Prevention or cure?

Print edition : October 09, 2009

I BEGIN this column on the eve of the eighth anniversary of 9/11. A thought that probably haunts the families of the more than 3,000 victims of Al Qaedas mindless violence on that day: Could the tragedy have been averted? A lot has been said on the subject. One school of experts surmises that with better coordination and intelligence law enforcement agencies, especially the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could have stopped the terrorists well before they executed their plan.

There is another group that does not buy this. It takes the position that the novelty of the attack and the intense religious motivation of Mohammed Atta and the 18 others who conspired with him could not have been discovered. I find it difficult to agree wholly with either point of view because modern terrorism has proved itself to be daring yet fearfully surreptitious and clandestine, forging an unrivalled alliance between strategy and tactics that is too crafty for routine policing. Whatever be the dimensions of the problem, over the years, after many dastardly terrorist strikes, security apparatuses have gained enough knowledge and the ability to identify signals and locate suspects in the most unlikely of places.

For instance, Indian security agencies themselves are known to have nipped many conspiracies in the bud although they have not gone to town trumpeting such successes. (According to Home Minister P. Chidambaram, more than 10 terror outfits have been neutralised in the past six months.) Ultimately, in counter-terrorism, there is no substitute for hard field work backed by nearly accurate intelligence inputs and solid community support.

I am not talking fanciful theories. I am merely drawing from the astounding success of the police in the United Kingdom in getting three Islamist fundamentalists convicted on September 7 for their 2006 plot to blow up seven jet aircraft over the Atlantic that would have killed more people than died on 9/11. (One other accused was found guilty of participation in a conspiracy to murder. Three more are likely to be punished for the lesser charge of attempting to commit a public nuisance.) After an initial setback a year ago, when Scotland Yard could not convince a jury with the evidence it had marshalled, it succeeded at a new trial at Woolwich Crown Court. The whole process in court took nearly three years.

The main accused in the case Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, Tanvir Hussain, 28, his lieutenant, and Assad Sarwar, 29 are English youths who shared an antipathy to the non-Muslim West and genuinely believed they had to do something spectacular, including sacrificing themselves, to draw the attention of the rest of the world to how Islam was being treated unfairly. Drawing inspiration from their Pakistani masters, they conceived of the idea of using hydrogen peroxide (to be disguised as soft drink bottles) to blow up planes flying to the United States and Canada. (Now you know why you cannot carry a bottle containing more than 100 ml of any liquid while getting on a flight, a restriction imposed post-2006 when Ahmed Ali and company were found out.)

A fourth accomplice, Umar Islam, 31, was convicted on a lesser charge. Three others, Waheed Zaman, 25, Ibrahim Savant, 28, and Arafat Khan, 28, participated in the preparation of martyrdom videos as a prelude to their probable deaths while executing the plan. The jury could not come to a conclusion on their exact role. It is possible they will be convicted of attempting to cause a public nuisance.

There are many aspects of the case from which Indian counter-terrorism agencies could learn. First of all, I am most impressed by the clinical manner in which the Metropolitan Police and other U.K. agencies unravelled the conspiracy, that too without generating any major controversy over their methods.

Ahmed Ali, the mastermind of the plot, was born into a large family that had migrated from Pakistan. He studied computer engineering at university and was unemployed after a brief spell of work in a factory. His frequent trips to Pakistan, ostensibly for charity work, did not go unnoticed by the police. (Subsequent enquiries revealed that he was in fact going to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, besides being trained on how to make explosives.) He was a natural suspect. When he came back from Pakistan once in 2006, a search of his baggage by counter-terrorism officials yielded a large number of batteries and packets of a powder normally used to make a soft drink. This was the signal that they should keep an eye on him. And when he bought an apartment in East London with cash, which became the rendezvous for the meetings with his associates, Scotland Yard stepped up its surveillance.

The police also installed a bug in the house, which gave them valuable inputs. An unofficial search of the place during Ahmed Alis absence revealed that preparations were being made to assemble explosives.

