Comprehending and Combating the Neo-Islamist

Comprehending and Combating the Neo-Islamist

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Bruce Hoffman

Professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C., where he directs its Center for Jewish Civilization.

Jaideep Saikia

Conflict analyst & author. His expertise includes Islamist terror, ethnic insurgencies, anti-terror doctrine & India/China-relations.

Bruce Hoffmann interviews Jaideep Saikia on his perspective on how to comprehend and combat Neo-Islamism.


Bruce Hoffman is currently a Professor at Washington DC’s Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he directs its Center for Jewish Civilization. Prof. Hoffman is also the Director of the Center for Security Studies. He is also a visiting Professor of Terrorism Studies at St Andrews University, Scotland and is currently the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the George H. Gilmore Senior Fellow at the US Military’s Combating Terrorism Center in West Point. Author of the one of the most authoritative book on terrorism Inside Terrorism, Hoffman is also president and CEO of “The Hoffman Group”, an international counterterrorism executive education, training, and consultancy firm. Bruce Hoffman spoke to terrorism and conflict specialist, Jaideep Saikia who is also a Fellow, Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA. Stratagem is proud to be able to present the interview, which present timely and highly relevant insights in relation to counter-terrorism.


Bruce Hoffman (BH): Jaideep, it has been over twenty years since 9/11 took place. How do you look back at the two intervening decades?

Jaideep Saikia (JS): Well, it has been rather eventful. Even as your country’s practitioners of theory secured the “homeland” to a considerable extent, apart from sundry “lone wolf” attacks such as the one that took place in Orlando on 12 June 2016 by a deranged Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, the rest of the world bore the brunt of the United States’ “War on Terror” rather intensely. It was as if the “Islamist anger” was being felt everywhere from Bali on 12 October 2002, Mumbai on 26 November 2008, Paris on 13 November 2015, Dhaka on 1 July 2016, Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019 to Oslo on 25 June 2022.

BH: Is the 25 June Oslo shootout also being attributed to Islamist terrorists?

JS: Yes, the authorities are terming it an “act of Islamist terrorism”. Two people were killed and 21 others were wounded in the mass shooting. A Zaniar Matapour, a Norwegian citizen of Iranian origin who has been living in Norway since 1991 has been confirmed as the culprit. The Norwegian Police also stated that they had known of Matapour since 2015 and that he was a radicalised Islamist. He apparently also had mental health issues.

So, as I was saying and I am stressing on this aspect that even as the United States was able to stave off multiple assault attempts by the Islamists on its territory by both enacting stringent laws and putting into place an extraordinary security cordon for the country, the Islamist fury was being felt elsewhere. I am afraid, Bruce, but the “war on terror” has not quite been the unqualified success that it was expected to be. I would characterise the last two decades as one of not only continual worldwide terror action, but inability on the part of the United States to completely eradicate the menace. It is true that high-grade “search and destroy” operations against terror actors such as the Emir of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri have been undertaken, and I should say in a manner which is laudable, but the organisation itself has continued to remain untouched. Radicalisation continues to be on the rise and the world would witness a grimmer reality by way of the phenomenon manifesting itself more decisively in the coming years.

BH: Are you saying that radicalisation has increased in the last twenty years?

JS: Most certainly. I think the threat of Islamist radicalisation has become even more pronounced since 9/11. Consequently, the demonstrations, too, would manifest themselves as indeed it already has begun to.

BH: I know from your writings and many discussions over email with you that your comprehension of radicalisation is somewhat unorthodox. How exactly do you approach it?

JS:Broadly speaking radicalisation, shorn of any particular faith, is a manner by which an individual or assemblage comes to take on increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions. In other words, there is sufficient clarity that a socio-political or religious paradigm is heir to a multiplicity of interpretations. This is so not-withstanding the fact that the quintessence of an archetypical representation is as a rule ironclad. But you know, Bruce, I am probably among the very few who believe that radicalisation is an oddity that expresses itself in the manifoldness of array in exegesis. Therefore, I have even invoked neuro-science in order to comprehend the phenomenon of radicalisation. It is perhaps one of the reasons why I have always sought to view the mental health of the “lone wolf”, whether it was the Orlando attacker Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, the Nice “truck killer” Mohammed Lahouaiej Bouhel or Zaniar Matapour the man who went on a shooting spree in Oslo just over a month ago.  I have written about the phenomenon in a handbook that I had prepared for the intelligence branch in Assam in 2016, but I need to repeat some of my findings to you.

The basic question that needs to be asked is that one has to only attribute the manner in which any sentient being perceives a particular feature outside itself. To that end, no two discernments can be said to possess exactly an identical view. Therefore, the experience of subject “a”—despite the fact that she tastes, ceteris paribus, the same flavour—would at least be minimally different from that of subject “b”. The interpretation of no two occipital lobes which enclose the principal olfactory cortex can be said to be unerringly indistinguishable: such are the vagaries of creation. If sapient architecture is innately built on lines that have been described above and principally about aspects that have a bearing on day to day existence, then it is no gainsaying that there would quite obviously be not only misinterpretations in socio-political and religious thought but confusion and belligerence as well. Radicalisation, to that end, cannot only be equated to a religion or interpretation of a religious text but could well be extended to deviant behaviour. I mean you do not have to be radicalised because you have misinterpreted the Qur’an. Indeed, you might never have ever read it. Therefore, notwithstanding two different ways of interpretation etc, there is a serious possibility that the “blood and gore” that was being perpetrated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq at the time when it was holding territory in the expanse appealed to deviant minds: they simply found a “psychological sanctuary” in the “call from Ar-Raqqah”. I am telling you this despite the fact that I began by stating that it is Islamist radicalisation that has witnessed rapid progression. In other words, the world must begin to comprehend that there are extra-religious reasons for the violence that is being perpetrated around the world. The fact that every radical killer—till date—has been a Muslim should not in any way prevent a systematic research and unearthing of the motivation for a person getting radicalised.

