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EFSAS Commentary

Amidst the pandemic terrorism continues unabated in Afghanistan and raises its ugly head again in Europe


It is hard to imagine that while nearly all of humanity in struggling to cope with the fallout of the deadly pandemic that broke out almost a year ago in Wuhan in China, there still are gun and knife-totting youth across wide spaces of land that are on the prowl looking for even more lives to take over and above the thousands that COVID-19 is accounting for every single day. The attack in Kabul University in which young students were specifically targeted and slaughtered, the several knife attacks that have shaken and stupefied France, and most unexpectedly the shooting spree that a young man embarked upon in the Austrian capital Vienna are all stark reminders that the threat posed by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda have anything but receded. These incidents have once again demonstrated that no region is insulated from the menace of terrorism, and underlined that cooperation, especially information sharing and drawing lessons from the experience of countries and regions such as South Asia that have long endured the scourge, is an imperative for countries in Europe that have historically been relatively far removed from the bane but are increasingly coming under its influence in recent decades.

At least 35 people were killed and over 50 wounded when late in the morning on 2 November three terrorists stormed into the eastern side of Kabul University, where the law and journalism faculties are located, and went from classroom to classroom gunning down students. Abdul Akbari, a 22-year-old student who was shot in the leg and had to be admitted in the Ali Abad hospital, described how the attack had unfolded. He narrated, “The terrorists came as suicide attackers and killers, murdering many. One of them, wearing a type of security guard uniform and no face covering, opened our classroom door and looked us straight in the eyes, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ before starting to shoot. Many of my friends are dead. I saw them lying on the floor when I tried to escape”. Throughout the six-hour siege, loud explosions and intermittent gunfire rocked the university campus. The majority of the students managed to flee from the campus, otherwise the death count would have been much higher. Zabiullah Haidari, a professor at the university, told local TV station Ariana that classes had been underway when the shooting began. Fathullah Moradi, one of the students who managed to escape, told Reuters that “They were shooting at every student they saw”.

As the attack unfolded, Afghan security forces blocked off roads leading to the campus. After hours of fighting, they managed to kill the three terrorists involved in the attack. Afghan government spokesman Tariq Arian confirmed that there were three attackers, all of whom were killed. Afghanistan declared a national day of mourning to honour the people killed in the attack, which was the second attack on an educational institution in Kabul within a fortnight. An earlier attack on an education centre in Kabul on 24 October had killed 24 young students.

In a video message following the attack, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who had earlier lectured at the university, called the assault a “despicable act of terror”. He offered his “condolences and profound sympathies to the nation” and the families of the victims, and added, “My heart is still beating for this academic institution. Today's attack has left us grief-stricken”. Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, also condemned the attack. He said in a statement that “This is the second attack on educational institutions in Kabul in 10 days. Afghan children and youth need to feel safe going to school”.

The ISIS in Afghanistan claimed credit for the attack. In a message posted on the instant message service Telegram, the group claimed to have “killed and injured 80 Afghan judges, investigators and security personnel” who had gathered on completion of a training programme. It had also claimed the 24 October attack. The Taliban, which is presently in the midst of United States (US)-brokered talks with the Afghan government, was quick to deny involvement in the Kabul University attack and to condemn it. The Afghan government, however, viewed the attack as yet another Taliban attempt to forcibly and violently gain the upper hand at the ongoing talks, and it laid the blame for the assault squarely on the Taliban.

EFSAS, in its earlier commentaries, had underlined the pitfalls of the US rushing through the process of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table in its hurry to fulfill the pledge made by Donald Trump before the 2016 US elections. The difficult position that doing so would put the Afghan government in during its negotiations with the Taliban had also been highlighted. Furthermore, even if the ISIS, and not the Taliban as the Afghan government claims, had perpetrated the university attack, it begs the question of how exactly the Taliban plans to ensure its promise of not allowing Afghan territory to be used for attacks against the US and its allies by other terrorist groups such as the ISIS when these groups seem to be able to launch at will, within Afghanistan itself, attacks of the scale witnessed at the university this week. The university carnage does, meanwhile, indicate that the road to peace in Afghanistan is still some distance away.

Closer to home, the Charlie Hebdo issue in France was the catalyst for a string of events that started in September, and these have claimed several lives in incidents of terrorist violence, the most recent being the 29 October beheading of a woman and the killing of two other people at a church in the southern French city of Nice. The 25 September knife attack in which two people were seriously injured near the former office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was carried out by a 25-year-old Pakistani man who had illegally entered France in 2018. Prior to the attack, he had stated in a video that he was seeking vengeance against Charlie Hebdo for publishing caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. The attack was timed to coincide with the start of the trial of the 2015 attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed by two brothers who claimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin considered the attack to be “clearly an act of Islamist terrorism”, and the man was arrested and charged with “attempted murder in association with a terrorist enterprise”.

The beheading of French middle-school teacher Samuel Paty in a suburb of Paris on 16 October by Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old refugee of Chechen ethnicity, led to outrage throughout France. Paty was targeted by Anzorov for having shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had appeared in Charlie Hebdo in a civics class discussion on free speech. The father of one of the pupils had started an online campaign against Paty, in which Abdelhakim Sefrioui, a radical Islamist preacher, had joined him. Darmanin later accused the father and the radical preacher of having issued a “fatwa” against Paty. Anzorov, who French investigators later discovered had links with ISIS, had exchanged messages with the father of the pupil via WhatsApp in the days leading up to the murder. Anzorov next enlisted the help of some teenagers, whom he paid 300-350 euros in total, to locate Paty. Anzorov then killed Paty as he made his way home on foot from the school where he taught. Anzorov decapitated Paty with a long knife and tweeted an image of the teacher’s severed head before he was shot dead by the police. Many of Paty’s pupils saw the disturbing image online.

