Dealing with terror

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

Three books published before the killing of Osama bin Laden reflect on the dangers posed by Al Qaeda.

DOES the killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States' elite Navy Seals in a helicopter raid on his secured mansion in Abbottabad in Pakistan after midnight on May 1 mark the end of Al Qaeda? The U.S., which meticulously planned the operation, appears to think so. But the history of terrorist campaigns suggests that it may not be the case. The question when does a terrorist campaign end? does not have easy answers. But the answer is the key to planning and executing an effective counter-terrorism strategy.

Audrey Kurth Cronin, the author of How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, begins with a provocative question: Terrorist campaigns may seem endless, but they always end. Why? The introductory chapter makes one wonder whether she has written this book in order to answer the question how and under what circumstances Al Qaeda's campaign will end. Audrey Cronin is professor of strategy at the U.S. National War College in Washington, D.C. and senior associate in the Changing Character of War programme at the University of Oxford. Although the book reflects a comparative study of wide-ranging cases from around the globe, the thematic examination of the issue is an attempt to answer this question.

As Audrey Cronin says, Al Qaeda is an amalgam of the old and the new; it is a product of our times, yet it also echoes historical predecessors, expanding on such factors as the international links and ideological drive of the 19th century anarchists; the open-ended aims of Aum Shinrikyo (a Japanese religious cult, which gained notoriety when it carried out a lethal sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway); the brilliance in public communications of the early Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO); and the taste for mass casualty attacks of 20 {+t} {+h} century Sikh separatists or Hizbollah.

Audrey Cronin's interest in the subject makes her examine different strategies to end terrorism and their relevance in countering Al Qaeda. She rejects at the outset the killing of the leader, which she calls decapitation. According to her, arresting a leader damages a campaign more than when he is killed, especially when the jailed leader can be cut off from his subordinates by breaking the communication links.

She warns: Killing the leader of a group that has widespread popular support either has no measurable effect or is counterproductive. In 1973, Israeli agents killed Mohamed Boudia, an Algerian who had orchestrated Palestinian terrorist operations in western Europe. He was replaced by Carlos (the Jackal) who was much worse. She says that removing the leader may reduce a group's operational efficiency in the short term or it may raise the stakes for members of a group to prove their mettle by carrying out dramatic attacks.

Citing another study, she suggests that the killing of leaders representing Palestinian groups increased the level of recruitment to Palestinian militant organisations more effectively than the death of Palestinian civilians in Israeli attacks. The reason was that deaths of leaders of groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad inspired more Palestinian youth to join the movement.

Audrey Cronin's study of three historical cases has convinced her that terrorist groups adapted to the measures taken against them and that the expected linear outcome of an end to a leaderless group did not necessarily follow. Besides, her research shows no evidence to support the claim that killing leaders results in strategic success. Killing the leader often backfires, resulting in increased publicity for the group's cause and the creation of a martyr who attracts many new members to the organisation or even subsequent organisations.

She puts it succinctly: While anxious populations may want a government to show strength and crush a group, state-directed assassinations result mainly in tactical gains, because the tit-for-tat equivalence between the state and the group over time hurts the strategic position of the government as the rightful actor.

Audrey Cronin's otherwise insightful analysis of factors that contribute to the demise of terrorism stands in contrast to what many would consider her superficial understanding of the India-Pakistan conflict. While observing that a terrorist attack in South Asia could end in nuclear war, she has no explanation why the 2008 Mumbai attacks (while taking note of it after the book had gone to the press) did not lead to one. One more attack, and the outcome could be a cascade of actions by both sides (India and Pakistan) that might easily become unstoppable, she says with alarm. A serious reader would, however, wish to find something beyond imaginary apprehensions, based on hypothetical responses by state and non-state actors.

The last chapter How Al Qaeda Ends is prescient. The author is categorical that Al Qaeda will not end if Osama bin Laden is killed. In the corresponding footnote, she adds that his arrest is simply not possible, not least because bin Laden is surrounded by body guards who are instructed to kill him before he could be taken alive. The facts of bin Laden's killing, however, suggest the contrary.

Audrey Cronin explains that organisations that have been crippled by the killing of their leader have been hierarchically structured, reflecting to some degree a cult of personality and lacking a viable successor. Al Qaeda, she says, currently meets none of these criteria; it has a mutable structure, with both elements of hierarchy and a strong emphasis on individual cells and local initiative. Comparable cell-based terrorist networks, according to her, have included the socialist revolutionary and anarchist movements of the late 19th century. The demise of those historical predecessors required much more than the death of one or two leaders, she avers.

Al Qaeda, she adds, has gone well beyond the point where decapitation might have led to its end. To believe otherwise, she suggests, is ahistorical and naive.

Audrey Cronin cautions the U.S. that bin Laden's capture or killing would produce its own countervailing ill effects, including (most likely) the creation of a powerful symbolic martyr, which could actually enhance his stature, in practical terms. Moreover, she believes that the West may be paying more attention to bin Laden and his likely successor Ayman Zawahiri than Al Qaeda's followers would. Both bin Laden and Zawahiri no longer have a formative impact upon the intellectual development of the next generation of jehadists; the discourses on the Web indicate that other thinkers have become at least as important in the evolution of the movement, she suggests. The primary aim of decapitation should be to discredit the engines of popular mobilisation that drive this movement; these motors are no longer just bin Laden and Zawahiri, she points out. She concludes that if the goal is to end this movement, it will be far more strategically effective to discredit publicly bin Laden and Zawahiri and divide their followers an advice President Barrack Obama has ignored in his pursuit of a non-phlegmatic popular option of taking revenge for its own sake.