BH: Are you suggesting that radicalisation has a neurological basis?

JS: Although religion may be the primary driver, there are deviant minds, as I have said, in the world that mimics radicalised behaviour. It’s unfortunate that radicalisation that characterises the present times has always been deemed to be confined to Islam. Events around the world bracket “acts of terror” as a) one perpetrated by Muslims b) in the name of and for the ISIS and the Al-Qaeda c) which is confusing the establishment 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 majority of the acts of violence that is being witnessed around the world and ones which have a religious bearing 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 religious 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 a human brain which propel it to such action. 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.

BH: Could there be political motivation as well?

JS: Yes, there could well be one as well. But, I am convinced about the deviant mind aspect.

BH: Jaideep, do you remember the “hostage-situation” in Dhaka. I remember conferring about the incident with you over email.

JS: Yes, I do. It happened on 1 July 2016.

BH:  How do you square it with the theory of Counter Radicalisation that you have propounded?

JS: Bruce, that’s going to be a mouthful, but in any event I am happy that you are giving me an opportunity to be read. You see the initial investigation after the hostage-situation was over informed that almost all the victims were foreigners. The chosen weapon was a machete giving rise, thereby, to the notion that there was a method in the madness. While certain experts attributed the recourse to “medieval barbarity” as a “ISIS prescription” there were others who tried to trivialise such a theory by stating that the machete was simply a manifestation of the violent innards that characterise Bangladeshi society, where conflict and violence are normally resolved by recourse to decapitation or comparable means!  But you know what Bruce, all fourteen issues of Dabiq, the online propaganda mouthpiece of ISIS used to showcase machetes dripping with blood. I had been following Dabiq very closely until it finally stopped. But were the machete-murderers radicalised by ISIS propaganda? Or, as you suspect, was it simply convenient to cloak themselves in ISIS garb to conceal their political objectives. If this argument has even a shred of truth, then it can be said that there are others that are resorting to killings not because they subscribe to the ISIS agenda, but because they have discovered a paradigm in the ISIS discourse which allows them to give vent to their deviant behaviour as well as to their political motivation. Either way there is good reason for the civilised world to examine the phenomenon without smearing it in religious colour.

In any event, there was considerable speculation and puzzlement about the swiftness with which ISIS exhibited the killers in their propaganda machinery. Clearly the terrorists had uploaded their photographs, posing, as they did, in front of an ISIS flag, from inside the restaurant that they had taken control of. Or, they could have sent the photograph to an ISIS ghost-site beforehand! I had been to Dhaka on 26-27 March 2016 about a month before the “hostage episode” took place and had spoken at length to the law-enforcing agencies there. Therefore when the incident happened I was able to call the person running the elite Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime in Bangladesh and verify that there was no two-way communication. In other words, an ISIS command-and-control axis was not guiding the terrorists at least during the hostage taking exercise, as was the case during the 26/11 Mumbai crisis when the terrorists were being constantly instructed from their minders in Pakistan! It is my guess that ISIS simply “grabbed the chance” in order to showcase to the world that its reach and range extended to Bangladesh, where “machete-murders” were suddenly proliferating. But, it also meant that there are groups and individuals inside the erstwhile East Pakistan who are seeking brand equity with ISIS. If such is the case then there should have been no confusion about ISIS presence in Bangladesh! After all, despite the fact that ISIS metamorphosed into its present shape from its earlier manifestation of Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad in 1999 and eventually al-Qaeda-in-Iraq in 2004, its call to Muslims worldwide to undertake the hijrah had brought people from all over the world! The argument that the 1 July 2016 attackers were only Bangladeshis and consequently could not have had any truck with ISIS is without substance. There was considerable confusion at the time. I was rubbished for having written and spoken about the global connection. I am not patting myself on my own back, but I have been proven correct. The arrests of cadres of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarullah Bangla Team in Assam since July this year is clear evidence in the direction. I remember the reluctance of the agencies in Dhaka. They just didn’t want to admit Al-Qaeda and ISIS presence. Dhaka continued to be in denial about Al-Qaeda-ISIS entry and were unrelenting in their attribution off the violence to “home-grown” militancy. But like I said, I had visited Dhaka in 2016 as part of a “Track II Dialogue” just before the hostage-taking episode took place 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 were engaging themselves with socio-cultural think tanks, I was quietly meeting members of Bangladesh’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and the National Security Intelligence. Hours of debate ensued and I got a reluctant admission from them that the Al-Qaeda-ISIS, in effect, had entered Bangladesh. The reason for the silence was fear of attracting the attention of “extra-regional” powers. Bruce, I don’t think I need to spell out to you what the “extra-regional” power was!

At any rate, I concurred and left Dhaka requesting cooperation as also cautioning them about the reality that was going to be unfolding. You, of course, remember the spate of suicide bombings in Bangladesh of the time. Suicide bombing was being resolutely introduced in a land that has never been witness to it, certainly not by womenfolk! I recall spending days since the suicide bombing occurred attempting to unearth the reasons for the phenomenon. The factor had become even more worrisome since women and infants on their laps were carrying out such acts. I used to call up the authorities in Dhaka to find out was going on. After all, there could have been an aping effect in Assam which abuts Bangladesh so closely. The responses I got were that male counter-parts that had joined the ISIS were indoctrinating their wives, sisters and near ones to become suicide bombers.

