A lost battle?

Print edition : September 29, 2001

As the rules of the game change, some perspectives on the tasks with regard to countering terrorism.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed.

- II Corinthians 4:8&9

AMERICAN morale derives its much-needed strength at this hour of crisis from the scriptures. There is a concerted effort countrywide to prop up religion as the bedrock on which to build the process of recovery from the September 11 insanity. Unbelievable tales of fortitude keep trickling in. Can you believe that a mother who lost her daughter reacted thus: "This is the first time in my life that I wasn't worried about her. Before, I would always worry about who she was with. But since this relationship, I knew she was with someone who could take care of her."

Harvard is at its best in Fall. Thousands of undergrads brimming with pride on being accepted by one of the country's best schools embellish the pretty campus with their cheer and optimism. A faith in fairness and justice in the ambience that surrounds them is lit on every face. But all this was shattered in a moment on that cruelly bright Tuesday morning. Laughter and giggling gave way all at once to a sombre mood that one attaches with tragedy. Anxious telephone calls and the huddle around TV screens on the campus - scores of them spring to life in most of the classrooms on occasions such as these - and at the adjoining busy-as-a-bee Harvard Square quickly subsumed all academic exercises billed for the day. The candle-light vigil on the following Sunday night was touching, even as it reaffirmed the national resolve to stand united against the enemy who, according to many, had triggered the first war of the 21st century.

The initial cold numbness is now slowly yielding to seasoned debates on how the country should respond. Anger is too obvious; any other reaction would be unnatural. A demand for immediate retaliation is very much in the air. Reports of hate crimes against Arabs and anyone who even remotely resembles them are pouring in, much to the dismay of the saner elements and those from the Indian sub-continent. An Indian Sikh gas station-owner was shot dead in Arizona on the September 16. Amidst all this, there is a gnawing realisation that any rash action could invite further disasters.

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government (KSG) is never wanting when things are happening. Two days after the shock, it organised a Community Conversation where experts were crisp and incisive. The consensus was that the temptation to retaliate should somehow be resisted, and that the occasion be actually used to build "long-term, multi-agency changes". This would take into account the fact that the current challenges are not those relating to the military alone, but also those with "deep roots in biological, chemical and cyber warfare". The panellists conceded that there was a need to review U.S. policy abroad, but not now, "under duress".

Jessica Stern, Lecturer at the KSG, who took part in the discussion, is a remarkable person who has written extensively on terrorism. Her most recent work The Ultimate Terrorists (Harvard University Press, 1999) makes amazing reading. It focusses attention on how the relatively easy availability of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has transformed the face of terrorism today. Her prescience is awesome when she begins her short book with the following conjecture:

What if terrorists exploded a homemade nuclear bomb at the Empire State Building in New York City? A one kilo-ton nuclear device... would ignite a fireball 300 feet in diameter that would demolish the building and the 20,000 people who work there, leaving in their place a crater 120 feet wide.

Much of the building, and everyone in it, would be vaporised by the intense heat... Buildings within 600 feet would collapse, as would the underground infrastructure of subways, wiring and pipes.

Could there have been a more frightening prediction? (Incidentally, Nostradamus books are selling like hot cakes and many stores have run out of copies!)

What happened in New York was no less horrific. Stern believes that nuclear, chemical and biological agents are no doubt very dangerous, but not necessarily the most dangerous. It is also a fact that they evoke disproportionate fear among humans. It is because of this phenomenon that they are a favourite with terrorists who play on our psychology with fiendish delight and skill. Stern's apprehension is that terrorists will be able to acquire chemical or biological (CB) agents from governments "favourable to their cause". More significantly, even a single expert - for ideological or monetary considerations - can produce CB agents at the bidding of terrorists. In Stern's view, only the more sophisticated groups can come by nuclear weapons, for access to fissile materials is difficult. This optimism may be misguided against the frighteningly escalating terrorist ingenuity that we witnessed only a fortnight ago.

All these days, we had been smug in the belief that when an aircraft is hijacked, the damage could be localised. Even when the hijackers' demands are not met, the worst that could happen was the loss of about two to three hundred lives packed in that aircraft. Now, the use of aircraft as missiles to ram heavily populated buildings has made nonsense of all the basics of aviation and ground security. We also believed that once a passenger checked in and his or her baggage had been X-rayed and matched, as long as the passenger was on board there was no need for concern. We did not at all provide for the suicidal passenger. As one of the speakers at yet another Community Conversation hosted by the Kennedy School on September 18 - which fortunately I was able to attend - put it, the surprise is not that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was unable to identify the terrorist group in advance, but that no agency could visualise such a modus operandi will ever be used to unleash horror.

This is the dilemma that faces us. The terrorist is always one step ahead of law enforcement. How do we provide for every piece of beastly innovation?

At the Las Vegas International Airport, items confiscated from passengers' carry-on baggage, as part of new security measures which disallow even items like nail clippers, nail files and corkscrews.-STEVE MARCUS/ LAS VEGAS SUN/ AP

We cannot afford to throw up our hands in desperation and remain doing nothing at all. The triumph of the terrorist is a slap on the face of civil society that believes in values and the right to dignified living. The core of any counter-terrorist strategy is the availability of down-to-earth intelligence that is actionable. This is a stupendous task. Intelligence agencies have been hauled over the coals when major tragedies have struck nations. TV debates and interviews here in the U.S. have already brought this up. Some commentators have asked for the scalps of the CIA and FBI chiefs. This is, to say the least, ridiculous if one reckons with the impressive results they have produced in the past. (This is equally true of their Indian counterparts. How does one get to know of their success in having prevented many calamities? Failures are public knowledge and triumphs have to be kept under wraps.) In open societies such as the U.S. and India, one cannot take umbrage at such outrageous demands. What we need is a sense of balance and a focus on what to do next to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy.

