An exclusive interview with noted terrorism theorist Jaideep Saikia.
Anirban Roy: As the most formidable expert on terrorism in the region, what is your prognosis for the future vis-à-vis terrorism, especially of the Islamist hue?
Jaideep Saikia: The world, of late, is passing through some strange territory. Covid-19, the general realignment of forces the world over, a resurgent China and the victory of Joe Biden in the US election and the attendant aspects that would govern the win would realign the security architecture of the globe in a variety of ways. Islamism — despite setbacks in the Middle East —is one of the disquieting experiences that would once again forcibly come to the fore.
AR: How would the resurgence in Islamism affect our region?
JS: In a multitude of ways and primarily, as I said, by experiencing a resurgence in Islamism of the rabid kind. This would patent itself in acts of terror that would be extremely sophisticated and innovative to prophesise the least.
AR: You have painted an alarming scenario. How exactly would it manifest itself?
JS: Suicide bombing would be resolutely introduced in a region that has never earlier witnessed it. My analyses inform that the vanguard would be womenfolk! I had spent the days since suicide bombings took place in Bangladesh some years ago attempting to unearth the reasons for the phenomenon. The factor has become even more worrisome since women (as aforesaid) and infants on their laps were pioneering such acts. Serious communication with senior members of the intelligence community of Bangladesh elicited responses that male counter-parts are indoctrinating their wives, sisters and near ones in order to become suicide bombers. Also that their training area is not concentrated to a hub or one place only but it is diffused and dispersed around many areas, and that they are getting refuge in the neighbourhood including across the borders in India. Analyses that reported an LTTE component—a group that is in disarray—in Bangladesh was completely out-of-place. The prospect of active radicalisation and the likelihood of online technical “explosive” knowledge that was able to reach Bangladesh was more in line. After all where did a Bangladeshi housewife—despite the fact that she happened to be the spouse of an Islamist cadre suddenly construct up a bomb vest to blow herself up along with her infant and by standing security personnel?
There was derision for my analyses. But I have always maintained that there is only one cohesive JMB and that it swore its allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” almost immediately after Daesh proclaimed its worldwide claim of domination, and as a corollary presence. Indeed, Daesh’s presence was—notwithstanding the fact that it was losing territory that it had once decisively held—being felt in Orlando, Nice, Pakistan, Germany and in Bangladesh. It is a matter of time that this alien threat is imported into India, especially into places such as Assam and West Bengal which strategically abut Bangladesh and provinces that have already felt the hand of the JMB. It would be less than practical were security managers in India to continue to think that a) JMB is a divided or a dead house (the fact that tanzeems resurrect is a truism now!) and that b) Daesh is—struggling from territorial defeats in the Middle East—would not be able to reach out to the “far enemy” in order to divert attention and most of all c) that there aren’t radicalised women inside India who would be similarly motivated as their Bangladeshi counterparts to carry out shahadat action. I have also been stating that there could be consideration other than religious for indulging in acts that may seem to be as a result of Daesh call.
AB: But, apart from a few arrests in Barpeta some years ago Islamist terror has not been witnessed in these parts. How do you square up the realities?
JS: Islamism of the rabid kind has once again exhibited itself in Europe with the so-called “lone-wolf” attacks. However, the real battle will be waged in the Indian subcontinent, and Assam and the region that abuts it would be the primary “staging ground”. Also, I had written almost two decades ago (in my bestselling book, Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamist Militancy in North East India) that the Islamists in the region are “silent not by absence of activity, but presence of inactivity”. I had interrogated Abu Bakr Siddiqui, the General Secretary of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (Assam Unit) in 2002. He clearly told me that their ISI minders had instructed the tanzeems (after training in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’s Batrasi) simply to “enter Assam, take shelter and await a position of strength”. This was almost twenty years ago and as you are aware much has happened since, including the events in Bangladesh, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s video statement of 3 September 2014 (where he mentioned Assam, Bengal and Myanmar) and the formation of the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The region will soon witness an interesting passage through time.
AR: You have been contesting the state’s stress on de-radicalisation as opposed to counter radicalisation which according you should be the primary weapon to combat the growth of radical Islam?
JS: I want to inform you that presently there are Middle Eastern trainers/motivators in South Asia, especially Bangladesh and neighbouring areas including the North East In other words Daesh and al-Qaeda have been able to reach out to a constituency in South Asia in order to motivate them to kill themselves and others. The setback that Daesh faced in Iraq and Syria presently will now witness them targeting the far enemy to offset their setbacks in Aleppo and Ar-Raqqah. As I stated above South Asia would witness an increase in suicide attacks. The fact that there is sizable Muslim population in this region and only a short-sighted de-radicalisation programme will aid the new Islamist agenda, which incidentally has only just begun. Are you aware that the slain suspect (2 November 2020 in Vienna) has been identified as Kujtim Fejzulai, some sort of a joint Austrian and North Macedonian citizen who had been sentenced to 22 months in detention for trying to join Daesh, but was released from prison early? In my opinion he was let off because the authorities were convinced that he was de-radicalised. However, before he undertook the attack he reportedly took the bayat or the oath of allegiance to Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the present emir of Daesh. Daesh incidentally took the credit for Fejzulai’s attack.
AR: De-radicalisation, therefore, according to you simply does not work. Am I correct?
JS: Yes, it does not. Indeed, cannot. Research has shown that a number of Saudi Guantanamo detainees that were “de-radicalised” have returned to terrorism upon release. Although there have been arguments that de-radicalisation creates a barrier to recidivism, there is really no way to fathom or evaluate whether a thorough cauterisation has taken place. Or are there de-radicalised terrorists—disengaging because of purely instrumental reasons—who continue to harbour a radical world-view? Indeed, we have witnessed this recently in the case of the Vienna attacker. Who determines whether the law-enforcer is erring or not by arranging theological correction of “radicalised minds” that have never actually read the Qur’an? Answers to such questions can only come to the fore were a science that “looks inside the brain” is employed. This theory applies for so-called de-radicalised terrorists as well as ones who have been thought to have been radicalised by religious injunction. After all is it not conceivable that there are extra-religious reasons or considerations that could have propelled perpetrators of crimes to adopt a nihilistic weltanschauung that led to the death and gore that have been witnessed since the “baying” from Ar-Raqqah began? Has a neurological study been ever conducted on an Islamist radical who has attempted to undertake the hijrah and have been apprehended midway? Shrunken Amygdala or smaller ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which is indicative of a brain that propels aggressive conduct disorder) cannot be said to be any less intelligent. No less innovative are suppressed homosexuals and loners such as Orlando and Nice attackers such as Omar Mateen and Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel. The only way to appreciate what they did is to read deeper into what Byron might have understood in his immortal work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as the “wandering outlaw of his own dark mind”. The so-called “thought virus” that was reportedly being spread by people such as Zakir Naik only enforced the call of the wild. One of the convenient explanations which the sole survivor of the 1 July 2016 attack in Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery gave was that he was inspired by Naik’s speeches.
Therefore, the “radical” not only finds an outlet which has sanction by an “establishment” (in this case, Daesh), but deceives the counter terrorism apparatus and the world that it is call of an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi) that drove her into a killing frenzy. Therefore, even as a counter radicalisation programme is set in motion, the most important (initial) examination that must be conducted is to clinically unearth the real motivation of the perpetrator. The simplest explanation that abounds (particularly in media) is to term a killer “a bad Muslim” because they have misinterpreted the Qur’an. The acceptable explanation could well have been to call them psychopaths who found a universe of discourse and a clear, unambiguous, audible paradigm where her behaviour not only is encouraged, but one which is glorified by recourse to prophetic injunctions. After all in the earlier mouthpiece of Daesh, Dabiq, almost all acts of barbarism have instant “endorsement” by recourse to a Shura. For instance, the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Mu’adh Safi Yusuf al-Kasasibah—according to Daesh—is called “equivalent response”. It quotes an ayat from An-Nahl thus: “and if you punish (an enemy), punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed”. In other words, it says that in burning the Jordanian pilot alive and burying him under a pile of debris, Daesh carried out a just form of retaliation for his involvement in the bombing campaign which resulted in the killing of countless Muslims who, as a result of these airstrikes, are burned alive and buried under mountains of wreckage. Daesh cleverly made use of the Qur’an to justify its ghastly acts, utilised such acts to deter other pilots and as well as appealed to minds on the prowl for dark passageways. It is, therefore, in the realm of the mind that the final fitnah is to be waged.
