Local roots of transnational terrorism |Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi | 11th July 2016
Terrorist attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq and Saudi Arabia during the last two weeks have underlined the transnational character of this menace. This does not mean that there is a central command sitting somewhere and systematically ordering such attacks. The transnational character of terrorism is country-based and managed by autonomous local groups that exploit local and region-based socio-political and economic grievances. What these extremist and hardline groups share across territorial boundaries of the state is an ideology and agenda based on an extreme and violent interpretation of certain religious doctrines. The other transnational aspect is inspiration from the leadership and the causes which they want to serve. With a global ideological framework and an allegiance to a supreme leadership, these groups function within the local context of a country, cashing in on the widespread alienation that has developed among young and middle-aged people in these countries from existing political and economic arrangements. Therefore, local conditions play no less of a role in moving people towards an extremist and violent disposition than the extremist interpretation of an ideology. Modern information technology makes it easy to combine these sets of factors, exchange messages and engage in ideological inspiration.
Terrorist attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq have been attributed to the Islamic State (IS) that stands for a universal caliphate and attracted much attention at the global level because of its initial successes in Iraq and Syria. In June 2016, it suffered military setbacks in Iraq and Syria. The city of Fallujah, in Iraq, was taken back from the IS by Iraqi forces. Similarly, some of the gains of the IS in Syria were reversed. This seems to be an important cause of the recent attacks — especially the two in Iraq — as the IS wanted to demonstrate that it still had the strength to assert its authority. These attacks were widely condemned in Muslim countries by official and non-official circles. The unanimity in the Muslim world on condemning these attacks weakened when it came to identifying the culprit. Most people with strong religious orientations hold the enemies of Islam, especially the US and the West, as the real sponsors of attacks in Muslim countries, especially in Saudi Arabia. Others appear convinced that only non-Muslims could launch an attack in Saudi Arabia.
If the sources of the attacks are externalised — the West and the enemies of Islam — then there are limited chances of checking these incidents. What are the options available to the target states to adopt punitive action against some Western countries and unidentified enemies of Islam? All major militant movements like al Qaeda, the IS, the Taliban, al Shabaab and others invoke religious doctrines by giving them their own extreme interpretations that justify the use of violence in certain situations. Most of them want to grab political power in some country. The IS talks about a transnational Islamic state under a caliph.
The major causes of the rise of these militant organisations and terrorist incidents have to be located within each country. It is the local and regional conditions that give rise to such movements and expose these countries to external penetration and influences. External players — states and movements — exploit the troubled situation in a country to their political advantage. These militant movements can attract external financial and material support, provided the external players are convinced that such movements have developed the capacity to impact the internal situation in the country of their existence. The role of these movements is linked closely with the internal conditions of a country, internal divisions and conflicts, religious-sectarian divides and the inability of the government to assert the primacy of the state. If the government policies become very oppressive and highly partisan, the movements based on religious or secular ideologies can emerge to challenge the state system. The experience of many Islamic states shows that if the state system becomes too oppressive, hardline interpretation of religion becomes the idiom of dissent. In certain cases, Muslim states patronised religious orthodoxy and militancy and with the passage of time some of these movements went out of control.
Such movements have greater prospects in states that suffer from internal chaos and a weakened state authority, or if state authority is too partisan in political management. Iraq is a good example of how internal chaos and non-existent governance enables such movements and groups to grow. Iraq’s troubled internal situation enabled al Qaeda and some other extremist groups to make inroads. Later, the IS virtually replaced all of them. It also benefited from the internal conflict in Syria. The troubled internal situation in Yemen, Somalia and Libya provided safe havens to extremist and terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia experienced terrorism in the past. Now, it faces a new wave of terrorist incidents. It needs to examine internal sources of terrorism, the export of a fundamentalist religious ideology to other countries and its involvement in regional conflicts, especially in Yemen and Syria.
Turkey’s ambiguous approach vis-a-vis the IS’s role in Syria, in view of its confrontation with the Kurdish movement, has enabled the militant group to make inroads into Turkey. It needs to review its regional approach. In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ill-advised strategy of eliminating her political opponents, such as those within the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami, has made more societal space available to hardline militant groups. She needs to adopt an accommodating disposition towards the political opposition that functions within the constitutional framework in order to stall the current drift towards extremism. Above all, the political divide in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased intra-regional conflict and vulnerability to external political and military interventions. These two states need to moderate their competing political agendas and reduce their involvement in affairs of neighbouring countries. Internal turmoil in Syria and Yemen has created safe havens for extremist and terrorist groups. The sooner Muslim states recognise that the key solutions to the problems of extremism and terrorism lie in their hands, the better.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2016.