Dr Ajai Sahni, an internationally acclaimed research-scholar and author on counterterrorism recently gave an exclusive interview, where he has during 2024 general elections in Bangladesh, if any Islamist group comes to power, it would constitute a threat to the region and India. He said “mischief of Western countries, who have for a long time been trying to interfere with the Sheikh Hasina government, trying to interfere with the war crimes trials or many of these elements are there. You have to recognize that terrorism, extremism, Islamism, all these are actually instrumentalities of subversion”.
Dr. Ajai Sahni serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, which maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website focusing on terrorism in South Asia. He is the editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR), a weekly service that provides regular data, assessments and news briefs on terrorism, insurgencies and sub-conventional warfare, on counter-terrorism responses and policies, as well as on related economic, political, and social issues, in the South Asian region.
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Dr Sahni is also Executive Editor of Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, the quarterly journal of the Institute, since the commencement of the journal in 1999; Executive Director of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, since its conception in 1999 and launch in March 2000; and Member, Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia pacific – India (CSCAP India).
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Shoaib Choudhury: While withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has left the country at mercy of Taliban jihadists, we are already witnessing that the Taliban jihadists are pushing Afghanistan towards dark era, where rights of women and human rights are being grossly violated. Under such scenarios, my question is – what United States and its allies can do to save Afghanistan from the grips of Taliban jihadists and for taking any fresher measures in Afghanistan, United States may once again need to tag Pakistan as an ally, though in the past Pakistan has betrayed with United States and used American money towards funding terrorism. In your opinion, how the US can achieve its goal in Afghanistan with an ally like Pakistan which is already known for patronizing terrorism.
Dr. Ajai Sahni: You see, I think that the United States has played out all its cards it has no significant leverage on Afghanistan anymore. It is trying to recover leverage over Pakistan once again by trying to fund Pakistan by giving for instance they have reopened military aid after 2018 for the first they’ve given them a maintenance package for the F16s that they have supplied them. Supposedly the F16s are to fight terrorism. I mean nothing could be more nonsensical. But I think this is a replay of something that the United States has done again and again and again, even when the Pakistanis are supporting a Taliban which was crossing the border and killing American forces and NATO forces they were still constantly trying to play Pakistan by or rather simply by […] up Pakistan and Pakistan has taken tremendous and continuous advantage for them and amazingly still succeeds in doing so. They are still trying to go back to Pakistan and trying to in some sense restore influence over Afghanistan through Pakistan and despite the fact that Pakistan itself is losing influence in and over the Taliban. So I think apart from the fact that the Americans really burnt all their bridges with Afghanistan when they grew in the manner in which they drew without any of the conditions of the Doha Accord fulfilled by the Taliban the simple flight from Afghanistan. Now other players are coming in are becoming far more influential. China is playing in over there, Russia is playing in over there. So will America through its strategy of what would you call it a strangulation through sections be able to influence the Taliban? I don’t think so. Despite the tremendous humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan the Taliban is not the kind of organization which will have much sympathy or care for the general population. So, I don’t think there is much America can do unless there is a complete reconsideration of the very foundations on which its policies of the recent past have been based.
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Shoaib Choudhury: There are recent developments, where Taliban are trying to penetrate inside Pakistan and declared a part of Pakistan as a part of Taliban administration, a Taliban caliphate. For a country like Pakistan with record of patronizing terrorism, I agree with you, yes, the US needs to reboot its policy and it cannot depend on Pakistan.
About Iran, Dr. Sahni, as you know, in Iran, anti- regime protest is continuing for now for many months. In your opinion, can these protestors succeed in ousting the Ayatollahs from power?
