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Counter-terrorism: Some home truths
May 20, 2008
A stereotyped question often posed is: If the US can prevent acts of terrorism in its homeland after 9/11, why can't India do likewise? Those, who pose this question, attribute the lack of any terrorism in the US homeland to the strong legal and operational measures taken by the US authorities after 9/11. They advocate similar measures in India.
A counter-question, which is relevant, is: How many acts of terrorism were there in the US homeland before 9/11 when these special measures did not exist? Hardly any. The Oklahoma explosion of 1995, the Atlanta explosion of 1996 and some fire-bombing incidents against Hindu and Jewish properties during the 1990s by a Pakistan-based organisation called the Jamaat-ul-Fuqra were not strictly viewed as acts of terrorism by religiously or ideologically motivated organisations. They were instead viewed as violent acts of marginal elements in the local society.
If we exclude these incidents, there has never been any major act of terrorism in the US homeland before or after 9/11. The terrorist strikes of 9/11 were an exception. They were staged by al Qaeda in retaliation for the US cruise missile attacks in August, 1998, on its camps in Afghanistan and on a chemical factory allegedly run by it in the Sudan. According to the US, this factory produced chemicals for use in acts of terrorism. According to al Qaeda, it produced anti-malaria medicine for poor people.
A group of 19 Arabs -- all foreign citizens -- entered the US, underwent flying training and staged the terrorist strikes against the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and against the Pentagon headquarters in Washington DC on 9/11. The US was taken by surprise. It was prepared for attacks in foreign territory, but not in the US homeland. It viewed these strikes as Pearl Harbour-style attacks by a non-state actor. It decided to retaliate against them militarily in Afghanistan from where these strikes had originated. It called it a war against terrorism and has been using its armed forces against al Qaeda with no holds barred.
The US and its people never excuse an adversary, who dares to attack them in their territory. During the Second World War, even though both Germany [Images] and Japan [Images] were the adversaries of the US, it used the atomic bombs only against Japan and not against Germany because it wanted to teach Japan a lesson for daring to attack it by stealth on its territory.
Similarly, the US and its people are determined to teach al Qaeda and Muslims who support it a lesson for daring to attack them by stealth in their territory. The US is prepared to fight against Al Qaeda [Images] and the organisations allied with it for as long as it takes to destroy them and thereby prevent another 9/11 in their territory. While many political leaders in the US criticise its involvement in Iraq and demand the withdrawal of its troops from there, one does not find similar criticism in respect of Afghanistan. There is support for the view often expressed by President George W Bush [Images] that if the US leaves Afghanistan with the "war" half-finished, al Qaeda will attack the US again in its territory. During the current presidential campaign in the US, the criticism against Bush is not for the US involvement in Afghanistan, but for the failure to kill Osama bin Laden and his senior associates and neutralise al Qaeda.
The US has been using its army, air force, navy and covert action groups against al Qaeda, the neo-Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. The US use of heavy weapons and air strikes and the over-militarisation of the US counter-terrorism operations have resulted in large civilian casualties. There has consequently been an aggravation of the anti-US anger in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries of the Islamic world. This has led to more support for al Qaeda and the Taliban and more terrorism. Highly-militarised counter-terrorism as practised by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq has itself become a root cause of aggravated jihadi terrorism.
Since the US has been waging its war against terrorism against foreign nationals in foreign territory, the kind of restraints, which normally operate in counter-terrorism campaigns against one's own nationals in one's own territory do not operate. The more ruthless the US strikes with its armed forces, the more the civilians killed. The more the civilians killed, the more the recruits to al Qaeda. The more the recruits, the more ruthless al Qaeda's operations The more ruthless al Qaeda's strikes, the more ruthless the US military strikes. It has become a vicious circle.
More Americans have died at the hands of terrorists in different countries after the post-9/11special legal and operational measures than before 9/11 when such measures were not there. The post-9/11 special measures might have protected the US territory from any more terrorist strikes so far, but they have not protected US nationals in different countries. In fact, US nationals abroad and countries which support the US are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks today than they were before 9/11.
It is in view of this that an increasing number of analysts is advocating a mid-course correction with partial, if not total, dimilitarisation of counter-terrorism. At the annual conference of the Council on Security Co-operation Asia Pacific in Jakarta in December, 2003, I was invited to speak on India's non-military approach to counter-terrorism.
It would be incorrect to compare India with the US and unwise to advocate an emulation of the US counter-terrorism measures by India. The US is located thousands of kilometres away from the Islamic world. India is right in the middle. The US has no Islamic state as its neighbour. India has two -- Pakistan and Bangladesh -- both not well disposed towards India. In addition, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics are nearby. Most of the non-Palestinian jihadi terrorist organisations of the world were spawned in this region. Whenever the ill-winds of Islamic fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism blow from their region, India is in their path. India has the world's second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. It has to be concerned all the time about the likely impact of its counter-terrorism policies on its Muslim citizens. The US has a very small Muslim population. It does not have to worry about the impact on them.
The situation in India is further complicated by the involvement of the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and Bangladesh in sponsoring and assisting terrorism of different hues in Indian territory -- the United Liberation Front of Assam, the Khalistanis of Punjab, the indigenous Kashmiri organisations and the indigenous Muslim organisations in other parts of India and of pan-Islamic Pakistani and Bangladeshi organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami of Pakistan and Bangladesh and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which are members of Laden's International Islamic Front.
These complications render the tasks of Indian intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, including the police, much more difficult than those of the US. We have to fight terrorism in our own way according to our own ethos without letting our counter- errorism policies becoming copy-cat models of those of the US or Israel.
Despite the frequent incidents of terrorism, we have not been doing too badly. This would be evident from the fact that the terrorists have not succeeded in disrupting the communal harmony or political stability or the economic growth. Even at the height of Khalistani terrorism, Punjab continued to play its role as the granary of India and feed all of us in the rest of India. Despite the surge in jihadi terrorism in different parts of India, we have emerged as the leading IT power in the world. Our economy continues to grow at eight plus per cent. Foreign investment flows continue to remain high.
After every terrorist attack in a tourist resort -- whether Bali or Mombasa or Casablanca or Sharm-el-Sheikh -- there was an exodus of tourists from there and large-scale cancellations of air and hotel bookings. This has not happened after the Jaipur blasts. This shows the gratifying confidence still displayed by the international community --including the business class -- in the Indian ability to deal with this problem and to protect them.
There is no reason for us to indulge in breast-beating after every terrorist strike. By doing so, we only add to the image of the terrorists in the eyes of their community. It is often easier to destroy the terrorists than the image which the media and the agencies unwittingly create of them by projecting them as if they are invincible. They are not.
To be continued