The Global War on Terrorism Has Failed. Here’s How to Win.

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Targeting terrorists and their networks brings only temporary success. A long-term strategy needs to focus on discrediting the ideology that spawns suicide killers.

By Brahma Chellaney

Foreign Policy journal| May 2019

The jihadi bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday are the latest reminder that terrorism is not driven by deprivation or ignorance. As with the 2016 cafe attack on foreigners in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the slaughter of churchgoers and hotel guests in Sri Lanka was carried out by educated Islamists from wealthy families. Two of the eight Sri Lankan suicide bombers were sons of one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen. Several of the attackers had the means to study abroad.

One reason why these attacks keep taking place is that the U.S.-led global war on terrorism has failed—and that is because it has focused on eliminating terrorists and their networks, not on defeating the jihadi ideology that inspires suicide attacks around the world. The bombings in a place as unlikely as Sri Lanka—a country with no history of radical Islamist terrorism—underscore how far militaristic theology can spread and why the world needs to tackle it at its roots.

When it comes to radical Islamist terrorism, the ideological roots can most often be traced back to Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism legitimizes violent jihad with its call for a war on “infidels.” According to the Saudi Muslim scholar Ali al-Ahmed, it advocates that nonbelievers are “to be hated, to be persecuted, even killed.” Such is the power of this insidious ideology that the two sons of a Sri Lankan spice tycoon, Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, chose martyrdom over a continued life of comfort and luxury, including living in a palatial villa and traveling in expensive chauffeured cars.

Make no mistake: Wahhabism’s phony idea of a paradise full of sensual delights for martyrs foments suicide killings. The so-called benefits it espouses make a would-be attacker believe that he will be delivered 72 virgins in heaven. (This claim finds no mention in the Quran but is found in a supposed ninth-century hadith—a record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.)

Founded in the 18th century by the cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabism remained a fringe form of Islam until the dawn of the oil price boom in the 1970s. Flush with funds, Saudi Arabia has since spent $200 billion funding Wahhabi madrassas (religious seminaries), mosques, clerics, and books to promote its form of Islam and gain geopolitical influence. But the oil price boom was not the only factor contributing to Wahhabism’s rapid spread. The export of this jihad-fostering ideology was also promoted by the United States and its allies to stem, for example, the threat from Soviet communism: The CIA, according to the author Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (the nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy), “nurtured violent jihadism as a Cold War weapon.”

Gradually, Wahhabism has been snuffing out the diverse, more liberal Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries with large Muslim communities and created a toxic environment in which extremism can thrive. Pluralistic interpretations of Islam are being stifled so that this hard-line strain makes inroads. By promoting militant Islamic fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia and its ideological partners have in effect promoted modern Islamist terrorism. The sponsorship of extremism has fostered hatred, misogyny, and violence, and it has deepened differences between Sunnis and Shiites. And that divide, in turn, has roiled regional geopolitics and incited anti-Shiite attacks in predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Against this background, it is past time for the global war on terrorism to be reoriented. U.S. counterterrorism policy should focus not merely on foes like the Islamic State and al Qaeda but also on Arab monarch friends pushing a jihadi agenda by, among other means, turning a blind eye to charities in their countries that fund Islamist militancy around the world. Despite steps taken by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to disrupt terrorist financing, Persian Gulf-based charities—as the U.S. State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism acknowledge—continue to play a role in the sponsorship of terrorist groups.

Saudi Arabia—perhaps the largest sponsor of radical Islam and one of the world’s most repressive states—has faced little international pressure even on human rights. In fact, the total ban on Iranian oil exports ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration from May 3 will financially reward Saudi Arabia and the other jihad-financing countries. Iran, to be sure, is a destabilizing regional force. But it is certainly not “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” as the Trump administration calls it. The largest acts of international terrorism—including the recent Sri Lanka bombings, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and the 2008 Mumbai siege—were carried out by brutal Sunni organizations with connections to Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism but none to Iran. Indeed, all major Islamist terrorist organizations, despite their differing jihadi philosophies and goals, draw their ideological sustenance from Wahhabism, the source of modern Sunni jihad.

The United States lists Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea as state sponsors of terrorism but not Saudi Arabia, despite Trump calling the country “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” Recently, the Trump administration added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. But still missing from that list is a major terrorism-exporting force—Pakistan’s military—which maintains cozy ties with transnational terrorist groups, including providing, as Trump has acknowledged, “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

The politicization of the global war on terrorism must end so that a concerted and sustained international onslaught on the perverted ideology of radical Islam can begin. Such an offensive is essential because, as long as violent jihadism is perceived as a credible ideology, suicide bombers will be motivated to carry out horrific attacks.

