News that the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams and its affiliates, have occupied key cities in the country's Anbar province, is only the latest in a series of advances made by violent and extremist Islamist groups in a wide arc stretching across, West Asia and Africa, particularly during the past year. The Arab Spring, which began with a successful popular movement against a corrupt and despotic regime in Tunisia in December 2010, soon engulfed Egypt, Libya and Syria but the original democratic and liberal impulse behind the movement soon yielded place to better organised, often armed and violent sectarian forces.
The US and its Western allies not only ignored this unfolding though uncomfortable reality, but instead sought to ride the fundamentalist Sunni wave to isolate Shia Iran and to destabilise its regional ally, Syria. The Gulf monarchies, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were actively encouraged to provide funds and weapons to the most fundamentalist and violent opposition groups in these target countries. Turkey, under Recep Erdogan, was also drawn into this cynical game. The results were predictable and were analysed in my column "Arab Spring turns searing summer" (September 19, 2012), warning, in particular, of the danger to India's plural and secular dispensation from these forces being unleashed in our neighbourhood. What needs to be understood is that the danger does not emanate from a monolithic and coherent entity called Al Qaeda, but rather from an increasingly exclusionary, fanatical and violent ideology, which is shared by a loosely constituted international network of local Al Qaeda branches, their numerous affiliates and associated fundamentalist groups. These may be powered by local grievances or causes anchored in different national narratives. However, one should not make the mistake of identifying such groups as being "nationalist" or "conservative" and hence allow them to escape the scrutiny they deserve as real or potential sources of international terrorism. We see such tendencies in the US and some other Western countries, that now appear willing to accept the Afghan Taliban as a local and nationalist group not necessarily targeted against Western interests as is, avowedly, the Al Qaeda.
In Pakistan, we have witnessed, for some time a sharpening Shia-Sunni divide, with extremist groups such as the Sipaha-e-Sahaba targeting Shia mosques and communities with brutal violence. Several other groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed that began as and remain state-sponsored terrorist outfits focused on India, have developed broader regional and even global agenda. With the imminent US withdrawal from Afghanistan during this year, these groups are likely to come together with the Afghan Taliban to attempt to reverse the gains made in Afghanistan and install a fundamentalist Sunni regime in Kabul. This is likely to revive the offshore havens for Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism against India and it would be no consolation to us that, in Western eyes, this may not be directly linked to an exclusive Al Qaeda threat.
There is, today, a global network of fundamentalist and violent Islamic groups of which Al Qaeda may be a prominent component, but segmenting these groups and indulging in selective focus on some and not on others, is to miss the transformed nature of the threat of international terrorism. The Al Qaeda may have a global agenda, but it pursues that agenda through exploiting and co-opting local and regional opportunities wherever they might arise. We see this in the Gulf, in the Indian sub-continent and more lately, in Africa.
Recently in Bangladesh, the argument has been made that one should not alienate conservative Islam, including the Jamaat, despite its patently violent proclivities. While it would have been preferable to have had a more inclusive electoral process in the country, the BNP's alliance with the Jamaat has been deeply troubling.
Next door in Myanmar, the rise of militancy among young Buddhist monks and the mishandling of the Rohingya issue has led to a new breeding ground for extremist activity. The fallout was felt in distant Bodh Gaya, though there was no local cause for the terrorist bombing at the Mahabodhi temple.
These developments have created the real prospect of India's eastern flank being as exposed to the spread of sectarian and fundamentalist forces as its western flank already is, with the real possibility of these spilling across our borders.
India has the second largest population of Shia Muslims after Iran. There has been no history of Shia-Sunni conflict in the country, but lately there have been stray incidents of clashes between the two communities both in Uttar Pradesh and recently in Kashmir. This is an ominous development and needs to be handled swiftly and firmly.
While one does see the growing influence of Wahhabi Islam in some sections of our Muslim population, the sheer diversity of India and its democratic processes has spared the country from the kind of sectarian divide and hostility that is growing, particularly in our Western neighbourhood. We need to ensure that plural democracy prevails and is nurtured and respected across the political spectrum.
The impending general elections place the country in a relatively vulnerable position. Appeals to narrow sectarian and parochial sentiments to gain electoral advantage may be tempting for some political parties. It is imperative that we create a national awareness of what is happening in our neighbourhood, both to the east and west, understand the potential dangers to our national security and refrain from creating, domestically, a congenial environment for such inimical forces from across our borders, undermining what has so far been one of the world's most successful plural democracies with a deeply rooted tradition of inter-religious harmony.
The author is a former Foreign Secretary.
He is currently Chairman National Security Advisory Board and RIS, and Senior Fellow, CPR