Dr. Ajai Sahni: I don’t really see that as a proximate possibility. You see these are enormously violent, enormously repressive regimes and repression works, for whatever people may you know the idealist may say no revolutions are possible etcetera. Revolutions are possible only when regimes are deeply degraded. The Iran regime is not degraded in that sense. It is continuing to substantially hold its administration and its forces. Yes, there have been very sustained protests no doubt. But we’ve had similar and very sustained protests over months and in in other theaters in the Middle East, and almost every one of them has been suppressed or completely eliminated from, you know the political scenario. I do not think. In fact Iran is far more stable than many of those regimes were working in you had the situation in Egypt was there situation in several other theaters was there. Algeria was something of a success. But I think broadly the protests in Iran are not going to get the scale that is necessary and as you have seen repressive measures have intensified. They have now also announced the death penalty for participants in these protests so gradually. I do not believe that this would be a very successful thing and those who are encouraging these protests from the outside are doing what the West has always done and what the West is also doing in other theaters at this juncture which is allowing locals to be killed to serve their own whatever model geostrategic ends they may have.
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Shoaib Choudhury: But there is uh there is a recent development that in Iran Iranian government is currently extending his collaboration cooperation towards Islamic State and other militancy groups. So don’t you think this is the Iranian issue and then Iranian regime joining hands with ISIS or Al Qaeda it may even further complicate the situation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
Dr. Ajai Sahni: You see historically what Iran has done as is offered limited favor to some of these some individuals connected with these groups some Al Qaeda leaders were there some Islamic State leaders are now being given Safe Haven. But essentially there can be no long-term ideological concert between Iran and the Islamic State running the Al Qaeda. This is a Shia State they are by murtads. They are by definition apostates; they cannot have an enduring relationship with extremists Sunni groupings. So, I don’t think there is any possibility of the Iran having a long-term strategic understanding with either the Islamic State or with Al Qaeda.
Shoaib Choudhury: But maybe don’t you think that for Iran let’s say strategically joining hands with Al Qaeda or Islamic states which are Sunni terrorist groups so do you think that it could be a part of Iran’s broader agent of confronting Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East?
Dr. Ajai Sahni: Only very marginally as I said before they have certainly given Safe Haven to some of the leaders in the past and are likely to continue to do this in future as well. But I don’t think that they will get into too deep an entanglement or can get into too deep an entanglement with either of these groups.
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Shoaib Choudhury: Now I’d like to come to India, because you’re a counterterrorism specialist of global acclaim. In India there is a rise of radical Islamic militancy in many parts of the country and we are aware of the activities of Al Qaeda, I mean AQIS and ISIS in India. So, do you think for a country like India this kind of jihadist groups in Tamil Nadu or West Bengal and other parts of India – do you think these groups may cause certain degree of threats to India’s national security?
Dr. Ajai Sahni: You see, if you see the trends in terrorism in India all patterns of terrorism and particularly Islamist terrorism including terrorism in Pakistan backed terrorism and Jammu and Kashmir they have radically declined. I will just give you one figure the peak of fatalities in in Jammu and Kashmir for instance was 2500 Plus in 2001. We are now seeing something like 200 odd fatalities, 250 fatalities, 300 fatalities a maximum of 400 fatalities, I think in 2018. So, we’ve really come down to a very small fraction of what was ongoing. Outside Jammu and Kashmir there is barely an incident or two very minor incidents usually of terrorists being killed or terrorists very often blowing themselves up while trying to mix in you know explosives. So the actual threat of terrorism today is of Islamist terrorism today is has been marginalized across the country very definitely and has been dramatically reduced even in Jammu and Kashmir where you are seeing a continuous flow of aid assistance you know weapons droppings by drones, money transfers everything is being attempted but shall we say intensity or trajectory of terrorism is certainly declining very dramatically.
