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International experts examine growing extremism in South Asia

International experts examine growing extremism in South Asia and its repercussions for the West during the 37th Session of the UNHRC in Geneva.

Geneva, 13 March 2018: A very successful and well-attended Side-event was organized by the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) during the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The event was titled, “Growing Extremism in South Asia; Repercussions for the West”. A panel of scholars and experts deliberated upon the growing phenomenon of extremism, radicalism and terrorism in South Asia, in particular in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what this means for the West.

The event was moderated by Ms. Yoana Barakova (Research Analyst EFSAS) and was attended by diplomats, International human rights activists, NGO representatives and academicians.

Dr. Paul Stott, author of various books on Jihadism, lecturer at the University of Leicester and in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London spoke on the history of Jihadism and the British and South Asian Nexus and explained the historical basis for the growth of radicalization and how both Britain and the Indian Subcontinent have been cross-fertilized by particular Islamist and Jihadist actors across various decades. He began his speech indicated that Terrorism in the modern era, despite popular belief, did not start with 9/11, but could be attributed to Mrs. Margaret Thatcher’s visit to Pakistan and her meeting with General Zia-ul-Haq in 1981, which was seen by both countries as an endorsement of Zia, while Pakistan was going through a process of ongoing Islamization and the consequences for UK became only visible with the impetus of the struggle in Afghanistan given to Sunni armed insurgent groups. He emphasized that it is not only about British nationals going out to the Indian Subcontinent and joining such groups, but about people from Pakistan, particularly clerics coming to the UK and recruiting for Jihad. In his speech, he further gave examples of the 1993 UK speaking tour of Masood Azhar of Harkat ul-Ansar, which got support from leading British Deobandis, where during over 40 talks the latter reiterated that young British Muslims should be seeking Jihad. The consequences of this Pakistan-UK Jihadist connection became visible quite quickly – in 1994, Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British National became involved in kidnappings of British tourists in New Delhi, then afterwards in 1995, Hafiz Saeed held a speaking tour across UK mosques, Islamic centers and universities, inciting students to fight in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir and find salvation, and the Taliban regime from 1996 additionally presenting an image of ‘actually existing Sharia’ to young Britons, where Pakistan providing the bridge for those people to enter Afghanistan. He afterwards argued how the 9/11 era finally put events in that decade into perspective, which was the start of looking critically at Brits going out to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, following the collapse of the Taliban. He further illuminated the violence that could be traced back to this cross-fertilization of Britain and South Asia in the face of numerous examples, such as the first British suicide bomber in Afghanistan, Khalid Shaheed, who was Birmingham born, the 2000 suicide attack at an Indian army base in Srinagar (Indian Adminsitered Jammu & Kashmir) by Mohammed Bilal from Birmingham, for Jaish-e-Muhammad, the 2002 kidnapping and murder in Karachi of Daniel Pearl and the Birmingham man of Kashmiri ancestry, Rashid Rauf who married into Masood Azhar’s family and joined JeM. He also gave a list of attacks and thwarted plots in the UK with connections to South Asia, namely the Operation Crevice case in 2003, the London Transport Bombings (7/7) in 2005, the Botched 21/7 bombings, the Liquid Bomb Plot in 2006, and the 2009 Manchester Arndale Centre plot. In a 2006 terrorism trial in the UK, Mohammed Ajmal Khan of Coventry was found to be a ‘person of authority’ in Lashkar-e-Taiba. Dr. Paul Stott’s extensive historical overview of the British-South Asian nexus laid bare the interconnectedness between growing Jihadism in the Indian subcontinent and the repercussions for Great Britain, in particular.

Mr. Serge Stroobants, the European Representative for the Institute for Economics and Peace, a serving Lt Col. of the Belgian Armed Forces, Professor at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels and a Senior Associate at the European Institute for Asian Studies in his speech on Terrorism, South Asia, NATO and the EU, spoke about NATO and EU’s role in the South Asian region, while arguing that it is very difficult to examine this approach, since the current focus of both organizations is on the periphery of Europe and the Euro-Atlantic Area and in addition, when comparing NATO and the EU, it is evident that both have a very different approach. NATO’s toolbox is like a hammer considering the military intervention in Afghanistan, whereas the EU has a more softer approach and is more effective throughout the different phases of evolution of conflicts. When exploring escalations of violence, according to Lt. Col. Stroobants, NATO is a better manager of crisis whereas when it comes to prevention or stabilization, the EU is a more appropriate agent. The Global Terrorism Index data, which he discussed extensively showed a spread of the terrorism phenomenon to more countries, which have been affected by at least one terrorist attack. According to the Global Terrorism Index, overall 75% of all attacks occur in 5 countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria), which abide to the Muslim Ummah concept, and are perpetrated by 4 groups, which include Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. 99.5% of all terrorist attacks take place in countries with armed conflicts or in situations where human right or political rights are neglected or ignored. These two causes were according to him, the key drivers for terrorism. He concluded by saying that when comparing South Asia and the West, there is a different perception about security, especially when examining the levels of vulnerability, which requires a more comprehensive approach.