This was also the time that Bangladesh finally agreed that there was a global agenda in the country. They agreed that a) Islamist organisations in Bangladesh were acting in unison and b) since at least the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and the Ansarullah Bangla Team had sworn allegiance to the ISIS and the Al-Qaeda respectively and there was a unity of agenda and objective between the two. There was also inter-subjectivity of design which attested to the fact that an encompassing Islamist agenda that is global in intent and purpose had prior knowledge of the 1 July 2016 attack. I had even written a paper about it for India’s Army War College journal during the time! You know Bruce, the genuine lament should be about the absence of high order analyses by intelligence agencies both in the United States and in South Asia and their failure to comprehend the above aspects. Indeed, the bewilderment is compounded by the fact that there has been no robust post-crisis situational activity. State exercise in 2016 was content with the denial of an ISIS-Al-Qaeda hand even in India. I remember television debates trying to run down the fact that both the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS had entered the subcontinent. “Expertise” was as divided as Bangladesh.

Therefore, the plot was lost in a tempest of inanity. The contesting objectives were either to support the denials by Dhaka of ISIS presence in the erstwhile East Pakistan and shore up the assertion that both Dhaka and Delhi subscribed to or attack it. The dispute revolved around the official Bangladesh claim that it was actually home grown Islamists with aid from the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan or even the Israeli Mossad that is teaming up with the political opposition of Bangladesh that was responsible for the violence. The fact that it could be fear of economic and political repercussions that drove the denial was pointed out by a few experts, but such accounts were conveniently swept under the carpet. Bruce, I hope you also recall that on 10 December 2022, the US Treasury Department had imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion, as well as seven of its current and former citing serious human rights violations by the organisations! I am not making a value judgment here, but there have been some apprehension that such action would push Bangladesh into the arms of Beijing. I have been rather concerned about the manner in which Dhaka is being pushed into the arms of Beijing. I have been warning about the presence of closet Chinese and Pakistanis in Bangladesh and how Dhaka procured two Ming class submarines from China. Now, the student of national security in me is quite clear that Bangladesh has no maritime concerns, certainly not against Myanmar or India. So why this acquisition? Now, the two submarines with PLA Navy trainers and observers would be sitting inside the boats even as they conduct sea trials in the general area of Kutubdia Channel off the Chittagong port which is just 790 nautical miles from India’s Eastern Naval HQ. The PLAN now has an observation post in Bangladesh.

BH: Are you saying that Bangladesh whose independence from Pakistan India aided has done a “turn-around”?

JS: Bruce, I think there are two Bangladesh. One which is devoted to the linguistic and cultural aspects that severed them from Pakistan in the first place. India naturally aided the severance because of its own strategic reasons. It didn’t want a two-front enemy at the time and one of the reasons was to get rid of an inimical neighbour in the eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, much of that hope was negated in 1975 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, was assassinated. Today we have a very peculiar situation. Bruce, I think I will simply reproduce what I wrote very recently. That would give you an idea about the atmospherics in the region. Here goes:

“During a recent conversation with Maroof Raza on his celebrated TV talk show Latitudewhich discussed India-Bhutan ties in the backdrop of China’s shadow, I lamented that India’s Neighbourhood First policy needs serious reworking. Raza responded by saying something rather interesting which drove home the point about the ineptitude of India’s foreign office. He said “India has a diplomatic corps which is smaller even than that of Singapore but we are trying to punch in the heavyweight category of world’s geopolitics.” He, of course, stated it in the context of the need for India to engage more seriously with our neighbourhood lest India alienates even Bhutan the only friend and ally that India has in South Asia. But even as the dialogue was, primarily, about the manner in which China was making robust inroads into the Himalayan kingdom and my analysis that a “generational shift” in Bhutan may be becoming more open to Chinese socio-economic overtures, the fact that Raza sought to sagely comment on India’s inability to maintain a Neighbourhood First policy in correct stead was well-timed.  Indeed, in recent years there has been considerable talk that India was alienating its neighbours and that the much tom-tommed Neighbourhood First policy has been an abysmal failure.

Bangladesh’s relationship with India has waxed and waned like irregular lunar cycles. Therefore, even as the honeymoon period that characterised the relationship between India and Bangladesh after the eastern wing of Pakistan was liberated with active Indian help ended with the assassination of Sheikh Mujibir Rahman on 15 August 1975, the return to power of the Bangabandhu’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina after several years of “Islam backed Barrack Politics” witnessed the return to a pro-India era. History that was sought to be erased about Indian support to the War of Liberation was corrected and Hasina decreed that India’s role was indelibly etched in the pages of the historic deliverance. Hasina also ascertain that Indian insurgent leaders who were billeting in Bangladesh were apprehended and handed over to India, determining thereby that at least a modicum of peace returned to the restive North East. After all, the erstwhile East Pakistan had become a virtual safe haven and transit point to places such as Karachi and Batrasi in Pak-Occupied Kashmir for groups such as ULFA and the Assamese Muslim Fundamentalist Organisations. India and Bangladesh had entered a period of harmony.

But the fact of the matter is that Bangladesh is a country that has innards of its own. Therefore, notwithstanding the close relationship which it has with India, there are various factors that have led to its evolution as an independent state. Indeed, it was important for Bangladesh immediately after its formation to steel itself as a nation that is not dependent on India. Writing about this aspect, former Indian foreign secretary and national security adviser, J.N. Dixit has analysed Sheikh Mujib by stating that “(Mujib) was also conscious that if Bangladesh earned sufficient recognition from important countries and developed the minimum required levels of bilateral political, economic and technological relations, he would not need India’s substantive support and assistance. In keeping with this approach, he was clear in his mind that he did not wish to be over-dependent on India. He also (quite logically) did not wish Bangladesh to be dubbed a client state of India.”

