Urban terrorism

Published February 27, 2017

SINCE early 2000, we have gradually experienced a change in the country’s security landscape, especially in the cities: gated communities; intrusive stop-and-search pickets; zigzag barriers; armed deployments with bulletproof jackets and helmets and anxious citizens waiting in long queues; the list is endless. All these features generate an almost perpetual sense of fear amongst the citizens and are a stark reminder of the monster of terrorism that stalks the cities.

The recent wave of terrorist attacks after a period of relative stability has once again heightened the fears of the citizens about their safety and that of their families. The people remain resilient despite this daunting security environment and keep their hope in the security institutions. This is evident from the fact that they continue to send their children to schools and perform their routine activities despite the uneasy feeling that terrorists could at any moment cause havoc.

There is, however, increasing unease and anxiety among the people, especially in the cities, about the current security situation.


Collaboration between an efficient intelligence apparatus and the police is vital to protect cities.


What are the basic gaps in our counterterrorism response so far?

Border control remains our Achilles heel in our counterterrorism response. Even the most recent suicide bombings in the country were reportedly carried out by Afghans (Lahore, Sehwan) and Uzbeks (Charsadda). Keeping in view our long, porous and vulnerable border, especially with Afghanistan, the border control challenges for the law-enforcement agencies are manifold.

It goes without saying that we cannot keep our citizens safe without well-regulated borders. The National Internal Security Policy 2014-18 envisaged a “robust border control regime”. Border control warrants serious attention of the authorities.

Equally, terrorism in modern-day cities cannot be effectively countered without an organised and efficient intelligence apparatus and its collaboration with the police. The usual tendency to score points, ridicule or malign the intelligence agencies needs to be replaced by a problem-solving approach. What is needed is some serious work on a) understanding the challenges of intelligence gathering in the country and b) building the capacity of the civil and military intelligence agencies to respond to these challenges.

The remarkable organisational development of the premier civilian intelligence agency under its present leadership is reassuring in terms of counterterrorism capacity building. The Charing Cross, Lahore, suicide bombing chain has also been detected through the collaborative efforts of the civilian intelligence agency and CTD Punjab, another high-performing police unit. All intelligence agencies need to be strengthened to help them perform their functions in a truly professional manner and make them accountable for their professionally mandated duties.

Intelligence-gathering structures have at present some serious gaps while the challenges in their line of work are formidable; lack of a reliable database of residents makes it even more difficult. Local intelligence-gathering structures are weak. Police stations have been diverted from their core function — intelligence gathering in their respective areas — and instead made to focus on reactive rather than preventive policing. All police stations must have their own intelligence units integrated with other police units such as the CTD and Special Branch.

There are also intelligence collaboration gaps at the district, provincial and federal level. These coordination gaps need urgent, serious and sustained attention of the authorities.

Positive police-community relations are also commonly recognised as an indispensable element of counterterrorism strategy. This is not necessarily about more police officers on the street but a stronger relationship of the police with local communities, otherwise terrorists will keep finding safe havens in the cities.

Over the years, contact between the communities and the police in the cities has decreased significantly due to multiple reasons. Community engagement and neighbourhood watch programmes are important in reducing the gap between the people and the police. They would also help in intelligence gathering, reducing fear of crime and terrorism amongst the citizens while helping them understand their own roles in countering terrorism in their respective communities.

Policing also needs to be organised along professional lines. There are still serious flaws in policing structures in different parts of the country. We cannot have irregular or mediaeval policing structures in place, such as in the form of Levies in the ‘B-areas’ of Balochistan and in Fata in the shape of the Khasadars. With such policing gaps we can neither protect the cities nor the B-areas nor Fata. There are serious legal and professional barriers and lacunae for policing functions and coordination between these areas. We need well-coordinated and uniform policing structures across Pakistan.

Importantly, the police in the cities as well as in rural areas need operational space, tools and skills to perform their role in countering terrorism. There is a strong correlation between operational autonomy, professional development and accountability of organisations. Also they must be provided the tools and skills, such as the required ammunition and firing practice opportunities so that they are as comfortable with the weapons as are their enemies, and invest in their training. Although the response of the police shooters in the Charsadda terrorist attack is reassuring, there is serious firing practice deficit even among those police officers deployed as shooters at stop-and-search pickets across Pakistan.

Finally, at the policy and strategic levels there is a need to rethink our current approach and structures. Nacta and NAP have so far failed to inspire confidence. Nacta remains mired in turf wars while NAP lacks any mechanisms to measure and monitor progress. Pakistan needs to learn from more professional responses to terrorism and organised crime across the world such as Homeland Security in the US and the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy and National Crime Agency of UK.

Admittedly, we are not as resource-rich as these countries, but it is not just about resources. It is more about leadership and planning. We need to address the collaboration challenges and develop performance management mechanisms to guide the security organisations and hold them accountable.

Political parties, the political executive and the senior command of law-enforcement departments and agencies all have to focus on their respective roles to keep the citizens of this country safe.

The writer is a former police officer.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2017

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