Getting at terrorism's underbelly

Published : Mar 25, 2005 00:00 IST

Osama Bin Laden. -

Osama Bin Laden. -

Winning over the enlightened sections within Islam is crucial for the success of any strategy to counter terrorism perpetuated by organisations such as Al Qaeda.

PETER J. GOSS, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) must be lauded for his recent candid status report on the global struggle against terrorism. In a testimony before the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he admitted that despite the many successes that the U.S. had registered since 9/11, the threat "endures".

Hinting that the task before the country was far from complete and the hunt for Osama bin Laden was definitely on, Goss was of the view that Bin Laden's capture would not by itself bring the much desired freedom from terrorism. This was because Al Qaeda was "a patient, persistent, imaginative, adaptive and dangerous opponent", which would continue to pose a problem to global stability even if it suffered a loss of leadership. (This is in tune with the assessment of many observers that Al Qaeda was a movement and not a mere terrorist organisation that could be smashed by liquidating its current leadership.) Goss further believed that Al Qaeda was just "one facet" of militant Islam's threat, and that an attempt to use a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon by Al Qaeda or a like-minded group in the near future was a distinct possibility.

Goss' candour was possibly intended to ensure that the Congress' funding for the fight against terrorism was in no way reduced and that there was no complacency among security agencies. It was probably meant equally to convey the message that terrorism was a scourge that the international community would better learn to live with, by adopting a style that reduced the intensity of future attacks and denied the terrorist a sense of triumph.

Goss' survey of the current scene derives strong support from two recent papers. "Counter terrorism after Al Qaeda" (Washington Quarterly, Volume 27-3) by Paul R. Pillar and "The Terrorism to come" (Policy Review August-September 2004) by Walter Laqueur. Both Pillar, a former CIA officer, and Laqueur, who is at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, seem to be pragmatic in their estimate of global terrorism. In the absence of accurate intelligence - a shortcoming that is widely accepted even by renowned agencies - we have to rely on bits and pieces of information that experts come by in their conversations with casual sources. This is the hard reality that hits you while probing organisations such as Al Qaeda, which cleverly mask their manoeuvres and are skilled in spreading myths and disseminating folklore, mainly to distract policymakers and law-enforcement agencies.

I spoke a few weeks ago to a small audience at the University of South Florida in Tampa on the challenges that await us. When I chronicled the events since 9/11, I could feel a sense of surprise in the gathering that so much was happening around the globe, which, when viewed as a whole, pointed to a dismaying trend: Al Qaeda or no Al Qaeda, Islam-linked terrorism was striking root in many parts of the world that may not exactly have been havens of peace but were reasonably free from violence that is traceable to religious passion.

We saw this in the Madrid explosion of March 2004. This was attributed to an organisation that had close links with Al Qaeda, although Basque separatists were suspected initially. More recently, a well-known Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was found murdered on the streets of Amsterdam after one of his movies had allegedly showed disrespect to the Koran. That this could happen in the heart of Europe, in a country like Holland, which, in contrast to Spain, was relatively free from prejudices and conflict, should make us sit up and take notice of the growing intolerance towards cultural dissent.

I am inclined to agree with Laqueur's assessment that many countries in Europe, which have a minority but substantial Muslim population, are likely to witness West Asia-type of terrorism. I should recall here what The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reported in January on how admiration for Bin Laden was growing in the minds of young Muslims all over the world. When Friedman buttonholed two young Muslim girls, who had been raised in France, near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, he found to his amazement that they justified suicide bombing and hailed Bin Laden as the leader whom they admired most. Quizzed where they got all their information, they referred to Al Jazeera TV channel. The girls were categorical that they did not watch French TV because it was not credible. The responses of the girls indicate that the West has failed miserably to connect with young minds. This is dangerous. It is also not a good sign for those who are planning counter-terrorist strategy, especially from the U.S.

The Tampa audience seemed concerned with what was happening in Iraq. I told them that the light at the end of the tunnel was not yet seen, and this would remain so as long as U.S. troops remained on that soil. Sunni-inspired attacks in Iraq bear a distinct Al Qaeda mark, pointing to a growing alliance of forces that until the other day were opposed to one another or had little in common except their hatred for the U.S. This is the most prominent feature of the current scene where disparate elements find a common cause to unleash violence.

