The terrorist conundrum

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

The devastating bombing of a train in Madrid recently highlights the fact that the current global campaign against terrorism is inadequate in terms of intelligence and technology.

THE March 11 Madrid explosion - now popularly referred to as 3/11 - that has cost 200 lives is another shattering blow to the alliance that is fighting the war in Iraq. The continual loss inflicted on the U.S.-led coalition forces and local civilians on Iraqi soil had all along been taken in its stride as the inevitable consequence of the offensive mounted against Saddam Hussein loyalists. But the extension of the conflict to one of the superpower's allies in Iraq is a setback to the U.S. in its efforts to maintain the momentum of the operations on Iraqi soil. (The Casablanca explosion of May 16, 2003, although linked to Iraq, had several other factors as well.) As more and more evidence collected in the aftermath of the 10 explosions that shook the suburban railway system in Madrid becomes available, it is abundantly clear that the Al Qaeda and like-minded groups have not taken kindly to Spain sending its troops to aid the anti-Saddam exercise. (Although the native Basque terrorist group ETA was initially suspected for the incident, analysis by experts has now ruled out such a possibility.) It is quite likely that the new Socialist Prime Minister Jose Roderiguez Zapatero may actually carry out his threat to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq, if not out of conviction but in deference to popular sentiment.

The poignancy of the Madrid happening is beyond words. The terror that it has successfully transmitted to the rest of the world should no doubt please the groups behind it. It is because of this that a decision by any of the members of the coalition forces to pull out from Baghdad at this stage would actually amount to a triumph of terrorism. This is, however, not greatly relevant or of consequence at this hour because what should cause concern to policymakers and the hapless peace-loving citizen is the prospect of more such attacks, with the terrorist dictating unilaterally where and how he should strike again. Intelligence agencies have proved inadequate and technology to combat the menace has not helped measurably. Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca and Madrid have all convinced us that whatever we have done till now to outwit the terrorist has not taken the edge of this modern scourge. That is the overwhelming power of hatred in the present setting.

Is there, therefore, a case for stopping all that goes under the rubric `counter-terrorism'? This is no doubt the easiest way out of a difficult situation. Considering the havoc and untold misery that terrorism has caused right before our eyes, no one, however cynical, will opt for this act of cowardice. Because, by resigning ourselves to fate, we will be only handing over the world on a platter to evil. On the contrary, we should be propelled by an urge to improve on existing technology to blunt whatever weapons that are being deployed against us by a misguided minority.

MADRID throws up two earthly problems that should haunt us and will demand our immediate attention. First, how do we frustrate the misuse of cell telephones? Second, how do we protect our railway systems and commuters against terrorist machinations? There is no doubt that the Madrid mechanics are the most easy to repeat. This is how most future operations will be conducted by those who adore violence and are driven solely by the unalloyed dislike of all that America stands for. If that country and citizens cannot be directly harmed, anyone who has dealings with them will have to be conveyed the message that they would do well to keep off from the Americans as quickly as they can. Religion and nationality are of no concern in the process, and the victims could be anybody even remotely connected to America. This is why Madrid has to be taken seriously and a strategy devised to minimise future damage.

Remote control devices have, no doubt, been used in the past to cause sabotage. Actually this is one method that has come to notice also in some assassinations or attempts on public figures. The recent incident at the foot of Tirumala Hills directed against Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu is an example. Here an IED (improvised explosive device) had been hidden close to the road traversed by Chandrababu Naidu and it went off when he was driving past. If my memory serves me right, we have not seen the use of cell phones for activating explosives in India, although the technology seems relatively simple. One recent instance of misuse of such phones was the May 12, 2003 bombing in Riyadh that killed 35 people. Here a few modified cell phones were actually recovered at the scene. Basque terrorists are reported to be familiar with this modus operandus. This method could become increasingly popular if suicide terrorists are hard to recruit in the days to come.

Cell phones can be used in two ways, either as an alarm device to time an explosion at one's choice, or as a trigger to cause an explosion. In the latter case, a call to the telephone is what brings about the desired damage. More often than not, in the past, terrorists in Spain, especially of the Basque variety, had called a specific cell phone packed with explosives to produce the damage. Seldom had they used it as an alarm. The most important piece of evidence collected by the Madrid investigators, nearly 12 hours after the 10 main explosions and while combing the scene near the El Pozo train station, was a gym bag containing two copper detonators with about 10 kg of gelatinous dynamite and a Motorola handset. It is said that the explosives had been connected to the alarm function of the phone. Possibly because the phone was new and had not been properly activated, this particular bomb did not go off. The surmise is that the earlier 10 successful explosions of that March 11 morning had been caused with the help of a similar device. The phones had possibly disintegrated after the explosions.

