by Col R Hariharan (Retd.)
Al Qaeda in Yemen has asked Muslims to step up their protests and kill more U.S. diplomats after the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed when violent anti-U.S. protestors attacked the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.
In a significant statement, the Libyan Prime Minister has said the attack on the U.S. embassy was a preplanned one. Libya was one of the many countries across the world where anti-U.S. protests were triggered when a U.S. made film depicting Prophet Mohammed in a highly objectionable way was put on YouTube.
Apart from Libya these protests have taken a violent turn in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen where like Libya, authoritarian regimes were overthrown in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings and popular governments came to power. It is an irony that in all these countries regime change was carried out with active strategic political and military support and intervention from the U.S. and its Western allies.
Islamic fundamentalist entities were in the forefront of the “Arab Spring” struggle; this has gained them political legitimacy and popularity in many of these countries. Their support has become a key political element for the survival of shaky elected governments. This has increased their sustaining power as more and more youth inspired by Islamic activism are attracted to their ranks. Logically, the strengthening of Islamic fundamentalism, which provides the ideological veneer for Jihadi terrorism should help them gain substantive ground lost in the American-led global war on terrorism launched in the wake of 9/11 Al Qaeda terror attacks in the U.S.
The Yemeni Al Qaeda’s statement indicates that Al Qaeda would probably use popular protests generated by religious passions in the Muslim world to its advantage to continue its war by other means against the U.S. After suffering heavy losses in its ranks during the last decade or so, this would be a cost effective option for the Islamist terrorism to reassert itself.
This is not the first time such worldwide protests have been triggered by offensive writings or cartoons and other visuals disrespectful to the Prophet or acts of desecration of the Quran. However, the use of such protests by Islamist terror comes at a crucial stage when the American military disengagement in Afghanistan has started.
Anti-U.S. protests against the You Tube film have been staged in many cities in India also. So far they have been kept within manageable proportions because states were probably better prepared after the shock effect of a similar protest over reported killing of Muslims in Assam and Myanmar in August degenerated into violence. These protests triggered by reported killing of large number of Muslims in clashes in Kokrajhar in Assam between illegal Bangladesh Muslim migrants and Bodo tribals. Reports of violent attacks by locals on Rohingiya Muslims in Rakhine state in Myanmar around the same period apparently also came in handy as an added provocation for the protests. A protest meeting convened by Muslim civil society bodies in Mumbai was used by Jihadi extremists to seamlessly launch well organised, pre planned attack on the police practically immobilising them into inaction. The extremist elements targeted public property for destruction without sparing even the memorial to martyred soldiers.
Investigations have revealed that Jihadi elements extensively used the web and social media i.e. Facebook and SMS messaging to spread provocative messages by morphing visuals of gory scenes of large number of people killed in natural calamity in Myanmar to pass them of as those of Muslims killed in Assam and Myanmar. The Home Secretary has pointed a finger at Pakistan as the source of these mischievous reports aided and abetted by Indian counterparts of Hizbul Mujahideen. The news hungry media quickly picked up the reports and beamed them, adding to their credibility.
Spread of SMS messages threatening retribution against the people from Northeast for the killing of Muslims of Kokrjhar created panic among them particularly in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai after reports of escalated violence in Mumbai hit the South. People from Northeast numbering thousands, particularly the poorer classes working as daily wage earners fled home as they were not confident of government assurances of providing them security. The whole episode caused widespread damage to social harmony and credibility of the government.
Normally states allow such protests as long as they are peaceful and do not degenerate into violence. Most of the democratic regimes despite strong anti-terrorist laws have limited options to use them as long as protestors do not indulge in acts of violence against the state. Fringe elements of Islamist activism have always exploited these ‘democratic’ political constraints to their advantage.
The extensive use of social media to propagate misleading and provocative messages and visuals to further terrorist cause is the common thread running in the two series of protests discussed. Though Government of India slapped a 15-day ban limiting the number of SMS messaging, prolonging it was not practicable. Similarly the government has persuaded Google to block the offensive You Tube film in India.
Government is planning to set up a dedicated cyber surveillance agency to monitor public domain with an eye to take preventive action against spread of misinformation in the web and social media. However, with 700 million mobile phone users and 100 million internet users in the country it is doubtful that such a mammoth task could be performed effectively by a single agency. Even if it is able to do so, the global connectivity of the web and telephone systems would provide immense opportunities for a determined intruder to neutralise the monitoring agency’s effort.
Preventing terrorists’ easy access to the social media requires holistic approach both at the local and global level. It should involve not only the government, but civil society also to spread awareness and enlisting the support of all others using the web and social media, particularly the techies weeding out sympathisers and fellow travellers of terrorists.
Courtesy: Centre for Land and Air Warfare