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These groups have been all for instance you have you know Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent as you mentioned. Now let me tell you that Al Qaeda has been trying to get into India since 1996. That is when Osama Bin Laden made the first call for a jihad in India. Now between 1996 and the present Al Qaeda has not been able to engineer outside Jammu and Kashmir a single incident apart from a minor train bombing in which a few I think a dozen people were injured. As far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned is concerned, you hear the odd incident by the Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent most of the leaders of this grouping and the grouping has never had more than a dozen or a score of members and most of the leaders of this grouping are very quickly eliminated or arrested and they may play some little, you might say low level [inaudible] of activity continues. But they do not constitute anything no global Islamist group has been able to establish a foothold in any part of India though occasional activities of some groupings may have been noticed. The groups that are a danger to India continued to be the same ones the Islamic the ISI [Pakistani spy agency, Inter-Service Intelligence] sponsored groupings the Pakistani State storm a sponsored groupings including purely Pakistani groupings like the Jaish-e-Muhammad or the Lashkar-e-Taiba or others of Harkatul Mujahideen some surviving elements of the Hizbul Mujahideen which is a mixed group of Indian Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri elements. So all of these are headquartered in Pakistan different parts of Pakistan and operated from Pakistan with the assistance active and visible that is assistance of the Pakistani state. But on the ground what we have seen is that the Indian State forces have established a very substantial dominance they have brought down the intensity of the conflict there from what was for almost 17 years a high intensity conflict more than a thousand fatalities a year to the current situation where we see 200, 300 fatalities a year with limited fluctuations sometimes it goes a little up and sometimes it comes a little down but that’s roughly where we are right now. So neither the international groupings nor indeed now the Pakistan backed groupings have the kind of the international groupings have never been able to establish any kind of impact and the Pakistan groupings are also now increasingly declining in their capacities to operate.
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Shoaib Choudhury: So in this case now as you just now mentioned that the Islamic militancy groups were not able to establish its foothold in India and we know that by and large India is a country of uh religious harmony, interfaith harmony everything so in this case I mean this since as you say that the density of the Islamic militancy has been greatly – substantially contained in India and we know there is a government in India about under prime minister Narendra Modi from 2014. Do you or can we give credit to the present government for this achievement which has resulted in decline in the activities of the jihadist groups and Islamic militancy groups Pakistani patronized terrorist groups in India?
Dr. Ajai Sahni: No I don’t think so. You see these trends have been established well before this government came into power. If you look at Jammu and Kashmir for instance in 2012 total fatalities according to our data had already come down to as little as 121. In Jammu and Kashmir. According to government data they came down below 100 right down to 99. So we were at a much lower level and after this government has come into power if anything there has been a local escalation a slight escalation from the lowest figure of 121 that we record.
So this is certainly not something this government has engineered. If anything is government through its polarizing politics through its communalized politics may have revived a certain degree of resentment in the populations which may have fed the militancy to a certain extent. Moreover, I don’t think any of the major they have actually completely made politics impossible in Jammu and Kashmir. So while we were at a stage where I think the fatalities or the violence levels had come down to a point where a political initiative could have secured a far greater consolidation. Security forces alone cannot end an insurgency or terrorist movement they can contain it but at the end of the day the resolution has to come through the administration and it has to come through an outreach of the administration to the affected area, that means Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of such an outreach what we have seen actually are deeply disruptive interventions article 370. For instance, the move on article 370 and what they did after article 370 which is completely marginalized or neutralized all local political groupings. Now we need you have to have political groupings to resolve an issue in the end. If you do not have a political if you want a political outreach from the center to Jammu and Kashmir it must be to a political leadership not to your own proxies there and your own proxies over there have not been able to uh generate even the slightest credible support base. Apart from the fact that every everyone who is put up immediately becomes a target for whatever remains of the terrorist movement so there is also the fear factor. So I don’t think the government has done anything dramatically uh positive and if there has been a tremendous consolidation of the forces on the ground that is because of the buildup. Gradually you see the trend in terrorism was continuously declining from 2000 a peak in 2001 and then slowly and gradually continuously downwards right to 2012 and then again, we start seeing a gradual increase. Similarly, if you see terrorism outside Jammu and Kashmir Islamist terrorism outside Jammu and Kashmir the peak was in 2008. After that you have seen a dramatic decline and now you have the ones and twos in terms of incidents and many of these incidents in the recent past have been these what they call self-radicalized individuals who go out do some they have no linkages no significant connections. They go out they kill one person or kill two people and that is the end of their careers and their lives also. So these are not every such death is a tragedy that is not to be sort of denial. But these do not constitute national security issues.
