Countering violent extremism: Lessons for India



In late 2016, India’s National Investigation Agency dealt with a serious predicament. The family of a young Muslim boy from Kerala told the agency that their son, Ashfaq Majeed, was “as good as dead” to them. According to a report in The Indian Express on 2 December 2016, Ashfaq’s father, Abdul Majeed, told the NIA that after sending a WhatsApp voice message to a family member, informing them that he had reached Afghanistan, where he would remain, Ashfaq had called his mother and spoken to her briefly to urge his family to join him in the “land of Islam.” Abdul Majeed then told his wife to never again accept any messages or calls from the number Ashfaq had called from, and reported the call to the NIA.[1]

Today, Majeed’s case is held by Indian intelligence officials as an example of effective community involvement in identifying terror suspects. However, in early investigations, the case exposed the challenges India’s intelligence community regularly faces when it comes to tackling the threat of terror, specifically what is termed “Hinterland Jihadi Terrorism,” that exists outside Jammu and Kashmir. Why had no one in Ashfaq’s home, circle of friends and family, or the wider community he lived in, noticed that he was getting radicalised? According to media accounts of his interrogation, Majeed was radicalised primarily via the internet. How serious a challenge is online radicalisation for India’s security establishment, whether through subterranean and dangerously violent sites on the “dark net” or simply the wide availability of extremist content on social networking platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter? Is there now a need to go beyond purely strategic, law enforcement-based approaches in tackling the very real threat of terror and violence? These questions have no easy answers globally, and even fewer in India, where the threat of ideological extremism and religion-based violence is taking on new dimensions every day.

Lessons from the West

The West, in its fight against Islamic terror since 9/11 and the more recent threat of so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attackers radicalised by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the internet, has been forced to re-examine its approach to counterterrorism. Intelligence gathering and law enforcement have undoubtedly played their role, but in the fight against “homegrown terrorism,” the United States adopted a revised strategy in 2011, under then President Barack Obama’s administration, to create a multi-dimensional, multi-stakeholder approach via community networks and governmental–non-governmental collaboration, that could play a role in countering violent extremism, or CVE. In a policy paper entitled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” the administration used the term CVE to describe initiatives aimed at reducing the spread of violent ideologies. The rationale for the CVE programme in the United States was, and continues to be, to find ways to prevent radical (Islamic) extremism from taking root in communities and prevent the recruitment of young Muslims into terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

America’s 2006 National Security Strategy had already underlined the need for long-run success against terrorism by fighting “a battle of ideas”. The US government defines CVE as “efforts focused on preventing all forms of ideologically based extremist violence, to include prevention of successful recruitment into terrorist groups. It is distinct from disruptive actions which focus on stopping acts of terrorism by those who have already subscribed to violence.” [2]

The decision to adopt and expand the nomenclature for some counterterrorism initiatives indicated a realisation that the military approach—effective to a certain degree on far-flung battlefields—was lacking severely when it came to tackling underlying ideologies, grievances and motivations that encourage new recruits every day at home and abroad. The programme functions under the US counterterrorism umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Centre, and the Department of Justice. However, its large and often unwieldy mandate that cuts across several government departments and aid agencies, has made it difficult to be administered and monitored. To streamline it further, the Office of Community Partnerships (OCP), set up in 2015,[3] began to collaborate with other agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The US initiative is aimed at targeting domestic, homegrown extremism and Islamic radicalism abroad through community participation and the sensitisation of law enforcement. This is done through its programmes that include investing in and/or funding development, education, healthcare, and cultural exchanges and encouraging local leaders—imams, political representatives, lawyers, and high-profile voices in the arts—to engage with the youth on the issue of radicalisation and its perils.

Internationally, the US government’s funding of various development projects in health, education and employment via aid agencies in countries across the Middle East and Asia often come under the CVE umbrella. While some are successful, others have often been met with a deep-seated suspicion on the ground. A report by the US Task Force on the “Future of Iraq,” published by the Atlantic Council in May 2017, recognises that violent extremism “flourishes in societies where state institutions are seen as oppressive, corrupt, ineffective, and illegitimate. Any long-term defeat of violent extremism in Iraq must overcome the failure of the Iraqi state to win the trust and support of wide swathes of the Iraqi population. This does not mean that a mammoth state-building effort is required, but rather that Iraqi progress on key legislative programs and reform initiatives should be seen as a critical part of an overall effort to defeat violent extremism in Iraq.”[4]

Afghanistan and Pakistan,[5] two of the largest recipients of US financial and developmental aid under CVE,[6] have huge internal challenges when it comes to dealing with suspicion[7] of the West, in spite of the real, daily threat of terrorism that claim a high number of civilian lives.[8],[9] According to the Security Assistance Monitor—a website that provides a citizens’ guide to US security and defence assistance—Washington has provided US$122 million between 2014 and 2016 for CVE assistance in Afghanistan, over US$44 million to Pakistan, US$11 million to Nigeria, and a little over US$8 million to Somalia.[10]

