The spectre of terrorism

Print edition : November 10, 2001
After September 11 - an academic perspective.

THE death of a woman hospital worker in New York City on October 31 from anthrax has kept the spectre of terrorism alive in the United States. Despite all that the Federal government has done - by all accounts it has done quite a lot to prepare for any further assault and to allay fears of a biological and chemical warfare - the psychosis that prevails here can only be felt and not described. Not surprisingly, reports of hate crimes and ethnic profiling, maybe only a few for such a vast country, have nevertheless not stopped coming. An Indian student at Yale who hails from the West Coast told me in anguish that she found the going in the East a lot tougher than back home. She believes that the West being a larger ethnic mosaic, there was greater understanding and tolerance of differences. While such generalisations may hardly be acceptable to the average American, it must be understood that the current phase in U.S. life is so uncertain, novel and problem-ridden that logic and rationalisation take on various hues. A faith in the goodness of your neighbour gets eroded and you start developing misgivings over the ability of public service agencies to protect you. Interestingly, questions are already being raised over the effectiveness of current U.S. Army operations in Afghanistan and whether the U.S. is anywhere near capturing bin Laden.

When such a crisis in confidence overtakes huge chunks of the population, it is the academic world that brings some sanity and stability to perspectives on current happenings. Jessica Stern of the Kennedy School of Government has become a celebrity of sorts since September 11. She has written extensively on terrorism. Her The Ultimate Terrorists (Harvard University Press, 1999) is a classic work that is compulsory reading for everyone who wants to understand how September 11 happened and how it could happen again, albeit in a different form. She is clued up and dedicated, though her views may not exactly please the Establishment. She has visited at least one madrassa in Pakistan and has spoken to some jehadis. So she knows what she is talking about and therefore carries a level of credibility that does not always attach to those on the campuses.

In a stimulating conversation, she told me that General Pervez Musharraf was walking a tightrope and was facing an acutely difficult situation at home. He is now painfully aware that any continued truck with the jehadis could be a double-edged weapon. His decision to sack the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, was possibly aimed at asserting himself and proving to the rest of the world, especially the U.S., that he was distancing himself from someone who had overreached himself in establishing questionable links. The reference here is to Ahmed's proximity to Umar Sheikh, one of the militants released in order to get back the passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight IC814 in December 1999. (A recent Dawn - the leading Pakistani daily from Karachi- report had referred to sources claiming that it was at Ahmed's instruction that Sheikh had transferred $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the leader of the gang that struck at the World Trade Centre (WTC) on September 11.)

In Stern's view, the U.S. has high stakes in maintaining good relations with both India and Pakistan. At the present juncture, the ties with the latter were, for obvious reasons, more vital. This should not on any account arouse Indian fears that the U.S. was tilting towards Pakistan at India's cost. New Delhi should understand that continued U.S. dialogue with Pakistan was in India's interest. Or else, there was a prospect of a lack of restraint on the part of Islamabad that could worsen the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. In my view, this does not explain the recent dastardly attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building. Many of us believed that preoccupation with the current situation in Afghanistan was a guarantee against any further militant activity in Jammu and Kashmir, at least for a while. It is sad that this optimism is belied. Stern's response is that we in India tend to overestimate Gen. Musharraf's control over the militants, notwithstanding his unconcealed desire to keep the pressure on India in this region. It may not be preposterous to fall in line with Stern on this, howevermuch our instinct, based on the record, is not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the General.

Stern, who is working on a major book on international terrorism, has visited India and has contacts there. She has been received warmly and she is effusive in her reference to friends in India. She has, however, a point to make. She would like to see a greater willingness on the part of the Indian officialdom to maintain a proactive relationship with the academia. In her view, policy-making becomes well-rounded only from such contacts. She finds Pakistan a little more imaginative on this front. This is something that South Block may like to ponder. The traditional distrust of scholars from the U.S. needs to give way to openness to acquiring information from whatever quarters it comes and its selective application. In sum, nothing should be done that will provide advantage to India's detractors who would like to tell the rest of the world that we only pay lip service to transparency, the hallmark of a mature democracy.

Security personnel search vehicles entering a nuclear power plant in Newport, Michigan. The plant has been on a heightened state of alert.-JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP

Referring to the anthrax scare, Stern does not rule out the complicity of domestic extremists. The finger of suspicion points, among others, to the white supremacists who are not reconciled to a multi-ethnic U.S. This is something startling to many of us who are all the time obsessed with Islamic fundamentalism. The theory is not fanciful if one recalls the Oklahoma bombing and its perpetrator, Tim McVeigh's dubious links with pro-white elements in the country.

ANOTHER exhilarating conversation that I had before writing this column was with Prof. Jack Greene, Dean of the College of Criminal Justice at the North-Eastern University, Boston. A highly-respected authority on policing and a scholar of great vision for whom I had worked at the Temple University, Philadelphia more than a decade ago, Prof. Greene endorses Stern's belief that the anthrax mischief could be the work of one of several extremist groups in the country. He bases his suspicion on the fact that these groups are blatantly anti-establishment and the targeted premises now have been the offices of a Senator in Washington and some postal operational centres. The groups are also incensed over media attention to government activities to counter terrorism and hence the transmission of anthrax powder to some media celebrities such as Dan Rather of CBS and Tom Brokaw of NBC. Prof. Greene is not all that sanguine about the outcome of current criminal investigations to track down the culprits. In his view the task is time-consuming and requires extraordinary perseverance. That too, the area of investigation is virgin territory as far as the police were concerned. In a way this would set a new agenda for the police in the decades to come. While conventional crime will continue to occupy most of police time, new challenges such as bio-terrorism would cry for expertise and more resources. Any lackadaisical approach to this phenomenon will not bring credit to investigative agencies.

My own assessment is that the Indian police force, as constituted at present in the States, is not yet fully equipped to handle terrorism of the September 11 variety and magnitude. Prof. Greene believes that the municipal police in the U.S. are not very differently placed either. September 11 demands a new approach to training and cooperation between Federal agencies and the local police. As things are, except in the area of drug law enforcement, a disinclination to share information and share experiences characterises the scene. This is a charge that is of universal relevance. We have it in some measure in India, although I know that both the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) are definitely much more positive and forthcoming than many of their counterparts elsewhere in assisting the State police forces with information sharing and imparting of skills. This partnership will have to expand if we have to confront the terrorist squarely and frustrate his efforts to intimidate the weak and innocent.

A formal lecture commitment at Yale's Centre for International and Area Studies gave me a chance recently to interact with a cross-section of the faculty and student community at this Ivy League university. There is wide concern here over the fallout of September 11 on Indo-Pakistan relations. An anxiety that India should not become marginalised was obvious. Alongside this, there was the feeling that India was not doing enough to prove to the rest of the world that the violence in Jammu and Kashmir was Pakistan-inspired. While I responded that many captured militants had been shown on Indian television admitting their links, the opinion aired at Yale was that this had not been shared with the media in the U.S. As a result, the average American is not fully convinced of India's charges against Pakistan. While I cannot pass judgment on this, this criticism definitely calls for some cognisance by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. This is crucial to strengthening the hands of the India lobby here.

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