So again post 2008 we see a continuous decline and it is not that this government has done anything radical so the consolidation under this government to the degree that it has occurred has occurred as a result of regard the operation or of the security forces of the security force who have continued to do what they were doing. What the government has done is actually in substantial measure inject a measure of destabilization rather than of greater stabilization.
Shoaib Choudhury: I would like to focus on another issue. Tablighi Jamaat. In my opinion Tablighi Jamaat is the vessel of the jihadist recruitment. Saudi Arabia has recently banned Tablighi Jamaat, but Tablighis are active in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and in the subcontinent.
Do you see Tablighis as a threat to the regional securities and if it is so that what measures our governments can initiate to check this organization?
Dr. Ajai Sahni: You see this is where we come into extremely gray areas. Constantly one has reiterated as far as the Tablighi Jamaat in India is concerned that they have not at any stage endorsed terrorism or have we seen members of the current members of Tablighi Jamaat engaging in terrorism. So we have to find out that the difficulty is that almost all extremely conservative religious organizations tend to be only a hair’s breath away from radical and violent terrorist groupings. The minute you are preaching a supremacist or an exclusive religious faith you are already trading dangerous ground. Now the question is that in democracies do we have the right to ban such advocacy which would require you to ban a great deal of religious activity and that can also become a instrumentality of the operation of the state where religious freedoms are being denied. So this is a very difficult question to answer.
Do I think the Tablighi Jamaat is a problem? Absolutely. But I also think that many other religious organizations are a problem. Now the choice is to begin to be more and more indiscriminate in our action against religious organizations or accept that there will be a certain degree of difficulty in dealing. You see similarly you’re talking about Tablighi Jamaat, you could take the Deoband. Now across the world Deobandi are supposed to be the you know source of so much difficulty. But many people who were Tablighi did go on to become terrorists, many people who have come from Deobandi from Deoband, did go on to become terrorist. But nobody Deoband and Tablighi Jamaat have both condemned terrorists. So we have to ask very I think pointed questions understand that we as democracies will have to accept certain risks that arise out of the advocacy of permitted ideologies. Religious ideologies are permitted ideologies. I have problems with almost all religious ideologies I mean you do there is a Christianist extremism there is Hindu extremism, there is Buddhist extremisms. Now how many of these groupings are we to act against so we have to wait till there is a crossing of the Rubicon so to speak when their speech ceases to be advocacy where it ceases to be a religious sermonizing and becomes incitement. Incitement to offenses or incitement to terrorism, incitement to violence, incitement to hatred of the other group. When they cross that line then you have to act against them and wherever they cross that line I think action is now slowly being taken some countries have recognized the linkages between extremist action and the Tablighi.
When we see that in India, I think we will also begin to take action and I think you are seeing some of these difficulties emerging in Bangladesh.
So where you see this emerging you have taken action against so many other groups. Jamaat e Islami is of course it was a banned group in Bangladesh for a long time after War of Independence. But now it is a no longer a banned group. But it is developing linkages with terrorist organizations as a result of which you have arrested the head of the Jamaat e Islam. So these things cannot be decided at a stroke. They must be decided in terms of current and local action by these groupings. If the Tablighi Jamaat in the UK has been found to be funding terrorist activities, UK will take action against them. If Tablighi Jamaat Bangladesh begins to create difficulties in terms of actual activity, not create generic difficulties, increasing fundamentalization, fanaticism, unfortunately there are all permitted to be fanatics you know there is no ban against fanaticism the ban is against acting against others on the basis of analysis. So when that line is crossed certainly we should take action against any grouping not specifically Tablighi Jamaat but any grouping that crosses that line.
