep the situation under control and brewing extremism finds occasional manifestation in the form of brawls and riots. The preventive threshold is breached when protectionism on the basis of ethnicity and sectarian alignments becomes an accepted norm and   group preferences begin to take precedence over merit and efficiency. Moreover, when economic disorder divides the population into haves and have-nots, the stage is set for the materialization of extremists in various forms. Starting point could be in the form of a sharp rise in street crimes, or targeted attacks against persons or property of a particular ethnic or sectarian group.

The containment effort focuses on isolating ideologically committed extremists through active interventions like legal penalties, social pressures and corrective dialogue, etc. It may also include occasional use of force to prevent emergence of serious law and order situations. However, the mainstay of the containment phase is positive engagement through constructive dialogue with the moderate majority. Political engagement with saner elements and economic support incentives, to not so hardened extremist elements that look for an opportunity to breakaway is an effective line of action.   Here also, public private cooperation is essential to generate synergy to accrue desired credibility for the containment measures. Stringent scrutiny of trans-border movement is an essential component of this phase.

A proficient containment strategy ensures that public opinion is not swayed in favour of extremist elements.  Side by side, non-compromising elements are taken on boldly, through tactical use of force, as and when required. An appropriate media policy is formulated to ensure that the public at large is made aware of the consequences of this potential hazard. A campaign must start to de-glorify the extremist elements. Influential communicators drawn out of mainstream ethnic groups and clergy can reinforce the effects of containment measures, by putting across the facts to the general public, in correct perspective.  Here, public private partnership is essential to generate due urgency and requisite synergy to accrue desired credibility for the containment measures. Potent preventive measures reinforce containment actions.

The curtailment phase concentrates on interventionist measures by isolating extremist elements from general public. It determines further classification of extremists in the categories of ideologically committed hardened elements and those who are being exploited emotionally, or economically. Then, effort is made to reclaim the latter category through de-indoctrination and incentives. This phase essentially focuses on the economic needs of soft extremists, who desire to breakaway from the hardened cells. Through capacity and capability enhancement, these returnees are made capable of leading an economically and socially viable life.  This is an investment intensive phase and it must start right away as the signs of brewing extremism become discernable. Concurrent with curtailment actions, appropriate preventive and containment measures must remain operational for supplementing the gains of this phase.

The elimination phase carries forth the effort of the curtailment phase and eliminates the positively identified hardened cells of extremists through proportionate use of military power and judicial accountability. Here an important caution is due; use of excessive power causes unwarranted collateral damage and breeds sympathisers of hardened extremists. If this phase is not managed through use of low yield precision munitions, brute use of force may produce more extremists than what it is able to eliminate. Generally, this phase runs concurrently with the preceding phases. The elimination phase must be of short duration, and it should run simultaneously, alongside a meaningful political process. Due care must be taken to ensure that the elimination phase does not end up in  a stalemate. This is the actual combat phase, with military instruments in the forefront, and other mechanisms in supportive roles.

Judicial process is another component of elimination phase. This requires specially trained judges and comprehensive legislative cover. Judges and prosecution witnesses need to be protected against intimidation. Forensic skills need to be upgraded for developing all encompassing circumstantial evidence. So far, this has proved to be the weakest link in Pakistan’s counter terrorism effort. Hardly anyone has been punished meaningfully. Many on bail or those acquitted have been caught again for their involvement in fresh incidents of terrorism.

The consolidation phase capitalises on the gains of the elimination phase. Its prime objective is to convert an uneasy calm into permanent tranquillity. Disorganized cells of extremists are destroyed though a well executed mopping up operation. This phase focuses on establishing such institutional checks to ensure that the elements which breakaway from the extremist gangs do not relapse due to residual contributory factors.  The end of this phase is marked by the benchmarks that extremists lose public appeal and sympathy.  They are reduced in capability and capacity to an extent that they are neither able to regroup and reconstitute nor make sporadic revisits. Overall, they lose the ability to function as an organised entity. During this phase, military instruments have the background while maintaining an effective deterrence.

To complete this cyclic process, the preventive phase resumes charge to capitalise on gains of all previous phases. Operators of preventive measures strive to ensue that there are no relapses. This is done by abiding by any political or other agreements reached with the converted elements. Furthermore, it concentrates on blocking the reappearance of previous contributory causes. For example, any adult without compatible means of livelihood is a potential extremist.

This process has to be carefully executed, as a whole, by taking into consideration the local socio-cultural sensitivities; lest extremist breeding restarts.

Historically, a number of countries have gone through the spells of home grown terrorism; most of these states have come out of this menace. Sri Lanka is a recent example where decades’ long terrorism has been effectively tamed. Likewise, many other countries like Lebanon, Italy, Ireland, Indonesia, India, Egypt, etc have been through this agony; all these countries have overcome the problem through national resolve and innovative strategies suiting their local conditions. In case of political deprivation as an underlying cause, reconciliatory accommodation has helped in ending terrorism.

However, wherever foreign intervention and occupation has been the underlying cause of terrorism, it has only ended when the occupation forces leave that country. The current wave of terrorism in Pakistan is one of the fallouts of occupation of Afghanistan by foreign forces. A sustained respite will be possible with the withdrawal of foreign forces from Pakistan’s neighbourhood.  The people of Afghanistan are striving for just peace in their country.

Pakistan has a long way to go countering the growth of extremism and its manifestation into militancy.  The nation and leadership stands committed to deal with the menace of terrorism head on. There is a need to simultaneously handle domestic and foreign factors contributing towards the  proliferation of terrorists’ activities. A wholesome and concentred effort would gradually show results. Certainly, the process is painstakingly slow and Pakistan is in for a long haul.


[1] The writer is a retired Air Commodore and a former assistant chief of air staff, Pakistan Air Force.