Contrary to what many people would believe, Audrey Cronin suggests negotiations as a way out not with the core leadership, but with some of the disparate entities on the periphery of this movement. Secondly, Al Qaeda is a fractionated movement full of internal contradictions, infighting, ideological arguments, and discord that might easily lead to its end. Taking advantage of the serious mistakes that are endemic to Al Qaeda will help nudge it towards failure and lead to its demise, she argues.

The author's prescription for the demise of Al Qaeda is debatable but has lessons for the pursuit of effective strategies to end extremist and militant movements elsewhere.

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, has brought out its annual study on Armed Conflicts in South Asia for the fourth year in a row. The book, edited by D. Suba Chandran and P.R. Chari, has chapters written by experts on Afghanistan, Jammu and Kashmir, left-wing extremism in India, north-eastern India, armed conflicts in Nepal and Sri Lanka and suicide terrorism in Pakistan.

Unlike Audrey Cronin, the authors of these separate essays are more concerned with the causes and the actual state of militancy in their respective areas rather than with the factors that could bring about its demise. The authors do not explain why there has been a decline in the number of incidents involving extremists, and whether an effective counter-insurgency strategy could be credited with this achievement. The chapter on Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, could have dwelt on why the militant groups have been unable to secure fresh recruitment to its ranks from the youth, as claimed by the author.

The chapter on Armed Conflict in Pakistan's FATA and NWFP: Continuing Violence by D. Suba Chandran is insightful. The author explains Pakistan's dilemma in waging an all-out war against the local militants and the supporters of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area). Pakistan, says the author, is concerned that an all-out war would alienate the local tribal Pashtun population. The provincial government in NWFP (North West Frontier Province), led by the Awami National Party (ANP), is keener to reach a political understanding and sign peace agreements with the Taliban groups. The author says that despite all the rhetorical statements made in public, there is a trust deficit between the security forces of the U.S. and those of Pakistan. The latter do not totally believe in the intelligence inputs from the former; there were many instances when they were proved wrong.

On the other hand the U.S. forces have reservations on leaks' by the Pakistani forces, which warn the militants of an impending attack or search, and hence their unilateral approach. In the light of the U.S.' admission that it chose to keep Pakistan in the dark over its strategy to kill bin Laden in Pakistan, Suba Chandran may well claim, I told you so.

Suba Chandran also gives an account of the drone attacks (using unmanned aerial vehicles) by the U.S. in this region against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. He suggests that the Pakistani state tacitly supports the drone attacks but publicly condemns them as a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. He believes that the U.S. is unlikely to carry out such attacks completely disregarding Pakistan's concerns. The U.S. deliberately avoided drone attacks when it raided the house in Abbottabad in which bin Laden was hiding but did not feel apologetic about violating Pakistan's sovereignty while carrying out its secret mission on that country's soil. Therefore, Pakistan's concerns could have hardly been a factor in the U.S.' strategy to eliminate bin Laden.

In the aftermath of bin Laden's killing, Pakistan is on trial for its omissions and commissions that enabled bin Laden to use its territory as a hideout all these years. Pakistan: From the Rhetoric of Democracy to the Rise of Militancy edited by Ravi Kalia, Professor of History at the City College of the City University of New York, provides some answers for the Pakistan paradox. Both civilian and military leaders, in their political rhetoric, pay lip service to democracy, liberalism, freedom of expression, inclusiveness of minorities and even secularism. However, in practice, Pakistan has continued to drift towards increasingly brittle authoritarianism, religious extremism and intolerance of minorities both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Individual essays in this volume address issues such as Pakistan's troubled status as a theocracy, its relationship with the U.S., the position of women and their quest for empowerment, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, and the sharp class divide that has led to an elitist political culture. Ravi Kalia offers an erudite discussion on the vision of Pakistan as envisaged by its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

In a perceptive essay titled U.S. and Pakistan: Relations during the Bush-Musharraf Years, J. Andrew Greig, former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State and the United States Information Agency, observes that groups in Pakistan provide safe heavens, recruitment, indoctrination, training facilities, financing and protection to terrorists and terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Tariq-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Lashkar-i-Taiba, and many related groups and individuals, including some members of the Pakistani diaspora holding Western passports. These groups, according to him, collectively and individually pose threats to Afghanistan, India, the U.K., and the U.S., as also Russia, China, several Central Asian nations and South-East Asian nations.

The role of Pakistan in combating militants, Greig observes, is oftentimes ambivalent, if not reluctant, because of the weakness of its political, social and economic institutions and the state's lagging control over increasingly large areas of its territory. Greig too concedes that the danger posed by bin Laden and Zawahiri will outlive Al Qaeda's leadership, and that Al Qaeda has won the battle against the U.S. simply by standing up to and surviving the strongest power on earth.

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