Countering Terrorism

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Paper written for a seminar on “Global Terrorism”, organized by Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad, 29-31 August 2005

The other day, when someone with more than just theoretical interest in the subject whispered in my ear, "war on terrorism was un-winnable", I had to take notice. Of course there is no way I, and most others, would accept this verdict even if we cannot prove otherwise. In my case, there is another reason not to concede the point. My mandate is to suggest, how best we can counter terrorism.

Let me, however, make it clear right at the outset: I do not believe that the mantra that we have lately been reciting to exorcise this curse, "to root-out terrorism, we have to remove its root-causes", would get us anywhere. For one thing, in most cases we were not likely to agree on the root-causes. Take for example, what is considered the mother of all terrorist acts in the present times, the enormity of 9/11.

Whenever we suggest, "it is America's blatant support for Israel's repression of Palestinian rights that led its (9/11's) perpetrators to such desperation", the other side retorts that that was not Al-Qaida's main motivation. The movement was founded, we are reminded, to cleanse the holy land of infidels, and has in the meantime been upgraded into a Jihad against the West. The Christian right may therefore have a point; that the origin of most, if not all, terrorist acts by Muslim groups, was the Crusades. Any idea, how we could remove that root-cause?

And if that was too complex a case, let us take a simpler one nearer home. Does anyone believe that we could ever reach a consensus on what might be the causes of the recent terrorist acts in Baluchistan: the sardari system; sense of deprivation of the Baluchis, actual or perceived; foreign hidden hands; or what?

Secondly; even when we did agree on the root-cause in an odd case, we would find out to our utter dismay that it was irremovable.

The government has been chasing, as per its own version, terrorists in our tribal areas for the last about two years. Its military spokesman has told us that they were (also) responsible for attacks on some of our high profile targets that included the president and the prime minister. He has, in addition, admitted that it was because of our decision post 9/11 to join the US in its war against Afghanistan that it has all come about. I have no problem agreeing with the script. I also have no doubt that we do not intend or plan to reverse that decision. So, the root-cause is there to stay.

In another case, too, there might be near-or-total consensus. Sectarian killings in Pakistan are by all accounts and standards, acts of terrorism. We can narrow down our disagreements regarding its origin to Karbla and the Iranian revolution. We can neither undo the former, nor rollback the latter.

And lastly, only for the sake of discussion: even if the Americans were to concede that the Palestinians and the Kashmiris were resorting to acts of terror, because the Israelis and the Indians had gone crazy; there was no chance that the Yanks would agree to arm-twist the two errant powers, or in fact, could do very much about it.

Let us face it. Faced with live threats, the type we believe is posed by the terrorists, no country or any other political entity, goes around trying to rectify errors of history or omissions of policy, or for that matter fight compulsions of realpolitik. The only practical or practicable recourse that they apparently have is to manage a tough situation. Instead of removing amorphous root-causes, they find rooting out terrorists more doable. As a minimum, they hope to neutralize the menace. In any case they believe they owe it to their calling to do something. So they declare war on terrorists; some in their vanity, on terrorism. In this war, the dice is loaded heavily against the state.

Anti-terrorist operations are the most complex form of sub-conventional warfare. It is true that compared to fighting insurgents, partisans, resistant movements, and the like, the world has much less experience in combating what was once called the "urban gorilla" and now the "terrorist"; counter terrorism still remains a largely unexplored discipline. While we have developed fairly workable doctrines to fight other forms of "small warfare", against the terrorists we only have some broad principles; like the "need to get good intelligence", the "ability to act with speed", and "it is all about hearts and minds". Even a cursory look at the advantages that the terrorists enjoy over the state security apparatus would explain the problematic of developing effective counterterrorism techniques.

To assert that the main objective of the terrorists is "to terrorise the people", is at best an over-simplification, more often a disingenuous argument. Welfare or sympathy of the population may not be uppermost in a terrorist's mind, but an unfriendly environment is not exactly in his interest. But then it is also true that if creating chaos best served their purpose- that may range from targeting a section of the society to discrediting state or supra state orders- the terrorists have no qualms about causing inconvenience to the general public. And that gives them their first big advantage: access to almost unlimited number of soft targets.

The terrorists, even when espousing popular causes, must count on sooner or later loosing popular support; either because of their actions, or more often due to the reprisals by the state or by their opponents. They therefore learn to exist and operate clandestinely in small groups, at times even individually. That makes them hard to detect and target. Even when an odd person or a group is compromised, the network survives.

The terrorists also have no time, and often no geographical, constraints. They know that their objectives cannot be achieved in a short time. Not too seldom, as in our sectarian strives, their wars are eternal. They can therefore pick their targets, locations, and timings, at will. Such freedom of action is not enjoyed by any other subconventional warriors, and it also explains their (the terrorists') much higher success and lower detection rate compared to the other categories of resistance fighters.

