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Wanted, new tactics

Print edition : Nov 22, 2002 T+T-

To protect soft targets from hostage-taking terrorists, building up community support to counter-terrorism efforts by the police is essential.

THREE recent tragedies Swaminarayan Temple, Bali and Moscow point to a growing terrorist predilection to strike at congregations that are totally defenceless against gunfire and similar forms of assault. Either shoot directly at innocent members of the public gathered to pray or enjoy themselves over music and dance, normally during the weekend, or plant explosives in a crowded locality or an enclosed space and have it go off at the most unexpected moment. This is now the facile style of all heartless groups unleashing violence to pursue specious ideology and political demands. Professor Paul Wilkinson of St. Andrews University in Scotland, in his brilliant book Terrorism vs Democracy (Frank Cass Publishers, London, 2002), describes why hostage-taking is becoming increasingly popular. ("It is extremely cheap and requires only small numbers of hostage-takers armed with standard, widely-available weaponry. Above all, it is one of the very few terrorist tactics with a track record of success in forcing governments into major concessions.")

There is no getting away from the fact that having tasted blood all over the world, terrorists will only step up the frenzy to push up levels of panic. We must remember that we are dealing with men (and women) who have no minds of their own but are led like sheep to transmit pain and misery. When this is the situation, how are we going to look after our kith and kin who have no protection of their own? Can we depend on the state alone? Or, will we be wise enough to indent on voluntary community support that will supplement state efforts? My conviction is that unless we resort to this strategy of invoking community resources in a massive way, we are not likely to go forward in the task of guarding our people.

Before discussing that aspect further, first let us focus on what happened in Moscow and the controversy surrounding the use of a yet-to-be-specified (at the time of writing this column) gas to break into the theatre where hostages were held. Hostage-taking comes naturally to the Chechen rebels. Two earlier incidents are worth recalling. In June 1995, under the leadership of Shamil Basayev, they raided the Russian town of Budennovsk. After failing to take over the local police station, they took control of a hospital and took 2,000 hostages, mostly women and children. In a counter-operation by the army and the police, who surrounded the hospital, there was an exchange of fire in which 37 security personnel lost their lives. Although the Chechen fighters were outnumbered, they fought so ferociously that Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had to agree to a settlement that contemplated an end to Russian military operations in Chechnya and resumption of negotiations. The Russian authorities came under severe criticism for buckling under terrorist blackmail.

Again, in January 1996, just six months after the Budennovsk operation, Chechen rebels launched another attack, this time led by Salman Raduyev (son-in-law of Dzokhar Dudayev, the Chechen freedom movement leader). A hospital at Kizlyar was again the target, and a majority of the targets were newborn children and pregnant women. The Russian authorities, despite President Boris Yeltsin's fulminations to the contrary, opted for the easy way to come to a settlement with the rebels. After bargaining safe passage through the release of 2,000 hostages, the Chechens took away 150 women, children and hospital volunteers in a convoy of buses. On their way to the Chechen border, Russian troops intercepted the convoy. In the gun-battle that ensued in the village of Pervomayskaya, a number of hostages and the militants were killed.

Even as this drama was going on, Chechen sympathisers took control of a Turkish ferry carrying more than 100 Russian passengers at the port of Trabzon (not far from Turkey's border with Georgia) and threatened to blow it up unless the offensive at Pervomayskaya was suspended. The stand-off ended peacefully with the release of the passengers. No action, however, was taken by the Turkish authorities against those who had held up the ferry. This came in for severe Russian criticism.

The Moscow incident of October 23 is undoubtedly a shocker. It shows in bold relief how security can be breached in the heart of a busy capital city that was until a decade ago known for its extraordinary system that kept a tab on every new arrival. It is incredible that Chechen rebel leader Movsar Barayev could infiltrate into Moscow with nearly 50 heavily armed men and women and occupy a theatre to intimidate the large audience there, as also the Russian authorities. This slap on the face of the country's intelligence machinery serves notice on its counterparts all over the globe.

India's acknowledgedly porous borders on the north-east and north-west make the task of cutting down infiltration almost impossible. The situation is possibly slightly better on the eastern and western coasts. But remember how in the case of the Bombay blasts of 1993, explosives used in the barbaric crime (the case is still being tried in a Mumbai court) had been smuggled into the city through the Gujarat coast with the connivance of a senior official of the Customs. Similarly, we also know how unauthorised sea traffic between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka is not exactly a hazardous adventure. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may be engaged in negotiations with Colombo (see separate story). That does not wash away its dubious past. It is a highly mixed-up outfit with few scruples. This persuades us not to relax our vigil.