In fact, the only way to defeat an enemy driven by a pernicious ideology is to discredit that ideology. The West won the Cold War not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of freedom and capitalism that helped suck the lifeblood out of communism’s international appeal, thereby making it incapable of meeting the widespread popular yearning for a better, more open life.

Today, jihadi theology helps link diverse Islamist groups around the world. Because the cross-border linkages of these outfits are often based not on structured coordination but simply on a shared ideology, the global jihadi movement is essentially self-organizing. The movement’s strength remains unaffected even if any individuals or bands are eliminated in government counterterrorism actions. Another ominous fact is that when individuals embrace the ideology of violent jihadism, their leap to actual terrorism can be swift and sudden.

The focus of the global war on terrorism must shift to crushing this ideological movement. One way to do this is to deploy a sustained information campaign to discredit the ideology of radical Islam. For example, it would not be difficult to mock and run down the jihadi notion that a martyr in heaven will enjoy the company of 72 virgins. And the concept of jihad itself can be attacked as antithetical to the fundamental principles of contemporary civilization, while the Islamist drive to impose sharia, or Islamic law, should be exposed as an assault on science and modernity, as fostering gender inequality and discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and as legitimizing child rape through the marriage of young girls to adult men.

While working to systematically bring into disrepute the jihadi ideology, punitive sanctions should be slapped on Saudi and other Persian Gulf terrorist financiers as well as charities still funding overseas Islamist seminaries, clerics, and groups. The Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force should develop more effective ways to stop nonstate terrorist financiers from exploiting informal financial systems.

Only a robust response—from governments and civil societies—to the mounting threats from Islamist ideology can help contain the spread of terrorism. In combating that dangerous ideology, the United States must take the lead and help bring the global war on terrorism back on track.

Brahma Chellaney, the author of nine books, is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

© Foreign Policy, 2019.

The internal jihadist threat is rapidly growing in India

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

As India seeks to address the terrorism challenge in Jammu and Kashmir, jihadist forces are quietly gaining ground in far-flung states, especially West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The situation in Assam is also fraught with danger. India can ignore the spreading jihadist threat only at its own peril.

The ISIS, for example, has reportedly named a new “Bengal emir.” The Sri Lanka bombings, meanwhile, have helped highlight the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Such forces are affiliated with larger extremist networks or provide succour to radical groups elsewhere.

The main group blamed for the Sri Lanka bombings, the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ), is an ideological offspring of the rapidly growing Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamat (TNTJ). The Saudi-funded TNTJ, wedded to fanatical Wahhabism, is working to snuff out pluralistic strands of Islam. Such Arabization of Islam is increasingly apparent in Muslim communities extending from Bangladesh and West Bengal to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.

More broadly, the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the terrorism challenge. Battle-hardened terrorist fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq have become a major counterterrorism concern in South and Southeast Asia, given their operational training, skills, and experience to stage savage attacks.

The presence of such returnees in Sri Lanka explains how an obscure local group carried out near-simultaneous strikes on three iconic churches and three luxury hotels, with the bombers detonating military-grade high explosives through suicide vests. Similar returnees are present in a number of other Asian countries.

The Sri Lanka attacks indeed underscore the potential of such returnees to wage terror campaigns in the same way that the activities of the Afghan war veterans, like Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, came to haunt the security of Asia, the Middle East and the West.

The jihadist threat, however, is posed not only by the returnees from Syria and Iraq. Such a threat also arises from those elements who never left their countries but see violence as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption. Such local forces extolling terror are gaining clout.

The TNTJ in India, for example, helped to establish the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamat, from which the bomber outfit NTJ emerged as a splinter. In the current national elections in India, the DMK and some other local political parties have openly courted the TNTJ.

Just as Bangladesh blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for instigating the 2016 brutal Dhaka café attack through a Bangladeshi outfit, Sri Lanka’s NTJ has ties with the ISI’s front organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The ISI and the LeT, through their joint Sri Lanka operations, has sought to establish cross-strait contacts with TNTJ activists in India.

NTJ leader Zaharan Hashim, who reportedly died in one of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings, was inspired by fugitive Indian Islamist preacher Zakir Naik’s jihad-extolling sermons. Hashim also reportedly received funds from jihadists in south India.

India, despite providing detailed intelligence warnings to Sri Lanka about the bombing plot, has been slow to develop a credible strategy to counter the growing jihadist influence within its own borders. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government initiated action against Zakir Naik only after the Dhaka café attack prompted Bangladesh to demand action against him. The prime minister, however, is right in saying that Naik enjoyed the patronage of the predecessor Manmohan Singh-led government — which, according to Modi, once invited Naik to address police personnel on the issue of terrorism!

