It’s Time Governments Told Citizens the Bitter Truth About Terrorism

It is not possible to stop all terror attacks. Whether they like it or not, ordinary people need to adopt a soldier-like mentality in the face of an incident.

People attend a candle light vigil for the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 3, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

People attend a candle light vigil for the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 3, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

“If I were to be captured, I would want no negotiations.”

This statement by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger holds more relevance today than ever before, as terror attacks continue to escalate around the world. That a terrorist group like ISIS chose to attack Muslim nations such as Turkey and Bangladesh, that too during the holy month of Ramzan and on Eid, was clearly intentional and a bid to show that non-Muslims would not be safe anywhere in the world, not even in Muslim countries. Indeed, one expects more such attacks to follow, with India also likely a target.

Clearly, much more is required of governments. Thus far, the right noises have been made with world leaders condemning the attacks and promising to do more to fight terror. But such statements fail to address the elephant in the room – although the state machinery may do its best, terrorist attacks will continue to occur. Global terrorist organisations – possessing both funds and fighters in the countries they intend to attack – are likely to succeed, especially if they target public places like hotels, airports and malls. This is an ugly truth no state will easily admit to.

Arming the citizen

What then is to be done? Should citizens agree to give up some civil liberties and hand over more powers to the state? No. As history has told us time and again, such experiments have resulted in disaster. The real solution is acceptance and containment.

Today, governments have to accept that they can no longer stop all terror attacks from happening and as a result counter-terrorism policies need to include the citizen as well. Besides introducing mass drills that involve citizens, especially those who are working in possible ‘target’ locations such as universities, hospitals and hotels, governments must do their best to drive home Kissinger’s words. Citizens, whether they like it or not, need to adopt a soldier-like mentality should the worst happen.

Adopting such a policy raises both moral and practical questions. Are we not giving in to the terrorist agenda by following such a path? Besides, which popular government would risk expressing and acting on such thoughts? Isn’t it the government’s mandate to protect their their citizens wherever they might be? Would not such an attitude show the state as weak and invite further attacks All valid arguments, making the case for why governments should never publicly admit to being unable to prevent all terror attacks.

However, the changing scenario on ground, ensures that states must face reality and take measures to deal with it. Terrorists have attacked countries across the globe, with no fear over being caught or losing their lives. They want their ‘shock-and-awe’ strikes to create a ripple effect by paralysing the normal lives of citizens and polarising the world against Muslims – thus recruiting more people to their cause, and most importantly, using such situations to force governments into making dangerous concessions.

This was clear in December 1999, when the Kandahar episode – the hijacking of an Indian Airlines on which 161 passengers were aboard – forced the then NDA government to release three terrorists, including Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Maulana Masood Azhar. Believed to be the mastermind behind several terror attacks on India, including the 2001 attack on parliament and the Pathankot attack earlier this year, Masood’s release shows the danger of a government reacting under emotional pressure from its citizens and the media.

The situation at present is such that terrorists look to put pressure on the common man and thus, the government, through actions designed to cause mass panic and disrupt public life. ISIS’s televised beheadings of hostages captured in Iraq in 2014, the co-ordinated series of bombings and mass shootings in Paris in November last year, and the attacks in Istanbul and Dhaka sends a simple message to people – you are not safe anywhere.

Such a message cannot be ignored. Indeed, nations need to do more than just issue advisories to their citizens and must now state that they have a crucial role to play in the war against terror. This involves accepting the fact that they may become hostages tomorrow.

India’s eminent strategist, the late K. Subrahmanyam believed that the government’s role in situations of terror was to prepare the victims’ families for the worst. From keeping them away from the media, to providing continuous and detailed briefings on the situation, to organising prayer meetings, the government’s role, he believed, was to prevent mass panic and prepare the victims’ families and the country for the worst.

Such a policy is an onerous task, especially in India, where an emotional populace and aggressive opposition parties ensure that it is very difficult for any government to think rationally about a potential terror strike. But post-Dhaka, with groups like ISIS knocking on India’s door, such steps need to be introduced without delay. Otherwise, a hostage situation in the country could once again have the government reliving the fallout of Kandahar. This is something the state must avoid, even if it may come at a heavy cost.