The increasing threat of online radicalisation makes preventing extremism from taking root—instead of “countering” it—the singular challenge in today’s world. Consequently, the term “preventing violent extremism” (PVE) has gained traction, particularly within the United Nations (UN) and European countries, many of whom have devised programmes specific to their own social fabric. While experts might look for distinctions between the two—PVE is proactive, CVE is reactive, for example—they are fairly synonymous, as both include preventative measures that aim to address structural social, economic and political grievances that lead to radicalisation.

The United Kingdom’s ‘Prevent’ strategy is part of CONTEST, its post-9/11 counterterrorism policy. Under CONTEST, the British security and intelligence establishment is meant to “prepare” for attacks, “protect” the public, “pursue” attackers and “prevent” radicalisation. In the wake of the 2005 London bombings, the programme spent £80 million (over US$105 million) on 1,000 schemes over a period of six years after the attacks. The Prevent framework outlines three important objectives:

  • Working with the ideological challenges;
  • Preventing people from turning to terrorism; and
  • Working with institutions and key sectors.

Criticisms and Corrections

After the recent suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 people, the Prevent strategy came under sharp criticism for having missed the radicalisation of Salman Abedi, the British Muslim suicide bomber, and being too “soft” an approach. In the US, civil liberties groups have argued that the US government’s CVE programme has become a politically correct cover for racial profiling and is based on “false premises.” In a report, the New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice argues that ideology is not always a predictor of terrorism.[11] However, experiences in the UK and the US are seemingly different. While the new Trump administration is reviewing its CVE policy overall, the UK’s top government and security officials have reiterated their intention to stay the course. On 21 August 2017, President Donald Trump outlined his policy for Afghanistan, which once again looks at sustained military intervention and calls on India to provide more economic assistance in the war-torn country. Trump reiterated America’s demand that Pakistan crack down on terror groups, warning them of cutting back aid and stopping short of cutting military assistance.[12]

As the UK’s law enforcement reviewed lapses, Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, went on record to say that an increasing number of British Muslims were reporting in to the anti-terrorism hotline when they saw or heard something suspicious, and that at least five attacks had been stopped successfully with their help between March and July 2017.[13] British Home Secretary Amber Rudd praised the programme’s good work and said it would be “uplifted”. The UK’s Telegraph newspaper quoted her as saying that it had helped stop 150 people, including 50 children, from leaving Britain to fight in Syria in 2016 alone.[14]

Australia, for its part, has its own problems with jihadi extremism and has tailored its CVE programme to work on a case-by-case basis, recognising that the paths to radicalisation may be different across individuals. The Australian government claims to have foiled four major terror plots since 2000 and convicted 22 people, mostly born in Australia, as a result of counterterrorism operations. Australia’s CVE strategy targets homegrown radicalism, as well as threats from the South East Asian region,[15] especially Indonesia.[16] The Australian government’s “Living Safe Together Grants Programme”[17] addresses “push factors” such as those with real or perceived socioeconomic grievances, ethnic/racial tensions, or government/military actions, as well as “pull factors,” which are more psychological and ideological in nature and draw individuals to the path of violent extremism.


Countering Violent Extremism: Orthodoxy vs. Radicalisation

Given the proliferation of content on the internet, delinking religious orthodoxy from extremism remains a major challenge in individual states’ CVE efforts. An early criticism of UK’s Prevent strategy was that it had shown the tendency to club non-violent groups with extremists, controversially linking violence with religious conservatism. In the wake of the Manchester attack, the Mayor of the Greater Manchester Area had said that Prevent needed a review to address the complaints of many members of Britain’s vast Muslim community that they were being “picked on”.[18] However, investigations after the Manchester bombing revealed that despite concerns over Prevent alienating the very people it seeks to reach out to, and fears that it would deter Muslims from sharing information; community leaders had reported Abedi to the anti-terror hotline two years earlier, because they thought he was involved with terror activities.

The idea behind CVE not only predates the Obama years, it has also had takers outside the western world. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the first amongst Middle Eastern countries to launch a wide-ranging counterterrorism campaign in 2003, two years after the 9/11 attacks. Given its leadership in the Muslim world and close alliance with the US, Saudi Arabia has been under pressure to demonstrate determination in fighting those who have “perverted” the values of peace in Islam.[19]

At that time, the Saudi government, in collaboration with the US through a joint task force, arrested and questioned thousands of Al-Qaeda suspects, captured or killed their leaders, and seized massive caches of arms. The bombing of a compound in Riyadh in May 2003, however, was a turning point in pushing a domestic anti-terror policy.