Today, Naik is ensconced in Malaysia, which has granted him permanent residency. Yet, India has imposed no costs on Malaysia, such as cutting palm-oil imports from there, for sheltering a leading fugitive from Indian law.

Lull-in-terrorism-masks-a-deepening-Jihadist-threat-Dutch-report-warnsLike al-Qaeda at one time, ISIS seeks to show its continuing relevance by claiming responsibility for terror strikes that occur in places far from the areas where it has had presence. Rather than ISIS being directly involved in the Sri Lanka bombings, it is more likely that the ideology ISIS subscribes to — Wahhabi fanaticism — inspired those attacks.

It takes months, not weeks, to motivate, train and equip a suicide bomber. So, the speculative comment that the Sri Lanka bombings were a reprisal to the March 15 Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre made little sense, especially as it came from the Sri Lankan junior defence minister. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan prime minister later walked back that speculation.

Detaining a terrorist attacker’s family members for questioning has become a de facto international anti-terrorist practice. Sri Lanka quickly rounded up the bombers’ family members, including parents, for questioning once the suicide killers were identified. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation also detains a terrorist attacker’s family members for questioning, but not India. For example, the Pulwama bomber’s family members not only remained free but also gave media interviews rationalizing the February 14 suicide attack.

Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. Terrorists rely on media publicity to provoke fear and demonstrate power.

Unfortunately, in the absence of U.S.-style media peer guidelines in India on terrorism-related coverage, Indian journalists supplied the oxygen of publicity by reporting allegations of the Pulwama bomber’s family members, including their claim that he was once roughed up by army or paramilitary soldiers. What the family members did not reveal was that the bomber had previously been detained on four separate occasions by J&K police on suspicion of providing logistical assistance to the LeT but that each time he was freed without the investigators getting to the bottom of his activities.

Make no mistake: Islamist terror is closely connected with the spread of Wahhabism, the obscurantist and intolerant version of Islam bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and other oil sheikhdoms. Wahhabi fanaticism is terrorism’s ideological mother, whose offspring include ISIS, al-Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Boko Haram.

The jihadist threat in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam — like in Sri Lanka — is linked with the growing spread of Wahhabism. If left unaddressed, this scourge of Islamist extremism could become a major internal-security crisis in India.

India’s counterterrorism focus on Jammu and Kashmir has allowed jihadists to gain influence in some other states far from J&K.

India needs to wake up to this spreading threat. It must crack down on the preachers of hatred and violence. It also must rein in the increasing inflow of Saudi and other Gulf money so as to close the wellspring that feeds terrorism — Wahhabi fanaticism.

Asia Is the New Ground Zero for Islamist Terror

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The murder of more than 250 churchgoers, tourists, and other civilians in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday should serve as a reminder that Asia is now the world’s leading site of Islamist extremism. The region’s leaders must either address the problem at its source or prepare for more bloodshed in the coming years and decades.

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Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka rank among the deadliest terrorist attacks in modern history, and underscore the metastasizing scourge of Islamist violence in Asia. Radical Islamic groups, some affiliated with larger extremist networks, have been quietly gaining influence in an arc of countries extending from the Maldivian to the Philippine archipelagos, and the threat they pose can no longer be ignored.

In fact, the grisly Sri Lankan bombings are a reminder that Asia – not the Middle East – is the region most afflicted by terrorist violence. Home to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, it is also host to multiple “terrorist safe havens,” owing to the rise of grassroots radical movements and years of complacency on the part of policymakers.

With a total of 253 people dead (and hundreds more wounded), the Sri Lanka bombings were five times deadlier than the March 15 massacre by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The death toll is also higher than that of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which involved ten Pakistan-based militants in one of the modern world’s longest-ever terrorist sieges.

By targeting international hotels and iconic churches, the Islamists behind the Sri Lankan blasts clearly intended to strike a blow against Sri Lanka’s fast-growing tourism industry, a mainstay of the country’s debt-ridden economy. Reduced tourism receipts will add to the burden of Sri Lanka’s high external interest payments, compounding a problem that has already forced the country to cede control of its strategic Indian Ocean port, Hambantota, to China (a signal achievement of the latter’s debt-trap diplomacy).

The attacks also mark the dawn of Islamist terrorism in Sri Lanka. Though suicide bombings were not uncommon during the country’s 26-year civil war, which pitted the ethnic Sinhalese majority against the minority Tamils, Sri Lanka has not previously experienced coordinated violence on this scale or a major attack by Islamist militants.

