Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

Terrorism And Democratic Societies

The principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and National Security Advisor, Government of India at the "38th Munich Conference on Security Policy" on February 02, 2002 - Munich

Thank you for this opportunity to share my views on an ugly reality of today’s world – the threat to democratic societies from the globalisation of terror.

It gives me no pleasure to say that we in India have experienced this reality for the past many years, but it took September 11 to dramatically bring the global reach of terrorism into the collective consciousness of the world.

The world now accepts that terrorism can be tackled effectively only with a global and comprehensive approach. UN Security Council Resolution 1373 shows the right direction. However, the world’s democracies have to co-operate effectively in its implementation and ensure compliance of other countries. This requires collective political will, undiluted by short-term political or economic calculations. Whatever our political predilections or strategic calculations, we cannot condone terrorism somewhere, while condemning it elsewhere, because this lenience will boomerang on all of us. We have to systematically choke off the three crucial lifelines of terrorist groups: refuge, finances and arms.

It is a self-evident truth that democratically multicultural societies are the prime targets of terrorism and are also the most vulnerable to its attacks. Terrorists exploit the civil liberties, religious tolerance and cultural diversity in our countries. They seek to destroy our democratic fabric by fomenting sectarian divisions and cultural tensions and ultimately deprive us of that very freedom which they have exploited.

It is also a fact, often ignored, that the sponsorship, bases and finances for terrorism come from totalitarian military or theocratic regimes. They nurture and support extremist terrorist groups to further their political agenda. In turn, these groups make themselves indispensable to these regimes by maintaining the focus on external campaigns and diverting attention from the inadequacies of their internal systems.

It is here that we should look for the roots of terrorism. Those who keep harping on the "root causes" of terrorism should recognize that they are found in the military adventurism and religious extremism promoted by totalitarian regimes.

Democracies are more vulnerable to terrorism, also because our values inhibit effective anti-terrorist action. Intrusive surveillance, curtailment of liberties, restrictions on movement, and other such tedious security procedures are highly unpopular because they affect the quality of our life. Today we have to reconcile ourselves to some infringement of our rights and freedoms, so that we can counter the far more destructive threat from terrorism. We have to take decisive, tough and forceful action against terrorists, which is both punitive and deterrent. Even while demanding restraint and fairness from our police and security agencies, we should recognize that extraordinary circumstances call for effective responses. The human rights of terrorists cannot override those of their victims – not only those hit by their actions, but also the generations which are denied normal life and economic progress by the prevalence of terrorism.

Distinctions are sometimes drawn between different acts of terrorism. In some cases, we are told, it is not really terrorism, but a freedom struggle. It is also said that the battle against terrorism is really a battle for the hearts and minds of the population which harbours the terrorists. These facile arguments defy logic. They assert that Osama bin Laden’s associates are freedom fighters when they act in one country and terrorists when they act elsewhere. They imply that freedom fighters can indiscriminately massacre civilians among the population they are seeking to liberate, without losing their popular support. They ignore the fact that it is not popular support, but a fear psychosis created by violence that suppresses the silent majority in these societies.


We in India saw this graphically in the case of Punjab, where terrorist separatist forces struck in the eighties, with generous support in the form of refuge, finances, arms and training from a neighbouring country. Sustained tough action by our security forces dealt with this and fully restored the democratic processes in Punjab. Significantly, none of these so-called popular groups ventured to test their public support by participating in elections, though it was open to them to do so. Equally significantly, the movement for Khalistan – as the separatists called their desired State – today exists only outside India, and quite unsurprisingly, many of its ringleaders reside in the same neighbouring country which sponsored their terrorist activities. We have been confronted with the same menace in Jammu & Kashmir for a decade and more.

The international coalition against terrorism has to constantly bear in mind that terrorism has a global network. It would be a mistake to concentrate all our efforts on the single evil genius of Osama bin Laden, as if his elimination would mortally wound the elaborate organization he has build up. Our attention should not only be focused on how he has vanished. We should ask ourselves where and how the vast majority of Taliban and Al Qaida leaders and activists disappeared after October 7. Where are the thousands of foreign fighters and advisers of Taliban, who were trapped in Kunduz in the final phase of the military campaign, but found a providential and mysterious aerial escape route? These are questions of long-term relevance to the international campaign against terrorism. Anyone who looks at a map of the region would understand why for India, this is a matter of immediate security concern. This is also why India would like to see concrete evidence of a diminution of terrorism from across its borders before it acts on military de-escalation.

The most powerful lesson to the democratic world from September 11 is the need for closer operational co-operation and intelligence sharing on counter terrorism. I am reminded of a recent TV interview in which our External Affairs Minister described how India had to release four terrorists from its custody to secure the freedom of over 150 passengers of an Indian Airlines plane hijacked to Qandahar in December 1999. The released terrorists had known links with Osama bin Laden. The interviewer facetiously remarked that by releasing the terrorists, India was at least partially responsible for the September 11 attacks! This is of course a ridiculous assertion. But it is not fanciful to suggest that if the security forces and intelligence agencies of democratic countries had been in closer touch over the last decade, we could well have prevented the growth of the international terror machine into the Frankenstein it has today become.

National intelligence agencies are traditionally reluctant to share information even with their counterparts in closely allied countries. This reluctance sterns from apprehensions of present or future conflict of national interests or of prejudicing relations with other countries. What we have to recognize is that in terrorism, the democratic world today faces the single greatest existential threat to its ideology and its way of life. Compartmentalized national approaches cannot advance our collective purpose of crushing it, since terrorism has developed a seamless web of international linkages. Real-time information sharing and operational co-operation can help to integrate diversely collected bits of data into an interlocking coherent jigsaw. Analysis of data can be enriched by involving those who are familiar with the cultural subtleties and the local idiom of its origin.

I would like to offer one final thought for consideration. We should never let terrorism blackmail us into submission or inaction. After the terrorist attacks on the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly last October and its Parliament last December, India decided to confront cross-border terrorism decisively, as it was assuming unbearable proportions. We deeply appreciate the understanding and support of the international community in this endeavour. We sincerely hope that we will achieve our purpose without use of unnecessary force. But it is important – not only for our national interest, but also for the global campaign against terrorism – that we should remain firm in our resolve until it produces the desired objective. At no stage in this – or any other similar situation – should we ever give the forces of terrorism the impression that the will for a firm response will be circumscribed either by fear of the consequences or lack of unity in the international community.