In terms of hard intelligence, as The New York Times put it, what we need to know is what Bin Laden told his associates in a remote mud-hut in Afghanistan a few hours ago! This is a tall order. In specific terms, the demand is for Humint, or human intelligence, as different from intelligence derived from machines. We need daring and clued-up sources who have unlimited access to terrorist leaders and their plans and who are willing to talk to us. In sum, the task is one of infiltration.

The terrorist is not a bandit driven by mere monetary considerations. He is ignited either by ideology or religious fanaticism. In the recent past, he is one in whom the will to live has been "erased", as a columnist here put it, through incessant indoctrination. In this scenario, demanding infiltration is asking for the moon. Globally, operations relying on this technique are known to have had only modest success. The main strength of Islamic fundamentalism is its ability to withstand the onslaughts of intelligence agencies. We are therefore up against a wall that is almost impossible to penetrate if not demolish, because it is not made of brick and mortar but of religious bigotry.

This desperate situation highlights the importance of international cooperation. Writing an op-ed column ("Invest in Global Policing") in The New York Times recently, my good friend Ron Noble, Secretary-General of the Interpol, pleads for greater support for his organisation's global endeavours. A New York University Law Professor, appointed to this prestigious job just last year, Ron had served as Assistant Secretary to the U.S. government and had undertaken a 1995 review of White House security after a plane had crashed into the south lawn of the presidential mansion. He dismisses as futile, attempts to design a "fail-proof system - one that balances safety and efficiency". He strongly believes that we can improve the situation somewhat by collecting criminal intelligence through international police channels. In effect, Ron demands more global policing. He is bitter that the U.S. and other affluent countries do not spend enough on improving the quality of policing in sensitive areas of the world. I cannot agree more with him when he cries for a massive effort to raise police standards wherever they are low and crucial.

Prejudices and misgivings arising from political differences have been the major obstacles to information sharing. I am not optimistic that even after what happened in New York, nations will be willing to go all the way to help one another. This is the bane of the nation state.

In fighting the terrorist, the non-availability of detailed ground intelligence is no excuse for not tightening up physical security at important public buildings, especially airports and seaports. Anti-hijacking measures have no doubt attained a great degree of sophistication. Improved gadgetry has worked wonders. It has, however, not been possible to eliminate the human element. Negligence and collusion of staff at sensitive security points in airports have led to many hijackings. Even with the gadgetry available, we need hundred per cent alertness and loyalty on the part of these personnel. Remember the basic axiom: "The terrorist will have to be lucky just once. But, we will have to be lucky all the time!"

Indian readers will be amazed to know that airport security in the U.S. is in private hands. Criticism after the recent happenings is that these men and women are ill-trained and poorly paid, and hence the surprisingly thin security that prevails in U.S. airports. Luckily, we in India are somewhat better off. Security is solely in the hands of reasonably trained government agencies. In many major airports, this has been taken over by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which is doing a great job. A Central force's main advantage is that its members can refuse to be bullied by gate-crashing politicians and senior civil servants who regularly violate basic aviation security regulations with impunity. Still, we need to go a long way in instilling total discipline at our airports if we have to make flying less hazardous.

An allied requirement is efficient documentation to keep track of new arrivals. Aided by a phenomenal degree of computerisation, many Western nations have achieved substantial success in this area. The FBI's retrieval of information after the New York episode has been creditable, if one can rely on press reports. We in India have not done badly either. But as a nation with tremendous software skills, we ought to exploit such prowess to strengthen our database so that suspicious elements, both foreign nationals and our own citizens, working against national security are not allowed to hold sway over the land.

This leads us on inevitably to issues of freedom and privacy. Open societies value freedom of movement and freedom of expression. Perceptions are now bound to change, if we have learnt our lessons. If they do not, disasters will be an almost daily occurrence.

Cellphones and electronic mail have been revolutionary in terms of their hold over modern life. As we saw in New York, cellphones come in handy during desperate situations. Some who perished at the World Trade Centre could make last-minute calls describing the scene. We also know that a few passengers on the hijacked aircraft communicated with the ground to report on the crime even as it was happening. This has undoubtedly helped in investigation. It is, at the same time, a confirmed practice that the underworld is increasingly resorting to mobile phones in their day-to-day activities in order to hone their operations and facilitate get-away. These phones have become so quickly disposable that the criminal investigator's ingenuity and resources have been stretched. Monitoring such phones has become an absolute necessity.

The same holds good for e-mail traffic, the volume of which is mind-boggling. It is believed that software is now available to monitor such traffic. The U.K. has already passed a law that authorises law enforcement agencies to do this. The U.S. is thinking of legislation that will give expanded power to its agencies. India cannot lag behind. This cannot brook any delay. New Delhi will have to build quickly a national consensus on the imperatives of this situation. I can easily predict that any additional powers to the police and other law enforcement agencies will kick up an enormous controversy. There are bound to be abuses of such authority. (I do not have to remind you how TADA fell by the wayside.) In the context, however, of recent developments, do we have any options?

A letter from the Editor


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