Mr. Junaid Qureshi, a Kashmiri writer and Director of EFSAS discussed Pan-Islamism in Jammu & Kashmir and said that Pakistan funded and propagated radical- and militant Islam has made deep inroads into the Kashmir Valley while the unholy alliance of organized fundamental interpretations of religion and gun culture has led to structural changes at cultural levels of the society. He further stated that the violence in the Kashmir Valley is religious in character and not political anymore, while it is being dominated by group of militant leaders acting under a Pan-Islamic ideology. Mr. Qureshi also added that the earlier ‘Azaadi’ or Freedom slogan for autonomy and rectification of political grievances, has currently transformed into the expression of revulsion and rage against ‘Hindu’ India and anything that is non-Muslim. The Director of EFSAS referred to the recent video of Zakir Musa, a former Hizbul Mujahideen commander, who later on joined the terrorist outfit Al-Qaeda, in which he warned that people would be beheaded for referring to the Kashmir issue as a ‘political’ and not an Islamic struggle and in which he ordained the Kashmiri youth to reject concepts of democracy and nationalism and turn towards Islam while openly inciting youth to throw stones at security forces and pick up arms to wage a Jihad. Mr. Qureshi ended his speech by saying that the issue of Jammu & Kashmir requires a political solution, but first the people of Jammu & Kashmir, India and Pakistan are in urgent need of liberation from terrorism, violence, fear and uncertainty and that a political solution could only be found peace would prevail. Lastly, Mr. Qureshi made an appeal to the people of Jammu & Kashmir and urged them to comprehend that practices that have led to the destruction of social order, pluralism and inter-religious harmony in Kashmir, can never be divine.

Mr. Maarten P. Bolhuis, a Researcher and lecturer at the Criminal Law and Criminology department of the VU University in Amsterdam and fellow of the Center for International Criminal Justice held a presentation on South Asia and Europe and the nexus between asylum, immigration and Jihadism, in which he identified three risks which need to be acknowledged; First, the risk that Jihadists use asylum routes to enter Europe and also the asylum procedure, secondly, the risk that recruitment can and does take place among asylum seekers and thirdly, that people residing in asylum reception centers radicalize. However, he argued that it is difficult to assess those risks and tell how real they are, as there is very less data available on such issues. While focusing on what the European States have done in order to respond to those risks, he added that there is evidence that people who have committed terrorist attacks in Europe have indeed used routes and asylum procedures to enter Europe and got radicalized after entering Europe as asylum-seekers. One example which he gave was of a 17-year old asylum seeker from Afghanistan who on a train in Germany, attacked passengers and pledged allegiance to ISIS. Mr. Bolhuis added, that over the last years the attention for national security in the context of immigration has substantially increased, and this has resulted and translated into a much closer cooperation between immigration services, security services and law enforcement, which is visible through the establishment of various information exchange structures. He further elaborated that increasingly, frontline professionals, the people working with asylum-seekers are called upon to assist in the detection of national security threats. Yet he warned that using instructions or indicators or profiles may have side effects, such as over-reporting or stigmatization and therefore they might not necessarily be effective.

The event was followed by a vibrant Q&A Session in which the audience consisting of various nationalities and professional backgrounds actively took part. The audience was particularly interested in how South Asian countries and the West could cooperate in fighting global terrorism. There was a consensus among the speakers and the audience that opportunities to formalize intelligence sharing policies, counter-terrorism operations and training for law-enforcement personnel among the region, ought to be availed. It was further stated that the spread of extremist forces in addition to their interrelated networks and infrastructure should compel the nations in South Asia to overcome mistrust and stop using overt and covert policies which subdivide terrorists into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The speakers said that history has proven in the case of Afghanistan in the past, and more recently, in Pakistan, that using terrorism as a State policy with debatable aims of advancing strategic interests, will eventually backlash.

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