The civil war ended in 2009, when the Sri Lanka Army brutally crushed the last of the Tamil separatist rebels. But that outcome sowed the seeds of religious conflict between the country’s mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and a Muslim minority that constitutes one-tenth of the population.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim population is largely concentrated in the Eastern Province, where Saudi and other Gulf funding has fueled the rise of jihadist groups seeking to enforce sharia (Islamic law). The group suspected of carrying out the Easter bombings, the National Thowheed Jamaath, thrived in this setting. Like the similarly named outfit Sri Lanka Thawheed Jama’athand the rapidly growing Tamil Nadu Thoweed Jamath in southernmost India, its primary goal is to foment militant Islamic fundamentalism.

We now know that Indian intelligence had tipped off Sri Lankan security agencies about the Easter bombing plot, even identifying its alleged masterminds. Yet, owing to political infighting between Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the latter was kept in the dark. Accordingly, many are now blaming the failure on Sirisena, who oversees the security agencies (and who had previously attempted to remove Wickremesinghe in a constitutional coup, only to be overruled by the Supreme Court).

Though its extremist enclave in Syria and Iraq has crumbled and its leaders are on the run, the Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the bombings. Like al-Qaeda before it, ISIS wants to demonstrate its continued relevance by taking credit for attacks in areas where it has no presence. Most likely, the Sri Lanka attacks were not the direct work of ISIS. And yet they were inspired by the same toxic ideology espoused by ISIS: Wahhabi fanaticism.

Wahhabism, the austere, rigid version of Islam bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikhdoms, remains the driving force behind Islamist terrorism today. Its offspring include not just al-Qaeda and ISIS, but also the Taliban in Afghanistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia. All of these groups are driven by a nihilistic rage born of hostility toward non-Sunnis and a rejection of modernity.

Unfortunately, as the Sri Lanka bombings and other attacks in Asia show, the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the terrorism challenge, because battle-hardened fighters with the operational training to stage savage attacks are now returning home. The presence of such returnees in Sri Lanka explains how an obscure local group was able to carry out sophisticated, near-simultaneous strikes on three churches and three hotels, using military-grade explosives.

Returnees are present in many other Asian countries as well, from the Philippines and Indonesia to the Maldives and Uzbekistan. Like Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders who cut their teeth in the US-backed war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, this new generation of jihadist veterans could haunt the security of Asia, the Middle East, and the West for years to come.

To be sure, official discrimination against Muslims has contributed to Islamists’ growing influence, particularly in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, and the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. But so have Saudi-funded madrasas (religious seminaries) and social-media platforms, which facilitate fundraising, recruitment, and dissemination of jihadist propaganda. Hence, jihadist violence has also come to threaten predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan. And in some cases – namely Pakistan – the state itself is abetting violent extremists.

If left unaddressed, this scourge could become the defining crisis of the century for Asian countries. To prevent that outcome, the fount of jihadist extremism – Wahhabi fanaticism – must be cut off. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew said, preventing terrorist attacks requires that we eliminate the “queen bees” (the preachers of hatred and violence) who are inspiring the “worker bees” (suicide bombers) to become martyrs. The global war on terror, launched by the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, is losing steam. Unless it is invigorated and prosecuted to the end, many more innocent lives will be lost.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Sri Lanka bombings carry a stark message for India

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The Sri Lanka bombings — one of the world’s deadliest acts of terrorism — highlight the growing terrorist threat to democratic, secular states. Far from a concerted and sustained global war on terror, the anti-terrorism fight is being undermined by geopolitics. The global ideological movement fuelling terrorism is Wahhabi jihadism. Yet, the U.S.-ordered total ban on Iranian oil exports from May 3 will reward this jihadism’s main financiers.

Despite specific and detailed Indian intelligence warnings, Sri Lanka failed to avert the bombings, in large part because of a divided and dysfunctional government. However, in keeping with an international anti-terrorist practice, Sri Lanka was quick to detain the bombers’ family members for questioning once the suicide killers were identified. By contrast, the Pulwama bomber’s family members not only remained free but also gave media interviews rationalizing the suicide attack.

Sri Lanka has a blood-soaked history, but the scale and intensity of the latest attacks were unprecedented. The coordinated bombings, in less than 30 minutes, killed more people than the 2008 Mumbai terrorist siege, which lasted nearly four days. Actually, in terms of sophisticated methods and synchronized lethality, they were eerily similar to the 1993 serial bombings that targeted Mumbai landmarks. Jihadists have long used India as a laboratory: Major acts of terror first tried out in India and then replicated elsewhere include attacks on symbols of state authority, midair bombing of a commercial jetliner and coordinated strikes on a city transportation system.

The series of extraordinary steps Sri Lanka took after the bombings — blocking social media, imposing a daily dusk-to-dawn curfew, closing schools until April 29 and proclaiming an emergency law — may seem unthinkable in terrorism-scarred but rights-oriented India. But such measures were necessary to maintain control and to deter large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslims.

