By Lt Gen Dushyant Singh PVSM, AVSM (Retd)

Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils. They are established as they [always] have been by pen and gun by word and bullet and by tongue and teeth.

               Al Qaeda Training Manual

The Article was first published in https://www.


Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It has been seen historically that emergence of a new ideology leads to creation of a core group in a society that tries to propagate the new ideology in the form of a mass movement or acceptance. Gradually ideological movements transgress national boundaries. However, when there are obstacles in the path of progression of an ideology, certain elements in a society/nation/region take up arms or instigate people to take up arms and perpetrate violence against an existing system or followers of a counter ideology. As violence level increases and is targeted by its perpetuators on innocent civilians, the violent movement takes the form of terrorism.   These movements become more radical and violent, when a charismatic authority assumes the stewardship. Hosts of charismatic personalities have emerged in the past in various parts of the world to substantiate this claim like Guzman, (Shining Path, Peru), Abdullah Öcalan (PKK, Kurdistan), Bhindranwale (Sikh, India), and Osama bin Laden (Al Qaeda, Global). (Singh 2009, 25) Role of Ideology in Fomenting Terror

Ideology ties the causes into one bundle, it can very easily replace the leader by being the means and the ends in strategically framing a terrorist movement; in most cases ideology is the articulator and the cause of tipping point. Moggadham in his article on “The Staircase to Terrorism,” explains that ideology is a belief, a mental construct, and the core of the world view propagated for a group.  Ideologies perform five things in particular. 1) It identifies the problem. 2) It identifies the enemy by clearly identifying the boundaries between the warring groups (us versus them), and demonization of the enemy – allows to establish the collective identity.  3) It provides solution of the problem, the end state, particularly what the group wants to achieve. 4) It lays down the exact means to means to achieve the solution. In fact, it also justifies the means such as violence or Jihad because violence is the primary instrument of terrorism. 5) Finally, it puts the whole movement into a context such as cosmic war, or age-old traditions (ushering in the golden age). It also allows for lots of patience, if you did not win today it does not matter subsuming the loss in extended war against the God and that the God will provide benefits in next life or will transform a terrorist into martyrs. (Moghaddam 2005, Vol 60, No 2, 161, 165, 167)  Ideology also provides symbolism to targets and audience in the context of a terrorist movement. This leads one to a conclusion that discrediting or delegitimizing the ideology of a terror movement may provide long-term solution in successfully dealing with a terrorist movement. 

Radical Islamic Ideology

Currently the world is primarily coping with radical Islamic ideology. The general impression world over is that we are being swamped by radical Islamic terror groups. This is not entirely true. Radical Islamic ideology is only a subset of the Islamic population with a strong global dimension to it. Political Islam or Islamism is founded on Salafism and has three strands, 1) Wahhabiya, 2) Muslim Brotherhood, and 3) Jihadism. We are experiencing religious terrorism built on the belief that the world has decayed into a morass of greed and moral depravity. (Moghaddam 2005, 61-63) The ideology has its roots in the Arab World with its strongest proponent being Saudi Arabia for the Sunni groups and Iran for the Shia groups. To propagate the jihadi ideology, radical groups from the Middle East are directly and indirectly conniving with local groups (Taliban /TTP/JeM/AQ Hind/LeT) and countries (Pakistan). Broad categorization of Islamic demography and their ideology is shown in the following pictorial representation:-

 Figure 1: Broad Classification of Islamic Demography Based on Talk at NPS, Monterey, California by Hafez, Mohammed Author of “Why Muslims Rebel,” 2003)

In the current Islamic World, the predominant faction continues to remain the gen Islamic society bound by the peaceful tenets of Islam. However, it is the Islamic Nationalists, Islamic Revolutionaries and Global Jihadis that are using the tool of terror to force a distorted form of Islam and to do so they are misinterpreting the tenets of Islamic Jihad which was started by the Prophet to eradicate “Jahiliya.” Its current avtar is purely to force the views of radicalism and fundamentalism on gen Islamic and non – Islamic societies. (Hafez 2003) Therefore, it would be useful to briefly understand the violent faction of Islamic ideology & measures required to bring positive changes. Radical streak is mostly observed in groups following the Salafist Jihadi ideology. These facts key into the argument of centrality of ideology in terrorism especially in the case of faith based terror groups. This throws up a question as to what should be done to prevent emergence of new groups or bring down an existing group with minimum of kinetic action. But before that it would be prudent to also analyse the impact of charisma in terror groups as well.

