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A lost battle?


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, April 12, 2013


The diffusion of once monolithic Al Qaeda central into smaller but lethal territorial entities, though wedded to the same ideology, represents a much bigger challenge than Al Qaeda did from its safe haven in Afghanistan until 9/11.

There is an overriding consensus, based on empirical evidence, that Al Qaeda is not interested in recruiting fighters for the Arabian Peninsula only. Now, it also recruits with the objective of creating chaos and instability in the US and Western Europe - the region that Al Qaeda considers its major enemy. Its strategy of globalizing its agenda, thinking and acting in a global way, and working to enlist recruits - through its local auxiliaries - from the vulnerable youth in major western countries appears to be succeeding. Experts consider this a major accomplishment of Al Qaeda - taking the fight and the message beyond the Arabian Peninsula. 

This evolution is far more threatening than we had anticipated, a Canadian minister admitted during a recent conference. This however represents an opportunity for a closely-knit trans-national action to disrupt and neutralize the threats stemming from the Al-Qaeda-inspired home-grown individuals or groups.

Officials reckon that if any terrorist attack were to take place, it would most probably be by a lone wolf, ie an individual or follower of a home-grown terrorist/extremist outfit.

Experts and officials therefore are asking as to whether they offer a counter-measure. Ostensibly, the skilled human resource and technological advantage has enabled countries such as Canada, Australia, USA, the UK, Germany and other members of the European Union, to zero down on proponents of extremism. In a way they responded to the trans-border threat by Al Qaeda with a trans-national strategy. Not only have they created national plans for countering extremist violence (CVE), mostly a consequence of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in Great Britain in 2005, but also stitched up regional and international alliances for greater coordination and effective action against Al Qaeda inspired entities, which now operate under a sub-regional command and control system.

One major development in culturally diverse societies such as Canada, Australia, and the UK is the fact that the CVE programmes do not focus on any particular race, faith or ethnic group any more. It does not distinguish between Islamist militants or Hindu or Christian militants. They look at any person or group that threatens social peace and economic life in any part of the country as an extremist force and hence would want to deal with that accordingly.

This has thrown up challenges for the police as well, bringing additional pressures upon it. Fortunately, police in most of the western countries enjoys good reputation and public trust. This entails unhindered outreach to the community which the police uses to engage the target group, hear out grievances, identify gaps, and offer possible solutions. If judged against results, most of the CVE programmes in the Americas and Europe have been successful in a way that the police has succeeded in establishing linkages within the community. Also, relatively smaller size of communities makes it possible to focus on them in a concerted and sustained way.

Participants of the Ottawa consultation also attempted to draw distinctions between terrorists, their sympathizers and supporters. Some restricted the support for terrorists-phenomenon to the two categories - sympathizers and supporters.

One of the participant argued that sympathizers, empathizers, and supporters of violent extremists could be law-abiding citizens or groups. Pakistani participants couldn't resist visualizing Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam as the manifestations of "law-abiding" sympathizers and supporters of extremist forces. These parties participate in the parliamentary democracy but at the same time lend social and political support to groups that condemn western democracies and in fact often justify use of violence against the interests of these democracies. Some of the participants referred to the many arrests (of Al-Qaeda-linked militants) from places in Pakistan who had links to leaders and workers of these two parties.

Groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Haqqani Network, said one professor, could easily qualify as the "mobilized" supporters of Islamist extremists because they would pursue their cause regardless of what the government or people say about them. Officials and security institutions in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US are quite clear and vocal about how to deal with extremists of all sorts.

But can Pakistan win the fight against extremist forces? Probably not, for many reasons. One of the major explanations for this came from a very senior police official in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "How can I get the cooperation of the community if people don't trust the police?"

Police in Pakistan, lower cadres in particular, are generally viewed as corrupt, vindictive and partners in crime. Often, people suspect that both police and the army-led security establishment are supportive of some of the militant groups, and therefore lack the courage to report on activities of people linked with these groups.

This is where Pakistan stands out for inaction, inability and indifference to the creeping monster of extremism. During the five years of democracy, the parliament and the government failed in spelling out the dangers that the country faces at the hands of extremists. It also defaulted on its duty to chalk out a strategy for countering those threats. 

Secondly, while other countries display "zero tolerance" to any act or attempt that threatens the socio-political and economic interests of the country or endanger public life, a law-backed "zero-tolerance-regime" for extremists of all shades Pakistan remains elusive.

Thirdly, the PPP-led government also failed in passing and enacting comprehensive legislation to deal with the proponents of the trans-border extremists, as well as those craving for an Islamic emirate on Pakistani territory.

The recent umbrage that some of the intending candidates for the upcoming elections went through at the hands of the returning officers explains Pakistan's fourth biggest challenge: the extremist, self-righteous and exclusionary mindset that considers all others as unfit Muslims. This omni-present mindset, also represented by the JI and the JUI, dove-tails the Al-Qaeda or Hizbut Tahrir narrative which dismisses the existing political structures as un-Islamic and wants them replaced with a Sharia-based dispensation. 

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk