(Jaideep Saikia is a world-renowned conflict analyst and author of several bestselling books. He is also the progenitor of avant garde theories that have important bearings on India’s national security and strategy such as the “Line of Amity” for the resolution of the India-China boundary issue and the “Gateway Theory” and “Counter Radicalisation” for the Islamist agenda in India. Top Washington based “Complex Litigation” Specialist and Attorney Juliana Haydoutova interviewed Jaideep Saikia on the recent developments in Afghanistan and related issues.)
Juliana Haydoutova: Jaideep, we met for the first time in 2003 in the United States when you visited the country as an “International Visitor” on the invitation of the US Department of State. There were law-enforcers, top conflict analysts and senior police officers from twenty-three different countries that year who were invited to study “International Crime Issues and Global Cooperation”. You represented India that year. I was working for the Dept. of State and was chaperoning the high level delegation from across the world of which you were a member.
We toured quite a few places in the United States together including Washington DC, New York, Des Moines, Seattle and Sand Diego. You spoke on aspects of security and strategy which pertained to not only the Indian subcontinent, but the entire world in various institutions we visited including the FBI HQs, NYPD and the US Department of State.
Later you even lectured in the Rand Corporation, US Institute of Peace, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars all of which were in Washington DC and in the Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico. Your lectures were so analytically mesmerising that your name is still held in high respect in closed circles in such institutions.
This is so even after the passage of eighteen years. Top scholars of the US strategic community have actually been following your writings and speeches and important terrorism scholars such as Prof. Bruce Hoffman has termed you as someone whose “understanding of India’s grave security challenges, principally about Northeast India, is without peer”. He calls you “the most judicious and knowledgeable observer of such issues”.
And, of course, the late Stephen Philip Cohen called your best-selling book “Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamist Militancy in North East India,” as the “one of the most important books on the question of insurgency yet to appear”. In any event, tell me about the latest situation in your country and the North East?
Jaideep Saikia: Well, where do you want me to begin, Juliana? There is so much happening in the region. Indeed, the expanse has become the epicentre of the world’s security issues in a sense. Do you recall what I told you in 2014 when you had said that India seems to be stabilising after the advent of Modi?
JH: Yes, you said that India was entering a new era. But the terrorism theorist in you not only predicted that an offshoot group of the al-Qaeda would be formed somewhere in the Middle East, but you actually named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the person who would break away from Al-Qaeda in Iraq to form what later came to be known as the Islamic State.
You also said that India would be experiencing trouble with India over the Boundary issue. Indeed, it was in 2014 that you propounded your theory of “Line of Amity” during the course of a Track II Dialogue with China.
It is amazing, Jaideep, but the world is experiencing all that you said that it would one day. But you had also said that and I am quoting from the email that you sent me, “one day, in too distant a future, the US would face ignominy in Afghanistan and would have to withdraw its troops”. “The Taliban, you wrote, would be back”. How on earth did you make such as an incredible prognosis?
JS: 1 December happens to be the day when I came into this world. It is my birthday, if you cared to remember, Juliana. Therefore, I clearly remember that on that day, in 2009, Barrack Obama in an address at West Point said that he would deploy 20,000 additional troops to support the war effort in Afghanistan. He also said that the troops would be sent “at the fastest possible pace” beginning early 2010. Most observers felt that he was trying to consolidate US’ position in Afghanistan.
But, my research and perhaps an uncanny knack for such matters informed that he was actually looking at withdrawing the US forces from Afghanistan and ending the longest running war in United States history. The capacity building then was not only to hasten the process of withdrawal, but hasten the process of what Obama felt at the time was going to “stabilise” the country.
But I read history avidly although I have never been schooled in the discipline formally. I told a few people that the Obama Administration was actually attempting to break the Taliban’s momentum which would allow for the commencement of US troop withdrawal. It was quite clear to me that the US’ mission in Afghanistan would not expand, it would only contract. However, the US had read a few crucial signs incorrectly and had not realised that they are dealing with a people who “never gives up”.
Developments in the Middle East where the ISIS was forming up was clear indication to me that the “war on terror” would witness considerable concentration in the AfPak region. After all, it was—in recent history—the first time that a fanatically disposed group had occupied territory and the US way of thinking has always been “territory–denial.” I mean you just have to read history and draw some elementary conclusions. I also knew that a group such as the Al-Qaeda or its surrogate ISIS are really one and the same despite their overt differences.
The end objective was “Nizam-e-Mustafa”. I was perhaps the only observer who voiced this. I faced criticism and very important scholars of terrorism and practitioners of theory even rebuked my theory. To cut a long story short, I knew that Al-Qaeda and ISIS—in whatever avatar—would re-emerge somewhere in the general area of Afghanistan-Pakistan and with a ferocity that would be felt primarily in the Indian subcontinent.
The fact that there is now an Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) is astonishing. It has surprised even the conceited analyst in me! As for the Taliban’s return, it naturally had to happen. The conditions—even in my cerebral experimentation way back in 2014 — were ripe for the “return” of the Taliban. Osama was killed in 2011 and Ayman al-Zawahiri—notwithstanding the fact that he is an Egyptian—for most an unlikely candidate because he was an “outsider”, not from the Maghreb—became the Emir of the grouping. Indeed, I clearly recall a CNN announcement on his takeover stating that “it doesn’t suggest a vast reservoir of accumulated goodwill for him.”
In any event, everything matched up for me. The eventual US withdrawal and the non-likelihood that it would be able to create and put in place a strong basis for a stable government in Afghanistan, especially as there was a distinct possibility of an “eastward surge” by both Al-Qaeda and the ISIS, informed that Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan headed by the Taliban would soon be a reality. The novel coronavirus pandemic and competition from countries like China hastened the process without the US taking the rearguard actions that it had hope it would take before a final withdrawal.
JH: But, Jaideep, had not the Doha Agreement of 29 February 2020 agreed on a Taliban pledge to prevent al-Qaeda from operating in areas under Taliban control?
JS: The Taliban leadership simply reneged on the agreement. The Doha Agreement was only pretence to get the US out of Afghanistan. The Chinese, the Russians (primarily the GRU Unit 29155, a shadowy component of Russia’s military intelligence agency) and the ISI had already gotten into an agreement.
You forget that the Taliban is a Pakistan creation and the ISI was quietly waiting in the wings for the US withdrawal before they operationalised the strategic architecture that they had already prepared the blueprint for, for the decisive entry of Taliban along side the Al-Qaeda and the ISKP.
The fact that the ISKP had fought the Taliban once can now be consigned to flames. There was always a deep connection between the Al-Qaeda, ISKP and the Taliban.
JH: How about India? How is all this affecting your country and even the North East of India where you work and live?
JS: Let me step back for a moment and go back to the year when the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was formed. I was member of an important “Task Force” that was formed by the Intelligence Branch of the Assam Police to look into the formation as also suggest ways to counter it.
I was of the opinion then that the Al-Qaeda had already entered India, Bangladesh and even Assam. The moment of truth that “half-the-battle” was won—by the Al-Qaeda—dawned upon me when I listened to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s televised speech where he named “Assam”. I informed the authorities that something sinister was afoot.
After all, here was the “Emir of Al-Qaeda” taking the name of a province. It was psychological initiative at its best. Even the fence-sitters among the radicals in Assam would now throw in their lot with the global terror outfit.
The 2 October 2014 Burdwan blast accidentally proved my theory to be correct and the years that followed showcased the manner in which both Al-Qaeda and the ISIS were setting up shop in Bangladesh. I am referring to the 2016 hostage-taking incident in Dhaka’s Gulshan and the suicide bombings that came to the fore. But Dhaka continued to be in denial about Al-Qaeda-ISIS entry and continued to speak in terms of “home-grown” militancy. Fortuitously I had visited Dhaka in 2016 as part of a “Track II Dialogue” just before the hostage-taking episode and even as rest of the members of the Indian delegation which included a former Lieutenant General of the Indian army and a former Indian envoy to Bangladesh, I was quietly meeting—thanks to my connections in Bangladesh—member of Bangladesh’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and National Security Intelligence bosses. Hours of debate ensued and I got a reluctant admission from them that Al-Qaeda-ISIS, in effect, had entered Bangladesh. The reason for the silence was fear of attracting the attention of “extra-regional” powers which meant US with a capital “U”. I concurred and left Dhaka requesting cooperation as also cautioning them about the reality that was unfolding soon. Rest is, of course, history.
JH: But what is your prognosis post Taliban return?