Role of a Charisma in Fomenting Terror

Charismatic personalities are a force multiplier in an organization and have a profound impact especially in a radical organization. A charismatic leader emerges in a group if, firstly, there is a crisis or existential situation in a group or society. Secondly, a presence of a person with exemplary qualities sometimes even viewed as supernatural. Thirdly, a responsive group towards the leader and the ideology that he is espousing. One would not be incorrect to add that a charismatic leader makes an ideology viral and all pervasive due to his effervescent leadership qualities. The impact of charisma in a terrorist or a radical movement impacts the group and the society in which they are operating in a number of ways. Firstly, its presence leads to exponential growth of the radical movement. For example presence of Martin Luther King along with a crisis situation amongst the African community in US led to exponential growth in the movement. (Carson 1987, 27) Cultural Revolution in China under the charismatic Mao witnessed similar expansion and popularity. (Andreas 2007, 435) Likewise we can recall a number of other examples such as PKK under the charismatic leadership of Abdullah Oclan and AQ under Osama bin Laden. David Gompert had stated that, “Leaders of the global jihad are charismatic and gifted at strategy and unifying ideology.” (Gompert 2008)  Cynthia Mehmood described Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a charismatic leader because of which the Sikh militancy in India grew into a strong movement. (Mahmood 1997, 77) Similarly, Harmon has analyzed the Tamil Tigers’ terrorist movement and argued that it was heavily influenced by the charismatic authority of its supreme leader, Prabhakaran. (Harmon 2007, 57) It has also been observed that intensity, ruthlessness and quantum of violence level had considerably increased under charismatic leaders. It is amply clear that ideology plays a vital role in effectiveness of a terror group. Further, if it is led by a charismatic leader the group becomes extremely potent and violent in most cases. To buttress this argument there are number of examples even in the current terror landscape. These are discussed briefly in the following paragraphs.


Post the US operation in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the country witnessed springing up of a number of terror groups in opposition to the occupation forces and new Iraqi Government. The most violent and virulent amongst them was Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under Al Zaraqawi. The group later broke away from AQ and transformed into ISIS or in local language Daesh. The founder leader of ISIS Al- Zaraqawi was highly charismatic and ran the movement with a highly centralized control. (Ingram. J 2016) However, as it happens because of their virility, charismatic leaders either die or are removed. Following his death, Al – Baghadi was appointed as the leader of the group. He had worked through the organizational hierarchy and transformed ISIS into a warfighting machinery with a zeal rarely seen in the past. Baghdadi being an Imam further gave him authority which even Osama and Zaraqawi did not enjoy. ISIS under al-Baghdadi went ahead with physical capture of territory to form a caliphate. However, realizing the reverses being suffered in Syria it has reverted back to striking randomly to spread its ideology in countries away from the ME to deter the far enemy that is US and other western nations. (AbuKhalil 2015) Deadly attacks such as the one undertaken in Sri Lanka in April 19 killing over 300, church bombing in Indonesia’s Surabaya killing 28 people and attack on a cathedral in southern Philippines earlier this year killing 22 are just a few examples. (Gunaratna.Rohan 2019)  

J & K Based Groups Like (LeT, JeM, HM etc)

Before suggesting strategies to deal with terror groups that are highly driven by ideology and charisma it would be in order to deal with terror groups that India is confronting. While in above discussed cases impact of charisma has been a major factor on level of violence, in the case of J&K centric groups it is not so. Activities of these groups are closely controlled by ISI and Pakistan Army and hence the leadership works as a state sponsored entity and exploits the prevailing ethno – nationalist sentiments sugar coated with radical Islamic ideology for motivating the terrorist cadre.  According to data maintained by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the number of fatalities in the valley have increased in the last six years after recording a low in 2012. As per the data base 740 Security Forces Personnel have been killed; 23% of total casualties in the conflict in the period. Total casualties are whopping 3,287 (civilians 432, Security Forces 740 and Terrorists 2114). (News18 2019)  The overall data for India since 1988 is very alarming. There have been 47,234 incidents till May 5, 2019 resulting in death of 14,895 civilians, 6511 security forces and 23,696 terrorists making a total of 45,102. ( 2019) 

The existing leaders draw their main strength from Islamic ideology, idea of two nation theory and the official state machinery of Pakistan. The level of violence has been enhanced by way of proxy war with steady export of foreign fighters in Kashmir by Pakistan based Tanzeems. (Christine 2019, 14-16) Level of violence remains high because of direct state support and ideological framing. Attribution to quality of leadership is not a predominant factor.