Ironically, in the days leading up to the Sri Lanka bombings, the 2008 Mumbai attacks were back in the news in India because of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Pragya Thakur’s controversial comment on Hemant Karkare, the police officer gunned down in that siege. The irony of ironies is that those 26/11 attacks received more Indian attention this month than on their 10th anniversary five months ago. This underscores a troubling truth: Nothing draws the attention of Indians more than political controversy, however petty.

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This is especially true of India, which — far from heeding the 26/11 lessons — doesn’t remember its martyrs. How many Indians know the name of Tukaram Omble, the “hero among heroes” of 26/11?  An ex-army soldier who became a police assistant sub-inspector, Omble — by ensuring terrorist Ajmal Kasab’s capture alive — provided the clinching evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11. Kasab was captured after the ambush killing of six cops, including Karkare and additional commissioner Ashok Kamte. Omble grabbed the barrel of Kasab’s AK-47 and took a volley of fired bullets, allowing others to seize Kasab.

All the 10 Pakistani terrorists involved in 26/11 wore red string wristbands for Hindus that Pakistani-American David Headley got for them from Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak Temple. But for Kasab’s capture (and confession) helping to indisputably establish Pakistan’s direct involvement, Pakistan’s wicked plan was to portray 26/11 as exemplifying the rise of Hindu terrorism by capitalizing on the then Manmohan Singh government’s classification of the 2006-07 blasts in Malegaon, Ajmer Sharif, Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta Express as “Hindu terror”.

Omble’s extraordinary bravery thus should never be forgotten. Nor the sacrifices of the other 26/11 martyrs awarded the Ashok Chakra — Sandeep Unnikrishnan, Gajender Singh, Vijay Salaskar, Karkare and Kamte. The 26/11 siege affected the national psyche more deeply than any other terrorist attack. Yet such is India’s lack of a sense of remembrance that it laid the Kartarpur Corridor’s cornerstone on the 10th anniversary of 26/11, with an oblivious Indian vice president calling it a “historic day”. The 26/11 perpetrator, Pakistan, couldn’t have received a better gift from India.

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Suspected ringleader Zaharan Hashim

Make no mistake: The Sri Lanka attacks hold major implications for Indian security, in part because the main group behind the bombings, the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ), is an ideological offspring of the rapidly growing, Saudi-funded Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamat (TNTJ). The TNTJ, wedded to fanatical Wahhabism, rails against idolaters. It helped establish the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamat, from which the bomber outfit NTJ emerged as a splinter.

Like the 2016 brutal Dhaka café attack, the Sri Lanka slaughter was carried out by educated Islamists from well-off families. And just as Bangladesh blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for the attack, the NTJ has ties with ISI’s front organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, through its Sri Lanka operations, has sought links with the TNTJ in India. NTJ leader Zaharan Hashim was inspired by fugitive Indian preacher Zakir Naik’s sermons and received funds from Indian jihadists. It would be paradoxical if India, which tipped off Sri Lanka about the bombing plot, became a victim itself of Thowheed Jamat terror. First of all, it must outlaw the TNTJ.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s elusive deterrence against Pakistani terror

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In seeking to demonstrate resolve and strengthen deterrence, India ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Deterrence theorists have long underscored that a deterrent’s credibility is in the eye of the beholder — namely, is the target of deterrence (the potential aggressor) sufficiently convinced that the other side has both the capability and the will to act so as to make aggression not worth the risk? Whether a foe is deterred is thus a function of its understanding of the deterrer’s strengths and intentions.

Pakistan has waged a protracted proxy war by terror against the much-stronger India since the 1980s because it has repeatedly tested the will of successive Indian governments and found it wanting. No prime minister after Indira Gandhi has been willing to impose sufficient costs on Pakistan to dissuade it from continuing to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts.

The February 26 Balakot airstrike was a potential game-changer. It revived bitter Pakistani memories of the 2011 US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Even before India said a word, Pakistan admitted Indian warplanes struck at Balakot without being interdicted or challenged. That India struck a target in the Pakistani heartland with impunity was momentous. The extent of damage or the death toll was immaterial. However, boastful toll-related claims, starting with the foreign secretary’s statement that “a very large number” of terrorists were “eliminated”, generated partisan controversy that undercut the chilling message that the Indian Air Force (IAF) delivered to Pakistan’s terror masters — the military generals.

Worse still, India has allowed a defining moment to slip away by failing to retaliate against Pakistan’s aerial blitz. Pakistan’s military regards its terrorist surrogates as de facto special operations forces, employing them cost-effectively as a force multiplier against India. So, India’s contention that it struck a “non-military” target at Balakot did not wash with the Pakistani generals, who responded barely 30 hours later with a daring, daytime aerial onslaught, in which India lost a MiG-21 — and, in perhaps friendly fire, a Mi-17 helicopter.