The seeds of non-dependence on India, therefore, were sown by Bangladesh’s founding father almost immediately after its independence. If the manifestations of the growing distancing from India were felt in the early 1970s with Mujib “purging” pro-Indian statesmen like Tajuddin Ahmad, then one can visualise a similar need of not being wanting to be seen to be too close to India by engendering “balancing acts” such as growing proximity with China. But by trying to keep India at arm’s length, Bangladesh has willy-nilly—and perhaps irreversibly—brought Beijing into its private chambers.

The sidelines of the “NADI” (Natural Allies in Development and Interdependence) conclave in Guwahati which concluded on 29 May 2022 proffered an opportunity for a rather gripping interface with delegates from India’s near-abroad. Indeed, sidelines have always been absorbing affairs—they offer intimate interludes of the sort that is shorn of the ceremonial and the shielded. Cups of coffee shared together away from the gaze of the multitude conveys far more than the pre-scripted and the mundane. It was, therefore, with great keenness that aspects that would have otherwise been confined to the “inner space” of the privileged were consumed along with the caffeinated brew of eagerness.

One of the aspects that were corroborated was the manner in which China—and as a corollary Pakistan—has entered Bangladesh’s polity. While there was always a gnawing apprehension that Bangladesh was being wooed by China in myriad ways—including providing it with military hardware (never mind if it meant only outdated Ming class diesel submarines!)—the fact that a “Sino-Pak” clique was in place in the inner echelons of the ruling elite was established. Although the manner in which the anti-India subterfuges are taking place may at this point in time be restricted to “court intrigues” and “commercial benefits”, the danger to India’s national security lies in the fact that there was clear pronouncement of the fact that more than half of Bangladesh’s population was becoming anti-India. This should not, however, come as a revelation to observers of Indo-Bangladesh relationship, especially as there have been enough instances in recent history which would testify to the fact that there are good reasons for the erstwhile East Pakistan to have made such a choice.

But it would be incorrect to state that all is lost in Bangladesh. Indeed, there is a constituency that is unwavering to the cause of Bengali linguistic and socio-culture identity. The population who espouses such strong sentiments are the ready and capable foil to the advances of anti-India forces. It does not require flamboyant imagination to comprehend that if properly cultivated and empowered such an expanse—however small—would rally behind India and its flagging standards in a country that is being overtaken by sinister designs. After all the group which is steadfast to Bengali nationalism was also among the one that responded with immense courage during the last Poila Boisakh (Bengali New Year) when Islamists threatened them from performing traditional Bengali Hindu practices such as sporting “teep” (bindior a small coloured mark that is worn between a lady’s eyebrows). Sadhana Ahmed, a celebrated playwright warned the threatening radicals by proclaiming in her Facebook Beshi Hoichoi Korbi Toh Surjo Take Teep Banay Porbo (Don’t shout too much; Otherwise I will wear the sun itself as a Teep)!”

BH:  So what you are saying is that there is a struggle on in Bangladesh.

JS:  Yes, the country has been radicalised and now they are out to radicalise the Muslims of Assam. But as I was saying, I was quite clear that I was examining a global event. I was also worried about India. After all there had been youths who had gone missing from the country. Investigation that was undertaken pointed to the fact that they had gone off to Syria to join the ISIS. I was also worried about what would happen if the authorities were to suddenly stumble upon violence that is being perpetrated by neo-converts: people from other faiths converting to Islam because one of the manner in which Islam was being interpreted was that it permits barbarity. As I was trying to tell you earlier, there are people out there who get up in the morning and the first thing they do is to kick the dog! I mean that’s reality. It’s a pity that the establishment has not realised this aspect. There are deviant minds, as I have said earlier, in the world that mimics radicalised behaviour.

The handbook that I had prepared for the intelligence branch sought to script the various radicalisation typologies and provide counter measure prescription. The comprehension of Islam and the manner in which certain practitioners of the faith had interpreted its tenets in order to promote terror was unique not because a distinction was made between Islam and terrorism, but because there was a requirement to understand the imperatives of radicalisation and the need to counter it. I was quite tired with the non-existent de-radicalisation programme that continues to be pursued in a terror-torn world. Research has shown that a number of Saudi Guantanamo detainees that had been so-called de-radicalised had returned to terrorism upon release. Although there have been arguments that de-radicalisation creates a barrier to recidivism, there was really no way to fathom or evaluate whether a thorough cauterisation has taken place. Or were there de-radicalised terrorists disengaging because of purely instrumental reasons who continue to harbour a radical world-view?  I mean who determines whether the law-enforcer is erring or not by arranging theological correction of so-called 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, as I have been saying, it is conceivable that there are extra-religious reasons or considerations that could have propelled people to perpetrate violent acts? Has a neurological study ever been conducted on an Islamist radical who had attempted to undertake the hijrah and had been apprehended midway?

In my opinion, the radical not only found an outlet which has sanction by the ISIS, but deceived the counter terrorism apparatus and the world that it is call of an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that drove her into a killing frenzy. Therefore, even as a counter radicalisation programme is set in motion, the most important examination that must be conducted is to clinically unearth the real motivation of the perpetrator. The simplest explanation that abounds is to term a killer “a bad Muslim” because she has 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, as I was trying to tell you at the time that almost all acts of barbarism had instant “endorsement” by taking recourse to a Shura. These were regularly published in the Dabiq, the dark ISIS site. It has stopped publishing now, but at the time it was relentless in its propaganda. For instance, the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Mu’adh Safi Yusuf al-Kasasibah was called “equivalent response”. The Dabiq quoted an ayat from An-Nahl saying, “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, the ISIS 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, were burned alive and buried under mountains of wreckage. ISIS cleverly made use of the Qur’an to justify its ghastly acts, utilised such acts to deter other pilots and also 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.

