For an assault on terrorism

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

The need of the hour is smart policing at every level.

TWO major events of the past few weeks - one in the United States and the other in Kashmir - should warm the cockles of all those who stand against terrorism and espouse the cause of peace and civilised living. Amidst much fanfare, speaking from Moscow, U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft announced on June 10 that a 31-year old U.S. national, Abdullah-al-Mujahir, had been arrested for his designs to explode a "dirty bomb" (a conventional bomb equipped with radioactive material) in the heart of the country. Washington was one of his probable targets.

Born in New York, and originally known as Jose Padilla, he moved to Chicago where he was suspected to be part of the city's notorious street gangs. He first served three years in a juvenile detention centre, for aggravated battery and armed robbery. He was again arrested in 1991 on gun-related and assault charges and put on a year's probation in Florida. Significantly, he converted himself to Islam before leaving the U.S. in 1998. Visiting West Asia, and possibly also Afghanistan and Pakistan thereafter, he came in contact with Al Qaeda and received training in explosives. He was recently seen travelling between Pakistan, Egypt and Switzerland. Acting on a tip-off received by intelligence agencies, Abdullah was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 8 when he arrived from Pakistan. Both President Bush and Attorney-General Ash-croft openly acknowledged in warm terms the work of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other agencies in successfully following the Abdullah trail. (This is something that Indian leaders have scrupulously avoided, if only because of tradition. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) need a pat on the back whenever they do good work. While I know that officers of these organisations have been commended and rewarded in private and away from the glare of the press and the public, occasional open praise should raise their morale and enhance their credibility and image.)

Three facts relating to the Abdullah case possibly fit into a pattern that now bears the Al Qaeda stamp. First, recruit an American national, because such a subject's movements and other doings hardly attract attention. Next, zero in on a person who is either already converted to Islam or is so intensely indoctrinated that he is willing to be converted. Finally, identify one who preferably has a criminal record or at least a nexus with the underworld, so that he is utterly professional in executing what he is asked to do and shows no compunction about doing harm to others. Interestingly, we already know that Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has so much in common with Al Qaeda in its anti-India operations. Recall how Dawood Ibrahim, the underworld don of Mumbai, was chosen by it to perpetrate the horror of a series of bomb blasts in 1993. He did the job assigned to him with clinical efficiency and total monstrosity.

I am certain that intelligence agencies in India are sufficiently sensitive to this phenomenon of criminal gangs offering a fertile ground for terrorist pickings. I am not all that sure of this in the case of the law and order wings of the State police forces which are forever preoccupied with day-to-day firefighting exercises and have hardly the time to reflect on terrorist tactics. Focussed training and more frequent interaction with agencies such as the I.B. should partially take care of this requirement to be alert to look for potential terrorists in criminal outfits. After all, the dividing line between ordinary crime and terrorism is thin indeed.

The arrest of Jamaat-e-Islami president and former Hurriyat Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Srinagar and similar action against his two sons-in-law mark another recent happening of great significance (story on page 34). This points to a new, pro-active approach by the law enforcement agencies that was not very dominant for a while. A search of the Geelani residence and a few other places connected with him, jointly by the police and Income Tax authorities, yielded a substantial amount of cash, especially U.S. currency, and documents showing Indian military deployment, copies of which had possibly been passed on to Pakistan. It is believed that Geelani and Ayub Thukar, the United Kingdom-based leader of the so-called World Kashmir Freedom movement, were being used as conduits by Syed Salahuddin, the Pakistan-based supremo of the dreaded Hizbul Mujahideen to send money to his commanders. There is more than a suspicion that Salahuddin was in turn being funded by the ISI. The police are still looking for another conduit, Asiya Indrabi, the chief of the Dukhtraran-e-Millat, who has gone underground following Geelani's arrest.

This joint operation by the police and Income Tax men confirms the strong official determination to strike decisively at not merely underground organisations but individuals and groups which function openly and yet engage in activities that are surreptitious to the core.

TAKING stock of the many post-September 11 successes, three elements stand out as the sine qua non for a successful counter-terrorist thrust. These are an alert and well-equipped domestic law enforcement machinery at the grassroots level, a well-oiled intelligence machinery at the national level that will keep track not merely of the physical movement of individual terrorists but also of funds at their disposal, and finally, unstinted international cooperation among national agencies. Without these components in place, you cannot take on the might and the viles of the modern terrorist.