Voltairenet-org_-_1-657-2fc4aThe F-16 downing issue has not only detracted from Balakot’s main message but also obscured the absence of Indian retribution for the Pakistani blitz. The IAF is sure its MiG-21 shot down an attacking F-16. What is remarkable is that a short, sketchy April 4 US news report, which quoted anonymous sources to claim a US inventory probe found none of Pakistan’s F-16s missing, attracted front-page Indian press coverage and was quickly seized upon by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics at home and abroad — until the Pentagon said “we weren’t aware of any investigation like that”.

The intruding Pakistani warplanes brazenly tried to bomb Indian military sites. Although “no significant” damage was caused, according to the Indian military, Pakistan’s trans-border targeting of army formations opened a long-sought opportunity for the Indian armed forces to wreak massive punishment. Underscoring this opportunity is the fact that a near-bankrupt Pakistan cannot afford a military conflict. Indeed, such is Pakistan’s vulnerability to a punitive attack that, as this newspaper reported, only one Pakistani submarine currently is operational — that too partially.

Yet, India’s political leadership held back the armed forces from retaliating. New Delhi chose to defer to Washington’s assurances on Pakistan. Consequently, it was US President Donald Trump who signalled de-escalation, saying the tensions were “going to be coming to an end”. Hours after Trump’s announcement, an overcautious India finally allowed its armed forces to brief the media. But by then, parts of Pakistani propaganda had already taken hold internationally.

Modi has oddly relied on the ministry of external affairs to issue statements about a military crisis. Naturally, MEA has been out of its depth in that role, as was illustrated during the Doklam crisis, when India had no answer to China’s full-throttle information warfare. In the Balakot saga, MEA’s tardy, unforthcoming briefings ceded perception management to a mendacious Pakistani military, whose claim of downing two Indian warplanes dominated international news for days. Indeed, MEA’s February 26 statement inexcusably failed to identify where Balakot is located. This led the international media to wrongly assume it is in Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir and to spotlight the Kashmir dispute.

Despite Modi letting go the opportunity to wreak vengeance on Pakistan, the threshold-breaching Balakot strike after years of Indian inaction has helped sharpen his strong-leader image at election time. Pakistan, however, still fears Indian reprisals to its blitz, which explains why its airspace remains closed to most commercial overflights. It has reopened just one of its 11 airways for flights between Asia and Europe — that too a marginal route over Balochistan to Iran.

Meanwhile, international pressure on Pakistan to take verifiable actions to root out terrorist groups has started easing. The US lists North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria as “state sponsors of terrorism” but not the main sponsors — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Its latest action in designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as “terrorist” but not the biggest terror-exporting force — Pakistan’s military — highlights the increasing politicization of the war on terror.

India, alas, has yet to build a reputation for resolve, which, as the social scientist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote, is a prerequisite for deterrence. All the weapons India is frenetically importing can offer no effective deterrence in the absence of political will. India failed to capitalize on the Balakot strike to compel the Pakistani generals to start cleaning up their terror act. Far from imposing deterrent costs to prevent further terrorist attacks, India reinforced the Pakistani generals’ belief that its bark is worse than its bite. This is why the present lull is likely to prove only an interlude.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Global Silence on China’s Gulag

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Brahma Chellaney, an internationally syndicated column from Project Syndicate

In the absence of international censure, China has stepped up its systematic persecution of Muslims, under the dubious pretense that it is fighting “terrorism” and protecting its economic interests. But more than just an attack on human rights, the crackdown is representative of President Xi Jinping’s totalitarian ambitions.

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For more than two years, China has waged a campaign of unparalleled repression against its Islamic minorities, incarcerating an estimated one-sixth of the adult Muslim population of the Xinjiang region at one point or another. Yet, with the exception of a recent tweet from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on China to “end its repression,” the international community has remained largely mute.

In its reliance on mass detention, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has followed the Soviet Union’s example. But China’s concentration camps and detention centers are far larger and more technologically advanced than their Soviet precursors; and their purpose is to indoctrinate not just political dissidents, but an entire community of faith.

Although independent researchers and human-rights groups have raised awareness of practices such as force-feeding Muslims alcohol and pork, the Chinese authorities have been able to continue their assault on Islam with impunity. Even as China’s security agencies pursue Uighurs and other Muslims as far afield as Turkey, Chinese leaders and companies involved in the persecution have not faced international sanctions or incurred any other costs.

Chief among the culprits, of course, is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in 2014 ordered the policy change that set the stage for today’s repression of ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and other Muslim groups. The forcible assimilation of Muslims into the country’s dominant Han culture is apparently a cornerstone of Xiism – or “Xi Jinping Thought” – the grand “ism” that Xi has introduced to overshadow the influence of Marxism and Maoism in China.

