It has been an extremely distressing week. Three instances of IS/Taliban terrorism in a row, each more horrific than the previous.
On 13 December, Bangalore police arrested one Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who had been operating a much followed and potent pro-IS twitter account, @ShamiWitness. He was tracked in Bangalore as part of the IS terror group's Twitter activities, after investigation by Channel 4, UK. His account was solely and "ferociously" dedicated to the ISIS, activities of militants, possibly networks for recruitment, but definitely ideological incitement, advocacy and information dissemination to ISIS recruits. According to Channel 4, "He spoke to British jihadis regularly before they left to join ISIS and after they arrived, and if they died, he praised them as martyrs. His updates from ISIS frontlines and constant interactions with the faces of ISIS made him a hit, with over 17,000 followers and 2 million hits every month. He was a successful propaganda tool for the ISIS." Channel 4 also quoted him as saying that he had not joined IS jihadist ranks in Iraq and Syria because his family was financially dependent on him.
Clearly, Mehdi was a friend, philosopher and guide to the IS. But what strikes strongly is that he is no poverty stricken, marginalised, semi literate, or discriminated citizen of India. He is an urbane young engineer of 24 years, comes from a professional middle class family, and works as an executive for a prestigious food company in Bangalore, earning a respectable salary. He admitted to operating the incendiary @ShamiWitness Twitter account for several years, but found nothing wrong with what he was doing.
The Bangalore police appear to have been completely taken by surprise and admitted they had no clue about Mehdi or his IS linked activities. They started the case on the back-foot, facing the ignominy of receiving details from a distant foreign land of a continuous cyber-crime taking place in their jurisdiction and availing their assistance for tracking the accused. They also exposed themselves as technologically lagging far behind cyber offenders, both in terms of surveillance and detection.
The police commissioner seems to have prematurely certified that Mehdi was only an IS sympathiser, not directly involved in recruiting for them, had never left the country, and that he was "only active in the virtual world". How he could reach such a conclusion when the investigation had not even started was something that baffled many. He appeared to forget that basic investigation protocols require that information on all aspects of a case must first be obtained and confirmed through all sources, and only then announced to the public. Unfortunately, the urge for visibility seems to be converting the seriousness of an investigation into a sport that requires a running commentary. This is something that can adversely affect the strength of investigation, and the future success of the case in court. Mercifully, of late, such statements have stopped, perhaps on the advice of the NIA or MI6, and the nation awaits the result of the investigation, that should throw light regarding the extent of IS indoctrination in India.
While India was still discussing the dimensions of the revelations from Channel 4, came another tragic incident from Sydney. On the morning of 15 December, an armed man walked into the Lindt Chocolate Café in Martin Place, in the heart of Sydney's business district, shut it up, and held about 30 hostages at gunpoint. A black flag bearing an Islamic creed, written in white, was held up to the glass window. The gunman turned out to be one Haron Monis, an Iranian who had sought political asylum in Australia in 1996.
The Australian police response was professional and swift, cordoning off and evacuating the area. About seven hours later, the police had contacted the hostage-taker through their crack police unit, trained in psychology for negotiating with criminals in a hostage situation. While the Australian Prime Minister was instilling courage among the people, the country's Muslim leaders immediately condemned the siege, and offered authorities their support, a most encouraging gesture in a country where the Muslim population has grown by two thirds in the last decade, with vulnerability to jihadi influence and radicalisation.
The siege continued during the day. Sixteen hours later, police stormed into the café, after hearing gunshots and explosions. Monis was shot dead, but only after he had taken the lives of two hostages, a woman barrister Katrina Dawson, and the manager of the café, Tori Johnson, who had tried to wrest the gun from Monis.
The Sydney siege is the first Islamic terror attack on Australia. Though deep in shock and mourning, it has behaved like a civilised nation, betraying no outrage against the Muslim community and instead offering them support, in case they felt insecure. The police have been tight lipped and correct, assisting citizens, but not giving any premature information or speculating about the terrorist attack to the public.
