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Updated: April 1, 2014 01:09 IST

Fighting an invisible and incorrigible enemy

Swaran Singh
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FIGHTING BACK — What Governments Can Do About Terrorism: Edited by Paul Shemella; Foundation Books, 4381/4 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 795.
Special Arrangement FIGHTING BACK — What Governments Can Do About Terrorism: Edited by Paul Shemella; Foundation Books, 4381/4 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 795.

Security studies of the 21st century have been besieged by discourses on terrorism. Thousands of books, millions of articles, terabits of sound-bytes as also billions of dollars and thousands of precious lives have been expended with little respite from terrorism. It is in this stream that this compendium, Fighting Back, comes from Centre for Civil-Military Relations at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey (California). Since 9/11, they have held series of outreach seminars on ‘Civil-Military Responses to Terrorism’ involving participants from 130 affected countries. It is with this vast experience that editor Paul Shemella and his team of seasoned experts have attempted creating a users’ manual for terrorism impacted countries. Prima facie, this seems far too ambitious a promise yet they do make several interesting points.

At the very outset, Paul Shemella underlines that terrorists remain far ahead of most governments. States, he says, must locate their war on terror as a political contest and focus on the ‘root causes’ that create the fertile ground for terrorism. Success in fighting terrorism hinges on discrediting their ideas, not in killing or jailing terrorists. Thomas Mockaitis, the well-known author of Bin Laden’s biography, sees terror as a weapon since antiquity except that its oldest practitioners were not clandestine groups but states. This explains why the five permanent members of the UN Security Council continue to impede all efforts at defining terrorism, especially any inclusion of State terrorism or categorising drones or cluster bombs as terror weapons.

Meanwhile, terrorists have given up the conventional hierarchical organisation style and become horizontal networks. This makes terrorists groups immune to conventional state strategies of decapitation or conventional warfighting. But Phil Williams, professor in the University of Pittsburg, contests this popular myth and highlights how centralised information processing, monitoring, formal training, institutional memory procure for State efficiency and potency against loosely tied terrorist networks. The bigger problem for him lies in transnational terrorist networks — distributed across multiple jurisdictions that lack coordination.

Hype versus truth

Edward Hoffer examines chances of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which has been the refrain of Nuclear Security Summits with third one taking place at The Hague recently (24-25 March). He believes their use by terrorists will be ‘either highly unlikely or in most instances less deadly than the effect that terrorists could achieve by using conventional explosives.’ Timothy Doorey addresses the question of cyber terrorism delivering an equally dangerous hit. Internet, he believes, provides terrorists global command and control with minimal costs and risk and will continue to thwart all counter terrorism strategies. Writing on maritime terrorism, Peter Chalk draws attention to two-thirds of Earth’s surface, the ‘high-seas’ being beyond jurisdiction of any State. However, attacks here bring little publicity. Modern day luxury cruise liners — symbols of Western wealth — can be attractive targets but it is passenger ferries that remain vulnerable as they prioritise efficiency and volumes over safety and security. Potentially maritime terrorism can explode oil tankers or detonate a radiological devises on containerships at ports or at choke points which can deliver a crippling blow to global trading.

Phil Williams examines the issue of terrorist finances. This was not even an issue till 9/11 but now the West calls it the ‘lifeblood’ of terrorism and the ‘War on Terrorism’ had sought to chock its flow. The UNSC resolution 1373 in late September 2001 obligated all states to prevent financing of terrorism followed by G7 expanding the writ of its Financial Action Task Force to cover terrorist finances. Yet dozens of states remain deficient in combating terrorist financing. This becomes complicated as, with the end of the cold war, state funding for terrorism has witnessed a sharp decline. Terrorists now depend on their unknown sympathisers or crime. Terrorists also double up or infiltrate respected charities. Terrorists use informal systems like hawala networks or intra-organisation transfers like charity sending money to its branches.

Consequence management

The biggest hurdle in countering terrorism remains interagency competition. Information travels only vertically with little horizontal coordination. This calls for unity of effort within government but also unity of efforts amongst governments. But again the first hurdle is that governments have different definitions and most do not consider terrorism as a threat until they fall victim to it. Edward Hoffer believes planners must focus on effective and efficient consequence-management to deal with aftermath of terrorist strikes. He cites the 2005 London subway bombing as an excellent example of calm and quick restoration of citizen’s confidence. He posits the 2008 Mumbai attacks as example of ‘confused and uncoordinated consequence-management’ that undermined faith in local and national authorities.

Thomas Mokaitis potrays the 2008 Mumbai attacks as unique where ten men, tacitly supported by Pakistani security forces, carried out a devastating attack killing 173 and wounding over 300 people; not only holding the city hostage for over 60 hours but derailing Indo-Pakistan peace talks. ‘Seldom’ he says, ‘has a single terrorist attack by so few accomplished so much.’ Just two terrorists freely enter Victoria Terminus station and continue shooting for about 90 minutes, almost unimpeded. Lack of information management results in journalists wandering in the streets broadcasting chaos to the whole world and the government also helps terrorists by announcing deployment details of its elite National Security Guard. All this, in spite of having had advance intelligence inputs from the U.S. of an imminent attack on the city and Indian intelligence having intercepted a phone call indicating that a ship carrying terrorists had left Karachi and was in position fifty miles from Mumbai.

Even in the developed Europe, Phil Williams explains how the 2004 Madrid bombing came as an enormous surprise. The impact was accentuated by the Spanish government losing elections three days later and the new government withdrawing forces from Iraq. The riddle lay in its multifaceted radicalisation i.e. group members were radicalised at different times and places and in different ways leaving little trace of their network in-the-making. Lawrence Cline shows how the U.S. botched-up operation in Somalia in October 1993 killing 18 U.S. soldiers leading President Clinton withdrawing forces immediately. Paul though ducks the real reason: this sudden withdrawal was triggered by widely publicised angry Somali mobs dragging these dead Americans through the streets of Mogadishu. Otherwise, the U.S. has lost thousands of men in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and yet it continues to fight.

In the end, most contributors to this book believe terrorism will never be defeated completely so success against terrorism must be measured in terms of how effectively governments can reduce violence and promote a climate of security. Paul Shemella prescribes regular measuring of effectiveness of anti-terrorism strategies. Such auditing protects governments from going too far down the path of catastrophe. But both these prescriptions perhaps cast doubts on the very efficacy of writing such users’ guide unless one intends to not only revise it on regular basis but also contextualise it.

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