To oversee this large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities, Xi, who has amassed more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, reassigned the notorious CPC enforcer Chen Quanguo from Tibet to Xinjiang and elevated him to the all-powerful Politburo. Though Chen’s record of overseeing human-rights abuses is well known, the Trump administration has yet to act on a bipartisan commission’s 2018 recommendation that he and other Chinese officials managing the gulag policy be sanctioned. In general, financial and trade interests, not to mention the threat of Chinese retribution, have deterred most countries from condemning China’s anti-Muslim policies.

With the exception of Turkey, even predominantly Muslim countries that were quick to condemn Myanmar for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims have remained conspicuously silent on China. While Pakistan’s military-backed prime minister, Imran Khan, has feigned ignorance about the Xinjiang crackdown, Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has gone so far as to defend China’s right to police “terrorism.”

Emboldened by the muted international response, China has stepped up its drive to Sinicize Xinjiang by demolishing Muslim neighborhoods. In Urumqi and other cities, once-bustling Uighur districts have been replaced with heavily policed zones purged of Islamic culture.

9099340c-dd10-4392-80c6-8d7a1f90175eThe irony is that while China justifies its “reeducation hospitals” as necessary to cleanse Muslim minds at home of extremist thoughts, it is effectively supporting Islamist terrorism abroad. For example, China has repeatedly blocked UN sanctions against Masood Azhar, the head of the Pakistan-based, UN-designated terrorist group responsible for carrying out serial attacks in India, including on Parliament and, most recently, on a paramilitary police convoy. As Pompeo tweeted, “The world cannot afford China’s shameful hypocrisy toward Muslims. On one hand, China abuses more than a million Muslims at home, but on the other it protects violent Islamic terrorist groups from sanctions at the UN.”

An added irony is that while China still harps on its “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign imperial powers, it has for decades presided over the mass humiliation of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Ominously, by systematically degrading Muslim populations, it could be inspiring white supremacists and other Islamaphobes around the world. For example, the Australian extremist arrested for the recent twin mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, declared an affinity for China’s political and social values.

There has been a good deal of reporting about how China has turned Xinjiang into a laboratory for Xi’s Orwellian surveillance ambitions. Less known is how Xi’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” is being used as a catalyst for the crackdown. According to Chinese authorities, the establishment of a surveillance state is necessary to prevent unrest in the province at the heart of the BRI’s overland route.

Like Marxism-Leninism, Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism, which left millions of people dead, Xiism promises to impose significant long-term costs on untold numbers of innocent people. It is the impetus behind China’s ruthless targeting of minority cultures and communities, as well as its aggressive expansion into international waters and introduction of digital totalitarianism.

Thanks to Xiism, the world’s largest, strongest, and oldest autocracy finds itself at a crossroads. As the People’s Republic of China approaches its 70th birthday, its economy is slowing amid escalating capital flight, trade disruptions, and the emigration of wealthy Chinese. The Chinese technology champion Huawei’s international travails augur difficult times ahead.

The last thing China needs right now is more enemies. Yet Xi has used his unbridled power to expand China’s global footprint and lay bare his imperial ambitions. His repression of Muslim minorities may or may not lead to international action against China. But it will almost certainly spawn a new generation of Islamist terrorists, compounding China’s internal-security challenges. China’s domestic security budget is already larger than its bloated defense budget, which makes it second only to the United States in terms of military spending. The Soviet Union once held the same position – until it collapsed.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Pakistan, China and terrorism

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China is left with just one real ally — Pakistan.    © Reuters

Beijing’s support protects Islamabad from global pressure to suppress militants

International calls for Pakistan to take concrete steps against the terrorist groups that operate from its territory have mounted in recent weeks after a Valentine’s Day attack killed 41 Indian paramilitary soldiers and sparked a military crisis on the subcontinent.

Such appeals have been made by the United States, Japan and European powers but one voice has been conspicuous by its absence — China’s.

If anything, Beijing has sought to shield Pakistan from international censure. Most recently, on March 13, China blocked United Nations Security Council action against the ailing founder of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed group, which is already under international terrorism sanctions. The aim was not to protect a terrorist leader reportedly on his deathbed but to frustrate the international pressure that has grown on Islamabad to take credible anti-terror actions.

The U.S., for example, has insisted Pakistan take “sustained, irreversible action against terrorist groups.” Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was quick to claim responsibility for the Valentine’s Day attack, is just one of 22 U.N.-designated terrorist entities that Pakistan hosts.

Pakistan’s civilian leadership routinely denies that the country’s military cultivates terrorist surrogates. But India holds Islamabad responsible for multiple outrages including the Valentine’s Day attack, which coincided with deadly terrorist strikes on Iranian and Afghan troops that Tehran and Kabul also blamed on Pakistan.