LeT does not have a ready ideological, political, and doctrinal infrastructure to exploit for fundraising and recruiting. This coupled with hierarchical structure under Saeed’s thumb, has enabled the organization to retain the organizational continuity. When there have been minor rifts, they have been quickly repaired, likely with the help of the ISI and Pakistan army. Its compliance with the ISI and lethality make LeT a special asset for the Pakistani state.” (Christine 2019, 107) 

As far as JeM under Masood Azar is concerned the story is on similar lines although initially Azar did go his way but when his group split with one faction taking an anti – Pakistan Government stance, Masood Azar decided to defect and collaborate with Pakistan Army and ISI. The trajectory thereafter has been similar to LeT. (Christine 2019, 194-195) 

Recent upsurge in mass action by the public such as stone pelting, processions in support of the terrorists killed in J & K are heavily supported and orchestrated from across the border and are properly organized actions by professionals. (Exprress 2017) However, many ascribe these reactions to the frustrated Kashmiri youth against the long standing deployment of CRPF and other security forces in the valley. This may be not entirely true although it is claimed that stone pelters also known as Sanghbaz are supported by the leaders of Tehreek –  Hurriyat and Duktaran – e Millat. (R n.d.)It may be fair to assume that elimination of series of supposedly charismatic leaders such as Burhan Wani ultimately led to end of stone pelting incidents to a large extent.       


The challenge today is how can we defeat the current movement of ideology cum charisma based terrorism? It is proposed that if there is a loss of appeal or relevance of the motivating ideology or advent of a counter ideology we may be able to tackle the problem with minimum kinetic action. Elimination of the central driving charismatic leadership to some extent also helps in defeat of a terrorist movement. On the other hand, while it may not provide a long term solution but does give a breather to the State to go in for a peaceful solution. 

There are two elements involved in finding a solution to terrorism. First is to contest the ideology and second to negate the impact of the charismatic leadership. World Wide Web can be very helpful platform in operationalizing the concept. Waging the war of ideas is the strategic theme of the ideological contest and second the means to implement the themes amongst the target population. It would be preferable to call the term “waging the war of ideas” as “Web for Peace Revolution”. Moreover if our aim is to establish peace, why aggravate the situation by calling it as waging the war of ideas. Next section will concentrate on the themes to employ in countering a radical ideology and charismatic affect especially Jihadi strand. 

Delegitimizing Counter State Ideology (Radical Islamic Ideology)

Countering AQ / ISIS Inspired Salafi – Jihadi Ideology: It has been seen that most of the Islamist groups draw their narrative by opposing the Western ideas, which as per them are opposed to the spirit of Islam. These arguments are marginally twisted in the case of Pak based terror groups to achieve their aims in J&K. There have been attempts made by the West using force and propaganda in the past to change governments (Iraq, Libya, Syria etc) in terrorism affected region with a view to alter the core identity of the Jihadi movement. This has proved counterproductive. (Michael Freeman 2007, 49) However, the important question is how do we counter such radical ideologies, which are rooted so deep in religious faith? A possible way could be to focus on the underlying grievances atleast the ones which can be acted upon easily. There are difficulties in this too, for eg., forces inimical to India have spread the perception of Indian Security  Forces, especially the Indian Army being an occupational force in Kashmir. A via media for governments could be to become more responsive to the citizens and more a source of justice than of injustice and corruption. We could also take steps to bolster the legitimacy of the state governments. Targeting various schools, mosques, universities, Islamic centers, and prisons where the Salafi Jihadi concepts and terrorists emerge may also prove helpful. Tracking and eliminating the funding of the group will be an effective strategy will render ineffective the means of spreading their ideology. Countering the Salafi jihad with a more aggressive counter ideological campaign promoting the less violent and less extremist interpretation of Islam. (Michael Freeman 2007, 53-54) The space provided by recent steps of the government such as revoking of Article 370, 35 A and the delineation of the state into two Union Territories backed by some strong Kinetic actions must be gainfully employed to spread the counter ideology and encourage emergence of alternate leaders in the Valley.

Encouraging Alternate Voices: As acts of violence normally grab headlines, most of us know much more about advocates of a “clash,” militant action, than about those who are working toward a peaceful revolution and civilizational dialogue. (Esposito 2002, 65)  Muslim thinkers like Abdurahman Wahid, Indonesia, Dr Amien Rais, Indonesia, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia, Dr Ecmettin Erbbakan,  Turkey, Muhammead Katami, Iran who promoted peaceful revolution went on to become presidents, prime ministers, speakers and leaders of moderate and modernist Islamic movements are a few examples. Personalities such as Drs Tariq Ramdan grandson of Hassan al Banna founder of Muslim Brotherhood and Md Arkoun from Sweden, Abdulaziz Sachedin, Fathi Osman, and Sulayman Nyang, from USA are some additional examples of increasing moderate voices which need concerted encouragement and propagation. 