Central to its Sakinah Campaign has been the recrafting of traditional “hard” counter-terrorism strategies to include the use of unconventional, “soft” measures targeting fundamentalist ideologies that regularly create breeding grounds for violent extremism. The objective is to combat what the Saudi government calls an ideology based on “corrupted and deviant interpretations of Islam.” The Ministry of Education runs school programmes that begin at early ages, warning students of the dangers of extremism. However, Saudi Arabia’s PRAC (Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare) policy seeks to expand responsibility well beyond the government to private citizens, and includes counseling programmes that draw on local traditions and religious culture to underscore both the importance given to rehabilitation for criminals and the use of religious figures in prisons. The Saudi experience indicates re-arrest rates are low: at one to two percent. From this, it can be extrapolated that counseling and aftercare programmes do create an impact.

Saudi Arabia’s results are encouraging other nations to adopt comparable programmes. Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have all established rehabilitation and engagement programmes. Singapore’s CVE programme, run by its government, not only focuses on rehabilitation and countering ideology but also includes psychological rehabilitation and the continuous assessment of detainees. Like Saudi Arabia, their programmes for detainees include counseling by religious leaders, vocational training, and even financial support to families.

Global Intent, Specific Programmes

During its fifth biennial review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in July 2016, the UN encouraged individual nations to expand and develop local, sub-regional and regional plans to support an overall PVE strategy and include active participation from civil societies and NGOs that engage and empower communities at the local level. The Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF), comprising 29 founding countries and the European Union, has made the need to delink orthodoxy from radicalisation a key focus of CVE measures.

When they met in September 2016, India, too, signed on and agreed on the need to separate religion from terrorism and adopt new strategies to combat it. At over 12 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people—with a tradition of Sufism and tolerance, and a history of Indo–Islamic composite culture—the community of Indian Muslims have been largely peaceful and inclusive through history. Therefore, India’s realities when it comes to countering violent extremism are different and must necessarily consider the nature of social and cultural norms within India’s vast Muslim community, as well as the faultlines of religion and identity that exist, sometimes violently, between Hindu and Muslim communities on the subcontinent.

At the GCTF, India pointed specifically to the need to control extremist propaganda online and its impact on radicalisation. During its intervention, India said, “Ironically, the very tools and facilities—internet and modern communications—that propel significant business and economic development are being misused for promoting terrorist activities.”

Changing Dynamics: The Social Context and the Challenge of Online Radicalisation

Unlike the West, where lone-wolf attacks by individuals who pledge allegiance to the Caliphate have become the most urgent security challenge, in India, ISIS detainees and arrests currently account for only 0.0002 percent of all terror suspects in the country so far. According to available information, the number of ISIS-related arrests stands at 90 people between January 2014 and June 2017. A total of 88 Indians or members of the Indian diaspora are believed to have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and another 80 people have so far been prevented from joining the group via different means employed by agencies, including family intervention.

The figures point to two realities:

  • A negligible percentage of India’s Muslim population supports or subscribes to extremist, violent ideological Islam; and
  • The community will likely be a critical partner in Indian CVE efforts.

Given the percentage, it is invaluable for India to adopt a formal CVE strategy without delay. The numbers are small, but the reach is spreading fast over the internet. ISIS-related arrests in the last three years come close to those of the Indian Mujahedeen (IM) and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) over a much longer timespan. Between 2008 and 2014, 58 IM members were arrested by Indian intelligence. That number fell to two (people) during 2014 and June 2017, in the wake of increased ISIS-related arrests. As for SIMI, 30 core cadre were arrested between 1995 and 2017, along with about 100 others from “splinter groups.  Of the total number arrested, approximately five percent have studied in madrasas and religious schools, and just 10 maulvis or religious leaders have been arrested for fomenting radicalism from mosques over a 27-year period from 1990 to 2017. One reason cited for this is that a “pan-Islamic” objective that ISIS propagates is easier for Indian recruits to identify with, as opposed to Pakistan-sponsored groups that back IM and SIMI, with their primary goal to act on Pakistan’s behest. The Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba have provided ideological, tactical and logistical support to the IM and SIMI since their inception.

It is interesting to note that ISIS recruits, unlike several of their predecessors who joined IM or SIMI, were all reasonably well educated and urban, with no dearth of internet savvy and secure online access. This point to the need for a greater understanding of socioeconomic backgrounds of those at risk.

A news report in the Daily Mail highlights Uttar Pradesh as the new major breeding ground for young ISIS supporters, after southern states such as Kerala, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Communal tensions and unemployment are proving to be a combustible combination as disaffected Muslim youth are lured by romanticised ISIS videos online of life in the Caliphate and brutal retribution for those who are targeting Muslims, in India and the world.



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