AR: Is a neurological study of such a phenomenon possible? How does one even enter such a realm?
JS: You see reticent corners of the universe seldom come to light. They unobtrusively conceal themselves from gaze and assay. The uncharted neuronal caverns of a Homo Sapiens brain, heir to countless stealth space, are among such quarters. Inhibited by obscure synaptic activity they are capable of obscuring facets which—if it were to lend itself to revelation—would have exhibited myriad possibilities for humankind. The human brain is, after all, the most sophisticated objet d’art that creation has shaped. Despite hard evidence about the plasticity of the brain and the occurrence of cortical rewiring which takes place as a response to training, the fact of the matter is that human beings do not come into the world in a “tabula rasa” manner. Nature ascertains that the behavioural patterns fractionate along genetic boundaries. To that end, a person’s mental content is largely in-built, even to the extent that her actions are predisposed. Nurture—especially if it suits the sapient architecture that nature has fashioned—encourages the innateness. However, inherence—whether or not nurture intervenes in its growth—permits a subject to participate in an attributive manner. Extra-cognitive predispositions too, therefore, cannot be said to be wholly determined by the setting. Although this hypothesis may be accused of being an extension of the Chomskyan “universal innate grammar” theory which describes the extraordinary ability in children to decipher complex concepts from a principally imprecise environment, the fact of the matter is that deviant behaviour, too, is spawn of a brain that may careen out of control during the process of encephalisation that takes place in the front end of the neural tube in the seventh week of brain development. It is in this context that the question of radicalisation acquires import and warrants examination in a discourse that has religious fanaticism as a subject of study. The fact that I am trying to take recourse to neuroscience is but to construct a background for a counter narrative—which in the days to come may receive a superior reception.
AR: But aren’t all most such attacks perpetrated by Muslim?
JS: It seems so! Radicalisation that characterises the present times has always been deemed to be—shorn of the apologist’s banner—confined to Islam. Recent events around the world bracket “acts of terror” as a) one perpetrated by Muslims b) in the name of and for Daesh (al-Qaeda, too, have lauded acts of violence that are being attributed to Daesh or Daesh followers!) and c) which is confusing the State about the real identity of the perpetrators and d) even about the motivation for the actions. It does not require imposing imagination to comprehend that almost all the acts of violence is an express result of the “transformative moment through which Islam is passing through”. But despite the simplicity of such an explanation the new challenge for the so-called “urbane” world necessitates novelty. After all some of the incidents that have been termed as Islamist action—with or without Daesh content—might not be as cut-and-dried as has been thought of. The important aspect that must be borne in mind is that until such time there is motivation to kill and maim (especially if it is planned and carried out by determined, violent minds!) the brain will always guide aggression—there are plenty of “warrior genes” inside it in order to steer such action.
AR: Where are the Indian authorities in all this? Have they taken note of your analyses and unique theory?
JS: The law-enforcing leadership of Assam (at present), including the numero uno in the bureaucracy which guides it, is not only first-rate practitioners of theory, but are—in many ways—pioneers in administration. They are also receptive to innovation and nuances that may (in the first instance) may not make any sense. Now, this is remarkable out-of-the-box thought and is in stark opposition to the doggedness with which a non-existent de-radicalisation programme continues to be pursued in a terror-torn world. The people charged with such duties in Assam understand the dynamics and I am certain (unlike their counter parts in the rest of India, including the elite Intelligence Bureau) would permit the above theory at least a close examination. It is not going to be easy, but if anyone can gaze into the future trajectories of terrorism that would be upon us then it is the unique combination of two people in Assam who incidentally are from the same batch of the IAS and the IPS, i.e., 1988! But there is a caveat. Even as counter radicalisation methods are fine tuned and put into practice, what cannot be dismissed is the deviant brain factor (some details of which were spelt out above!), the possibility that a killer acts in the name of Islam in order to access a “psychological sanctuary” which suddenly came into existence with the declaration of a “caliphate”. The awareness that her act of barbarism has the sanction of a divine authority only propels her forward. To that end, the battle to overcome deviant thought has to be preceded by a correct comprehension of the fundamentals. It does not require the cogitation of a “Grand Zedi Order”, but at the same time it is too serious a matter to be left to the conventional. Devotion to neuro-psychology must, therefore, be viewed as a custom that should not be honoured in its breach, but by recourse to quiet observance.