The assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey by a lone gunman at an exhibition, in Ankara in Turkey last week, is clear evidence of the enlarging contours of terrorism. Turkey is no longer a merely troubled country. Its geography and chequered history make it a potentially very grave theatre of conflict. The perpetrator, who was later shot dead by security forces, was a policeman said to have jihadist links. It is naive to dismiss the Ambassador’s killing as a mere act in reprisal for Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian offensive against its rebels. It is far more than that. The attack reflects growing exasperation by a wide spectrum of forces in West Asia at gross external interference. Therefore, the daring murder cannot be viewed in isolation and has to be necessarily linked to the overall problem of terrorism across the globe.
Eyes on Russia
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on the horns of a dilemma: whether to go the whole hog and align himself with the extremist elements propping up the jihadist cause in order to broaden his eroding support base in the country, or still pretend to be moderate for the sake of conserving his fragile ties with the West. He seems embarrassed and weighed down by the dynamics of a fast-evolving situation. Knowing as we do of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s petulance and panache for high-handedness, he may not be expected to take the killing of his envoy lying down. What form his response will take is anybody’s guess. With Mr. Putin showing no signs of reneging on his pledge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whatever more the Russian leader does will further muddy the waters. He has already imposed a team of a Russian investigators, and this might cause some resentment within the Turkish police.
Another attack, which saw a man drive a speeding tractor-trailer through crowds of shoppers at a market in central Berlin, which killed 12 and injured many more, and yet another attack by a lone shooter on a Muslim prayer hall in the Swiss city of Zurich in which some people were injured – almost simultaneous to the Ankara incident – strengthen the impression that lone wolf attacks have become the order of the day. That jihadi groups prefer this modus operandi is logical if one reckons that it is swift and efficient, requiring few other resources or any concerted or elaborate preparation. Europe is possibly going to bear the brunt of future savagery that could energise a wide spectrum of forces, such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and a host of fringe outfits which are smarting under growing restrictions of governments in the continent on religious symbols such as the hijab and the hood.
Two leaders in particular are going to face the heat, with its own consequences to the nations they lead. Mr. Putin, who already has a dubious record in Chechnya, may have to face the impact of a dangerous, direct coalescence between rebels there and terror groups in at least three countries, viz.,Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Not that there is no existing active collaboration between Chechen elements and jihadist forces in West Asia. There are several reports that point to a sizeable number of Chechens fighting from within IS ranks. It may be recalled that an attack by armed Chechens on a theatre in Dubrovka in Moscow, back in 2002, had resulted in 170 casualties.
An equally endangered personality is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is facing what is billed to be a tough general election to decide whether she will get a fourth term. Her decision to allow in a million refugees from West Asia has already led to strong protests from the extreme right in the country, which is linking the recent Berlin terror attack to her benevolence in providing sanctuary to far too many refugees. If she has to win the nation’s mandate one more time, she may have to be seen as acting tough, which could again be easily distorted as targeting Islam. If she acts excessively tough in the process of proving her credentials as a German nationalist, there could be a series of terror forays into the country. The IS has claimed responsibility for the Berlin incident, but some analysts do not give credence to this. It has been seen in the past year that whenever a terrorist act is reported from any part of the globe, near or remote, the IS has been quick to take credit. Alongside this phenomenon, we are aware that since losing its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the IS is under immense pressure to look outward and make its presence felt through spectacular actions. The relatively freely available ingress into Europe of cadres escaping from West Asia – especially the liberal admittance to Germany – combined with the absence of internal borders, a major loophole of the Schengen agreement, facilitate indoctrinated elements arriving in the continent to resort to terror after an initial survey of the land and hiding behind the cover of some trade or the other. The fact that apart from the recent attack on one of Berlin’s Christmas markets there have been at least six previous instances of terror in Germany over the course of a year makes sense that the latter country has a high vulnerability. German agencies first suspected the involvement of a Pakistani immigrant who was seen at the scene by a local resident. In quick time they realised that they were on the wrong track and released him. The recovery of a few identification documents from the truck that was driven into shoppers in the market led to a chase to apprehend a Tunisian national, Anis Amri, who had arrived in Europe a few years ago seeking asylum. Amri was then traced in northern Milan and shot dead by the Italian police. There is information that he could have had links with virulent Salafist circles, especially Abu Walaa, a known Iraqi-preacher based in Hildesheim in Germany. It is alleged that Walaa had recruited some youths to the IS. Walaa was once detained briefly by the German police and then let off for lack of evidence. Amri’s profile is interesting. The 24-year-old Tunisian was born in the central Tunisian town of Oueslatia, in one of the country’s poorest regions, and dropped out from school early. His failure to secure decent employment influenced him to sneak into Europe. He was under German police watch while awaiting deportation to his home country. Thereafter he went off the radar to commit his dastardly crime in Berlin. His family back home refuse to believe that he had such a fanatical streak. This is the pattern seen in many past instances across the globe. The immediate kith and kin of a perpetrator of terror hardly vouch for an indoctrinated mind, confirming that indoctrination is an invisible and subtle process difficult to detect even by the members of a well-knit family. It is equally true that where an individual is reported by his day-to-day contacts, such as neighbours or colleagues at an office, for displaying abnormality, the police find little evidence that will attract the attention of the law. The hard truth is that one can scan the physical body of a suspected terrorist, but you cannot unravel his mind to frustrate his evil designs. This is the travesty that marks the world of terrorism in the present day.
In more substantive terms, recent attacks make law enforcement officials believe that terror groups have altered their tactics. Apart from encouraging individual sympathisers to act spontaneously on their own, the groups seem to have endorsed the modus operandi of using a motor vehicle to drive into crowds in order to create all round panic and cause as many casualties as possible. We saw this in Nice in July when an armed man who owed allegiance to al-Qaeda drove a truck through a crowd that had gathered to watch Bastille Day celebrations in Nice. The explanation of some security experts to this novel form of violence is that this kind of attack is easier in terms of logistics and effortlessly evades the police eye. No great preparation is required. You need only to hire a truck on payment by presenting false identification. This is an eye-opener that has to be kept in mind while organising security arrangements on important national celebration days.
In sum, we face the prospect of increased terrorist activity in multiple regions of the world, and especially in Europe. Intensified electronic and physical surveillance of suspected groups or individuals can help
only a little.
Therefore, there will be more pressure on law enforcement to somehow produce quick results even if it means using methods which may not exactly pass the test of law or ethics. This is as fundamental an analysis as is possible in a terror-stricken world.
R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director.