The global dilemma

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Acting effectively on the issues posed by terrorism is going to be the greatest challenge of this century, be it in the United States or in India.

FEAR and an acute sense of uncertainty still haunt life in the United States. Behind the "business as usual" facade, one can detect apprehensions about what awaits the country. Newspaper columns, letters from readers and conversations with the man on the street during radio talk shows, all reveal that it will be months before memories of September 11 yield place to daily preoccupations. Meanwhile, not a day passes without somebody in government or the academic world discussing the prospects of a biological or chemical warfare against the U.S. In this uneasy ambience, it is difficult for even the stablest of persons to remain insulated from the psychosis that afflicts the country as a whole. This is indicated by many who still refuse to take a flight and would rather stay at home if they cannot find an alternative mode of transport!

Attorney-General John Ashcroft's general warning that the country should be prepared for yet another terrorist attack has not exactly helped to mute fears. However well-intended such warnings are, coming as they do from public figures holding important office, they are liable to be misinterpreted. There is a moral here for the officialdom in India.

Three issues are still dominant in the U.S. All three are extremely germane to policy-making in India as well. First, what is the terrorist (read Al Qaeda) capability to let loose chemical and biological weapons on the rest of the world? If he can, how are we going to cope with that kind of devastation? Secondly, are we required to enhance the authority of law enforcement agencies (such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the U.S. and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in India) through a more Draconian piece of legislation? This poser flows from the growing belief - one that is not totally unfounded - that intelligence collection and sharing leaves much to be desired. If the answer is 'yes', how do we ensure that any new legislation does not negate the very freedoms that we are trying to protect from the clutches of the terrorist? Finally, what plan of action do we have to cut off the abundant sources of money supply to the likes of bin Laden? The question is, can we inflict a lethal wound on those who launder money for the terrorist? The courses of action suggested here are global in their reach and should form the core of a strategy that should be put in place quickly in order to prevent a repeat of September 11.

The relevant issues are thus easily identified, but acting on them effectively is going to pose the greatest challenge of this century. There are practical difficulties and differences in perceptions and priorities. For instance, there is wide divergence of opinion here in the U.S. as to whether chemical/biological warfare is within the realms of reality. (This could be somewhat analogous to the Y2K fears raised two years ago with regard to computer data.) Many people believe that this is an instance of hype that overestimates terrorist capabilities.

Such peremptory dismissal of projections on this front, however, seems untenable if we recall the 1995 episode in the Tokyo subway when more than ten commuters were killed and several injured as a result of a crude nerve gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. One school of thought, as reported by Time magazine, is that the terrorist is more comfortable with chemical rather than biological weapons. This is because of the relatively easy availability of raw materials, and the fact that the finished products need not be kept "alive". There is, however, the limiting factor that such weapons cannot be used to cause widespread damage.

The potential of biological weapons is much more forbidding. In this tactic, weapons carrying disease-producing germs or micro-organisms or their products are let into the environment by the terrorist. Anthrax, smallpox, plague and encephalitis are some of the diseases which could spread in this fashion. Ironically, human immunity to these has come down rapidly in the recent past with the near eradication of most of these diseases. It is for this strange reason that large-scale damage is said to be a distinct possibility if the terrorist resorts to this wicked method of creating a scare in the community.

A BBC report is also apprehensive that in the context of wide public knowledge of gene-mapping details, an unethical microbiologist could easily produce virulent strains of the virus or bacteria to which these diseases are traceable.

Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that very often the onset of such a warfare is not detectable in time, till masses of the population come down seriously with one or more of these diseases.

There has been animated debate in the U.S. on how well-prepared the country is to deal with an emergency that could arise from biological warfare. There is near unanimity that the public health infrastructure is too fragile to handle it. The impression is that a majority of doctors in the country cannot even identify the signs of most of these diseases. Further, smallpox being the most probable phenomenon in this eventuality, there is not enough vaccine to cater to a large population. According to a New York Times report, against a possible requirement of 40 million doses, less than half the quantity is available.

We in India are possibly better off in terms of diagnosis of these diseases, especially smallpox and encephalitis. But do we have enough vaccine against smallpox? I do not want to indulge in conjectures. But there is a definite need for planning by public health administrators. Enough publicity on our state of preparedness should do a world of good to avoid panic and let the terrorist know that he will be frustrated if he chooses to set off biological warfare. We need also to launch straightaway a massive training programme for the medical profession - both government and private and young and old - which could move in swiftly for effective intervention. There is no room for complacence here.