The second conspirator, Sarwar, was a dropout from Brunei University. He had met Ahmed Ali in Pakistan and re-established contact with him in England. He is described by Scotland Yard as the quartermaster in charge of procurements. A memory stick recovered from his home contained information on explosives and modes of attacks on aircraft.

The third plotter, Tanwar Hussain, also from East London, is a former postman and a close ally of Ahmed Ali and took an active part in the conspiracy, such as buying syringes and surgical needles. Interestingly, he and Ahmed Ali applied for fast-track passports after deliberately losing their original documents. This was possibly to hide their visits to Pakistan.

The fourth accused, Umar Islam, originally Brian Young, is a convert. He was a bus conductor at the time of his arrest. He had visited Pakistan along with Ahmed Ali and Sarwar for what was claimed to be charity work.

This was undoubtedly a painstaking investigation, which was duly upheld by a pragmatic jury. There were, of course, moments of tension for Scotland Yard, which spearheaded the whole operation. The main question was when exactly to arrest the conspirators and put them out of criminal mischief. Any error in judgment here could have led to an enormous loss of lives. While Scotland Yard was prepared to wait for some time for the conspiracy to unfold itself in full, they were hustled into action by the arrest of one Rashid Rauf by Pakistan authorities under pressure from U.S. agencies. The latter were exercised about the repeated references to dry runs in the messages between the plotters, which indicated that the operation to blow up airlines was imminent. (Rauf, who was later acquitted by a Pakistan court, is now said to have been killed last year in a U.S. drone attack.)

A major handicap in court was the question of admissibility of some of the evidence available with Scotland Yard, especially that collected through telephone and e-mail interception. Under English criminal law, material collected from unauthorised processes is inadmissible. This was circumvented by obtaining a U.S. court order that requested Yahoo! to hand over transcripts culled out from its U.S. servers of messages exchanged between the conspirators. I thought this was a clever move, one which highlights the fact that ingenuity and innovation are crucial to the successful investigation of terrorist crimes.

The messages contained some interesting code names. (Papa for a leading facilitator to the conspiracy, aftershave for hydrogen peroxide, skin trouble for police surveillance and rap concert for dry runs of the operation.)

It is difficult to get clues in advance of a terrorist strike. The U.K. investigation reveals how an agency should develop even the flimsiest of tip-offs. While physical surveillance is important, even more necessary is the monitoring of electronic traffic linking the main players. This aspect, no doubt, involves issues of privacy, and it also poses legal hurdles. I know that Indian intelligence and law enforcement organisations have to be extremely sensitive to this. My own experience is that civil servants at the highest levels in government are willing to go the extra length to accommodate the needs of a dynamic situation when quibbling and procrastination are out of place. This is especially so when requests for electronic eavesdropping come from responsible levels in law enforcement and their bona fides are not in doubt.

Finally, the U.K. experience emphasises the need for periodic reviews of existing legal provisions. U.K. agencies are pitching for amendments that will make evidence obtained from domestic intercepts admissible in court. At present, there is not much of a problem on this score in India. It will still be necessary to examine the position so that future situations are taken care of. What we may have to look at is the law relating to the regulation of the movement of terror suspects.

Intelligence agencies will vouch for the fact that we have any number of suspects on whom substantial material is available. This may not, however, be sufficient to arrest them on specific charges. Still, their activities will have to be watched and contained so that they are prevented from acting in a manner prejudicial to citizen safety.

The U.K. now has a major problem. It has what are known as control orders, which are employed to confine suspects to limited areas or premises. These have to be backed by credible material that can be shared with courts when such control orders are challenged. In a recent case, one involving a person identified only as AF, the Home Office took the position that it was not willing to disclose such secret material because, once shared, the process could compromise a number of intelligence sources. As a result, AF was released although setting him free could make him a grave security risk.

It is believed that many more suspects may similarly be released in the immediate future. This is a major cause for worry for security agencies, who have demanded suitable legal changes. All these developments in the U.K. have a meaning for us. They need to be studied seriously and the necessary remedial action taken.

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