Paty’s killing elicited a strong responses from the French government that vowed to protect its citizen’s right to free speech and expression, including blasphemy, while several Islamic countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh in South Asia, erupted in outrage against the French position on blasphemy. French President Emmanuel Macron conferred France’s highest civilian award, the Legion of Honour, on Paty, and said that he had been slain by “cowards” for representing the secular, democratic values of the French Republic. In a statement that was viewed as exaggerated by some, Macron claimed that “He was killed because Islamists want our future. They will never have it”. In an indication that the French government could intensify its crackdown on radical Islam, he said, “Our fellow citizens expect actions”. At a solemn ceremony at the Sorbonne University in Paris that was attended by Paty’s family, the President reiterated, “We will not give up cartoons”. The killing also prompted an outpouring of emotion and solidarity in France, with tens of thousands taking part in rallies across the country. Some of the participants displayed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In reaction, a wave of anger broke out in parts of the Islamic world, and while some governments accused Macron of pursuing an anti-Islam agenda, calls for boycott of French products were made by others.

In yet another gruesome attack in France, Brahim Aouissaoui, a 21-year-old from Tunisia, beheaded a woman and killed two other people at the Notre Dame church in Nice on 29 October. The assailant, who is believed to be an ISIS terrorist who recently arrived in France from Tunisia, was arrested after the attack and taken to a nearby hospital in a critical condition after sustaining injuries. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi described the incident as an act of terrorism. Interior Minister Darmanin warned after the attack that more such terrorist attacks were likely. He said, “We need to understand that there have been and there will be other events such as these terrible attacks. We're at war against an ideology, Islamist ideology”.

The series of attacks in France have reignited debates surrounding the absoluteness of the unfettered freedom of speech that the country’s government seems to have put its weight behind. Some critics have pointed out that the French government’s position comes across as extreme and inflexible, interspersed with a fair dose of hypocrisy. Dounia Bouzar, a French anthropologist and an expert on radicalization, for example, argues in the context of the call by Darmanin for the dissolution of the Anti-Islamophobia Collective (CCIF), a prominent watchdog that monitors discriminatory attacks on Muslims in France, that “We know the ideology of many members (of the CCIF), who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood. But under French law, they have every right to hold such beliefs. If France tries to curb such rights, it would soon be at odds with European law”. Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, believes that “Freedom of speech should never, ever, glorify the freedom to insult, to mock, to humiliate another person or community or civilization. Respect for the feelings and sentiments of the religious other should be integral to one’s belief system, whether it is secular or not. Just because the French State and much of French society have marginalized religion, it does not follow that they should show utter contempt for a Muslim’s love and reverence for his or her Prophet, especially when 6 million French citizens profess the Islamic faith”. Meanwhile, the public support within France for the position held by the government does not appear to be overwhelming. Only half of French respondents to a survey conducted by pollsters Ifop for Charlie Hebdo in February this year said they supported the “right to criticise, even outrageously, a religious belief, symbol or dogma”.

While these debates rage, the fact of the matter remains that terrorism, no matter its form or provocation, can never be condoned by civilized society. This was reinforced yet again soon after the French attacks when 20-year-old Kujtim Fejzulai, armed with an assault rifle and handguns, on 2 November unleashed a series of attacks on six locations in the centre of Vienna as people enjoyed their last few hours outside bars and cafes before Austria was plunged into its second lockdown. Two men and two women were killed and many more, including a police officer, were seriously injured. Fejzulai was shot dead by police nine minutes after he opened fire. Fejzulai, who held Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship, had been sentenced to 22 months’ in jail in April 2019 for being an ISIS sympathizer, but was granted early release within a year. The ISIS, through a statement on its Amaq news agency, claimed credit for the Vienna attack and described Fejzulai as a “soldier of the Caliphate”.

Hans-Jakob Schindler, director of think tank The Counter Extremism Project, believes that Fejzulai used a “window of opportunity” to target large crowds before the country went into lockdown. He added, “The attacker used a firearm and seemed to have had a certain level of competency in using it. This requires training, in particular when using such a weapon in a highly stressful situation. Therefore, it seems very likely that the attacker had some – at least – paramilitary training. The problem is that after such a string of ‘successful’ terrorist operations in France, it is hard to distinguish whether other attacks are part of a wider plan or whether they are happening because radicalized individuals feel additionally motivated to do something in their area as well”.

The Austrian government’s response to the Vienna attack was far more tempered and measured when compared to neighbouring France. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, for example, said that “This is not a struggle between Christians and Muslims, or between Austrians and migrants. It’s a struggle between the many who believe in peace, and the few who seek war. A struggle between civilization and barbarism”. He vowed that Austria would “defend our values, our way of living and our democracy” from extremists.

The US-led coalition’s success in destroying the self-styled Caliphate established by the ISIS in Syria and Iraq had raised hopes that the extremist threat, especially in Europe, would diminish. The recent incidents have once again proven that the ability of groups such as ISIS, which continue to maintain a global network of supporters from Afghanistan to Europe, to carry out such so-called “lone wolf” attacks remains intact.

The war against terrorism, it is amply clear by now, simply cannot be won by any country alone. Only a meaningful and closely knit network of global democracies that have been at the receiving end of terrorism has a realistic chance of success. Countries such as India and Bangladesh in South Asia possess invaluable experience and knowledge in dealing with the menace of terrorism, which has plagued them for decades.

In the wake of the recent attacks in Europe, it may be in the interest of European countries to reach out to such countries in the sub-continent and dip into their counter-terror expertise.