Plotting terror

16 Jul 2017


NEW York police have foiled at least 25 major terror attacks since 9/11, says John Miller, the counterterrorism chief, adding that NYPD maintains on average three or four active terrorist investigations at any given time. “Terrorists didn’t rest on their laurels after 9/11,” said former police commissioner of New York, Ray Kelly, while giving an account of 16 plots of terrorists foiled since he became head of NYPD in early 2002.

A case of three Pakistanis allegedly involved in planning a terrorist act finds prominent mention in his book Vigilance. The main character Majid Khan, an illegal immigrant, left America secretly in violation of the US immigration law and met Al Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Karachi in early 2003. He was tasked with bombing underground storage tanks at petrol stations in Maryland. Majid wanted somehow to get back to the US unnoticed. He contacted 23-year-old Uzair Paracha and struck a deal. “Majid reportedly offered to invest $200,000 in Uzair’s father Saifullah Paracha’s real estate business in return for a favour — rather a series of favours.”

During a meeting in Karachi in February 2003, Majid laid out his plan: Uzair, a legal permanent resident of the US could travel between the two countries without raising suspicion. When in New York, he would undertake a series of actions aimed to mislead the immigration authorities into believing that Majid was still in the US.

There are flaws in the way the US handles terrorism cases.

According to the police version, Uzair returned to America and followed Majid’s script to the letter. But on March 28, 2003, members of a joint terrorism task force arrested Uzair in New York. During interrogation, Uzair admitted that his father, Saifullah, had told him of Majid’s ties to Al Qaeda. He also said that his father admired Osama bin Laden.

After a two-week trial, Uzair was convicted of providing material support to a designated terrorist organisation and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Uzair’s father, Saifullah Paracha, was accused of using his business connections to help smuggle bomb-making chemicals into the US and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Despite his son’s statement regarding his father’s sympathies with OBL, and his knowledge that the main suspect Majid was connected to Al Qaeda, I am at a loss to understand why a professional police chief like Ray Kelly allowed a suspect under his probe to be moved to military custody. Usually this happens when police does not have enough evidence to obtain conviction in a regular civilian court of law.

Majid Khan also ended up in Guantanamo Bay. According to Commissioner Kelly, Majid “pleaded guilty” on Feb 29, 2012 in a military court trial by admitting “to the gas-station bombing plot, complicity in the 2003 bombing of a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, and planning to assassinate Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf”.

While Ray Kelly claims “success” against the three Pakistani “terrorists” due to vigilance and professionalism, the duality of trying one accused before a regular court of law and sending the remaining two before military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay points to the inherent flaws in the criminal justice system that deals with terrorism. While I have a great personal regard for the former two-time police commissioner of New York and we have shared the platform of Interpol to combat international organised crime, my concern is that sometimes we go overboard and disregard the basic values that we were trained to uphold: the collection of sufficient evidence to withstand judicial scrutiny and strive for indictment on the truth and nothing but the truth.

There is certainly a strong military component in shrinking the ability of the terrorists to plot and plan but a comprehensive approach based on rule of law and due process is needed to tackle the threat. While we expect foreign countries to treat the Pakistanis suspected of terrorism fairly and in accordance with the law, I sincerely hope that military courts in Pakistan strive to decide all the cases before them on the touchstone of justice and substantive material evidence.

If you cannot treat your own citizens fairly, how can you expect others to do the same to you in a far-off land? Doing justice entails test of character. While conducting trials of terror suspects, our military should not only be prepared for judicial scrutiny but also ensure transparency by allowing the accused to be represented by lawyers of their choice.

Since parliament has approved the extraordinary provision of trying selected terrorists before military tribunals, it is incumbent upon the legislature to hold the military accountable by appointing an inspector-general to oversee due process and undertake regular monitoring by the recently activated parliamentary committee on national security.

The writer is former DG, FIA and member of Interpol executive committee.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2017