Counter-terrorism Lessons

(Photo by Mo, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Mo, Creative Commons License)

With most of the officially acknowledged 57 proscribed jihadi organizations headquartered in Punjab, the province stands out as the ideological center, social sanctuary and a viral recruitment ground for extremist organizations involved in various forms of terrorism across the country. Countless members of these organizations usually operate out of mosques and madarassas – apparently benign places of worship and learning.


For long, the Punjab leadership ducked under denial, but the National Action Plan jolted them out of that state, and of late, the Punjab government did take some steps against proponents of militancy and terrorism. Guided by the blunt Shuja Khanzada, the Punjab Home Department geo-tagged 13,800 seminaries across the province, and also ordered closure of 170 of them – after determining that they were somehow a major source of extremism and sectarianism in Punjab. These seminaries were located in the southern districts of Jhang, Muzaffargarh, Layyah, Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Kot Addu, Chiniot, Taunsa, Hasilpur and Vehari.


Khanzada also approved freezing of about Rs 600 million of ‘doubtful’ funding of some madrassas and ordered a relentless pursuit of all those threatening public interest. The assassination of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) chief Malik Ishaq in a police encounter in Muzaffargarh on July 29 marked the high point thus far of the counter-terrorism campaign in the province.


“There is no doubt Khanzada was leading the charge and stood by us in every operation,” recalls a senior police officer posted in southern Punjab. “The minister used to stay in touch with us during all critical operations and would inquire about the safety of our personnel.”


His assassination therefore came as no surprise – in fact a logical consequence of his blunt public talk on terrorist outfits.


The fact that the suicide bomber managed to walk up to him before blowing himself up is however shocking and surprising. Salmaan Taseer, Bashir Bilour, Shahbaz Bhatti, General Mushtaq Beg and many other examples should have been instructive for the entire security apparatus. Once challenged, terrorists are always on the prowl for chosen targets.


This requires elaborate and uncompromising standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the security of those visible on the counter-terrorism front or those close to them. A severe breach of SOPs cost Khanzada and 20 others their lives. This lapse indeed exposes the complacency of those responsible for sensitive jobs. While they have been doing a good job, they still need to comprehend the problems that we face. The latest incident – compounded by a massive security lapse – warrants a peep into the mindset that governs our ministers and officials.


Firstly, in front of TV cameras, minister and officials often indulge in unnecessarily provocative bravado against terrorists, thereby taking the risk of becoming the obvious target. We have seen in the past how former corps commander General Safdar Hussein provoked the then Taliban leader Naik Mohammad in May 2004 into revenge attacks. Salmaan Taseer, the former governor, was also conducting himself on television and paid the price for it.


Secondly, the focus thus far has been less on reforms in the legal justice system and more on brinkmanship and administrative measures. Instead of working to strengthen the legal framework to conclusively punish criminals and terrorists, politicians have been spewing morality-inducing rhetoric that hardly matters to law-breakers.


Thirdly, intellectual confusion within state structures is a huge stumbling block. The understanding for a rule-of-law-based counter-terrorism is minimal. It became evident during a recent simulation exercise with senior government officers – who are about to become real policy-makers.


These officers were supposed to prepare a counter-narrative on terrorism. They diagnosed the issues pretty well but the recipe they came up with a) lacked the required counter-narrative, and b) rested on morality and nationalistic exhortations. Most of their recommendations virtually singled out the “corrupt, dubious western-oriented civil society organizations” and the private media as both the source of some problems as well as possible partners in reinforcing the national narrative. For them, these two pillars of the state could be crucial in countering extremists.


But their dissertation hardly mentioned the role of a state that should be guided by the Rule of Law. Instead, their discourse was anchored in appeals and the need for creating a national identity.


“Which identity?” I asked. And can such an identity evolve in diverse regions without equitable socio-political and economic investment? Where does the service delivery stand in the six recommendations they made to the government? Is that necessary or not?


All these officers are well-meaning and want to serve with the best of intentions, but most of them clearly lack the understanding of issues such as counter- and de-radicalization, or the rule of law as an absolutely unavoidable prerequisite for state and nation-building.


Lastly, policy and decision makers tend to generalize complex issues. Often they single out a region or a group to make a point. They often forget that political terrorism has become a franchising business, with ever more contenders for establishing their own franchise. The nexus with criminal syndicates makes it ever more pervasive and lethal. These franchise-owners draw strategic and ideological guidance from their the alma mater such as Al Qaeda, Al Jihad, Hamas, or ISIS. Their real motives may not be in synch with the licensor and they usually pursue their own agendas in the given territory.


That is why it is absolutely essential for all officials to really desist from singling out one or other group or making generalized statements. Experiences from other countries suggest that counter-terrorism or even peace talks with militant groups don’t take place under the glare of TV cameras. It requires a quiet, behind-the-scenes maneuvering.


And the lesson from Khanzada’s death must be clear – terrorists are out to exact revenge. Their handlers will always find foot soldiers to go after high-profile terror-hunters. It means the SOPs on security for such people must be strictly enforced.


Lastly, a counter-terror narrative has to be anchored not only in administrative measures but also in the rule-of-law paradigm. Only that will inject some fear into the minds of all those who until the APS attack made light of the government’s CT strategy.


This article first appeared in The Friday Times. Click here to go to the original.

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