November 22, 2002


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B Raman

Terrorism's Enduring Threat

This article contains my observations after a visit to the US and South East Asia from November 7 to 21, 2002.

During my stay in the US from November 6 to 15, I participated in two interactions at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, organised by the Centre for International Trade and Security at the university and at the University of Massachusetts organised by its Centre For Indic Studies.

The Georgia University interaction was attended largely by invited members of the faculty and members of the student community. The interaction at UMASS was attended  by members of different faculties, some local journalists and two Boston-based FBI agents. The theme of the Georgia University interaction was 'Indo-US Co-operation in Counter-terrorism;' at UMASS, we discussed 'International Terrorism from the Indian Perspective.'

I led the discussions in four other interactions on international terrorism organised by groups of US residents/citizens of Indian origin -- one each at Atlanta and Tampa, Florida, and two at Boston. After my presentation at Tampa on November 9, during which I asserted, as I have been doing since July,  that Osama bin Laden was alive, but incapacitated and had been given shelter in the Binori madrasa in Karachi, I was interviewed on my assertion by a local television channel.

My visit to South East Asia for five days enabled me to have a first-hand feel of the post-Bali situation.

My most important observation after these visits and engagements was that more than one year after the launching of Operation Enduring Freedom, there is still no clear understanding -- neither in the US nor in South East Asia -- of the nature and modus operandi of the dual set-up headed by bin Laden . I have been pointing out for more than a year that while till 9/11 it was his Al Qaeda, an exclusively Arab organisation with a small strength, which organised practically all the terrorist strikes directed against the US, whether in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen or the US homeland, most of the strikes after 9/11 have been largely carried out by the non-Al Qaeda and non-Taliban components of bin Laden's International Islamic Front, formed in 1998 and expanded subsequently, which has a much, much larger strength.

While there was involvement of the Arab elements of Al Qaeda in post-9/11 terrorist incidents in Tunisia, Yemen and Kuwait, in the remaining incidents in Pakistan and South East Asia, it was largely the Pakistani and the South East Asian members of the IIF who played the frontline role. There was some involvement of Yemeni-Balochi members (born of mixed Yemeni-Balochi parentage) of the Pakistani components of the IIF in the incidents in Karachi, particularly in the kidnapping and execution of US journalist Daniel Pearl. Possibly, there was also some involvement of longstanding Arab residents of South East Asia in the incidents in the Philippines and in the Bali explosion in Indonesia, but they did not play a leadership role. The initiative for these incidents came from the IIF's indigenous cadres in Pakistan and South East Asia.

An outcome of the failure to make this distinction, while analysing and assessing the activities of the bin Laden inspired terrorists, is that practically all the pan-Islamic terrorist incidents are being attributed to Al Qaeda and bin Laden, thereby giving them a larger than life-size image in the eyes of the impressionable youth of the Muslim community of the region. The US, UK, Australia and those in South East Asia uncritically accepting and reflecting US perceptions have unwittingly made bin Laden appear in the eyes of the impressionable youth as the superstar valiantly countering the sole post-1991 superpower in the world.

There are three -- each equally important -- components to any counter-terrorism operation -- the political, operational and the psychological. While there is adequate understanding of and emphasis on the political and operational aspects, the understanding of the psychological component is surprisingly inadequate. When bin Laden, his Al Qaeda and IIF periodically use Al Jazeera and the Internet for disseminating their statements, they are using psychological warfare techniques, firstly, to rally round their actual and potential supporters and, secondly, to project themselves to the general public, whether they support them or not, as invincible and as capable of confronting the US and other States fighting them.

It is important that the US and other members of the international coalition do not unconsciously play into their hands by giving such statements publicity and through knee-jerk reactions to them. Similarly, it is important for the States countering terrorism to keep the focus on terrorism as a phenomenon, as a scourge and on the human tragedies in the form of large civilian casualties perpetrated by the terrorists. Such a focus will help create feelings of revulsion and even a guilt complex in the minds of the members of the ethnic or religious community or ideological group from which the terrorists arose. They should avoid undue focus on terrorist leaders as individuals and sensationalised projections of their capabilities and powers of networking and co-ordination.

Instead of doing so, Western, particularly American and Australian, and South East Asian counter-terrorism experts and analysts have been focussing on the capabilities and prowess of terrorist leaders such as bin Laden, Hambali, etc, thereby unwittingly contributing to the creation of icon-like images of these leaders in the eyes of their communities and of organisational personalities for their set-ups which make such non-State actors appear as equals or formidable adversaries of the States confronting them. This contributes to the creation of  feelings of pride in the communities to which the terrorists belong. Instead of making the terrorist leaders appear as worthy of contempt, they are made to appear as worthy of emulation.

A television film on the Bali explosion produced by a private Australian channel, which I saw during my visit to South East Asia, was an example of how not to project such terrorist incidents and the organisations behind them. In the incident, about 180 Australian nationals and 20 others belonging to other nations were reportedly killed. There must have been fatal casualties and serious burn and other physical injuries amongst local Indonesians too. The brutalities inflicted by the terrorists, all of them reportedly Indonesians inspired by bin Laden, on Indonesian civilians at Bali and in the other terrorist strikes before Bali were hardly brought out to shock the common Indonesian people. Instead, the focus was almost entirely on the brutalities suffered by white-skinned people.

Since there is already considerable anger in the Islamic world against the US, the UK and Australia, visuals of their nationals suffering brutalities at the hands of the terrorists would not have created feelings of revulsion in their community. Instead, they would have created feelings of a malign glee.

