The fight against the next cycle of global terror

The Cold War’s end presaged an age of global terror.  The 9/11 attacks unleashed the next cycle. A number of current events are pointing to the next one.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Over the last week, the Indian electronic media has been digging deeper to unravel some significant nuances of international geopolitics which ordinarily do not surface. The media is suddenly talking of an apparent return of global terror. There are likely signs that a ‘second cycle of global terror’ is upon the world. The earlier we realise it, the faster will the countermeasures be taken to neutralise a potential catastrophe.

What is this all about? The way I explain it is that from the end of the Cold War till 9/11, there was a period of development of global terror. It was relatively unorganised; finances were yet meagre and ideologies were not fully set. Such trends do emerge after long international standoffs of the kind the Cold War was and the results are mostly unpredictable. In this period between 1989 and 2001, international networking between terror groups was a challenge because communication was not easy, nor was a movement of money or recruitment because the passage of information too was limited.

The internet changed. The 9/11 bombings set the pace and demonstrated the truly transnational nature of terrorism once modern communication technologies reached an optimum level. With the information and communication revolution, it was so much simpler to make ideologies go viral, cultivate young minds and draw out the passion from young men and women who were inclined to be misled by the false idea of romanticism attached to violence.

From an academic angle, the pre-global age of terror was from 1989 to 2001. Thereafter, terror’s first cycle commenced and lasted till 2020. It became even bigger when the US entered Iraq in 2003 and proliferated beyond just Al Qaeda, which was the progenitor of transnational terror. Some may argue that Japanese, Italian, German and Irish terror groups pre-dated this. No doubt they did, yet none had the international footprint to paralyse the world in the Al Qaeda way. Perhaps, had technologies been available, their abilities to take this beyond would have been unimaginable.

The first cycle started with the Twin Towers attack of 9/11 and reached its zenith in 2014-17 when the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh executed its reign of terror in the Middle East, demonstrating an ability to go conventional in warfighting strategy, alongside acts of terrorism. The first of its effects was the mass migration to Europe initiated by Syria’s implosion, with immigrants attempting to merge unsuccessfully into various nations. This was accompanied by an impetus to North African migration across the Mediterranean, resulting in the IS being able to penetrate some key European cities, establish strong networks there and create a fear psychosis among local populations. Right-wing ideologies rose across Europe due to the backlash from the migrations which were themselves a result of the proliferation of global terror in a short period of time.

It was with the defeat of the IS at Mosul in 2018—after a hard demonstration of grinding urban warfare by the Iraqi Army with contributions from Syria, Iran and even Russia—that the IS was finally evicted from the Middle East. However, as is wont in the current environment, it remained alive in a networked state. It attempted to find moorings in Marawi in the Philippines, but was defeated there too. It tried the same unsuccessfully in Indonesia and finally settled on finding options in South Asia.

The April 21, 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka had its roots in Southern India, where many efforts were afoot to find secure ground for the IS. The Indian intelligence agencies, already well-blooded by the experience of 26/11 and its aftermath, did not allow the IS the space to create an adequately productive base in India. Although it remains in existence, as is evident from the recent discovery of a car bomb in Coimbatore, the IS has primarily shifted focus to sanctuaries in Northern Afghanistan, where most global and regional terror groups had gravitated during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic changed the world geopolitically—more than it is credited for. Terror groups went silent, international travel and movement stalled. Except for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, transnational terror saw a downturn. When the Ukraine war hit the world, global terror had drastically subsided to levels where one could presume the virtual end of that cycle. The indications for a second cycle started to reveal just as the US withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 and a hunt for space commenced between various terror groups.

International terror groups were unable to find the means for revival as radical sentiment took a back seat in the fight for survival during the pandemic; the economics did not facilitate it either. Just as the Taliban took the initiative in 2022 to reverse its relationship with Pakistan’s ISI, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region saw more terrorist attacks, a rising tide of radicalism and an increase in network traffic. The eastern Nangarhar province was the main concentration. Then Hamas-Israel war opened the gates for a greater spread of radical ideology, through an awakening among the terror groups that were lying low.

In recent days, we have witnessed the Houthis of Yemen attempting to demonstrate their presence and relevance in the Red Sea. Hezbollah, with its huge army of sub-conventional fighters in South Lebanon, is inching towards a greater confrontation with Israel. The proxies of various nations are active in the Levant, while Iran itself has been hit by a terror attack at Kerman that caused 89 fatalities. Somalian pirates, taking advantage of the fast-changing situation, may also be riding the bandwagon to make a buck and demonstrate their threat capability. A sudden increase in drug trafficking and clandestine drone flights to rebuild caches in J&K is also trending.

All these are early signs of the potential rise of groups that would like to gain significance. In Europe, where things have been relatively quiet, the Hamas-Israel war is stoking passion on both sides of the divide. The potential return of lone-wolf attacks always remains live. Before long, an all-out, long-term second cycle of global terror could well be stoked if a big event is successfully executed. The world has to wake up to the dangers of this, increase public awareness, sharpen intelligence, do deep dives into the wealth of social media data and be ready to defeat this phenomenon. Is there a stomach for such action? That is a different analysis for the future.

Lt  Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps.

Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir


Click here for all the earlier columns

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express