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US pulls out all stops

delhi Updated: Sep 14, 2008 23:36 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The Chelsea Wholesale Flower Market in lower Manhattan is a popular place for blossom-loving New Yorkers without budgets. However, several storeys above the orchid sellers, behind blast-proof doors, is a cubicle jungle where work scores of officers of New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau.

The bureau, with a budget of tens of millions of dollars and seven overseas offices, dwarfs the counterterrorism efforts of many countries.

This purely municipal effort is part of the enormous counterterrorism infrastructure put together in the US over the past seven years. The New York Police Department is credited with having broken up several Islamic terror plots against the city, mostly by Muslim zealots inspired rather than directed by Al Qaeda.

Yet most Americans will tell you how surprised they are that their country has yet to suffer even a Madrid- or London-style strike seven years after 9/11. A CNN poll recently showed the number of Americans who expect a terrorist strike ‘in the next several weeks’ has fallen by half since 2001 to about 30 per cent.

Former Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Blackwill touts this as a Bush administration success. No one, just after 9/11, would have believed Osama Bin Laden would fail to strike again, he says. “It’s not because they haven’t been trying,” he adds.

An obvious reason for this success is that the US is not geographically contiguous to a country that harbours terrorist groups. The US exercises tight control over the issuance of visas and the movement of people coming in by air and ship. “They don’t have neighbours like we do,” says Ajai Sahni, terrorism expert and executive director at the Institute of Conflict Management.

A second reason is that few American Muslims have felt attracted to the call of Jihad. This led Newsweek to laud the community as ‘one of America’s greatest strengths’. The US has done so well to not alienate its Muslims that, contrary to popular perception, Muslim migration to the US is at an all-time high. In 2005, 96,000 people from Muslim countries became US green cardholders — the highest number in 20 years.

In contrast, Europe struggles to integrate its Muslim immigrant populations. “Since 9/11, there have been over 10 terrorist plots in Europe that have direct links to Al Qaeda,” said a State Department counterterrorism official. “European Muslims have played a role in almost all of them,” he added.

While a number of American Muslims have been involved in plots in the US, they have been amateurish solo acts with no tangible link to Al Qaeda.

Finally, the US spends an enormous amount of money on fighting terrorism on a whole host of fronts, including electronic interception, covert operations and analysis. The US Department of Homeland Security’s budget alone is over $ 35 billion, the Pentagon’s counterterrorism budget is $ 95 billion and this does not include the hundreds of billions spent on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — some of which is directly used against Al Qaeda.

But Indian analysts say, more than its vast budget the US system has undergone a deep administrative change. “They have overhauled their security systems. Whenever they have seen a hole, they have plugged it. They have responded as a united nation: the judiciary does not spike legal changes; across the political class there is a consensus on not playing electoral games when it comes to terror. There is tight accountability for getting it wrong in this area,” says Sahni.