Focusing on encouraging alternate voices in Islam is the need of the hour. Government needs to encourage such an effort but indirectly and discretely. The aim of this exercise should be to promote moderate modernist Islamic Reform Movement.Abdeslam Maghraoui advocates mobilizing the moderate Muslim world, which despite being in majority is not effective because of a lack of voice and platform to do so. (Maghraoui 2006) There is a need to broaden the societal support for modernist Islam and should include the collection of a database on Islamic modernist networks across the globe and the organization of a series of regional workshops and seminars. 

Educate Against the “Us versus Them” Thinking Strategy: Undertaking long-term measures to counter terrorist movements and organization will prove more beneficial and result in marked reduction in violence by both state and the counter state. Moghadham suggests education against categorical “us versus them thinking” in order to restrict the terrorist efforts to motivate the populace to join their movement. (Moghaddam 2005) This theme should appear to guide the State anti-terrorist information and psychological operations. However, unless these messages are perceived to come from local scholars and nongovernmental organization they will not be accepted by the target audience. India may be able to generate covert counter ideology by swamping the Web with peace and counter ideology narrative. It is bound to have the desired impact on the young Muslim population of India. Foe eg., the case of Nusrat Jahan resisting the Fatwa by Muslim clerics on her style of dressing post her marriage to a Hindu Industrialist should be properly articulated on the web. (ANI 2019) 

Promotion of Just Cause Strategy: Information and psychological operations must focus on legitimizing the justness of the actions of the constitutionally legal Governments. Overtly government sponsored psychological campaign should focus on the “just cause.” However, for undertaking the offensive psychological campaign, to begin with we should promote it through NGO type of organizations. Events such as the Fatwa issued by over 5000 clerics of the Deobandi sect, in India decrying terrorist acts and calling upon the Muslim populations to oppose terrorism needs to become the centerpiece of such information and psychological campaigns worldwide. (Bappa 2008) This will encourage the moderate Muslim populations, which is not actively supportive of terrorism to rise against it (terrorism). Similarly, the refusal of the Muslim Council of India to accept the bodies of the Terrorists involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks because of their non-Godly act merits to form part of positive Information Operations (IO). (FoxNews 2008) All governments, which support the long war, need to make these developments as focus of their IO or psychological campaign.  All aspects connected with terrorism, which delegitimize the story of terrorist groups by highlighting its nexus with drug trafficking, human smuggling, and money laundering need to form the various themes of the Information Operation campaign against terror.  

Even handed Use of Media Strategy: Many may not support this method, but it is essential to exercise a certain amount of control to deny the access of Internet, and other related resources to stifle at least the hard-core actors of the system such as Osama, Zawahari, Al Baghdadi, LeT, JeM, other Kashmiri groups and Hurriyat leaders. In a democracy, we really cannot control the media, therefore, it generally tends to over emphasize the cause or the case of terrorists while describing their activities. At times they get a status of a hero due to the manner in which they are accessed and interviewed. This needs refocusing through dialogues with the media houses on the adverse impact of heightened publicity of terrorist related issues. Martha Crenshaw says “…trying to pressure the news media in order to restrict terrorist or extremist access to audiences is not feasible, but it is reasonable to encourage evenhanded media reporting in communicating information about terrorism as well as the ideologies that may encourage it.” Here smart use of UN information organs could play a role in disseminating accurate and comprehensive information at the global level to deal with terrorism. 

Means to Propagate: As a considered suggestion based on the field experience of the author in dealing with counter terror operations and academic research, it is recommend to establish a Web for Peace revolution on the internet, encouraging social movement of modernist and moderate muslims. Hard operations to track and choke funding of the salafi ideology, educating the moderates in the West (increasing the full bright scholar quotas) will add strength to this concept. The Web for peace revolution initiative, if launched well can really generate a mass movement by connecting the silent workers in the peace revolution. For example, Ashoka foundation (Bornstein 2007) of Bill Drayton is networking and awarding fellowships to social entrepreneurs across the world, we just need to expand and nurture such initiatives. 