We have had some ingenious moves to reduce the incentive for the theft of mobile phones. A unique number given to each set can now be used in most parts of the world to disable it the moment its owner complains of loss. The manufacturers have played ball with the police in this endeavour. How will they react to a suggestion for research to prevent a phone from becoming a dangerous tool in terrorist hands? It is generally believed that conversation through mobile phones yields itself to monitoring by law enforcement agencies so that secret communications are no longer possible. This is as long as the users are known and the specific telephones used by them are identified. Madrid demonstrates how we need to go beyond this. One suggestion will be to eliminate the alarm function of such telephones. This will be great deprivation to the lawful user. Next, how does one make the dismantling of a phone to pack explosives inside and re-assembling the instrument for an illegal operation an impossible exercise? To a layman this seems the only way to frustrate mobile phones from being converted into a lethal tool in the hands of lunatics and the positively wicked.

Perhaps more important is the gargantuan task of securing the railways, especially the underground, and its users. Terrorists have tasted blood. I can recall how members of a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, mischievously released a poison gas in the Tokyo subway on March 19, 1995, leading to five deaths. More than 500 were hospitalised. The more recent attack on the Moscow metro on February 6, 2004 that led to about 40 deaths also illustrated how easy it is to cause chaos in a busy railway network. Such systems become easy prey because they carry millions of commuters each day and are spread extensively on land or below the ground. The sheer numbers involved militate against any checking of passengers or what they carry.

Airlines the world over have generally tightened up procedures, especially since 9/11. Here, we are talking about a small number that runs only into thousand per day even in the busiest of airports. Also, except for a few hundreds, the others fly only at intervals and do not mind the nearly two hour wait involved in subjecting themselves to a scrutiny of their person and baggage before getting into a flight. It will be preposterous to initiate anything like this for commuters who take the train every working day. As a result, railway stations are extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It is this helpless situation that sends a chill down our spine. The situation yields itself only to an imaginative procedure to keep an eye on all those found in railway premises and trains by law enforcement agencies. Close circuit cameras at as many points as possible can help to an extent. Nothing can be a substitute for vigilance on the part of all commuters. The point is that governments must be prepared to spend more on making rail travel safer than it is now. There is a feeling that disproportionate amount goes into civil aviation security at the cost of other modes of transport. For instance, the U.S. government is said to spend $4.5 billion on air safety as against $65 million on the railways. This is incongruous if one considers that the trains carry five times more passengers. The comparison may be odious and illogical. It nevertheless highlights the need for a larger spending on making the average train commuter feel more secure.

In the ultimate analysis, we need to realise that we are fighting against the severest of odds. There is a popular misconception that once bin Laden is captured everything will be hunky dory. Far from it. The assessment of discerning scholars is that Al Qaeda is no longer a centralized command that issues orders from wherever that outlaw is hiding for his followers to execute. We have come very far away from that momentous morning of September 11, 2001 when bin Laden was possibly in command. We now have to contend with a fragmented organization that has spread its tentacles to various parts of the world. What unites those who owe loyalty to bin Laden is not a well-oiled structure but a philosophy that breeds on contempt and hatred for the whole non-Islamic world. We are now dealing with what Abdul Rahim Ali, an Egyptian expert on radical Islamic groups, describes as "separate and loose groups bound only by an ideology, but working independently. They know the general guidelines and they know what is required to do."

Scott Atran, writing in the New York Times (March 16, 2004), seems in agreement with this perception when he says that "... . we face a set of largely autonomous groups and cells pursuing their own regional aims... with only distant relations with bin Laden." In the absence of specific intelligence that proves intimate contacts between Bin Laden and those who subscribe to his ruthlessness against the West, we are inclined to go with scholars like Rahim Ali and Atran. What confounds us however is the motivation that drives most of the players who indulge in the utter cruelty directed against the civilised world. Possibly what a purported terrorist said in the videotape seized in connection with the Madrid explosions has more than a ring of truth: "You love life, and we love death." Can any one reason with such madness?

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