BH: Are we heading towards a science that would be able to unearth deviant motivation. I mean you have written about decoding the art of interrogation. What is your understanding about the subject?

JS: It would be quite a while before science stumbles on a method by which can look inside the brain of a person in order to find out whether she has been radicalised or not. But i am simply appealing for the need to ferret out one. Since you have spoken about interrogation, I must tell you that my research in the world of intelligence informs that interrogation is based on the premise that lying is an a priori proviso in the universe of discourse in which the procedural mechanics of the science acquires significance. It presupposes the need to lie as a sub-inherent quality of humankind. A subject, therefore, for interrogation—whether she happens to be a captive of war, a terrorist apprehended during a counter terrorism operation or a petty criminal—will resort to deception as a primary interface with the controlled environment that she is going to be subjected to. Indeed, this is the baseline or the opening set of postulations that has to be assumed in order for a study of interrogation to be undertaken.

Untruthfulness is clearly different from deception: the former is a behaviour that is typical to human beings alone whereas deception could and indeed extend to other forms of living beings that fall under the ambit of entropy and decay. Although game theory seems to have modelled the possibility of deception in an intra-species stable communication system, the jury is still out about the intentionality factor. In other words, were a chameleon to adjust its colours to camouflage itself from a predator (or when some creatures release ink in order to distract, others feigning death!), the deception that is being displayed does not necessarily imply a conscious act. But a person resorting to a lie is cognisant of her conduct! Interrogation—in the classical sense (and not ones that are manipulated neuro-pathologically)—becomes relevant only when the subject is aware that she is hiding a fact that can theoretically be revealed.

Indeed, the need to lie is determined and bound by a vast array of shades. In interrogation of the conventional kind the primary reason is to deceive and preserve. Whereas the reach and range by which deception is engineered could vary, the need to preserve is normally motivated by a cause. The cause could be simple: escape punishment. Or, it could be complicated: preserve others, or even a cause that is higher than even self-preservation or preservation of others: the preservation of an ideal!  The fine distinction that divides the two may be difficult to fathom in the initial stages of a questioning process, but comes to the fore under protracted interrogation. It is important to identify the “inner fortress” that the subject is attempting to preserve. Interrogation—of even the most stretched variety (where extreme discomfort is meted out to the subject of interrogation)—would fall by the wayside if this is not recognised. The accent should, therefore, be to unearth both the method by which deception is being constructed and the reason for the preservation. Discovery of the methodology that is being utilised for deception will determine and navigate the line of interrogation and—if innovatively employed—will breakdown the super-structure that a subject is endeavouring to preserve. In most cases the ability to enter the “inner fortress” would be tantamount to arriving at the truth.

But is preservation the only reason for lying? Are there motivations beyond such a defence mechanism that drives humans to lie? Is it possible that an instinct to erect imaginary walls of truth around oneself leads to utterances of untruth? An exploration of such behaviour meanders into the realm of psycho-pathology where classical interrogation may be rendered ineffectual.

An important school of thought—both in literature and science—is of the opinion that human nature—in the manner it distinguishes itself from other natures—takes recourse to lying even as a method of self-aggrandisement. Hellenic lore informs that it is the unusual gift of the muses to “speak many false things as though they were true.” The Greek philosopher Aristotle illustrates honesty as a virtue only of self-presentation. Another philosopher of almost the same genre, Plato does not list honesty as a virtue in his reference to “noble lies”. He forbids poesy in his Republic, considering it to be an abomination to true philosophy. The Malmesbury philosopher Hobbes condemns metaphor as illusion, arguing that true statements are constructed of exact definitions and “perspicuous words.” But in life, surreal or otherwise, musings and metaphors cannot be done away with—life will cease to be what it is without the “little luxuries” of lies.

Findings in science do not quite contradict what a superior product (literature) of the same brain seeks to explain, albeit in a manner that is more elegant, less complicated.  Deft manipulation of an area in the encephalon—dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region in the front of the brain—by methods that may not have yet left the laboratory seems to demonstrate that the brain activates itself in a manner which could result in a subject playing ambiguous roles—resulting in the person exhibiting dishonesty in situations in which she would have otherwise spoken the truth, especially if it was to her advantage. This is despite the fact that lying exhausts more “neural resources” than it does when a subject is telling the truth. Lies, deceit and the motivation for exhibition of deviant behaviour that encompasses the two may, therefore, not be as neat and tidy after all!

But I wonder whether lying comes naturally to humans? Or is there both resistance and abhorrence to it in an extra-ethical sense. In other words, would it be correct to state that a person hides truth only when there is a motivation to do so? The impetus for lying could (as was elucidated above) even override immense physical distress, for instance, when a subject is confronted with the consciousness that lying is mandated by a cause that is greater than the continuation as a physical entity, an existence that she has sacrificed in the altar of the cause she has sworn herself to long before she found herself in a controlled setting.

BH:  Tell me, Jaideep, have the events in Afghanistan taken you by surprise? I mean did the analyst in you ever feel that the Taliban would be back in the seat of power?