Delegitimizing or Disempowering the Charismatic Leadership

Based on the earlier discussions it is also suggested that reduction of the charismatic content facilitates containment of radical movement and terrorism. This is achieved either by de-legitimizing the charisma or its elimination as in the case of Al Qaeda by killing him. To delegitimize charisma, one could follow a strategy of ridiculing the charismatic by exposing his weaknesses, if they exist.  We can also draw on Sageman’s suggestion such as taking the glory out of the terrorist movement, and projecting them as common criminal entities. (Sageman 2008. , 151-155)  As per Sageman, solutions to deal with radical movements may lie in building and propagating a counter strategic framing to delegitimize the leader and the group. The other solution would be to make the organization more and more bureaucratic thus leading it into trappings of greed for power. (Singh 2009, 38-39) This may be achieved through controlled sharing of power as was done in the case of FATAH and in the case of India in Mizoram but this need to be followed up with quick political solution. However, in the case of transnational and international groups like AQ Hind, ISIS and Proxy terror groups like LeT and JeM this is neither feasible nor advisable. Accordingly to deal with free radical groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, LeT, JeM etc., strategies that delegitimize the ideology and the leaders may be the only answer. Figure 2 below explains the broad contours of the solution. Salient aspects of the approach are as follows:-

Figure : 2 Suggested Strategies to Make Charismatic Groups Dysfunctional

Firstly, we need to undertake focused or surgical direct action to deny safe havens that will prevent radical movements from undertaking activities promoting cohesion. Collective training and religious indoctrination must become the primary areas of attention of the state. Secondly, since the availability of finance also provides the ability to sustain a group, choking the funding resources is also essential. Thirdly, we need to encourage social entrepreneurs who focus on a bottoms-up people’s movement that promotes social harmony, civic action, reconstruction, development, and micro–financing. People like Touseeef Raina and Basheer Assad need to be encouraged in the case of J & K. The momentum generated by propagating such an effort will create a collective counter movement. And finally, we should effectively block the channels of communications over areas where leaders and his core group may be hiding as establishing a virtual presence not only provides the leaders with the ability to control the followers but also motivate them.  

Pakistan Based Terrorist Groups

Radical Islamic ideology coupled with ethno-nationalism is the primary ideology which runs through Pak based terror outfits like LeT, JeM, HuM, HM etc. operating in J&K. These groups comprise more Pakistanis than Kashmiris. In addition, they are a tool of proxy war of Pakistan against India. While most radical jihadi terrorist groups world over have charismatic leaders at the helm, the Pakistan based groups do not have any charismatic leader. This may be attributed to a conscious design of Pakistan to retain tight control over the Kashmiri terrorist groups by not allowing a strong leader to emerge. Given these realities, terrorism in Kashmir has few additional issues to deal with. Firstly, there is a need to fight the Pakistani idea of Kashmir through sustained IO campaign. Secondly, we need to limit and if feasible eliminate the influence of the terror groups through sustained kinetic effort. Thirdly, State has to continue working towards a political solution for a long term resolution of the problem. Fourthly, there is no harm in exploring a legal solution through International Court of Justice as suggested by Dr. Aman Hingorani. (Hingorani 2017) As per him, India is actually on a very strong legal footing to retain its claim over the entire J&K. He goes on to add that in the unlikely event of decision not going in favour of India, there is nothing to fear as people of J&K have endorsed the accession of J&K to India, evident from the resolution of 15 February 1954 of the elected state Constituent Assembly. 


Radical Islamic ideology of groups like AQ and ISIS coupled with underlying grievances, and propagated over the 21st century collaborating marvel, “the Web” has virtually propelled a non-state actor into a super – state. To counter the ideological offensive of such groups, it is important to firstly, encourage various emerging reformist socio-religious movements (Islamic Renewal) amongst the moderate Muslims by creating a World Muslim foundation type of an organization. This initiative should also have a Web based platform to connect modern Muslim thinkers. Secondly, encourage social reformers in the Muslim world through an Ashoka type of global social entrepreneur organization fighting for religious and social reforms. Thirdly, it is recommended to integrate national investigation agencies of partner nations to track and choke the funding of Salafi Jihadi ideology. Fourthly, decapitation of a leader especially a charismatic leader does help in solving the problem but it is a short term solution or a just a breather. It would be better to delegitimize the leader and his ideology. His aura has to be busted. He needs to be reduced to the level of a common criminal. To do so both kinetic and non-kinetic measures must be adopted. Fifthly, counter ideology proliferation in the form of web for peace be it by covert or overt means must become the backbone of Counter Terrorism strategy. However, for the information operation initiatives to succeed they must at the minimum, appear to emanate from the Muslim populace and Diaspora to have some chance for success. Sixthly, like most countries, India while dealing with terrorism still view it purely as a security issue with nil or only lip service to de-radicalization initiatives. Pursuing a well-considered de-radicalization program would help in resolving the wicked problem of Kashmir. Lastly, legal recourse to resolve the Kashmir problem in ICJ should not be summarily rejected. There is merit in what Aman Hingorani is recommending. To sum up we need to follow a grand strategy encompassing kinetic and non-kinetic measures and smooth and synergized execution of the strategies by all the means available to a state to deal with wicked problem of radical Islamic terror.

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