In India and Sri Lanka, one similarly contributed in the past to the folly of creating icon-like images of sant Bhindranwale in the eyes of some sections of the Sikhs and of V Prabhakaran in the eyes of the Tamils. We paid a heavy price for our folly. We have learnt the right lessons since then and are more sophisticated now in our counter psywar techniques. We keep the focus on the scourge of terrorism and on Pakistan's State-sponsorship of terrorism and away from individual terrorist leaders. We take them seriously in private, but feign to ignore them with contempt in public.

Our projections always try to highlight the fact of Pakistanis killing Kashmiris, Kashmiri terrorists themselves killing Kashmiris and Muslims killing Muslims in the name of jihad. The theme of Indonesians killing Indonesians, Filippinos killing Filippinos and Malaysians, Singaporeans and Thais seeking to kill their compatriots in the name of jihad has not been adequately brought out at all. Unless and until this counter psywar aspect is effectively handled, one would find the various extremist and terrorist organisations gathering strength and following.

The seething anti-Western anger in the Islamic world in general and in West Asia and South East Asia in particular shows no signs of abating. On the other hand, it has become even more intense as one saw during the recent elections in Pakistan on October 10, where a coalition of pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda Islamic fundamentalist organisations scored impressive victories in the sensitive tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

When bin Laden formed the IIF in 1998, it viewed the US and Israel as the principal enemies of Islam. Since then, it has started viewing the UK and Australia too as enemies of Islam. While the anger against the US is mainly due to its post-1991 role in West Asia, including the stationing of US troops in Saudi territory, its role under Operation Enduring Freedom and its threatened military strike against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, the anger against the UK is Iraq-related and against Australia related to the role of Richard Butler, the Australian national, as head of the UN inspection team in Iraq in the late 1990s and Australia's role in East Timor and its increasingly high-profile stance in South East Asia in the war against terrorism.

For the last year, there has been severe criticism of Australia in the mosques and madrasas of Pakisan, particularly in the Binori madrasa in Karachi and in the Akora Khattak madrasa near Peshawar by South East Asian students of these madrasas.

While there are no reports of the training of any Australian residents/citizens in the madrasas of Pakistan and in the pre-October 7, 2001 training camps of Afghanistan, there is a likelihood of some Indonesians and other South East Asians trained in Pakistani madrasas being infiltrated into Australia, if not already infiltrated, for organising terrorist strikes. Though there is as yet no credible evidence to show that the Bali explosion was specifically directed at Australians, the possibility of terrorist strikes against Australian nationals and interests in areas outside Australia is rated high.

The latest Al Jazeera broadcast of  November 12, purportedly by bin Laden, has warned the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Australia against co-operating with the US in its war against terrorism. Of these, only the UK and Australia are viewed by the IIF as enemies of Islam though they are not described so in the broadcast, while no such criticism has been directed against France, Italy, Germany and Canada.

Even though sections of the US media and columnists -- but not the majority of US academics taking interest in South Asia who continue to act as apologists for General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani military dictator ---- have started expressing doubts about the sincerity of Musharraf's co-operation with the US in the fight against terrorism, the Bush Administration, particularly the State Department, continues to trust Musharraf and seems to advocate the line that there is no alternative to him for protecting American lives and interests and that too much pressure should not be exercised on him for restoring genuine democracy in haste.

It is conceded in private that the recent elections in Pakistan were carefully manipulated by him to ensure the coming to power of the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam), which was brought into being by the military-intelligence establishment by breaking Nawaz Sharif's party, but at the same time there is a reluctance to criticise him in public  for this.

During my interactions in the US, a question often posed to me was what would happen to the fight against terrorism if the fundamentalist parties came to power in Islamabad by taking advantage of genuinely free elections and the prevailing anti-US atmosphere in the Ummah. It was pointed out that genuinely free elections in Algeria and Turkey in the past had led to the fundamentalists sweeping the polls and that the US cannot afford a similar denouement in Pakistan, particularly after seeing what happened in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan in the recent elections, when a coalition of pro-Bin Laden parties scored impressive victories.

It is very likely these fears are shared in the administration and that it would close its eyes to Musharraf's machinations to retain himself in power, by hook or by crook, under the belief that this was the only way of preventing the pro-bin Laden elements from coming to power in Islamabad. Even reports, which started appearing in the US media after November 12, about bin Laden being alive and kicking despite Musharraf's past protestations about the likelihood of his death, have not shaken the faith of the Bush Administration in him. It is, therefore, likely that the US would continue to follow its policy of not exercising pressure on Musharraf beyond a particular point to wind up the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory directed against India.

After the Al Jazeera broadcast of November 12, there is palpable nervousness in the US and South East Asia about the dangers of another terrorist strike either by Al Qaeda or by the components of the IIF, particularly on the two remaining Fridays of the fasting Ramadan period. Many terrorist strikes of the past conducted by the IIF were carried out on the Fridays of the fasting period.

Two interesting pieces of speculation abroad relating to the war against terrorism need to be noted:

  • That the two snipers arrested recently in the US had links with the Jammat-Ul-Fuqra of Pakistan, which had in the past trained a large number of Afro-American Muslims and motivated them for carrying the jihad to the US.
  • That the CIA recently carried out a clandestine raid into the Sunni areas of Iran adjoining Balochistan in Pakistan and captured and whisked away to Diego Garcia a top operative of Al Qaeda who had taken shelter in Iranian territory. This is not being admitted by the US in order not to create embarrassment for Musharraf in his relations with Teheran.

    I have not seen any independent corroboration of this from Pakistan and hence am not in a position at present to vouch for the correctness of this speculation.

    B Raman, former additional secretary at the Cabinet Secretariat, currently heads the Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

    B Raman

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