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Intellectual deficit

Updated August 25, 2013

AS Mohammad Sikandar’s Islamabad adventure unfolded on our TV screens, two very significant developments failed to attract the attention of the media: the security forces unearthing a reportedly Al Qaeda/Taliban-linked communication hub in Lahore and the recovery of more than 100 tons of explosive material in Quetta.

It was not so much the absence of news sense as a weak threat perception that compelled the media to ignore these developments and focus on the lone wolf from Hafizabad.

The media people will have their own arguments, some of them logical, supporting their response, but only a few will admit that Pakistan’s media lacks professional capacity and expertise vis-à-vis terrorism.

There is a dearth of scholarship and expertise on the topic even among some of the leading anchorpersons and opinion-makers based in federal and provincial capitals.

Think of TV talk shows on security issues. Everything is monotonous, repetitive, superficial and at times misleading and annoying — from anchors to experts, from topics to content, and from analyses to recommendations.

The print media is not very different from its electronic counterpart, with the exception of some op-ed pieces and editorials which actually contribute to the issue. On the whole, the print media too reflects serious intellectual deficit on the subject of terrorism.

While the entire nation has long faced the direct and indirect consequences of terrorism, much of the media debate on the subject ends up confusing public opinion by oversimplifying and externalising the threat. Interestingly, many opinion leaders still avoid naming terrorist groups and their leaders.

One may link the media’s clumsy response to issues of militancy and terrorism to the overall intellectual deficit that pervades almost all spheres of life in the country.

A famous proverb by Chinese strategist Sun Tzu offers the students of strategic studies an insight on such attitudes: “know your enemy, know yourself, in 100 battles, you will never be defeated; if ignorant of both your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle”.

Apart from public debate and the role of opinion leaders, the academic discourse on the subject is also weak. Empirical and methodologically sound scientific research is a particularly significant missing link in the academic discourse focused primarily on the political and ideological aspects of the problem. Most of it is neither relevant to the emerging realities nor has much to say about the future course of action to tackle terrorism and related issues.

Indeed, the insight on threat perception, evidence base and projections that is critical to formulating effective policies is missing across the board — from the Pakistani media to the academia and intelligentsia to the political leadership.

The consequences? Militants are far ahead when it comes to propagating their ideology. The people have confused views on the militants and militancy. Security forces fighting the militants are demoralised. The state is still looking for a counterterrorism policy.

The achievements of the security and intelligence agencies in Lahore and Quetta in unearthing a militant network and recovering a huge cache of explosive material, respectively, should be carefully analysed; even a small clue can lead to significant discoveries. This is a general principle across the world. Failure

to do so will provide militants an opportunity to recover and strike again by changing their tactics.

Unfortunately, it is probable that the law enforcement agencies will lose this opportunity to expand the scope of their investigations. In the absence of a firm tradition to analyse their failures, it is hardly likely that security agencies will build upon these or other successes.

Every law enforcement agency understands the dynamics of terrorism threats and counterterrorism measures. Each knows that the five major targets of the terrorists are the security forces, sectarian rivals, political leaders, foreigners and foreign interests, and public and private infrastructure mainly communication networks and properties.

The terrorists’ strategies are also well-known — suicide attacks, targeted killing, guerilla-style operations at sensitive installations, car bombs and improvised explosive devices.

The operational areas of the militants are specific, and the groups, their locations and their support bases are known. Even vulnerabilities are known, and the terrorists’ future targets, strategies and tactics which they have yet to employ in Pakistan, are identified.

State institutions know how to counter these threats and they have tried to respond accordingly. The state knows it can ban and restrict terrorist groups, their publications and public appearances.

The state can take several countering measures, among them the introduction of new legislation, developing an effective intelligence-sharing mechanism, tightening border security and granting special powers to security forces and courts to speed up trials of suspected militants. It knows the long-term implications of terrorism and has included political measures like talks and truces in its response.

But is it as simple as all that? It appears that the dynamics of terrorism and counterterrorism are quite easy to understand. But ask implementing agencies and they say it is complex. Most importantly, in the context of counterterrorism, using the available resources effectively is as necessary as understanding the nature of the threat.

A phrase in counterterrorism and counter-insurgency studies is “think beyond conventional measures”, but this is not easy to do. This idea has generated some responses in security circles but the terrorism challenge will not go away simply because of isolated responses here and there.

At a certain level, even these responses can be connected to evolve an effective protection mechanism against terrorism. Many advocate a cycle of reforms in the security sector — from better policing, intra-departmental coordination, proper judicial response, and cyber security — to counter terrorism and terrorism financing. But what is needed to evolve these initiatives is an overall recovery from the prevailing intellectual deficit.

Both the state and society need to combine their strengths to not only evolve counterterrorism measures but to also encroach on the ideological and political domain of the militants.

The writer is a security analyst.