The anti-terror fight

Updated March 15, 2020

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The writer is former IG Police and author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths.
The writer is former IG Police and author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths.

EXACTLY a year ago on March 15, an Australian gunman killed 51 worshippers in Christchurch. The victims included nationals from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt as well as New Zealand citizens. A rookie political leader of a small nation demonstrated qualities of ‘strength and sanity’ while pursuing an agenda of ‘compassion and community’. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood out as a ‘pragmatic idealist’ in a field dominated by old men. Her deft handling of the shootings was noted globally.

Here is what she thought of the victims: “Regardless of whether someone had been in New Zealand for a generation or whether or not they moved here a year ago, this was their home, and they should have been safe and they should have been able to worship here … they are us.” Her embrace of New Zealand’s Muslim community stood out in a global environment of divisiveness. Her donning a headscarf while visiting a mosque or condoling with bereaved families “made a plausible case that kindness was a strength, compassion was actionable, and inclusion was possible’’. Within days of the tragedy, she proposed and got passed New Zealand’s first far-reaching gun control legislation.

Ardern set the precedent of never taking the shooter’s name, and her moral leadership forced the media to follow suit. She enlisted the support of world leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Only two months after the carnage, they came up with the Christchurch Call, a meeting of heads of state and tech companies “to commit to preventing the spread of online terrorist and violent extremist content”.

Some larger social media networks had already established the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) to tackle the online influence of the militant Islamic State group and to boost coordination between governments and networks “to study, respond to and prevent extremist and terrorist activity on the sharing platforms”.

We do not have a national security policy, and the internal security policy remains unimplemented.

Ardern is involved in the expansion of the scope of this initiative as she feels responsible. “That’s not to say this started from zero, it did not. The work that Jordan had done was really critical. And equally the likes of the UK and France. But I do think that the GIFCT will be a fundamentally ­different body because of the Christchurch Call,” she told Time magazine recently, whose correspondent praised her for moving “enough chess pieces among the public, governments and industry to offer the beginnings of a coherent international response to a problem against which traditional power structures have proved ineffective”.

One must reflect on the 2014 Army Public School, Peshawar, tragedy that left 144 people, including 132 children, dead at the hands of six terrorist gunmen. Grief-stricken parents and families wanted accountability and an investigation into the security lapses in a garrison-guarded area. They wanted exemplary punishment for those who accepted responsibility for the gruesome act. But the security establishment failed to satisfy them. The terrorists’ spokesman who was in custody ‘escaped’ from a safe house in Peshawar recently. The military’s silence speaks volumes.

As a member of a working group of professionals who drafted the Counterterrorism National Action Plan (CT NAP) on Dec 21, 2014, I believe policymakers should rethink the strategy whose short-term gains through kinetic means may not serve the long-term goal of countering violent extremism. A recent study reported a 13 per cent decline in terrorist incidents in 2019 compared to 2018; however, 2019 saw 229 incidents, including four suicide assaults, which claimed 357 lives.

What went wrong? Firstly, there was no political ownership of CT NAP. Our main recommendation for the prime minister to lead this war was omitted. Resultantly, the commander of an armed and strong institution took the lead and we saw the militarisation of our internal security strategy. Apex committees were constituted in the provinces with corps commanders calling the shots. Political ­governments and civilian agencies simply followed military doctrine.

Secondly, the political government lifted the six-year moratorium on capital punishment in order to execute convicted terrorists. But a decision was taken to execute some 5,000 convicts on death row in all categories. Some 600 were hanged. Glaring cases of injustice were highlighted. But it was too late. Some people went to the gallows as a result of miscarriage of justice. Did all this act as a ­deterrent? I doubt it. It is the certainty and not the severity of punishment that deters criminality.

Thirdly, special military courts were established for speedy trial of terrorists. During their four-year duration, 344 accused were awarded capital punishment in 650 cases decided by 14 such courts; 56 were executed. In November 2018, the Peshawar High Court acquitted several convicts sentenced by military courts on grounds of “malice in law and fact”. The convictions awarded on callously recorded routine “confessional statements” were held to be in violation of the right to a fair trial. The matter is now before the Supreme Court.

In view of a recent Supreme Court verdict in which terrorism has been redefined and its application restricted to the nature of offences under certain conditions, anti-terrorism courts can be more effective with the provision of a day-to-day trial restricted to a week and the right to be defended by a lawyer guaranteed. Even those suspected of ­terrorism deserve due process.

Fourthly, CT NAP has the following provisions for a communication strategy: countering hate speech and extremist material; ban on glorifying terrorism and terrorist groups through print/electronic media; and tangible measures against the abuse of internet and social media for terrorism. Task forces under the IT and information ministers were to propose comprehensive strategies but after dilly-dallying for years, the government recently came up with the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020. Oddly, the cabinet approved these rules framed without consultation with concerned stakeholders.

In its manifesto, the PTI had an ambitious plan for tackling terrorism by enforcing NAP, continuing security operations against militants, winning over ‘passive’ militants, and spreading counter-narratives including through madressah reform. Unfortunately, we do not have a national security policy, and the internal security policy approved by the previous government remains unimplemented.

Our rookie prime minister needs to adopt Ardern’s leadership traits and revisit the CT NAP to come up with long-term solutions to counter ­violent extremism.

The writer is former IG Police and author of The Faltering State and Inconvenient Truths.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2020