Terrorism in some form has existed in earlier times as well. But its rise to the present phenomenal heights is no coincidence. Grievances in the past, too, have led oppressed or weaker groups to desperate acts, but it is the recent developments that have provided them more effective means of expression. And here we are not talking merely of easier to conceal and more lethal weaponry that is now readily available to all and sundry.

In the present times, better means to communicate personnel, goods, and messages are accessible to most of us. More importantly, the state no longer has monopoly or handle over such facilities. That means that the terrorists today are at least as mobile and often more flexible than the security forces. Being more often the perpetrator or the initiator of an action, they are a step ahead. Modern means of communications also help us move across international borders more easily. Terrorists, too, can avail of this facility, and often network with other such groups or with their sympathisers.

That has added a new dimension to the phenomenon, aptly called 'international terrorism'. This has inevitably forced the states under threat to improve mutual cooperation and coordination. These developments seem to have taken shape after the Second World War when the two blocks, the communist east and the anti-communist west, contributed both by encouraging terrorism in target countries and counter measures in client states. Once again, it was the terrorist groups that networked better than the states.

In theory, the globalization helps both the officialdom and the citizenry to overcome state borders. In practice, the individuals can do it better. A fugitive can, even without permission from the recipient country, cross national frontiers. A state posse cannot. Even when permitted to do so, it will not have the same freedom to track its target; a prerogative that no host country was likely to abdicate, not willingly at least. Monies can move easier than the human beings. Money laundering is now an effective tool to help terrorist groups all over the globe. States can try to keep track of such movement, but usually freezing suspect accounts is all that they can practically do.

These are then the odds, and the list is by no means exhaustive, against which the state and its security apparatus must work to fight the terrorists. To add to their discomfiture, the main tool available to them for this messy task, the intelligence, has some genuine limitations.

Intelligence is an inexact science and often an abstract art. Under optimum conditions, it can give a fairly accurate "big picture". Even against a more definable conventional enemy all that it promises is "no strategic surprises". Once the battle is joined, the live picture is only possible by technical means, which in turn are susceptible to jamming, deception, and misinterpretation. Prospects of tracking down nebulous terrorists are even less promising. Sustained good work will help us gain plenty of useful information regarding their network. Preempting, even preventing, a terrorist act would often be a matter of luck.

The effectiveness of the other tool, the one used to strike against the terrorist, too, is seriously limited. Faced with an evasive enemy, possessing skimpy and rarely real time information, and pushed for time and success, the state tends to make up for these deficiencies by using extra force. The objective may or may not be achieved, but some unintended or untargeted loss inevitably is incurred. This is called "collateral damage", and has become in the meantime a cover for all honest as well as culpable lapses of the security apparatus. The real damage that it does is much more than what can be seen on ground or, for that matter, measured in the aftermath.

In the short term, a terrorized people might resign to bear the loss of innocent lives and property, and learn to live with restrictions imposed in their day to day life. The state, too, could develop immunity against any charges regarding its excessive or suppressive acts. In due course, however, when some more men and women, collateral victims of counter-terrorism, either join the terrorist ranks or express their anger by other violent means, it would set in motion another, more vigorous round of war. Maybe this is what my friend meant when he said "the war on terror was un-winnable"!

Indeed, the last to concede to that view would be the adherents of "no compromise with the terrorist" ideology. They can in fact cite a number of examples where terrorism was successfully fought: Northern Ireland; the Indian state of Punjab; the Bader-Meinhof group in Germany; the Red Brigade in Japan; and they must now be impatiently waiting to add the Taliban, our tribal areas, IHK, and possibly Iraq. One may also in all fairness concede that overtime, given the right mix of power and persuasion, depending on the support base, quality of leadership and resilience of the terrorists, and with a bit of luck, the state could prevail. And frankly, muddling through and making adjustments as it proceeds seems to be the only practical course available to the state. Considering, however, the stakes and how heavily the cards were stacked against us, we have to continue thinking about fresh ideas and approaches. Here is one.

The adage that "all is fair in love and war" is neither as old as love and war, nor as lasting. In the meantime, we have evolved norms that are not considered fair in war (and here we are not discussing 'love'). The wisdom behind the Geneva Conventions is the recognition of a reality: since the mankind was not likely to give up war; it might as well fight according to some decent norms becoming of the "ashraf-ul-makhluqat" (the best of the God's creations). There are also some mundane reasons to have clearly defined rules of engagement.

The combatants now know that if they were taken prisoners, what rights and obligations they were entitled to. In desperate situations, they might therefore be less unwilling to give up hopeless resistance saving useless loss of life. Once in enemy's custody, enabling them to communicate with their friends and relatives serves a humanitarian cause. And when permitted to receive provisions from specified sources, it provides relief both to the captor and the captive. Another factor is perhaps the most important one.

The ultimate objective of war is lasting peace. That only happens when those at war today will become friends tomorrow. Observing established civilised norms when fighting helps a great deal when re-establishing peace.