In coming to Pakistan’s help at a critical time, China has highlighted the strategic importance it still attaches to its ties with that increasingly fragile and debt-ridden country. In contrast to America’s strong network of allies and partners, China can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. When it joined hands with Washington to impose new international sanctions on North Korea, once its vassal, Beijing implicitly highlighted that it was left with just one real ally — Pakistan.

The China-Pakistan axis has been cemented by “iron brotherhood,” with the two “as close as lips and teeth,” according to Beijing. It calls Pakistan its “all-weather friend.”

China, however, has little in common with Pakistan, beyond the fact that both are dissatisfied with their existing frontiers and claim territory held by neighbors. Their “iron brotherhood” is actually about a shared interest in containing India. That interest has raised the specter for New Delhi of a two-front war in the event military conflict breaks out with either Pakistan or China.

However, the immediate threat India faces is asymmetric warfare, including China’s “salami slicing” strategy of furtive, incremental territorial encroachments in the Himalayas and Pakistan’s use of terrorist proxies. No surprise then, that China seeks to shield Pakistan’s proxy war by Islamist terror against India. Beijing seems untroubled by the seeming contradiction between this approach abroad while, at home, it locks up more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang in the name of cleansing their minds of extremist thoughts.

For years, China has been attracted by Pakistan’s willingness to serve as its economic and military client. China has sold Pakistan weapons its own military has not inducted, as well as prototype nuclear power reactors.

Since at least 2005, Pakistan has allowed Beijing to station thousands of Chinese troops in the Pakistani part of the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, where control is divided between India (45%), Pakistan (35%) and China (20%). More recently, China has sought to turn Pakistan into its land corridor to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. With Chinese involvement, the northern Arabian Sea is becoming militarized: China has supplied warships to the Pakistani navy, it controls Pakistan’s Gwadar port, and its submarines are on patrol.

For Pakistan, however, China’s close embrace is becoming a tight squeeze financially. Fast-rising debt to Beijing has contributed to Pakistan’s dire financial situation today. With its economy teetering on the brink of default, Pakistan is urgently seeking a $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Pakistan is the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Pakistani military has created a special 15,000-troop army division to protect Chinese projects. In addition, thousands of police have been deployed to protect Chinese workers. Yet, underscoring the security costs, attacks on Chinese people in Pakistan have occurred now and then.

Rising financial costs, however, are triggering a pushback against Chinese projects even in friendly Pakistan. The new military-backed Pakistani government that took office last summer under Imran Khan has sought to scrap, scale back or renegotiate some Chinese projects. It downsized the main Chinese railway project by $2 billion, removed a $14 billion dam from Chinese financing, and canceled a 1,320-megawatt coal-based power plant.

China is receiving 91% of revenues from Gwadar port until its return to Pakistan in four decades.   © Reuters

China’s predatory practices have come under increasing scrutiny. For example, in return for building Gwadar port, China is receiving, tax-free, 91% of revenues from the port until its return to Pakistan in four decades.

Rising capital equipment imports from China, coupled with high returns for Beijing on its investment, have led to large foreign-exchange outflows, spurring Pakistan’s serious balance-of-payments crisis. Pakistan, seeking new loans to repay old ones, finds itself trapped in a vicious circle.

Yet Pakistan is unlikely to stop being China’s loyal client. Despite Western concern that the tide of Chinese strategic projects is making the country dangerously dependent on China, the relationship brings major benefits for Pakistan, including internationally well-documented covert nuclear and missile assistance from Beijing.

China also provides security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the U.N., as has been illustrated by its torpedoing of the U.S.-French-British move to designate the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief as a global terrorist. Western powers failed to persuade China that the threat it cites from Islamist terrorism in its own western region demands that it join hands with them.

However, despite securing billions of dollars in recent emergency loans from China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan cannot do without a large IMF bailout. This will be Pakistan’s 22nd IMF bailout in six decades, and the largest ever. Pakistan’s cycle of dependency on the IMF has paralleled the rise of its military-Islamist complex.

Unless the latest IMF bailout is made contingent upon concrete anti-terror action, it will, as past experience shows, help underpin Pakistan’s collusion with terrorist groups. This is especially so because a new IMF bailout will also support the Sino-Pakistan link, including by freeing up other resources in Pakistan for debt repayments to Beijing.

Democratic powers, especially the U.S., which holds a dominant 17.46% voting share in the IMF, must now insist on setting tough conditions, including making Pakistan take credible, verifiable and irreversible steps against the terrorist groups that its military has long nurtured. Among other things, an honorable U.S. exit from Afghanistan hinges on the success of such treatment.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.