Shoaib Choudhury: We would like to ask the last question. We know that you are very much focusing on the terrorism and other issues related to global peace. So you know since 2009 as secularist government is in power in Bangladesh under the leadership of Prime minister Sheikh Hasina and this government has been vigorously confronting terrorism and religious extremism. Sheikh Hasina has combated those insurgency groups which were active in India and using Bangladeshi soil and those has been uprooted by Sheikh Hasina’s government. Now in 2024 next year, Bangladesh will be holding another general election where Islamists as you mentioned Jamaat-e-Islami, Islamists – Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Islamists – they are trying to come to power. In the recent time it is seen that Islamists in Bangladesh are unfortunately getting support or sympathy from the Western countries is particularly the US – Biden Administration. Do you think for a Muslim majority country like Bangladesh with 180 million population, any Islamic government may pose serious threat to the region and also to India.
Dr. Ajai Sahni: First, I’d like to sort of underline very strongly I have written about this again and again. I think what Sheikh Hasina’s government has done in the last two tenure is a virtual miracle. I do not see a comparable turnaround in any other country. I do remember perhaps a little fanciful but in early 2000s, I think 2002 or 2003, somebody in India had written a book titled Bangladesh the next Afghanistan. I disagreed with that even then. But at a certain level the perception was that Bangladesh was really on the cusp of you know a Islamist takeover that terrorism would the fleeing terrorists from Afghanistan were all going to collect in Bangladesh and Bangladesh is going to come to an explosive situation. But Sheikh Hasina and her government have done a tremendous job in suppressing these groupings in dismantling them, some very low level I mean to the extent that now we find that they are finding it safer to you know move into India rather than operate in Bangladesh. So there are some of these groups and their leaders have moved tried to across the border have been arrested in India others are presumably hiding somewhere in India also. So I think that’s a tremendous achievement on her part. I think it would be the greatest tragedy if an Islamist government comes into power into Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina whatever other they may be legitimate criticisms of her own, but she has also engineered one of the greatest economic recoveries as far as Bangladesh is concerned.
So it’s not just a question that a Islamist government in Bangladesh would constitute a threat to the region and India. It would constitute a threat to the well-being of Bangladesh itself. The gains of the past you know well at 10/11 years are at risk. Now you must also understand the mischief of Western countries, who have for a long time been trying to interfere with the Sheikh Hasina government, trying to interfere with the war crimes trials or many of these elements are there. You have to recognize that terrorism, extremism, Islamism, all these are actually instrumentalities of subversion. They are instrumentalities that are being exploited by many powers across the world including the west from time to time. To subvert the sovereignty of countries. And that is what is being attempted against Bangladesh today. There is a stable government, there is a government that has done well for itself, done well for the people of Bangladesh far better than most of the other South Asian countries and this is the government they are trying to destabilize why because they seek one so again to create a new neocolonial kind of control. Weak disruptive and unstable governments are always what the West desires in all these regions because that is what gives them the leverage that is what gives them the control and that is what gives them access to resources and whatever other advantages they seek. So, I’m very clear on this it would be a disaster and I don’t know how the elections are going to go. But if one of these groupings comes into power or a collectivity which is what is being sought to be engineered if a collectivity of these groups comes into power in Bangladesh, I think the greatest tragedy will be for Bangladesh itself as for the others I am sure each country will have to manage on its own. Some overflows will be there, but the grievous damage will be to Bangladesh itself.
Shoaib Choudhury: We have reached to the last moment of our interview and thank you very much for your valued time and we both hope that Islamists will not succeed in coming to power in Bangladesh. We definitely need a secularist government like that of Sheikh Hasina in this country for Bangladesh’s prosperity and for peace and also for regional security.
Thank you very much Dr Ajay Sahni for giving you us your time and we will again be coming back to you with more interview in the future.
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