Peace and tranquility are also the objectives when the state conducts unconventional operations. But putting down insurgencies, fighting partisans and rooting out terrorism may differ in many respects. Insurgents are largely your own countrymen. Partisans usually resist foreign occupation. And terrorists of today are not inhibited by national boundaries and causes. It has, therefore, been difficult to evolve clearly defined rules of engagement for any of them, leave aside uniform rules for all.

When the adversary- insurgent, dissident, even terrorist- is our own national, and enjoys some support or sympathy from a faction of population, the state should not, and often does not, close the door for a 'political solution'. That confers on the other side the status of a "worthy opponent" who at the right time might have an incentive to find a negotiated settlement. The insurgents of the Northern Ireland were accused of acts of terrorism for over three decades, but the doors of negotiations were not closed on the Sinn Fein Party providing them the political umbrella. The result is the present truce and good prospects of a settlement.

Then there are other examples where the states resisted or refused to talk to the resistance groups because they were "terrorists". Ultimately when the cost of repression clearly exceeded its returns the states had to relent. Both the Kashmiri and the Palestinian issues may not be anywhere as near a resolution as the problem in the Northern Ireland, but the Indians and the Israelis have already conceded the Hurriyat and the PLO(respectively), the erstwhile "terrorist" organisations, the status of an interlocutor; and are none the worse for it.

In principle, the approach, of finding peaceful ways to resolving disputes, makes plenty of sense; especially in the present times when the use of force is universally looked down upon. But that is not how the human systems work- solely on the basis of logic. Emotions play a more spontaneous role. A state, one would have thought, would be less emotive in its responses. It probably is, but the complicated state system usually comes up with an egoistic, at best a timid, solution. That perhaps explains decades taken by all of them, Britain, India and Israel, to arrive at what for some of us may have been the obvious conclusion. (another, perhaps a more realistic explanation is that the resistance movements had to prove their credentials through tenacity before the states gave in.)

The matter becomes even more complicated when more than one state was involved with the same terrorist organisation or a network. If one of the states, presumably the more affected one or the one more benign, wished to open a dialogue with the terrorists, the other(s) would blame it of "capitulation" or "appeasement". In the ongoing "global war on Terror", a country like Pakistan, threatened by both the chief antagonists, The Al-Qaida and the US, for doing what it is doing or for not doing enough of whatever it was doing, obviously has an interest in this approach. I would resist the temptation of suggesting how a dialogue could start with the Al-Qaida franchise in Pakistan, except to remind that no wise enemies, regardless of the bitterness of their disputes, have ever closed their backchannels.

And while we are on the subject of Al-Qaida and the present wave of "Islamic Terrorism", whereas we may have a problem agreeing or removing its root-causes, addressing one of the precipitating causes might be easy. The suicide bombers have not been driven to their desperate acts only to revenge all the injustices, actual or perceived, perpetrated against their fellow faithfuls. Incensed over the helplessness of the Muslim States to do much about it, they believe they had to do whatever they could do. Any Muslim country seen to be acting to ameliorate the sufferings of oppressed Muslims, would be reason enough to lessen their pent-up anger.

In the present environment, when the more powerful countries refuse to have, or allow others to have, any truck with the terrorists, and with the likes of Bush and Blair reluctant to concede that the events in Iraq and Afghanistan had any linkage with the latest wave of terrorist attacks, the conventional counter terrorism tactics were likely to continue. If that continued to fail in combating terrorism, or resulted in its proliferation instead, and we were still interested in eliminating this menace, our last option may well be a semantic one.

Phil Rees, a documentary film maker who has done stories on terrorists, or, as he prefers to call them, militants, says: "if we don't want to describe Britain and America as terrorist nations, then the only principled alternative is to purge the word from the lexicon". Let no one, not even a state, committing what we these days call acts of terror, and some states commit them more often and more widely than the non state actors, be called "terrorist". One would be surprised at the positive effect once the name calling stopped.

Only recently I stumbled over a review of an article in the New York Times jointly authored by the US national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley and Homeland Security Advisor Frances Fargos. They have admitted that countries with huge standing armies equipped with lethal weapons are defenceless against terrorists. Armies and weaponry are effective in battlefields, not against terrorists playing hide and seek. To defeat terrorists the US must deprive them of the cause that earns them sympathy, and it has no choice except to change its strategy on facing up to terrorism. The credentials of the authors do give the impression that the article was sponsored by the US government, and therefore, if not a change of heart at least a changeover to a more restrained use of force might be in the offing. It might happen eventually, but I believe next the decision makers would be mulling over how to deprive the terrorists of any support, if not sympathy, by increased use of force.

Note: Terms like "terrorism" or "terrorist" in this article have been used in the sense these are understood these days, without prejudice to any definition that a world body might one day lay down.

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Author: Asad Durrani