Combating terrorism

Published : Jul 13, 2007 00:00 IST

The Istanbul conference on Democracy and Global Security offers sound strategies and tactics that are eminently practicable to tackle terrorism.

THE frequency of terrorist strikes at various centres across the globe has unfortunately led to an attitude of resignation among some policymakers and law enforcement officials, which is disappointing. After 9/11, we had Madrid, London and Mumbai, to mention only a few of the major attacks that led to a colossal loss of lives. There have been several others, including the explosions at the Mecca masjid in Hyderabad in May, which induce a feeling that governments and the police have lost the combative edge to outwit those who are determined to kill innocent citizens and spread terror.

Islamist terrorism's ironical delight at taking Muslim lives is one distinct phenomenon that makes us believe that we are confronting an enemy who is not only clever but is ruthless as well. Religion and ethnic considerations do not seem to matter when it comes to spreading terror.

Listening to speeches at the just-concluded conference on "Democracy and Global Security" at Istanbul, one got the feeling that the prevailing cynicism amongst sections of opinion-makers and police leadership was unjustified. Sound strategies and tactics are available and these are eminently practicable if only the spirit of enforcers of law and order does not flag. The conference managed to collect an amazing array of politicians, police officials and academics from all over the world. Of course, the United States' presence was dominant. This was followed by China. India was sparsely represented. Given our delicate terrorist situation, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Assam, we would have done better to send more number of policemen to the Turkish capital to interact with those who have achieved remarkable success on the field. Where does one get an opportunity to listen to the likes of Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner, Metropolitan Police, London, and Prof. Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, and the chiefs of Madrid Police (Enrique Baron Castino) and Istanbul Police (Celalettin Cerrah). They spoke on the first day at the plenary session, which ended with a glittering cultural performance by Turkish artistes, as if to highlight the message that terrorism cannot and should not blunt our sensibilities in favour of the finer things in life.

Initiating the discussion, Prof. Jeremy Travis described how knotty the terrorist problem was. Locating a terrorist after an attack is undoubtedly difficult. Some of them sacrifice their lives in the process of attacking desired as well as unintended targets. The others just merge with the local population.

More formidable is the task of marshalling evidence against terrorists. This is because such evidence cannot be obtained through crude physical torture of suspects that one normally associates with police tactics in many parts of the world. In a democracy, such as the U.S. or India, the police have to function within the strict parameters of law. There is no way that the ends justify the means here. Respect for human rights is sacrosanct for the police, and any deviation from civilised conduct while interrogating a suspect is bound to invite the ire of courts.

In Travis' view, it is imperative to draw up a global alliance to fight an enemy who holds the cards of surprise and violence. No single country has all the intellectual skills or resources for this. Unless there is a pooling of minds, very little can be achieved.

Travis' reference was obviously to the collection of intelligence. Sharing information is vital at a time when terrorist mobility, within a country and abroad, is something that is mind-boggling and one that facilitates deadly strikes. Considerations of sovereignty do impede a country's willingness to share. But when the world has nearly become a single entity, a reluctance to part with intelligence for a common cause is culpable. It can lead to fatal mistakes and a loss of several innocent lives. This is why conferences such as the one in Istanbul become relevant. Life-long friendships are forged and barriers to communication broken. This is the only ambience in which a police force can maximise its resources.

Travis brought to focus the advantages of utilising the academia in framing strategies. Interestingly, nearly 200 serving Turkish policemen have benefited from a spell at the John Jay College. There is a continuous stream of Turkish policemen who go to the US for further studies on criminal justice. Their presence at the conference in large numbers was refreshing, confirming the feeling that neither scholars nor policemen can operate in a cocoon.

My interaction with some of them was enjoyable and productive. We in India need to build such a corps of young officers who cultivate an open mind to learn from international experience.

Why is reorientation of strategies towards public peace relevant to Turkey? The country is in the throes of entering the European Union. There are still a few hurdles to cross. In this context, maintaining public order within the country using constitutional means is important. There is a major problem with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group that makes its presence felt at odd intervals in the southeastern part of the country. In addition, there is the sniping by Al Qaeda.

Istanbul, the country's largest city, situated in the north, is itself highly vulnerable to terrorism. This possibly explained the high-level protective arrangements seen at the recent conference. Two separate explosions engineered by Al Qaeda elements in the city in November 2003 cost more than 50 lives. The situation remains fluid to this day. Even a few days before the conference, there was a minor explosion in the city, which was serious enough to send round the message that the police here needed to be vigilant and sensitive more than ever before.

London Police chief Sir Ian Blair is an impressive policeman with an excellent track record. He was no doubt in controversy for a few months after the London underground explosions, now known as 7/7. His subsequent handling of the unfortunate killing of a Brazilian worker by the anti-terrorist squad of the Met (Metropolitan Police Service) nearly cost him his job.

The fact that he was only constructively responsible for the incident, combined with his formidable reputation for professional policing, possibly saved the day for him. He has not looked back since he was cleared of any misdemeanour in the episode sometime last year.

Blair's poised presentation at the conference was remarkably original and perceptive. These are days when there is a demand for a radical approach to tackling terrorism. According to many observers, old methods have failed to contain the evil. There is, therefore, a need to break away from the past and look for innovations. This argument is seductive and widely accepted. Blair does not, however, unreservedly endorse this militant approach. He said: "Not everything has to be new."

We cannot fault him for projecting these shades of apparent conservatism towards a problem that is posing a serious danger to the entire world. In his view, technology and all that went with it were no doubt important and relevant. What was even more germane was using the community of ordinary citizens to break the back of the terrorist.

The United Kingdom is no stranger to terrorism. It had to live with the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) mindlessness for nearly 30 years before peace was restored in Northern Ireland. But it was a great learning experience that came in handy in coping with 7/7 and the subsequent events. The only difference was that while the IRA violence flowed from a lawless group whose members did not themselves want to die in action, the Islamist terrorist elements in present-day England are convinced that they are waging a holy war (jehad) for which they can go to the extent of making the supreme sacrifice.

Blair was at his brilliant best when he drew a distinction between 9/11 and 7/7. While the former was the work of those who came from outside the US, the London blast was the result of a conspiracy on the part of home-grown elements. The latter phenomenon was, therefore, more insidious, something that could not be tackled without the assistance of the community in which the terrorist was well entrenched.

Incidentally, both the Met and other police forces in England have done a lot since 7/7 to close the gap between themselves and the Muslim community. Short of being accused of resorting to appeasement, the police have invoked the desperate elements in the Muslim population to help prevent terrorism from gaining deeper roots within the growing generation.

It is difficult to evaluate the impact of this determined strategy on Muslims in the country. The effort is, however, not likely to go waste if it is pursued relentlessly. Such an exercise to carry the whole community along with it is a reaffirmation of the traditional methods of policing that lays emphasis on community support.

What was advocated in the conference by Blair and others is relevant, at least partially, to our own country. In the Mecca masjid explosions, international linkage is suspected but is yet to be proved. Matters cannot rest there and will have to move forward if the public order situation in the twin cities has to remain under control. This applies also to the four metros and Bangalore. These are growing cities with a large percentage of floating population. Collecting intelligence is that much harder. This is why the experiences of other large cities in the world, such as New York, London, Istanbul and Madrid, cannot be ignored. Ultimately, successful anti-terrorist work rests on a blend of hard fieldwork and a blueprint for the future. I trust the Indian police have one.

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