In the Indian setting, the weakest link is the police station. This hallowed institution from the British days has been systematically denuded of its fundamental strengths. This has been done unmindful of the fact that it is the police station, of all the agencies of law enforcement, which is the closest to where the action takes place and needs bolstering. The first feature of the police station that strikes you, especially in the rural areas, is its appallingly poor numerical strength. In an unexpected crisis we can hardly muster a strength of more than three or four policemen to take care of a major incident. When this is the unfortunate position, it is not surprising that police stations hardly deliver any intelligence input to the higher formations. Naturally the burden shifts to the district-and State-level intelligence outfits, which themselves are thinly spread out in the field. Traditional wisdom therefore attached enormous importance to the services rendered by a police station, although till now not enough has been done to provide the much-needed meat to this fundamental unit of policing. Indiscriminate opening of police stations under political or community pressure with only slender resources is a hotchpotch solution to the problem of responding to the ever-mounting demand for police presence.

IN the current transformed situation, where terrorism poses a challenge even to grassroots policing, governments will have to examine how to provide more manpower to police stations from existing resources. This would involve cutting down certain services, which necessarily have to assume a lower priority. I have in mind functions like the enforcement of the dry law, civil supplies regulations and some social legislation, which can be conveniently transferred to other appropriate agencies under the government.

The FBI Director's recent decision to divert the Bureau's resources from ordinary crime to the battle against terrorism - intelligence collection, analysis and investigation - is a bold move that needs to be emulated. It is futile to hold on to traditional management of resources. A constant shift in emphasis and reallocation of police manpower and equipment is the only smart way of reacting to the horrors perpetrated by Bin Laden and his likes. Criticism by those so denied police services, albeit temporarily, should not be an inhibiting factor to any reallocation that is dictated by the current situation.

All reports since September 11 speak of strenuous efforts by law enforcement agencies to track down the flow of money to terrorist bodies. These have yielded substantial results. Coordination between the police and agencies such as the Income Tax Department in India and the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S. has been remarkable. But their endeavours have not been matched by equal enthusiasm on the part of banking institutions. There is a plethora of rules and regulations aimed at curbing transmission of money from unauthorised sources to undesirable recipients. For instance, there is a salutary rule that when a person wants to open an account he or she should produce the reference of an individual already known to the bank. Also, it is sometimes insisted that he should submit a copy of his photograph at the time of opening the account. There is again the stipulation that whenever a large sum of cash is deposited in a bank - the quantum varies between countries - the bank will have to report this to the central bank (such as the Reserve Bank of India) in a prescribed form. These are meaningful requirements, which are very often ignored. Such negligence has facilitated the easy hiding of "dirty money", some of which frequently finds its way to terrorists. There are other varied monitoring systems available to banks to identify unusual transactions. Lack of interest in such systems has also emboldened those constantly receiving funds for transfer to men and organisations assigned to unleash violence on nations and specific communities. Intelligence agencies cannot perform their role of unearthing money in terrorist hands, unless banks act in tandem with law enforcement officials.

Abdullah's arrest aggravates the worry that Al Qaeda is not averse to using nuclear devices. Intelligence sources do not believe that Bin Laden and his followers have any great potential. But there is a lurking suspicion that they have possibly acquired some nuclear materials in Pakistan.

This has to be viewed in conjunction with a report that came last year that Pakistan had indeed taken two of its former nuclear scientists into "protective custody". One of them was an open supporter of the Taliban. These are facts which may seem innocuous when viewed in isolation. But they acquire a lot of import following the arrest of Abdullah and the unravelling of his plans. Against this backdrop, the information that Bin Laden is still alive and kicking and has not lost much of his sting should cause great concern.

As a nation with state-of-the-art nuclear facilities, India needs to strengthen security at these places so as to frustrate any unholy designs that Pakistan or Al Qaeda may have. The State police forces may hardly comprehend this need for extra vigilance. While they may not be directly responsible for such security, they will necessarily have to be sensitised to this in order that they will keep their eyes wide open.

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