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Understanding India’s expanding international counterterrorism engagements
India has broadened its counterterrorism engagements in the face of the evolving threat of terrorism.
On 18-19 November 2022, India is hosting the Third Ministerial ‘No Money for Terror’ conference in New Delhi. This meeting, conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, follows two other important meetings hosted by India in recent weeks: The United Nations (UN) Security Council’s special meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in Mumbai and New Delhi on 28-29 October and the 90th INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) General Assembly in New Delhi on 18-21 October. In the backdrop of the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan, Pakistan’s removal from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) “grey list”, and the increasing calls for terrorist violence in the virtual space, these convenings have provided India with an opportunity to highlight its unique concerns in battling cross-border terrorism, and at the same time demonstrate New Delhi’s expanding international engagement on counterterrorism issues.
"Radicalised individuals, also called ‘lone wolves’, ‘DIY’ or ‘freelancer’ terrorists with no formal affiliation or explicit linkage to well-established terrorist organisations, are now committing random acts of terrorist violence."
According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report, deaths from terrorism fell by 1.2 percent to 7,142 deaths worldwide from the peak of 2015. Yet, the number of attacks increased by 17 percent to 5,226, with South Asia recording 1,829 deaths in 2021. This was primarily due to the instability in Afghanistan. In fact, the deadliest attack of 2021 was the suicide bombing attack at the Kabul International Airport in August, which killed 170 people. The GTI report adds that while the COVID-19 pandemic may have limited terrorist activities, they may see recrudescence as pandemic-related restrictions are relaxed globally.
Evolving tech, evolving terror
As organised terrorist groups take a backseat, law enforcement and intelligence agencies worldwide now face a significant challenge of the increasingly nebulous character of the terrorist threat. Radicalised individuals, also called ‘lone wolves’, ‘DIY’ or ‘freelancer’ terrorists with no formal affiliation or explicit linkage to well-established terrorist organisations, are now committing random acts of terrorist violence. In doing this, they are leveraging the power of the internet and social media to disseminate their propaganda and extremist acts. The ghastly beheading incident at Udaipur in June 2022 represents the emergence of this amorphous nature of terrorism.
In addition, terrorist and terror suspects have expanded the use of The Onion Router (TOR)-enabled darknet for propaganda, and recruitment on encrypted chat forums and platforms beyond the gaze of the security agencies. Besides, other advancing and emerging technologies like autonomous systems, 3D printing and deep fake now potentially offer the terrorists prospects for weaponisation.
The CTC meetings in Mumbai and New Delhi, co-hosted by the Ministry of External Affairs, were crucial in this context as they focused on countering the terrorists’ use of new and emerging technologies. The discussions at the meetings sensitised the member states to emerging trends in this field and offered opportunities for sharing best practices. The “Delhi Declaration” adopted at the end of the meeting on 20 October announced the plans to develop a set of non-binding guiding principles in countering these challenges. Among these will be a compilation of good practices leveraging the same set of technologies misused by terrorist organisations. More importantly, the declaration expressed concerns over the continued existence of safe havens—an indirect reference to Pakistan that can be interpreted as an unambiguous message of the UN’s support for India’s fight against cross-border terrorism.
"Terrorist and terror suspects have expanded the use of The Onion Router (TOR)-enabled darknet for propaganda, and recruitment on encrypted chat forums and platforms beyond the gaze of the security agencies."
The Delhi Declaration also highlighted the criticality of choking the terrorist financing flows, which remains a persistent challenge for security agencies. In recent years, the regulatory efforts of the FATF and other international organisations have focused on sanitising formal financial channels, such as banks and money remittance operations. These have yielded success, as seen in the case of Pakistan, which has been forced to roll back support—at least publicly—to anti-India terrorist groups. However, this crackdown has also prompted these groups to rely more on informal financial mechanisms such as hawala for laundering funds received through Friday prayer donations, religious charities, and criminal pursuits, including narcotics sales. India has been grappling with the use of hawala for terrorist financing for a long time.
On the other end of the spectrum lie methods such as the cryptocurrencies exploited by terrorist organisations to finance their operations. In one such high-profile case in August 2020, the US Department of Justice disrupted three terrorist networks linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which had solicited cryptocurrency donations to fund their activities.
The ‘No Money for Terror’ conference provides an important platform to discuss how to tackle and counter these thriving traditional and advanced means of terrorist financing. As far as Hawala is concerned, admittedly, the system has proved resilient. Therefore, it would not disappear so quickly and immediately. However, steps can be taken to weaken it. For this, security agencies will need to focus on improving the regional and global understanding of the risks posed by hawala and its role in financing South Asian terrorist groups.
Moreover, since this money transfer system works on trust, security agencies will have to think “out-of-box” to counter the system and discredit it. Simultaneously, those sections of the diaspora community that rely on hawala for remitting money home need to be encouraged to use the formal financial system. This, of course, will require coordination with stakeholders from the financial sector to reduce remittance transaction costs and eliminate remittance corridors.
"The ‘No Money for Terror’ conference provides an important platform to discuss how to tackle and counter these thriving traditional and advanced means of terrorist financing."
For cryptocurrencies, intelligence and law enforcement agencies will need to step up their response to track and monitor blockchain transactions. This will need better forensics, better surveillance mechanisms, and better training to ensure that terrorists do not succeed in causing harm by leveraging emerging technologies. This again requires transnational cooperation to evolve a coordinated approach by leveraging best practices and learnings from each other, including risk assessments and establishing common standards. The ‘No Money for Terror’ conference offers an important forum for establishing such cooperation.
The INTERPOL’s focus goes beyond counterterrorism. Nonetheless, it is critical in tackling terrorism and associated criminal activities. The organisation’s focus has been more on criminal activities in the last few years. However, by hosting the meeting in New Delhi, India has shaped the organisation’s agenda to explore linkages between terrorism and criminal activities, and pay attention to the related dimensions of narco-terror, cyber radicalisation, organised criminal syndicates, and money laundering.
The General Assembly in Delhi adopted a resolution for cooperation on financial crime and corruption, focusing on reducing and eventually eliminating illicit financial flows that provide the backbone for terrorist and criminal activities. Towards this, member-states committed to strengthening their contribution to the Financial Crime Analysis File, which generates actionable intelligence and periodic threat assessments on financial crime and organised criminal activities. In addition, they agreed to provide access to their respective national Financial Intelligence Units to INTERPOL’s databases, including the SLTD database (travel and identity documents) to find cases of terrorists and criminals who use fake travel documents to move across jurisdictions.
"Member-states committed to strengthening their contribution to the Financial Crime Analysis File, which generates actionable intelligence and periodic threat assessments on financial crime and organised criminal activities."
These global meetings, thus, allow India to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation with other security and law enforcement agencies and draw attention to its initiatives, such as the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and the need to define terrorism for designing more effective counterterrorism measures. As Home Minister Shah remarked at the INTERPOL meeting, “all countries must agree on an explicit definition of terrorism and terrorist. On the one hand, if the commitment is to fight terrorism together, and on the other, defining ‘Good Terrorism, Bad Terrorism’ and ‘Terrorist Attack as—Big or Small’, these two narratives cannot go simultaneously.”
Dr Sameer Patil (ORF Mumbai)
9 December 2022
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