JS: 1 December happens to be my birthday. 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 Af-Pak 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” or the “Rule of Islam”. 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 the 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. Even the US knew that it would return. 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 was an Egyptian and, therefore, 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 the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS, informed that Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan headed by the Taliban would soon be a reality. The novel corona virus 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.

Jaideep Saikia with Bruce Hoffman in Washington D.C.

BH: But, Jaideep, had not the Doha Agreement of 29 February 2020 agreed on a Taliban pledge to prevent the 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 Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan had already gotten into an agreement. Don’t 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 alongside the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of the Khorasan Province (ISKP). The fact that the ISKP had fought the Taliban once had been consigned to flames. There was always a deep connection between the Al-Qaeda, ISKP and the Taliban.

BH: I am really interested in your theory that the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS were always one and the same. How did you come to such a conclusion?

JS: The differences that have been tom-tommed about the two organisations are superficial.  The ISIS exhibits not only a centralised metrics driven command and control mechanism with a three member Al-Imara (The Emirate) and a Shura (Council), which is not unlike al-Qaeda’s Khorasan Group, but also has as its end-objective Nizam-e-Mustafa. It is, therefore, incorrect to state that tactics, strategy and modus operandi of both the groups are fundamentally different as has been proffered by important scholars. The manner in which Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq, broke away from his parent organisation in order to form the Islamic State was itself a ruse. One of the aspects that should be carefully studied if you are expected to delve into Islamist terror is the concept of taqiyya, which according to the Sharia allows deception in Islam, and is even obligatory at times. In other words, feigning apostasy is permitted in Islam. For instance, Muslims who must choose between either disavowal of Islam or being put to death are not only permitted to lie by pretending to be apostatised, but many Islamic jurists have decreed that, according to the Qur’an, Muslims are obligated to lie in such instances. Tawriya, yet another form that allows Muslims to lie to non-believers, is the intentional creation of a false impression. The dissonance that appeared apparent between the ISIS and the Al-Qaeda to most is, therefore, a trick. In reality, there has always been a strategic convergence of objective between the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS about both the establishment of a “caliphate” and Nizam-e-Mustafa. It is quite clear that whereas Al-Qaeda concentrated on the far-enemy, the immediate goal of the ISIS was that of holding and expanding territory, which indeed it was doing in Iraq and Syria. Setbacks in the field that the ISIS experienced have led it to change tactics, including an implicit encouragement to undertake Al-Qaeda like “lone wolf” attacks across the globe as it has realised that the undertaking of the hijrah may no longer be as undemanding as earlier because states across the globe were apprehending people who were undertaking it. By referring to Hijrah I am talking about the call by the ISIS to the “faithful” to “emigrate” to Syria and Iraq and join the outfit. The name hijrah was ingeniously used because of the religious connotation that it has with reference to Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.

In any event, the Al-Qaeda-ISIS are now planning an anti-US, an anti-Europe and an anti-India agenda sitting cheek-by-jowl with Lt Gen Faiz Hameed of the Inter Services Intelligence and the Taliban. I have always stated that “interchangeability’ is one of the most important signatures of an Islamist tanzeem. Yesterday, it was Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, today its Afghanistan and consequently “eastward” operations would be managed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province. In any event, there had always been a “shadow of Zawahiri” for Bangladesh, Assam, parts of Myanmar and West Bengal.

Shadow of Zawahiri

BH: But what is your prognosis for the region 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. As a matter of fact, the epicentre of the third wave of radicalisation process is Bangladesh.

BH: The “Third Wave of Radicalisation”? What were the first and the second?

JS: During the course of 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 Syria and Iraq 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. 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 I describe as the “First Wave”, the “Second Wave” began with the “oath of allegiance” or Bay’ah by groups such as Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and the Ansarullah Bangla Team to the ISIS and the Al-Qaeda 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, Nice, Oslo and I have already told you about 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 possible. However, relentless action by the Bangladesh security forces against the Islamists has quietened the radicals in the country and they have to entered the demographic jungles of Assam as a result.

BH: So, how is this going to manifest itself?

JS: Egged on by the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS which I have told you is already inside India, its affiliates—including groups such as the Popular Front of India (PFI)—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 and would attempt to bring into their fold fence-sitters and moderates among the minority community and finally c) perpetrate violence.

BH: Tell me about the Popular Front of India?

JS: It is ostensibly a Kerala based organisation which fronts itself as a welfare organisation for the cause of downtrodden, minorities and the backward class of India. A close scrutiny of the activities of the organisation reveals that they are basically trying to empower the Muslims by facilitating access of the members of the community to the modern sophisticated subjects of education including Information Technology, Business Management, leadership training etc. But, it is in this garb that they are trying to—and have succeeded in considerable measure—radicalise educated youths of Assam. Intelligence reports have stated that it was the PFI that was responsible for instigating the Batadrava Police Station arson. I mean it is not often that an irate crowd sets a police station of fire. But that is exactly what came to an unholy pass on 21 May 2022 in Batadrava in Assam. The incident took place because of an alleged custodial death, but the manner in which the stage was set to muster the mob to take law into their hands provides an insight into the extent to which the Islamists are proliferating in the region, especially Assam. The problem has always, in my opinion, constituted a clear and present danger to the security of India, but the dangerous proportions that it has taken in recent months is a matter of great concern. It is also being reported that arms training including the use of Improvised Explosive Device are being imparted to Muslim youths by both PFI and its sister organisation, Campus Front of India (CFI). The sinister design of the PFI has clear links with the global salafi actors such as the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS. However, PFI has been extremely careful not to directly engage the security forces or leave behind footprints that might lead to a ban. With a growing strength that exceeds 15,000 cadres, the most important agenda in PFI’s sights is the radicalisation of educated Muslims of Assam. It should also be noted that Assam’s minority population in the next religious census would be closer to 45 % of the population and there should be no delay in putting into action a counter radicalisation programme that I have been proposing as opposed to the non-existent de-radicalisation exercise.

