Tepid on terror

Print edition : June 01, 2012

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN Singh, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Minister of State for Home Mullappally Ramachandran at the Chief Ministers' conference on the National Counter-Terrorism Centre in New Delhi on May 5.-PTI

The wrangling between the Centre and the States over the NCTC is one more sign that the country is still not focussed on protecting itself.

THE controversy over the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) being conferred the power to effect arrests of terror suspects anywhere in the country continues. A few States Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Odisha have categorically turned down the Centre's proposal, as a result of which the much-touted National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) is almost a non-starter. These States believe that a Central agency such as the I.B. making arrests in their jurisdictions would constitute a serious erosion of their autonomy, especially in a sensitive matter such as law and order, which figures in the State list in the Constitution. Whether there is politics in this stand or not, the fact remains that a huge country like ours is still not focussed on protecting itself.

This is despite the fact that we have been victims of terrorism so many times and live in a world where in a few regions violence is regarded as the most potent instrument to bring about political change or establish religious hegemony. In my view, the acrimonious debate over the NCTC only contributes to an unintended dilution of our state of preparedness on the terrorist front. The Central government has to take a part of the blame for States assuming such a rigid posture. The charge is that the Centre did not do enough to convince the States before deciding to arm the I.B. with extraordinary powers. The I.B. has no legal status under the present dispensation and it is not used to the public glare it will have to be in when it starts exercising the legal authority that is solely the prerogative of the State police.

This dismaying feature of our polity uninhibited politics in law enforcement will have to be considered against the backdrop of recent assessments by experts the world over on the occasion of the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing at Abbottabad (Pakistan). Such assessments are no doubt customary. Many of them may also seem too academic and based purely on conjectures. Nevertheless, they serve the purpose of informing the average citizen, who is otherwise confused as to where he stands vis-a-vis terrorism. Such education is essential in these dangerous days when security and the restrictions flowing from it are pervasive in our day-to-day lives and cause great annoyance.

Despite some wide differences in perception, most commentators agree that Al Qaeda has not yet recovered from bin Laden's liquidation last year. The absence of a strong central command possibly explains why there has been no spectacular action directly by Al Qaeda or anyone inspired by it for quite some time. A statement attributed to James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, made during a deposition before the United States Senate in February had suggested that Al Qaeda was at best of symbolic significance. Apart from an agreement on this, there is no unanimity whether the removal of bin Laden has led to a loss of Al Qaeda's innate capacity to strike at the perceived enemy.

While one school of thought believes that Al Qaeda has lost its venom forever, the other advocates caution against complacence. The latter goes to the extent of saying that a cavalier attitude is an invitation to disaster. This apparent conflict in estimating Al Qaeda's prowess shows how much the absence of accurate intelligence on that organisation has reduced the credibility of all prognosis, even when it is backed by assiduous research. This confused situation can affect policymaking by governments and the sharpness of law-enforcement agencies across the globe.

Two factors should worry many governments, especially in the Middle East (West Asia) and Africa. The Arab Spring, with the accompanying instability of many regimes, has provided space to Al Qaeda to spread its pernicious message that unbridled violence is the only way to respond to the Western powers. Second, Al Qaeda's unmistakable ability to forge ties with lesser Islamist groups that are confined to specific countries and to instigate them to violence.

Of particular concern is the situation in Yemen where there was a change of regime recently. It happened after a surge of violence in early March, when more than 100 government security men were killed by militants owing allegiance to Al Qaeda. Two militant groups, Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law) and Ansar al-Sharia, have been extremely active in south Yemen. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years, recently made way for Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has promised stern action to combat Al Qaeda and its associates. U.S. assistance to Yemen in terms of military equipment and training has been substantial. This offers hope that Al Qaeda will have a tough time if it attempts to step up its activities, either on its own or with the help of associates arrayed against the local regimes.

There is also a growing feeling that Al Qaeda's affiliates in Somalia are becoming increasingly militant. One such group, the al Shabab, launched a significant attack in the city of Baidoa in April. It is seen as part of the group's endeavour to spread its tentacles in the southern part of the country. Of greater significance is the fact that a number of U.S. citizens have arrived in Somalia to fight alongside the al Shabab. About 40 Somali Americans are known to have so descended on Somalia. This has generated an assessment that these elements could launch actions in the U.S. It is known that for quite some time Al Qaeda has pursued a policy of scouting for new affiliates. It has had a measure of success in this strategic endeavour. Reports suggest a friendship with the Pakistani Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Nigeria's Boko Haram. One has to reckon the strength of such partnerships before writing off Al Qaeda.

Significant here is the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) recent busting of a plot in Yemen to attack a U.S. airliner. It has been reported that the attempt, which coincided with the anniversary of bin Laden's death, was similar to the 2009 Christmas day attempt by a passenger on a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam to carry an explosive stitched into his underwear. The design employed in the latest plot was described as an upgrade on that operation. Credit goes to the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other intelligence agencies for the successful thwarting of the operation.

What is relevant is the terrorists' perseverance with tactics aimed at spreading fear without being demoralised by repeated failures or arrests of sympathisers. There is thus no case for relaxation of vigilance at public places, especially airports. The impact of bringing down an aircraft can hardly be exaggerated. Aviation security is complex and procedure-ridden. The problem is how to keep refining it constantly without further harassment of the law-abiding traveller. Professionalism is the key here. Political heavyweights in India do try to circumvent security but without great success because of the firmness of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) over the years.

The reports on Al Qaeda have some significance for India. The LeT's potential for mischief in India is well known, and its Al Qaeda connections place more resources at its disposal. Viewed from this perspective, there is a need for Indian agencies to keep a close watch on all terrorist outfits. This is also why the conflict over the NCTC is unfortunate. The earlier it is resolved the better it is for our vigil over antinational elements.

A policy of give and take by either side is highly commended. We have a healthy relationship with intelligence agencies in the West. We need to nurse them with great care without giving exaggerated importance to national sovereignty and allied issues. This is, fortunately, already happening. Pragmatism has come to dictate our attitude to the CIA and the FBI. If we have to profit from this, we need to set our own house in order by convincing the States that when it is a question of protecting ourselves from international terrorism there is no place for State chauvinism or ego.

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