Terrorist back scratching

When we study and analyse terrorist groups, we tend to look at them in categories – Islamist, right-wing, nationalist, single issue, etc. – rather than as a whole. True, eminent scholars such as David Rappoport have written magisterial works that examine multiple terrorist strands across time, but the current trend is to put boundaries around particular types.

I think that this kind of approach is valid because, although there are some commonalities underpinning all terrorist entities, there are also significant differences that cannot be argued away.  I’m not sure how much we can learn from high-level cross-cutting analysis.

There is another reason to separate them: terrorist groups do not play well in the sandbox.  Yes, we do see cooperation within terrorist types, but we also see inter-group bloody conflict, such as that playing out right now between the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra (both Islamist and both the offspring of Al Qaeda).

It is rarer to see collaboration between terrorist groups that arise from different outlooks (Islamist and right-wing for example), even if there are elements and drivers in common.  For instance, there are many groups that have a hatred for capitalism, but little “meeting of the minds” when it comes to operations.  Both Hamas and white supremacist groups hate Jews, but the two don’t hold joint planning sessions.

This is why the news coming out of South Asia is so interesting.  An Islamist extremist group, Laskhar-e-Taiba, and a Sikh extremist group, Babbar Khalsa Interational, were apparently brought together by the Pakistani ISI (an intelligence agency) with a view to revive Sikh militancy in the Punjab (see story here)

I will leave aside the issue of a state intelligence agency working with known terrorist organisations and focus on why LeT and BKI would see any advantage in joining up, if even temporarily.  The former is one of many groups that are angry at the original partition of India in 1947 and the disagreement over the status of Kashmir (and its large Muslim population).  The 2008 Mumbai attack was carried out in part as a result of this longstanding unresolved issue.  BKI, and others, have been fighting the Indian government for decades over the lack of a Sikh homeland (Khalistan): recall that the largest single terrorist attack in history, the downing of an Air India plane that originated in Vancouver, was probably planned and executed by BKI.

So, why would these two see common cause?  Clearly, both groups hate India and want some retribution over perceived grievances caused by Delhi.  And yet, the two could not be further apart with respect to long-term goals.  LeT wants Kashmir to be handed to Pakistan and become an Islamic state: BKI wants an independent Sikh state.  Organisations like LeT cannot tolerate the wishes of BKI or any other group that will not agree to be ruled by Muslim overlords.  In the end, the Islamists – not necessarily LeT but perhaps another extremist outfit – would fight the Sikhs and demand that they convert to Islam (Sikhs are not “people of the book” in accordance with Muslim tradition – not that the terrorists abide by tradition – and would have no right to practice in an Islamic state).

ISI is known to work these deals with a variety of partners to stick it to India.  The Sikhs may see some immediate benefit to teaming up with the like of LeT in the short term, but would be lose out in the end and would be best advised to avoid such relationships.

There is an old saying “there is no honour among thieves”: neither is there among terrorists.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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