However, a rather disturbing fact has emerged after this tragic episode: Monis had a criminal record, faced more than 40 sexual and indecent assault charges, and was out on bail for being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. He had also been convicted of sending offensive letters to the families of deceased Australian soldiers, and had an "infatuation with extremism". How such a person with a history of extremism and violence got access to a weapon, and could roam unmonitored in Sydney's Central Business District are questions that immediately come to mind.
Official reports from Iran stated that they had repeatedly warned Australia about Monis' criminal past, and had called for him to be kept under surveillance. It does appear a little surprising that this was ignored by the Australian government. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott ordered an urgent inquiry into why Monis, who faced serious charges and was out on bail, was not under surveillance, and how he obtained citizenship. No doubt plenty has gone wrong within the system, and the Australian government must certainly be doing its own introspection.
The very next day, on 16 December, the world witnessed in sheer horror the most blood curdling and demonic face of terrorism. Six terrorists from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, stormed into the Army Public School in Peshawar and killed 148 innocent people, including 132 children. The TTP claimed responsibility, announcing that this was revenge for the deaths of children allegedly killed by Pakistani soldiers in tribal areas of Waziristan. India mourned with Pakistan at this massacre of innocents by the savages, and grieved with the families for the inconsolable.
It was inevitable that the debate would at some time turn towards the fact that the Taliban and terror groups nurtured by Pakistan for destabilising India were now gunning for the same Pakistan state and military establishment. Tragically, it has taken the tragic massacre of 132 innocent children and their caretakers for Pakistan to strip the purdah off its double games, and see the reality it should have seen decades ago — that you cannot nurture terror and at the same time combat it, that there's no such thing as a good Taliban and a bad Taliban.
Pakistan is in shock and grief. The Army and ISI must understandably be in turmoil, because they must now come to terms with the fact that their terror management strategies have become irrelevant and self-destructive. The TTP has a bloody record, the All Saints Church massacre, Karachi airport siege, suicide attack at Marriott Hotel, Islamabad and the attempted murder of the brave Malala. The terror structures that the Pakistan state machinery helped create and support are now well beyond their control and are raring to overthrow them. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may well say, "We have resolved to continue the war against terrorism till the last terrorist is eliminated," but Pakistani terrorism, the Army and the ISI determine how much democracy and political space he will have, and what his defence and his foreign policy will be. Kashmir is just an excuse. If Pakistan really loved Kashmir, would they hand over Aksai Chin to China?
I am an avid reader of well known columnist Khaled Ahmed, who in his latest piece on 18 December writes, "Predictably, Hafiz Saeed of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), with a $10 million bounty on his head, declared from Lahore that, once again, 'India has done it'. He is so powerful that many clerics joined him, slavishly swearing revenge on India." Clearly, Pakistan has a long way to go become it can completely extinguish its Frankenstein monster.
We have yet to see how events pan out in Pakistan. In my opinion, the only peaceful, progressive and strategic course open for Pakistan is to fight terror jointly with India. But every politician in Pakistan is still afraid to condemn the Taliban.
Before I close, I recommend to my readers to carefully read every page of a recent book, Religion Gone Astray, written jointly by three authors of different faiths, Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman. Particularly what the Imam has to say about jihad, which today has become such a murderous word: "Thanks to misinformation in the media and misrepresentation by Islamic extremists, many Westerners associate the word Jihad with 'Holy war' and suicide bombing. To set the record straight, jihad literally means 'effort' and refers primarily to the spiritual effort to evolve into the fullness of one's being, to improve relationships with family and neighbours, and to work for justice. The more militant concept of jihad, that so threatens the Western mind, refers only to self-defence when under attack. The idea of jihad as 'holy war' simply does not exist in the Quran, even though this is the prevailing notion not only in the media but also, unfortunately among some Islamic militants."
No God of any faith in our universe blesses the barbarity of the TTP, and the great Prophet would be weeping in sorrow. Will the enlightened Muslim intellectuals and rationalists in the world please speak up?