The impact of great power competition on militancy

The impact of great power competition on militancy

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As global geopolitics has evolved into the era of competition between the US with China and Russia, militancy and countermilitancy have been de-prioritized. From fighting terrorism, America’s attention and resources have been diverted to contain China and deter resurgent Russia. Still, militancy not only persists, but has expanded and diversified, engendering new ideological variants of pre-existing extremist ideologies. At any rate, the great power competition has impacted the way militant groups recruit, propagandize and raise funds. Against this backdrop, it is important to unpack how these groups are responding to evolving global geopolitics.

Militant groups do not operate in a vacuum, they are by-products of geopolitical tensions, international conflicts and ensuing anarchy. They not only survive in adverse circumstances but also excel. In challenging environments and situations, these groups adapt, learn new skills and innovate to persist. They either form alliances to balance external threats or de-centralize their organizational structures to cope with changing circumstances. 

Global geopolitics and militancy have a symbiotic relationship, and both have shaped and reshaped each other in multiple ways. While the war on terror was the defining feature of global geopolitics for the first two decades of the new millennium, great power competition is going to be a major determinant of international security for the foreseeable future.

Great power competition is going to be a major determinant of international security for the foreseeable future.

- Abdul Basit Khan

If the past is any guide, militant groups were used as proxy tools by the great powers during the Cold War. It remains to be seen if militancy will once again become a proxy tool as the great power competition intensifies in the coming years. However, history is not a linear process and it is not necessary that if militant groups were used as proxies during the Cold War, the same pattern will repeat with the re-emergence of a great power competition.

Ideologically, the current militant landscape is diverse, volatile and split between religious and far-right ideologies. These ideologies evolve at a rapid pace and mutate into new shapes, rendering them hard to detect, understand and even more challenging to deter, disrupt and disperse. While anti-Americanism was the driving force mobilizing extremist recruitment and ideologies since the 1990s, now militant groups are also hostile to China, Russia and to an extent, India. China’s growing global footprint through its Belt and Road Initiative and rise as a rival power to the US has garnered the attention of militant groups. Likewise, Russia has been in the crosshairs of militant groups for its involvement in th Syrian civil war on the side of the Bashar Assad regime and the Western far-right groups for invading Ukraine. In India, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)’s anti-Muslim policies, such as the discriminatory Citizen Amendment Act and the revocation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, among others, have earned it the ire of of groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh. 

On the operational front, social media and emerging technologies have lowered the entry barriers to militancy by facilitating a direct interaction between would be ‘radicals’ and their recruiters. Likewise, the accelerated flow of information has blurred the lines between local and global events. In militancy’s context, local developments have global consequences and vice versa. In a way, social media platforms have replaced groups as the main conduits of violent extremism. Consequently, not only the process of radicalization has shortened, eliminating the traditional processes of in-person recruitment, ideologization and training, but the average age of would-be recruits has also declined. These developments have enhanced the role of technology, especially social media platforms, in fomenting and amplifying militant narratives. 

Since individuals are mostly self-radicalized online and do not undergo a formal training by militant groups, the focus has been on the Do It Yourself (DIY) attack method. For instance, the knife attacks and vehicular ramming in the West involving lone actor individuals signify this trend. As a result, the era of ‘terror spectaculars,’ such as 9/11, the Madrid and London bombings and the Mumbai attacks, has been replaced by simpler attacks. Now, militant groups can generate the same strategic outcomes from short waves of attacks which they extracted from high-profile attacks. 

Finally, as the era of great power competition dawns, two ideological strains of militancy, religious and ethno-nationalist, are co-existing in a wave. Militancy scholars refer to it as the fifth wave of terrorism preceded by anarchist, anti-colonial, new left and religious waves. At this juncture, the religious wave is weak but resilient, while the ethno-nationalist wave has resurged, but lacks a transnational character. It remains to be seen if ethno-nationalism will eclipse religious extremism as the dominant ideology in the fifth wave of terrorism. An alternative view upholds that in militancy’s fifth wave, technology will replace ideologies as the main center of gravity. According to this viewpoint, facilitated by technology, new ideological strains will continue to emerge and mutate in a fluid environment. 

Militancy’s evolution amid the great power competition will have profound consequences for countries like Pakistan which are still grappling with this menace. First, there will be no international financial assistance available for counter-terrorism as compared to the past. Second, beyond extending diplomatic support and technical assistance, no state will help Pakistan to take on militant networks residing in Afghanistan and carrying out attacks in Pakistan, barring Daesh-Khorasan. Finally, kinetic measures alone will be necessary but not sufficient to eliminate militancy threats. Pakistan will have to indigenize its counterterrorism framework and look for a cost-effective indigenous policy framework to undermine the appeal of militant ideologies in the long-term. 

The author is a Senior Associate Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. X: @basitresearcher. 

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