A fourth wave of terrorist attacks?

Brussels is a world away from Pakistan. And we in Pakistan have already had our Paris and Brussels several times over.

But Brussels is important because it confirms what Paris had revealed: a fourth wave of militancy. As we tamp down our own third wave of attacks, might we too face a fourth down the road? Speculation is a dirty game, but worse is to be caught unawares and unprepared.

Before we get into the possible conditions for a fourth wave, let's look at the first three that have gone by here in Pakistan.

First, of course, was the Afghan militancy. The one that eventually morphed into Al-Qaeda and the hell it unleashed on us.

Second was Kashmir and the anti-India lot. Redirected, re-energised and then mutated beyond recognition, parts of it turned on us, while other parts have flourished to the great distortion of the communities in which the networks have spread.

Third were the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) and its cohorts. Triggered by a combination of events, partly rooted in the evolution of the first lot into Al-Qaeda and partly resulting from the shock wave that the US war in Afghanistan sent through Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it may be on the verge of running its course.

But if the first three waves taught us anything, it is that militancy is influenced by events in the region and the world - the shadow of the Cold War; the unfinished business of Kashmir and Partition; the mixing of an earlier creation and a superpower's later intervention.

In trying to recover its authority, Pakistan as a state faces an erosion of its legitimacy, says the writer. An example is the case of Mumtaz Qadri, executed on Feb 29 for gunning down the Punjab governor in 2011 over a call to reform the country's blasphemy law. To Qadri's supporters (above), gathered for an anti-government protest in Rawalpindi on March 27, the state is the villain. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Right now, militancy is really the only game in town - in the world. In the media. On the Net. In the global discourse. Militancy is to the Muslim world what Donald Trump has become to the US: ubiquitous, cacophonous, impossible to ignore.

And you can bet there are some here willing to listen to what it has to say.

That doesn't automatically translate into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Pakistani waves haven't tracked the Western ones in the last two cycles and there's no reason for the fourth wave to be the same. But it could look similar: decentralised militancy; a pick-and-mix buffet that lone wolves and small, spontaneously organised groups can select from.

Why might that emerge here, given that Pakistan is on the path to stabilising itself and isn't the mess that the Middle East has become nor does it have the dynamics of Western militancy surrounded by majority populations?

There are several reasons and we'll try and ignore the banal because-extremism-is-still- rampant types. So here goes.

The state is regaining its authority, but its legitimacy is still contested. Making Pakistan safe again for the majority has reinforced for a minority that the state's actions are indecent, immoral and, possibly, un-Islamic.

And the further you stretch away from violent militancy to seemingly less toxic extremism, the larger that minority gets.

Sure, the parallels are inexact and the schools of thought different, but the Qadri episode - in which revenge attacks followed the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri who gunned down the governor of Punjab in 2011 over a call to reform the country's blasphemy law - has illustrated the problem of a state recovering its authority, but further eroding its legitimacy for many.

Qadri was executed, but the state is the villain - power and weakness at the same time. Turn that logic to military operations, and while sympathy for the TTP may not have systemic appeal, a fundamental question remains unanswered: why is the mighty Pakistani military unleashing its wrath on those acting in the name of Allah?

From dishonourable deeds can grow a wellspring of resentment, hate and violence.

Next, the system itself is suspect. A hybrid dictatorship-democracy, both sides of the equation are deeply problematic. The military for the aforementioned reason; democracy for intrinsic ones.

The standard explanation for the lack of electoral success of the political religious right is that most Pakistanis reject it. But the explanation lies elsewhere: the natural constituency of the religious right - the rabble of extremists and arch-conservatives - is averse to democracy.

They don't vote and they don't think anyone else should either. Their numbers are not insubstantial and their habitual, ideological non-appearance come election time tends to mislead.

Third, the way in which the fight against militancy is being fought. Most of us just hear the numbers: X captured, Y eliminated, Z sentenced. But behind those numbers lie stories of savagery and violence that most of us prefer not to think about - but that the fringes dwell on darkly and insistently.

The Adiala 11, the attacks on super cops and Inter-Service Intelligence Agency safe houses, the whispered stories of violence and mutilation - the cycle of state-sanctioned violence and militant revenge is there for all to see, if they want to.

Most prefer to ignore it; the ones who focus on it - what's happening on the ground, the grotesque and the ugly - for them, it is a powerful instiller of fear and loathing. Vengeance is for the righteous.

The decline of organised militancy - the bad variant and, in time, the good - does not mean the end of all militancy. It's not just that the three waves we've seen so far have laid down an infrastructure and created a mosque-madrasah- social-welfare network in which a fourth wave can incubate.

That is a big problem. But militancy needs something to fight against - and something to fight for. Here, the reasons are still many.

A state whose legitimacy is contested, a system of governance that is seen as inimical to Islam, an all-powerful institution whose actions are seen as a betrayal and a fight that is dirty - the seeds for lone wolves and spontaneous little groups are all here.

The global din of militancy is louder than ever. Here in Pakistan, a fourth wave may be closer than we realise.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'A fourth wave of terrorist attacks?'. Print Edition | Subscribe