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How to take on a sensible terrorist


After a failed attempt on the life of the then British PM Margaret Thatcher, the Irish Republican Army sent her an unnerving message: “You need to be lucky all the time, we need to be lucky once”. Thatcher lived a full life of 87 years and the IRA is almost history now. But the spine-chilling threat conveyed through this missive still haunts security agencies across the world, albeit in a changed context. With the new phenomenon of religious terrorism armed with lone wolves, this threat holds truer in present times.

Today, terror outfits like IS or Al Qaeda need to radicalise just a few individuals. The earth-shaking events of 9/11 in the US were planned and executed by a handful of zealots. In recent times, attacks in Boston, Nice, Paris and closer home in Dhaka were carried out by a few, sometimes even by a lone fanatic. On the other hand, civil society and its security agencies need to be lucky at all times to ensure people do not get radicalised.

India has been more or less lucky to be safe in the last few years despite being high on the hate list of terror groups. These outfits have their focus elsewhere at the moment. Syria, the US and Europe are their priority. No doubt, our security agencies have put in a lot of visible and invisible effort in neutralising their local variants like Indian Mujahedeen and Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). However, our entire focus has been on apprehending and prosecuting such elements. There has not been much of an effort to counter radicalisation which draws people to these groups.

Essentially, the security apparatus can only take care of those directly indulging in unlawful activities. There are no sure-shot remedies to tackle radicalised people or those radicalising others in the name of real or perceived injustice to their religion. Radicalisation is a state of mind and no law can control minds, especially in a democratic society like ours. As seen in the case of Zakir Naik, there are only limited legal ways to control such elements.

Dealing with radicalisation is highly complex and perhaps the most difficult challenge for any society. In a free society with the fundamental right to freedom of expression, the issue gets further complicated. Recent incidents in two main universities of Delhi have again underscored that the line between freedom of expression and propagating toxic ideas is not very clear. Easy access to the internet and a free for all on social media have made the task tougher. There are ample examples of young men and women radicalised on their own by reading and watching inflammatory materials on the internet. In cases like the Dhaka attacks, even the attackers’ parents did not know how and when their children turned to the path of terror.

The leftist narrative of deprivation and individual injustice does not hold good anymore. Many involved in terror in the West had no personal grievances against society. They came from well-to-do families; some were highly educated. They could have led a normal life but chose to kill people. These new terrorists are not always disadvantaged or crazy. Most of them are in search of meaning to their lives and for an identity bigger than themselves. Radical religious ideas are just what they are looking for.

In spite of complexity, the state and society cannot afford to ignore the problem of radicalisation. While terror outfits go all out to win over hearts and minds, the society cannot passively wait for violence to occur. Around the world, various strategies are used to counter radicalisation. The experiences of Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and UK have shown involving the community in deradicalisation has been the most successful among such efforts.

The role of community is extremely crucial. If a young boy is radicalised in the name of a religion, it is unlikely he would listen to any counselling sponsored by the state, a perceived enemy. Trusted community leaders are the best bet against radicalisation. Firstly, they know the mood and undercurrents in a community. Secondly, they have the obvious advantage of a continuous formal or informal dialogue with their own people. Thirdly, they can show the futility and low social utility of radical ideas to individuals convincingly. Fourthly and most importantly, they can expose distortions of religious ideas by radicals for their vested interests.

It is an established fact that skewed religious interpretations are the main basis of radicalisation. Impressionable minds can easily fall prey to it due to ignorance compounded with prejudice. Most terror outfits use highly puritan Salafi teachings for indoctrination of young minds. But there are other schools of thoughts like the Sufi school which are relatively liberal. These nuances of religious discourse can be explained only by someone with authority on the subject. The experience of Indonesia shows the best person to deal with a radicalised individual is the one who can challenge him on religious premises. Police there often seek the help of religious leaders to counter world views radicalised by religion.

In India, community policing has mostly been a means to maintain law and order. The problem of radicalisation has given a totally new dimension to it. But any community can join hands with the state machinery only when there is mutual respect and trust. Experience shows interaction with community leaders takes place in advisory meetings held at higher levels of administration, which typically turn out to be a one-way dialogue. But community leaders cannot be expected to come forward only when the state needs their help. They also expect reciprocity in matters important to their community. The best way to take them along is to empower lower levels state functionaries and ensure their continuous and mutually beneficial interaction with the community which they are anyway expected to serve.

By Arun bothra

A serving IPS officer