What We Can Learn From Mumbay

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WASHINGTON – According to reporting in The Wall Street Journal (“Sole Captured Suspect Offers Grims Insights into Massacre“, December 4, 2008), Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the one terrorist captured by the Indian authorities after he and his cohorts managed to kill scores of civilians while creating chaos in Mumbay, acquired “a sense of purpose for the first time in his life” while undergoing intensive training in various facilities managed by the Laskar-e-Taiba organization in Pakistan. And so we get again the somewhat familiar profile of the confused young man, from a poor background, with little or no education and no prospects who is energized, indeeed, who finds a sense of “purpose” and personal direction by embracing an extremist ideology. He enrolls in a radical group. He undergoes serious training, he excels and he ends up being selected as one of few specialized commandos sent over to disseminate destruction aimed at bringing down Mumbay, the economic capital of India.

This narrative tends to reinforce the conventional wisdom whereby fanaticism and its terrorist methods, for lack of other credible alternatives, become the only beacons of hope for those who suffer because of poverty and injustice. The young Pakistani acquired “a sense of purpose” after his conversion to fundamentalism made him feel that, at last, he had found “the” just cause to fight for. Prior to this awakening, his life could have no “purpose”, because of the backwardness and injustice of a society that offered him no prospects. If this is the almost inevitable path that almost “forces” dispirited young men to embrace fanaticism, here is the only remedy: “eliminate the causes –poverty and injustice—and you will eliminate the appeal of fundamentalism and its ability to recruit lost youth like Kasab”.

While there is some truth in this narrative, we should be cautious in establishing clear cause and effect relationships between poverty and radicalism. It is true that it is easier for the fundamentalists to find pliable young men among the hordes of the disaffected, illiterate and hopeless. But poverty is a contributing factor, not the cause of fanaticism. Poverty is not at the root of fundamentalist ideologies. While hopelessness, a consequence of poverty, may be a strong factor facilitating recruitment for radical causes, poverty in and as of itself cannot explain why people are converted to extreme ideologies. 

Broadly speaking, the appeal of millenarian fundamentalism, religious (Christian at the time of Europe’s bloody religious wars, Islamist today), or non religious (Leninism, Fascism, Nazism), is primarily rooted in a perverted interpretation of history contrived by those who do not want to accept responsibility for societal and economic failures and thus “invent” historic interpretations whereby the current plight is all due to enemies, domestic and foreign. Hence the imperative to engage in radical action, including terrorism, against them, so that the good order of things can be restored or created, as the case may be. The most basic common denominator of many radical ideologies is the belief that a glorious past came to an end because of treason and evil plots concocted by enemies, external and internal. And the message is often the same: “The path to reinstate glory or to get us into the promised land has to begin with the destruction of the enemies”.

Being totally flawed, these ideas cannot have real staying power in the long run. The problem is, however, that in the short run (and even in the medium term) they can find enough converts and muster enough resources to cause intolerable damage. We know that the recent attacks in Mumbay, caused by only a handful of trained operatives, would be a trifle if compared to damage inflicted by a rudimentary nuclear weapon that sooner or later may fall into the hands of motivated radicals.

All this is generally well known. We know that crackpot ideologies have flourished in societies unable to constructively embrace modernity –be it Italy at the end of WWI or Iran in the late 1970s. But we have no real long term strategy or remedy capable of disabling the powerful attraction of fundamentalism for those seeking guidance to a clear path out of backwardness.

The Bush administration, trying to craft a policy after the 9/11 attacks, defined the problem of radical militancy both too widely and too superficially. Too widely, in as much as it declared that we are in a worldwide war with “terror”, without making distinctions as to the motives and objectives of various groups that use terrorism as a modality to pursue their goals. Indeed, let us remember that terror is a means to accomplish political ends. While we should be concerned with the means and the damage that they can cause, the real issue is the political end of those who use terror. Too superficially, in as much as the affirmation of the need to fight “terror” focuses primarily on the actual acts of terror and thus on the individual perpetrators, the deployed manpower. This approach revealed a lack of a strategy aimed at stopping the real problem: that is the continuous inflow of new would be fundamentalists/terrorists joining the ranks of various radical outfits, because of the continuing appeal of radical ideologies. (While a few things were said at the beginning of the “War on Terror” about the goal of “draining the swamp”, that is about depriving the terror cells of their preferred habitat, the swamp has not been drained).

At the beginning of the “War on Terror”, the focus wa on old fashioned attrition. We were told that effective countermeasures had led to the killing or capture of a large chunk of al Qaeda’s high command. But we soon discovered that, while significant, these were only tactical successes. Indeed, we know now that new recruits replaced those killed or captured. Thus, operationally, we are not confronting a finite number of terrorists to be neutralized. We have organizations shaped by ideologies that have the power to generate an ongoing stream of recruits to be utilized as manpower trained to use terrorism as a modality to inflict maximum damage. 

