BIMSTEC must build counter-terrorism strategies to ISIS’s South Asia threat

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NEW DELHI: The ISIS link in Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday attack has set alarm bells ringing all over the region. Not surprisingly then ‘radicalisation’ and ‘social media’ are the buzz words at the ‘BIMSTEC Think Tank Dialogue on Regional Security’ being held in the Capital. The two-day forum, which is focussing particularly on ‘virtual’ terror by examining how the internet and social media are radicalising sections of the populace in BIMSTEC countries, has the academic community and journalists offering solutions as to how BIMSTEC can help develop effective strategies to counter the ‘net’ threat.

Some say the recent push in ISIS propaganda statements about ‘Wilayat-e-Hind’, along with the appointment of Abu Muhammad al-Bengali as the emir or chief of  the Bangladesh branch of ISIS, suggests that not only is there likely to be an increased ISIS presence but also attacks, which would most likely be on India.

‘ISIS’s mindset towards India has changed. It believes that there is an opportune time to attack India with the churning that is taking place within the country due to recent events in Jammu and Kashmir and the recent court decision on a communal conflict. This is a shift from their earlier narratives which sought to get a few Indian fighters to fight for ISIS abroad. We need to understand this change in the narrative if we are to build suitable counter-narratives,’ says Shruti Pandalai, Associate Fellow, IDSA.’

But how are we go to about looking and building these counter-narratives? Shahab Enam Khan, professor in International Relations, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh adds that India and other BIMSTEC nations need to look at success stories, as internet literacy continues to increase in societies across the world. Such literacy, he believes, will come with increased activity in the ‘deep’ and ‘dark’ web by ISIS and other terrorist groups with vested interests.

‘BIMSTEC nations need not only to increase co-operation but also to look at success stories among other countries in the region. Indonesia is a good example. The country’s cyber agency – the National Cyber and Encryption Agency (BSSN) has targeted abuse of social media platforms by terror groups and trained members in remote locations of the country to spot such abuse.’

While a specific cyber-command is the need of the hour, other panellists also believe that counter-measures need to be taken to prevent impressionable youth from seeking out radicalised content in the first place. Nitin Gokhale, editor-in-chief of  Bharat Shakti and SNI, says that while counter radicalisation measures by the state, through agencies and the posting of videos through the same social media platforms, were welcome, the state alone could not check radicalisation because of its dispersed content. In this regard, offline strategies such as promoting the role of community and strengthening family bonds become all important.

‘If you look at India, the number of fighters who have joined ISIS so far is less than the number of fighters who have joined ISIS from the Maldives. This speaks volumes for the country’s social harmony which I think is strengthened by strong bonds of community. So, when nation-states look at countering radicalisation, they must not just focus on just the online content but must look at society at large. Thus, offline strategies are needed, and an integrated solution is required,’ Gokhale says.

But how exactly can and should such an integrated solution be arrived at?  One of the ways is to develop more relevant academic studies. Researchers point out that the paucity of specific studies on social media radicalisation in BIMSTEC countries, as opposed to the West, ensures that key questions on whether online radicalisation would translate into an offline terror attack remain unanswered ensuring meaningful policies could not be put in place.

‘Currently, we need to understand and de-link online radicalisation from offline radicalisation. We cannot simply point to a post or message on social media and say this led to the Easter Sunday attack. BIMSTEC countries need to develop studies that define radicalisation and how to measure it. In the West, for instance, they measure online radicalisation while at the same time measuring ideological polarisation offline. This can give us a good idea as to whether a hateful, virtual message could possibly be translated into action,’ says Dr Sandunika Hasangani, Research Fellow at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies.

Unlike other member groupings such as Saarc which has so failed in coming together to any kind of consensus on combatting terrorism, BIMSTEC has moved forward by holding nation-states responsible for terrorism, a measure that was announced through Kathmandu Declaration at the BIMSTEC summit in Nepal last year. Such a move is encouraging but so far a consensus on how member countries can combat terrorism effectively through the organisation is still missing. It now remains to be seen if the ISIS threat can push member countries together to boost security measures by holding regular meetings at the level of home ministers and national security chiefs as called for by the declaration. As all member countries will be aware though time is of the essence and the role in analysing and counter-sharing intelligence on potential threats needs to begin now.

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