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Backyard terror: Is India a 'sitting duck' with its porous borders, crowded markets?

First the massacre in France, Europe's western flank, then the aborted coup against a controversial Islamist president on its eastern flank in Turkey and finally, a brutal attack by a teenager with an axe on a train in southern Germany: within one single week, the Continent was rocked by terrorism, rebellion and bloodshed.

 Backyard terror: Is India a sitting duck with its porous borders, crowded markets?

A man cycles past a bouquet of flowers, stuffed toys and a French flag placed in tribute to victims. Reuters

Other than ensuring the survival of a conservative president whose "longterm goal" is said to be an Islamic state and whose earlier sympathies for the IS have caused worry, the aborted military uprising in Turkey is, of course, not linked to the wave of Islamist terrorism in Europe.

But the defeat of the coup revealed a hitherto unknown rift in the country's traditionally secular army. There is consternation in the European Union headquarters in Brussels, where Turkey's application for membership is under process. After all, Nato member Turkey is also the frontline state for the US-led strikes against IS. Still, it is IS terror and not Turkey's aborted coup, that is Europe's most pressing problem.

Since the 2014 commencement of the war against IS, France and Belgium, the two European countries with long colonial histories mostly in Muslim North Africa and each with large immigrant populations from their erstwhile colonies, have seen the maximum violence. To date, 122 persons including the perpetrators have been killed and 810 persons injured in 12 terror attacks in France. In the airport and metro station suicide strikes in the Belgian capital Brussels earlier this year, 35 people were killed and 350 injured. Islamist terrorism, primarily at the hands of, or inspired by IS, was behind all the attacks.

"The reason for France being targeted is simple," says Bruno Philip, veteran Asia correspondent of French daily, Le Monde. "We have failed to evolve a system of assimilation for people from different cultures, preferring to impose a model designed by the value systems of the white man and the elite."

Philip feels that the global rise of regressive Islamism has helped resurrect old and simmering resentments and given them deadly direction. However, he points out that the IS may soon be floundering for ground support, since many victims of the attacks have been Muslims themselves.

Germany, on the other hand, whose own 19th century colonial history in Namibia was not without its share of bloodshed, adopted different, more inclusive policies. Europe's largest economy is Namibia's biggest aid donor today. Germany's Muslims are predominantly from the 'secular' republic of Turkey and have, from their early arrival in the 1960s, been greeted with better integration programs. But given the 600,000 Syrian refugees whom Germany has admitted since 2014 and with thousands streaming in every day, German authorities estimate that Germany's overall Muslim population - currently approximately 6.5 million - will see a dramatic rise to 20 million within the next five years: a statistic that has not been greeted with euphoria by conservatives and right-wing parties, whose fortunes are on the rise.

Ironically, Germany came under attack from IS terrorism only after it took the lead by opening its doors to refugees. Since 2015, there have been four attacks, with three coming this year. Four people including the terrorists were killed and 10 injured.

But the attacks last week in both Nice and southern Germany were chillingly different and near-impossible to predict. They were executed by persons unknown to the police other than — in the case of the Nice terrorist — as a petty criminal. They were not on the terror radar, they were lone wolves, solitary, manically depressive individuals, one of whom was meticulously indoctrinated and identified by IS. How else does one explain a 17-year-old Afghan refugee hacking people's faces with an axe, before trying to escape and being shot dead himself? Or a truck driver of Tunisian origin crushing babies in prams under his lorry at full speed? Both in the name of 'religion'?
What is the solution? Stop taking in refugees or - 'pay to house them elsewhere like in Lebanon', as Germany's right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has repeatedly thundered?

"There is growing insecurity and paranoia in Germany about how terrorists may try to enter in the guise of refugees fleeing the Syria war," concedes veteran German analyst Hermann Denecke. But the broadcast editor points out that the stream of economic refugees from impoverished North Africa — of whom 3,000 drowned tragically in the Mediterranean — and not from Syria, is the greater crisis. "The Pope urging acceptance has an emotional effect. How can we just turn them away?"

The level of Islamist radicalication has been far higher in France. If there were 10,000 French nationals of Muslim origin who joined IS, only 400 — many, not even Muslim — left Germany. While France was the first among European countries to launch the war against IS with French jets pounding the terror group's base in Syria's Raqqa just after the Paris attacks , Germany's involvement in the war against IS has so far been restricted to 'soft support' like providing radars and other equipment.

European analysts also see a link between the beating that IS is taking on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the sharp rise in attacks specifically on symbols precious to European culture - such as France's Bastille Day, such as last year's attack on a Germany-France football fixture, the Bataclan music hall in Paris, etc. They are seen as attempts by IS to destabilize and intimidate those countries to end the war.

The United States has taken the lead in the global war on terror. Yet, it has seen far fewer Islamist terror strikes primarily because it took rapid and uncompromising measures to tighten security immediately after 9/11.
Europe though, especially Berlin, is trapped by its own history. 'Human rights' and 'political asylum' form the bedrocks of the German Constitution that was written after the Holocaust and the devastation of World War II.

"Telephones will be tapped, there will be greater border security and the process of admitting refugees will be made more waterproof," says Denecke. "But while we must and will accept such restrictions, the majority of Germans will never agree to remove the provision of asylum altogether from our constitution."

Given that the entire gamut of major western powers is involved - with the United States and Russia recently deciding to join hands to exterminate IS, the Middle East is already the theatre of a full-fledged world war.

So what about Asian powers, India and China, both affected by terrorism? In China's case, from the Muslim Uighurs and in ours, from Pakistan-based and trained terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed and now the additional worry of growing radicalization in Bangladesh and the Maldives?

Doesn't global ambition come with global responsibility?

Both India and China — the bigger player on the global strategic arena — have so far expressed support for the global war against terror but have avoided active participation, each for its own reasons. While China seems more focused on consolidating its might over the dissenting Uighurs and its immediate neighborhood like the South China Sea, India, which has an excellent track record in UN Peacekeeping operations, has repeatedly refused to be drawn into global conflicts — at least publicly — other than with developmental initiatives like in Afghanistan.

Le Monde's Bruno Philip points out that whatever may be stopping China from actively joining the action against IS in the Middle East, it will not hesitate over 'human rights' and do so, if and when it sees concrete and direct benefits for itself.

Attacks on crowds even by lone wolves cause massive devastation. India's population accounts for 1/6th of mankind. We are the country of Ramlilas, Kumbh Melas and eternally crowded markets. All the radicalisation in our neighbouring countries is directed primarily against India. We share thousands of kilometers of borders with them, which, at many places, are far from water-tight. Finally, we share ethnicity, which renders it harder to 'discern' foreign criminals from Indian ones.

Gilles Kepel, French professor of political science, calls the emergence of the IS movement and its modus operandi of causing religious divides in multi-cultural societies by indoctrinating locals instead of sending trained terrorists from elsewhere, the 'third jihad'. Given India's cultural composition and based upon his decades-long experience in Asia, Philip finds it a matter of wonder that this brand of terrorism hasn't arrived in India yet.
"If security hasn't improved since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai," he warns. "India is a sitting duck."

The author is a veteran foreign correspondent and former South Asia bureau chief for Der Spiegel.

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Updated Date: Jul 20, 2016 16:21:41 IST