Which is to say that the “terror problem” will continue until there will be people willing to join the cause. Again, as the Mumbay case demonstrates, relatively few determined terrorists can cause an enormous amount of disruption. And the public relations success resulting from this “asymmetric” advantage whereby few can hurt many can will continue to be a powerful tool to get more recruits. To the extent that it is possible to use the publicity generated by the attacks to sustain the myth that a few determined believers can knock out powerful giants like India’s economic powerhouse through strategic blows, the cause will continue to appear viable and thus appealing, at least to some.  

While it is appropriate to devise practical countermeasures to prevent or fight the enemy, the Mumbay case proves that it is almost impossible to adequately protect large metropolitan areas, with thousands of soft targets like hotels and restaurants, from even a handful of determined, well trained attackers. Sure, a more effective police and/or special forces reaction could have limited the death toll in Mumbay; but it could not have prevented well trained attackers from beginning the shooting rampage.

Closer to home, many examples tell us that even here in the US, police forces and Homeland Security apparatus notwithstanding, we cannot provide real protection even in cases of violent actions perpetrated by deranged, isolated individuals going on improvised shooting expeditions. If isolated individuals, certainly lacking the rigorous training of the Mumbay attackers, can inflict huge damage, let us imagine the potential death toll caused by planned attacks against mostly unprotected civilian soft targets.

So, as it is next impossible to finally capture and defeat all the terrorists or to erect adequate security against all of them, how can we devise a workable long term strategy aimed at deflating the recruiting power of radicalism, something akin to inflicting on it a death by asphyxiation?

Well, the only way to take oxygen away from fundamentalism is in creating credible political alternatives to extremism within those societies thus far incapable of charting a constructive path towards modernization that would appear believable by the population. When  backward societies will acquire confidence in their own ability to shape a decent future, a future in which most, if not all, people will have a dignified, meaningful, productive role, then the siren song of millenarian dreams, based on ideas of necessary destruction as a prelude to final redemption, will increasingly fall on deaf ears.

The fact that devising a credible and viable strategy out of backwardness and into modernity is a monumental task should not be a deterrent. Of course, some may argue that we do not need to do any of this. It is quite possible, indeed highly probable, that at some point the appeal of fundamentalism, everything else staying the same, will wane on its own accord because people will see that jihad (or whatever its functional equivalent may be) does not produce the intended results. However, even though this may indeed happen, for the time being, the lack of appealing, credible spiritual and cultural alternatives leaves the field open to radicalism. 

And we may not have the luxury of confidently waiting for the time in which flawed ideas will collapse because of their own inherent weaknesses. (Soviet style communism was also flawed; and thus doomed to failure. Yet, it took decades for these flaws to be finally exposed. In the meantime the West, confronted with an enormous existential threat, spent immense resources in protecting itself against the power of this ideology, however flawed.)

The West is not in a position to offer its own ideas as credible ideological alternatives to fundamentalism. As the recent checkered history of nation building strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrates, western style representative democracy cannot be easily introduced in societies historically not accustomed to our notion of liberalism. While there may be some truth to the belief proclained by the Bush administration that ultimately all human beings want to be free, there is no univerally accepted interpretation as to how freedom should be established and exercised. Thus a prerequisite of credibility and viability is that the new ideas that will lead developing countries out of backwardness have to be genuinely home grown and promoted by people who cannot be deemed to be agents of foreign interests. We cannot ascertain the intensity of the will to create such home grown alternatives. However, the West could and should do something aimed at improving their chances of success.

Indeed, the one thing that the West can do is to create a more open and more equitable international environment that will substantially increase opportunity and thus hope and optimism on a basis of fairness for many developing countries that today see themselves excluded, marginalized or victimized by the new global economy.

From this vantage point, international trade agreements that create real markets for local enterprise, meaningful development programs that increase the chances of capitalizing new enterprises, real support for education so that it may increase the quality and the quantity of human capital –all this could change the fundamentals and thus help reorient the focus of the national debates: away from radicalism that thrives in hopelessness, creating instead the ground for something more constructive.

Of course, there is nothing new in any of this.

But what could be new is the level of the effort and the amount of resources allocated. Clearly, helping to build new forward looking societies is a monumental task. But this is no justification for devoting literally pennies to this effort; while we are perfectly capable of allocating hundreds of billions of dollars to deal with the consequences of radicalism after it has infected entire countries. This is not about juxtaposing “soft power” versus “hard power.” In order to be credible and effective we need both. However, in the case of radicalism, while this may sound piously quaint, attacking a disease at its sources, by providing meaningful alternatives to its appeal, thus decreasing its ability to find new converts, is more cost effective than fighting a full blown epidemic.

And, just in case we forgot, with or without the threat of radical ideologies, building a more equitable international environment aimed at increasing the chances of active participation of many societies, now relegated to the role of weak onlookers, is a worthwhile goal in and as of itself. The international community does better when most of its actors are healthy.

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