AMIDST all these fears about biological and chemical warfare, there is a raging debate over the wisdom or otherwise of giving more teeth to enforcement agencies such as the FBI. Attorney- General John Ashcroft has not concealed his disappointment, if not annoyance, over the delay in Congress giving all that he wanted. Specifically, he pleads for more authority to eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail communication. His demand is that authorisation to listen to telephonic conversations should be person-specific and not confined to a particular telephone line. This is to take care of the tactic of the underworld of frequently switching telephones in this era of disposable telephones. Ashcroft would also like to have the powers to detain an alien without judicial review for an indefinite period, if his terrorist links become known.

There are widespread misgivings about the administration's demand from the point of view of the citizen's right to privacy. The Washington Post is happy that Congress has refused to be "stampeded". Its stand is that advocates of the new anti-terrorism law have failed to prove that the benefits outweigh the loss of civil liberties. Further, there is no evidence that the legislation will succeed in preventing occurrences similar to those of September 11.

Professor Henry Steiner of the Harvard Law School, who is known for his strong views on the protection of human rights, is appalled by the demands for speed made by the administration. He tells me that one should not rush into such a major piece of legislation in a setting of shock and outrage. Deliberation, and requiring the administration to justify its requests, are essential. He would prefer that Congress employ a sunset law that will expire in perhaps two years, so that it can then consider whether to enact its continuation or not.

Steiner's moderate stand should generally reflect the feelings of a cross-section of the community. Congress has no doubt brought a bipartisan approach to the issue. It is apparently reluctant to accede to all the demands and would like to hasten slowly. A sort of a compromise bill is therefore being drafted.

The above debate in the U.S. should ring a bell in many of us familiar with the controversy relating to the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. (TADA). The government found it extremely difficult to justify its retention in the statute book. This was possibly no reflection on those who drafted it or the philosophy behind it. The shortcoming was mainly on the ground, specially the arbitrariness in choosing detainees. The poor rate of conviction in courts subsequently, only compounded the Act's lack of credibility. Viewed against this debacle, it is heartening that a similar law, namely, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999, has found judicial as well as public acceptance. It provides for certain strong measures such as interception of communications and attachment of property. There is a popular feeling that this law has had a salutary effect on the crime situation in Mumbai. Interestingly, many States want to bring forward similar legislation.

Finally, counter-terrorist strategy rightly relies a lot on depriving the terrorist of much of his oxygen, namely, dirty money. (According to an estimate made by the International Monetary Fund, $500 billion to $1.5 trillion is generated or is in circulation annually.) Such money is available in plenty in "offshore" centres, a euphemism for small islands which do not think it necessary or expedient to adhere to international financial prescriptions. Their economies actually thrive on an unrestricted invitation to investments by a wide spectrum of people, some of whom have terrorist links. There are islands, which are not easily located on the world map and are just indistinguishable dots, that are immensely wealthy. The trail that investors leave is so difficult to trace that terrorist organisations find this an easy way to hide money and retrieve it whenever an operation demands it.

President George W. Bush has moved swiftly to freeze more than $100 million in domestic and foreign banks. The money involved cannot be traced directly to Al Qaeda or bin Laden. But there is strong suspicion that most of it belongs to them. There is a Washington Post report that credits the FBI with having identified the flow of at least $500,000 from overseas accounts to those in the U.S., controlled by some of the suspected hijackers. There are varying estimates of how much the September 11 operation cost bin Laden. The figure is not relevant if one reckons the fact that long-term planning took place for years at several places. With governments in sympathy with the terrorist cause finding it dangerous to fund misadventures, a lot of money is reported to have come from individuals who, wittingly or unwittingly, have contributed huge sums to Islamic charities from which resources have found their way to various terrorist outfits, including Al Qaeda.

The international experience, including that of India, is that banking secrecy has worked tremendously to the advantage of unscrupulous elements with a terrorist leaning. Efforts to liberalise banking regulations so that criminal investigators get the information they want in quick time have not yielded results. International cooperation is tardy, although not totally negative. The creation of a Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Centre by President Bush is a welcome innovation. India needs to study this experiment in great detail and follow the example. This is not going to hurt us, even if it does not produce miracles. The Money Laundering Bill, which is still hanging fire, needs to be pushed through in Parliament if only to send the right signal to the terrorist. There is also a case for greater coordination between the IB, the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate.

In the ultimate analysis, the best conceived strategy is bound to fail unless national consensus fuels it. Despite some minor differences, there is traceable in the U.S. environ a resolve to stand united behind President Bush who has shown a remarkable determination that has surprised his detractors. It is this national will that has to be forged in India if we have to reverse the trend in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of the country. We need not be actuated by malice or hatred, but let us display a sense of unity and determination that will send clear signals across the border.

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