JS: Naturally, the process of radicalisation in India, Bangladesh and Assam would be expedited. It was on the cards in any event. I have been forewarning anyone who cared to listen about the “Third Wave of Radicalisation” that would be soon upon us.
JH: The “Third Wave of Radicalisation”. What were the first and the second?
JS: It seems that you have not been following my writings. I don’t blame you, nobody does. Indeed, even the editor-in-chief of this platform in which you are interviewing me in told me “do you think anyone understands—apart from a chosen few—understand what you write or speak”? Let me explain. During my research in the United States I had plotted a “progression of wave” in the modus operandi of Islamist action which incidentally would never cease until the end of time.
In other words, the “transformative moment in Islam” that one is experiencing at this time is going to be never-ending one. In fact, the manner in which the United States led coalition has sought to de-territorialise ISIS from the area that the latter had occupied in order to sustain the neo-caliphate has ascertained that the “war against the infidels” would now not only be a ceaseless one but an accelerated course of action.
The partial ouster of ISIS from places such as Raqqa has not only emboldened their resolve about the Islamist apocalyptic expectations about “black banners that will come from the east” but—if the entrails are read with sophistication—about the Islamist belief that the establishment of Nizam-e-Mustafa throughout the world is a certainty. If Sun Tzu, Kautilya and Clausewitz were to have paraphrased their premises on “art of war” then the master stategicians would have certainly emphasised on the importance of waves after a period of lull. A deliberate interlude or a tactical retreat is a time-tested stratagem of war.
Therefore, whereas there was exhibition of massive violent movement and radicalisation between 1999 and 2005 which the author describes as the “First Wave”, the “Second Wave” began with the “oath of allegiance” or Bay’ah by groups such as JMB and ABT to ISIS in the wake of the formation of the neo-caliphate of Abu Bakr-al-Baghdadi. It was also the time to undertake the hijrah in response to the “call from Ar-Raqqah”.
The territorial setbacks witnessed persistent “lone-wolf” attacks throughout the world including places such as Orlando and Nice and observers of Islamist action in Bangladesh would recall the “hostage situation” in Dhaka on 1 July 2016 and the machete killings and suicide bombings of the years following the event. The new “call to arms” was to decimate the infidel wherever found as the hijrah was no longer an undemanding affair.
However, relentless action by the Bangladesh security forces against the Islamists have quietened the radicals momentarily and the “battle” has been — temporarily — handed over to the good offices of HIB and IOB who are keeping the movement alive by demanding aspects such as the enactment of “Blasphemy Laws”, Non-erection of statues (primarily that of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) which they state is un-Islamic and on insistence that include making of “Islamic education mandatory from primary to higher secondary levels cancelling the women policy and anti-religion education policy” and “Freedom for all arrested ulema and madrassa students and withdrawal of all cases filed against them, compensation for the victims, and bringing the assailants to justice”.
However, with the almost total territorial ouster of ISIS from the areas that it had occupied in Iraq and Syria the strategy is about to witness a sea change.
JH: So, how is this going to manifest itself?
JS: Egged on by Al-Qaeda and ISIS which I have told you is already inside India, its affiliates—including groups such as the Popular Front of India—would throw open the gates of radicalism and don a form that would be hitherto the most menacing yet.
It would be a combination of a) mass recruitment b) protests against acts, laws and ministration that a combined grouping of radicals considers un-Islamic—bringing thereby into their fold fence-sitters and moderates among the minority community and c) let loose sophisticated forms of violence that most agencies would not be able to even imagine.
JH: What according to you are the counter measures? Does anyone listen to you?
JS: I am not sure about who is listening. But I will reproduce the points that I showcased very recently to an elite group of people in the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. These are a) Empower the minority community b) psychologically quarantine the vulnerable groups c) careful monitoring of the radical elements including calibrated infiltration d) follow the money trail and severe it and d) “neutralise” the second rung of leadership.
If the law-enforcing agencies follow the above prescription and undertakes the counter radicalisation measures that I had recommended that I had prepared in a handbook way back in July 2016 instead of continuing with a non-existent deradicalisation exercise then the process by which the radicals are “surging east’ would be considerably slowly down.
But lest I am mistaken, I must tell you that there is no way you can completely eradicate them. An ULFA or an NDFB cadre can exercise the choice to surrender and return to the mainstream. But for an Islamist radical the choice is limited to only two aspects: Shahadat (martyrdom) or Ghazihood (victory).