Another aspect of the Moscow happening highlights the predicament that counter-terrorism faces everywhere. Yes, hostage-taking is abominable and no quarter should be given to the terrorist who wants to play on our psychosis. But then, how far is it practical to say `no' to a terrorist demand? India saw in the 1999 IC-814 hijacking how knotty decision-making was in such a contingency. New Delhi was roundly criticised for giving up a high-profile prisoner with proven Pakistani connections to save precious lives on that Indian Airlines flight. You need to be extraordinarily cold-blooded to ignore the human emotions involved. Undoubtedly, cultural differences come to the fore in such a setting. We have heard of a Hindu rate of growth in the realm of economics. We perhaps have a Hindu view of terrorism that accords higher priority to the saving of hostage lives than resort to a Moscow-type operation, even if it invites the invective of a "soft state". New Delhi is going to face greater and greater challenges in the future that will determine whether it can continue to be "soft". The question is whether 9/11 has brought on changes that we perceive elsewhere in the world.

Moscow lost more than a hundred hostage lives during the novel operation in the early hours of October 26. We do not have a count of how many died in gunfire. But we are certain that a majority of the victims died from the gas pumped into the theatre through the ventilation system. There are still many in hospital in a serious condition. This was most unfortunate. Most poignant was President Vladimir Putin's apology at the end of the ordeal: "We have not been able to save all. Forgive us." We are not very sure whether this was a general feeling of misery and disappointment, or whether it was a veiled admission of the failure of what is regarded as a botched up operation by the Russian security forces. In either case, the use of such gas is highly questionable even if it was done with bona fide intent. There are some people who regard the action as falling within the grey area of use of chemical weapons in a war or war-like situation.

There were initially various lines of speculation as to what gas was exactly used. One general surmise was that it was a sedative, meant to immobilise the hostage-takers. CNN quoted a military expert of the United Kingdom, Jim Condon, as saying that he had never seen such an agent being used for this kind of action. According to a Washington Post report (October 27), the gas was possibly an aerosol form of Valium. The other conjecture was that it was BZ, one that was developed by the U.S. Army during the Cold War era. It was capable of producing sleepiness and hallucination. The belief is that it cannot at all be equated with tear gas that riot police often use with some success. While the effect of tear gas is temporary, BZ can be debilitating for long spells, raising health and, therefore, human rights concerns. Some experts to whom The Washington Post spoke were of the view that BZ was unpredictable in that it produced agitation and excitability. Perhaps the most authentic and credible opinion is that of a German expert, Thomas Zilker, who treated two German hostages who were flown from Moscow to Munich. His view was that the gas was an anaesthetic in the form of chlorinated hydrocarbons, something very close to chloroform used in surgery. In Zilker's view, the gas was akin to a narcotic drug, one that could not affect the nervous system. The field is open to experts.

Going through other literature on the subject, I came across an interesting paper titled `Non-Lethal Weapons for Military Operations other than War' by Cadet Joseph Suhajda of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Suhajda takes the position that lethal weapons do not mesh with peace-keeping operations. He therefore advocates the production and use of non-lethal weapons in such a setting. Interestingly, he mentions tear gas, otherwise known as CS gas, as a valid option. It is anybody's guess as to whether this will work against a group of terrorists as determined as the Chechen rebels. Rioters in India often come prepared to meet the police tactic of bursting tear gas shells. Very often in such a situation the police stand humiliated. In the wake of Moscow, I will not be surprised if hostage-takers in the future hit upon a device to blunt totally any kind of gas fed into a forcibly occupied building. Notwithstanding this possibility, there is tremendous scope for research by the police to give teeth to counter-terrorist operations that will raise fewer human rights questions. The National Security Guards in India, which has proved its mettle on several occasions, needs to pursue such research even if the Army is already engaged in this. The Ministry of Home Affairs should ensure that funds do not become a constraint. One is certain that the recent generous enlargement of the modernisation grant by the Prime Minister will help finance any such project.

COMING back to the point with regard to building community support to buttress police counter-terrorism efforts, I am of the view that the public are fully equipped to raise levels of vigilance at big gatherings. Experience has shown that enclosed places like cinema halls and other auditoria, hospitals, and temples are vulnerable to hostage-taking. While it may be difficult to provide armed guards at each of these places or prevent surprise terrorist raids, a lot can be done to check infiltration by those concealing weapons for use a little after gaining access. Physical frisking, by volunteers or paid staff as the case may be, of everyone coming in should be built into the system. This may appear incongruous at temples, cinema-houses and music halls. But let it appear so rather than our running the risk of major tragedies such as the one in Moscow. I am sure where paid staff are not available, as in a temple, there will be many volunteers who will agree to do this chore by rotation. I expect no hassles because people of all strata of society are now more than convinced of the need to submit themselves to even the most irksome security checks. This is already happening in airports, where the initial cribbing has given way to willing adherence to security searches.

In the ultimate analysis, for the war against terrorism to succeed, there should be an unstinted international exchange of intelligence and expertise. More than that, there is the need for display of objectivity and a steely resolve. As Prof. Wilkinson would say: "They (countries) must abhor the idea that terrorism can be tolerated as long as it is affecting someone else's democratic rights and rule of law. They must adopt the clear principle that `one democracy's terrorist is another democracy's terrorist'." I am sure someone in Islamabad has read Prof. Wilkinson.