As I write this column, comes the news that Abu Bakar Bashir, the Indonesian cleric-mastermind of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people, has received a mere 30-month imprisonment. The Judge held that he was not directly involved in the incident, but knew of the diabolical plan and did little to stop it. There cannot be a greater travesty of justice. Such light sentences imposed on known terrorists guilty of heinous crime, on the specious ground of insufficient evidence, cannot but send the wrong signal that killing soft targets was after all not such a hazardous pastime. And this in a country that has seen the rise of a formidable outfit, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), whose influence is spreading fast. The JI has cast its shadow on neighbouring Philippines as well.

The situation in Thailand is equally difficult with a strong Muslim separatist movement that poses a threat to peace in that country. The swiftness of modern transport and the porous borders that dominate Asia impel us in India to watch closely the happenings in South-East Asia. The peace on the India-Pakistan border is also at best tenuous, leaving us little room for complacence.

ALL that I have said about the spreading tentacles of Islamic terrorism could egg readers on to ask me the question: Has the war against terrorism already been lost? However much I would like to be cynical, I cannot ignore some positive signs. The mild optimism in some quarters stems first from the fact that Bin Laden has been unable to launch a major attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, a fact that speaks volumes about the efficiency of security arrangements in that country. We in India can be equally proud of our success in staving off any major offensive that the terrorists may have planned but could not execute. This should convey the message to many countries with a terrorist problem that there is no substitute to effective law enforcement to keep the terrorist constantly on the run.

Many analysts subscribe to the view that Al Qaeda does not any longer enjoy a unified command. Apart from a definite loss of a number of its leaders, who have either been arrested or killed, there is no evidence that instructions for action are being passed on to lower formations situated in various countries. I must quickly add, however, that we cannot exaggerate the impact of this apparent advantage.

It is true that instead of handling a near monolith that Al Qaeda was, we now have to contend with only small independent groups that are spread out and cannot boast of huge resources, both cadres and money. There is then the disadvantage of having to deal with a number of outfits that may be small but are capable of a variety of tactics in the field, which need to be studied and understood before the counter-offensive can be planned and launched. Possibly it is easier to handle just one organisation such as Al Qaeda, which has a unified command that is broadly predictable when it comes to it strategy and tactics.

Talking of Al Qaeda resources, there is the assessment that they have either shrunk or the organisation itself is unable to transfer cadres and money easily from one location to another. As against this speculation, there is the contrary theory that Al Qaeda never enjoyed great affluence. The enormous wealth attributed to Bin Laden, from inheritance flowing from a prosperous Saudi business family, is said to be a gross exaggeration.

Transcripts of the communication between the Al Qaeda high command and the 19 hijackers prior to 9/11 speak only in terms of thousands of dollars, which are a pittance in our times. If this picture were true, it bolsters the belief that terrorist strikes do not exactly need a phenomenal sum of money one would imagine is required for massive operations.

In any case, thanks to the U.S. initiative, illegal money transfers have become difficult. I must confess that there is a definite confusion and lack of clarity on Al Qaeda's financial might. As I have already said, intelligence collection on Al Qaeda has been extremely difficult, resulting in many facetious speculations and generalisations.

In the ultimate analysis, neither Left extremism nor poverty can explain the continual flow of recruits to the extremist school of thought. Lack of education also does not also account wholly for the fascination to follow diabolical men like Bin Laden. Many who took part in the 9/11 hijackings were educated, and came from middle class families. What then is the strategy that will work to deny Bin Laden and his ilk, energetic young men and women (like the two girls in Paris) who are willing to blow themselves up apparently to protect Islam?

There is one view that counter-terrorist strategy will succeed only if it addresses itself to exploiting an apparent division within the followers of Islam, between a minority that believes in violence against infidels and those who are enlightened and abjure the use of the sword. From all accounts such a division is real, and the effort of the civilised world should focus on strengthening the latter group.

On paper this task appears vague and intangible. This is where human ingenuity should take care. It will have to clothe strategies with specific action plans. Success will depend eventually on how much rationalism we can bring to bear on ordinary human beings who are susceptible to emotions fanned by Al Qaeda and its offspring.

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