People who are ready to take their own lives are very difficult to stop. This lesson was reinforced last week by the suicide attack on a Shia masjid in Peshawar that killed 20 people and injured dozens more. Clearly any successful attempt to fight suicidal terror must keep this bitter reality in mind.
The war we fight now, with guns and bullets and bombs against those who seek to shed the blood of innocent people, is necessary. But it is not sufficient. And on its own it will not succeed.
In taking on the terrorists our army is fighting what is in essence a guerrilla war. In such conflicts the enemy mingles with local populations. It becomes difficult to discern terrorists from ordinary civilians. Traditional armies will not target civilians and so their hands are tied. Terrorists have no such scruples. When the tide turns against them they always have the option to slink away to other softer targets such as the ill-fated masjid in Peshawar.
The only way to win against such an enemy is to discredit the ideology that fuels recruitment, and incites to hate and violence. The objective is to show it in its true light: Spurious, deceitful and tendentious so that young people are never again drawn to it.
Conventional warfare has for long been familiar with what has come to be known as a ‘pincer movement’. Described first by Sun Tzu, in his masterpiece The Art of War, it calls for the attacking army to encircle the enemy from both flanks.
This is the sort of approach we need to take with the terrorists. But with one important modification. One flank of the pincer is the war we now fight – the ‘hot’ war. The other flank must be what we are not now doing: An attack on the pernicious ideology that makes young men and women believe that killing is virtuous. This second flank – the ‘cold’ war – may well be the more important of the two. And only the two working together – the literal flank of the hot war and the figurative flank of the cold war – can lead to victory.
So how does one wage this cold war? It must have as its basis an attack on terrorist ideology aimed at discrediting it. Much of this ideology comes from a misreading or deliberate misinterpretation of religious texts such as the Quran. And so the strategy must be to provide an authoritative alternative interpretation, which refutes absolutely the terrorist interpretation.
Even a cursory reading of the Quran reveals that the space allotted to the concepts of mercy, forgiveness, kindness, charity, justice and brotherhood by far exceeds talk of conflict and war. Further, when the Quran does sanction violence it does so, as it were, reluctantly when all other efforts at peace fail. And in many cases the sanction is specific to historical context and hence no longer applicable. The upshot is that there is no paucity of material to counter the terrorist narrative. Yet, amazingly, no effort is made to deploy this powerful tool.
At its heart this is really a marketing problem. And the tools of modern marketing need to be used to develop and implement our cold war strategy. The first is market research;we need to understand precisely what message the perpetrators of terror are conveying to their young recruits. Focus groups with ex-extremists can help identify the specific source material in the Quran or other texts by which the message is substantiated.
Once this is understood the work to develop a counter narrative begins. Alternative interpretations to the source material adduced by the perpetrators of terror are prepared. Then other relevant sections of the source material are used to craft messages that extol mercy and abhor murder.
Once these ideas crystalize the final stage is to create the actual audio and video messages, which will run on radio and TV. Let’s remember that the license agreements of all TV channels require that in every broadcast hour they set aside 10 minutes for public service messages. All the government has to do is to invoke its right to this time and it will achieve the sort of blanket coverage at no cost for its messages that commercial marketers can only dream of getting.
There is one other potentially powerful anti-terror tool that has till now, sadly, remained firmly in its sheath. The Prime Minister himself needs to take to the airwaves and address the nation – repeatedly if necessary. He must present the evidence – references to the source material – that refute absolutely the narrative of the suicide bombers. He must speak up with firmness and courage on a multitude of issues – the Sunni Shia divide, the treatment of Ahmadis, and the criminal misuse of blasphemy laws. He must realize that he is uniquely placed to do this. If he cannot do it then no one can. This is his chance to prove that he merits the chair he sits in. There is still time, though not much, to show that he has what it takes.