BH: Jaideep, how do you think Zawahiri was killed?

JS: It is still early days to seek out the anatomy of the precision strike that killed Zawahiri. But the question that is being asked is how the United States who had had no personnel in Afghanistan pulled off such a coup. Where did the intelligence emanate from? I confess I have no readymade answers, but deeper though seems to reveal that although there were no American “boots on ground”, the United States had—even as it was withdrawing from Afghanistan—left a drawer of “socks in the closet”. It was these deep assets that engineered the textbook kill. The US president, Joe Biden, of course, referred to them in his “victory speech” as “key allies”. Indeed, the “socks in the closet” could well have been the Taliban or even the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan who felt that the waning relationship with the United States could be revived if Zawahiri could be taken out. Also, the “Seekers”—as the Taliban is known in Pashto—knows which side of the bread is buttered and had accordingly accomplished the needful. And, don’t forget there was a US $ 25 Million bounty on Zawahiri’s head. Besides, Zawahiri was a tired old man who had outlived his utility. The Egyptian surgeon who was once the chief strategicians of Bin Laden could no longer guide the Al-Qaeda (“The Base”) onto newer vistas of pernicious action and he was becoming expendable.  The Islamists—especially now that they are endowed with a completely new motivation of unleashing the “Third Wave of Radicalisation”—needed a new Emir. “Colonel” Saif-al-Adel @ Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan, a former Egyptian Special Forces officer who had overseen the “Black Hawk Down” episode in Mogadishu in 1993 ps the man.

BH: What would be the implications for India?

JS: You know Bruce, I was interviewed immediately after the Zawahiri episode by an important TV channel. I was asked—during the course of the interview—as to what would be the fate of the Al-Qaeda after Zawahiri. My answer was straightforward. The war that is being waged against the infidels will be a never-ending one, one that will continue until the end of time. But if you want to know how the Al-Qaeda would react to the killing then I think there would be retribution. The primary targets would, of course, be US interests in South and South-East Asia. But you know what: the surgically clinical manner in which Zawahiri was eliminated in Kabul on 30 July 2022 has prompted even lay observers of the incident in India to question as to “why India cannot replicate such feat against the plethora of terrorist and insurgent leaders billeted in foreign lands and from where they act against India with impunity”. Indeed, the query—however innocuous—has weight when aspects such as the fact that India is one of the most terror afflicted countries in the world are considered. The helplessness that was exhibited for instance after a Colonel of the Assam Rifles and his innocent family which included his five year old child were cruelly gunned down by terrorists from across the border in Manipur has added to the sense of distress and ignominy. Indeed, the rage—after the 13 November 2021 Churachandpur incident—within the rank and file of the Indian army was palpable. But there was no way the anger could be given vent to. An officer of the Assam Rifles who I spoke to after the attack was fuming. “We know exactly where the terrorists are sitting, just across the border, in what is termed as the “Southern Cluster” of the Coordination-Committee, but we cannot cross over and take the assassins down” was the lament. When I visited Manipur to deliver a lecture to the Assam Rifles and the Manipur University in April earlier this year, I took the opportunity to visit the site of the November ambush. I was also briefed about the terrorist camps in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar and the manner in which the terrorists belonging to the Coordination- Committee had set up a conglomeration of seven Manipur-valley-based outfits which is known as the Joint Fighting Force.

The Operations Room briefing in Chandel was so systematic that I wondered “what good is it to have every single camp of the terrorist plotted so immaculately on maps and sand models when there is little that can be done about it”! The Commanding Officer informed me of the camps in Phaisat, Senam, Sialmong and Khuangkhan in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division as also the fact that the terrorists have come into an agreement with the Myanmar army. The deal was simple: help the Tatmadaw quell the rebellion that had erupted after the 1 February 2021 military takeover and the terrorists could continue to enjoy the hospitality of an outland detachment from where they can undertake raids against the Indian security forces. Battling the People’s Defence Force (PDF), members of the Coordination-Committee were terrorising the local Myanmarese population and there was a time when a constituent of the PDF, the Chin National Army (CNA) had retaliated. In fact, the CNA had attacked a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur camp in Senam on 13 January 2022 and had killed two cadres of the PLA. My analysis states that the CNA was attempting to “curry favour” with Indian agencies by carrying out an operation that would be considered as a retaliation for the Churachandpur attack of 13 November 2021 by the Indians. They probably wanted to drive a wedge between the Myanmar army and India as well. However the opportunity that the incident provided—by all accounts—has been ignored by New Delhi. The ambivalence that is being exhibited by the security managers in India is so glaring that there was all round bewilderment for the absence of a clear, comprehensive policy on Myanmar. The “Act East Policy”, for instance, that was expected to “Go East” had come to a grinding halt and the entire ground in Myanmar had been left for the Chinese to exploit at leisure. Now, even as 15 August 2022 nears, there is considerable speculation about the Manipur valley-based terrorists planning attacks on Indian security forces in Manipur and Nagaland.

The story pertaining to ULFA (Independent) is no different. Sitting pretty in Yunnan, chaperoned by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, the ULFA leadership has set up important camps across Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district in Myanmar. The camps at Papung, Jokham, Hachi, and two others lyrically named as “Camp Arakan” and “Camp 779”.

BH: What is “Camp 779”? That’s a rather odd name. Is it some sort of code?

JS: No, “Camp 779” is so named because it bears the “hallowed” date of the formation of the ULFA, 7 April 1979. In any event, the camp—along with “Camp Arakan”—are now being used as staging grounds for planning future attacks, extortion and subterfuge in Assam as also to house the flurry of new recruits that were suddenly making their way from every nook and cranny of Assam to join the ULFA, which had all but disappeared during the Covid-19 until a farsighted Indian army general carefully engineered a mass surrender of ULFA cadres. But, for one reason or the other there was a blow-back and youths from Upper, Central and Lower Assam were making their way into the wastelands of Myanmar to join the ULFA. Gratefully the tide has stemmed, but the manner in which young men and women were making their way to “Camp Arakan”—at one point in time—was disconcerting. Perhaps there were reasons that had tucked themselves away from smart analysis that were responsible for the spurt in recruitment!

But, Bruce, once again, I want to underscore the fact that even as Islamism of the rabid kind stealthily attempts to grow and thrive in Assam, questions are being asked by the people of India as to why India cannot do what the United States have been able to do with a prime adversary. Are the terrorist leaders sitting in Myanmar untouchables? Isn’t it possible for India to procure UAVs and missiles such as the predatory “Hellfire R9X” that took Zawahiri down even as he was standing in his balcony in Kabul? Or, is there some deeper motivation to allow the terrorism that is being experienced to fester? New Delhi would do well to provide some reasonable answers. In any event, I think both the state and its citizenry must—in togetherness—ferret out the guest-radical elements that have entered Assam and stem the tide before it begins to mimic the flood waters that are upon the state at present.

BH: Your home state, Assam, which I visited and met you for the first time way back in 2001, has witnessed the entry of the al-Qaeda. Indeed, the authorities have arrested several cadres of the Ansarullah Bangla Team that is affiliated with a-Qaeda? How do you see the situation evolving in the region?

JS: The situation is rather grim. Not too long ago the radicalisation efforts of the Popular Front of India witnessed in the burning down of a police station in Central Assam (Batadrava). The al-Qaeda and the ISIS, too, have made a decisive entry into this sensitive border state of India and it is a matter of time that “Third Wave of Radicalisation” that I have been speaking about manifests itself. Bangladesh was, as you are aware, severed itself from Pakistan and was founded on secular linguistic and cultural principles which overrode religion. But of late, there have been a “civilisational shift” with the post 1971 generation becoming pro-Pakistan. Indeed, I would say a good majority of the population of Bangladesh’s population have become rabidly anti-India and a sizeable section has identified itself with the “global salafi movement” and have affiliated itself with the al-Qaeda and the ISIS. Furthermore, a calibrated Operation Inherent Resolve which could have impounded all the radically deviant minds of the globe into one area with correct surveillance allowed instead the ISIS to spirit away. Indeed, the group could presently be anywhere in the world, cloaked in different avatarsincluding as the salar-e-allah of the Afghanistan based Islamic State of Khorasan Province and Waliyah-i-Hind inside India preparing for the “Third Wave of Radicalisation”. The apprehension of many members of the Ansarullah Bangla Team from a lower Assam district is just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike earlier years, when the lower strata of the illegal migrant population from Bangladesh were targeted by the Islamists, this time around it is the educated lot that are being radicalised. The optics, therefore, point to a decisive “eastward surge of the Islamist”. But lest the West feels that it is India and South Asia that are being endangered then it must be think again. The launching detachments that the Islamists have been able to muster in South Asia would be used to attack western embassies and interests in the region. The “far enemy” would face the Islamist ire in a novel manner.

However, for me, the recent arrests of cadres of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarullah Bangla Team from different places in Assam have not come as a surprise. The matter of concern is the state’s inability to fathom the extent to which the radicalisation efforts have taken place. Indeed, the state has witnessed subterfuge by Islamists since the late 1990s when Pakistan trained radical elements were arrested from the heart of Guwahati. However, the threat had all but weakened with en masse surrender of cadres after their return from places such as Batrasi in POK. Indeed, by their own admission the wayward group had realised that the motivation for which they had gone to train alongside tanzeems such as the ISI chaperoned Lashkar-e-Toiba were at variance with their local objectives to garner aspects such as reservations for Muslims in the legislature. Nizam-e-Mustafa which has become the primary goal for almost all Islamist groups that have a global bearing was not in their agenda. The syncretism that characterised Assamese society of the time ascertained it and disenchanted with the alien exhortation by the ISI which had included assassination of political leaders and engineering of pogroms against the Bodo community which sat cheek-by-jowl with the Muslims the belligerence had dissipated. However, there were some among many who eschewing attention continued with their sinister endeavours. Indeed, for a time it was felt that Assam was rid of the radical threat. But quite clearly they were silent as I don’t tire of repeating from the conclusion of the book I wrote in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003, “not by the absence of activity but by the presence of non-activity”. Indeed, wasn’t it also the year when I delivered a lecture in the Rand Corporation at your invitation?

BH: What according to you are the counter measures?

JS: I will reproduce the points that I showcased on 25 August 2021 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 in the handbook that I told you that I had prepared way back in July 2016 instead of continuing with a non-existent de-radicalisation 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. Ethnic insurgencies such as the United Liberation Front of Assam can exercise the choice to surrender and return to the mainstream. But for an Islamist the choice is limited to only two aspects: Shahadat (martyrdom) or Ghazihood (victory).

Bruce Hoffman

Professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C., where he directs its Center for Jewish Civilization.

Jaideep Saikia

Conflict analyst & author. His expertise includes Islamist terror, ethnic insurgencies, anti-terror doctrine & India/China-relations.

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