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The unusual suspects

America, like Britain, should look inside its own territory to nip the changing face of Islamic terrorism in the bud, says Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2009 20:39 IST

Is Islamist terrorism a transnational crime that should be countered with a mix of aggressive policing and intelligence-gathering and, when necessary, foreign cooperation? Alternatively, is it a militarist ideology, like Hitler’s National Socialism, that requires commitments to overseas wars?

The questions may seem pointless to most Indians. Yet, in the United States and Britain, as societies and politicians tire of the Afghanistan war, this fundamental conundrum is at the heart of a growing debate. In many senses, the David Headley-Tahawwur Rana episode may have strengthened the case of those who argue terrorism needs to be seen as no more than a particularly sinister criminal syndicate, at least for the purposes of safeguarding the West.

If this reasoning wins the day, it will have long-term implications for India and the security threats in its near neighbourhood. Yet, that is getting ahead of the story. For the moment, it would be best to focus on the essential lessons the US could draw from Headley and a series of similar incidents involving terror suspects living within its borders.

What made Headley different from any previous terrorist was his use of an American business cover. Officially, he was a business manager for First World Immigration Services, a company run by Rana.

Previously, there had been speculation and some evidence of individual Pakistani-born or Islamist-friendly businessmen in the US contributing to so-called charities or seminaries that, in turn, churned out terrorists. The A.Q. Khan network was also documented as having set up front companies, with Pakistani government support, to buy dual-use items for its nuclear weapons project. The Rana-Headley episode represents the use of a business for terrorism itself. This is a qualitative shift.

How many such companies are there in the US? There could a dozen, there could be hundreds. Nobody knows; it is an “unknown unknown”, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase.

First World Immigration had an office on Chicago’s Devon Avenue. This is the South Asian quarter of America’s third-largest city that resembles, successively, a mini-India, a mini-Pakistan and a mini-Bangladesh. Some years ago, it was proposed to rename a stretch of the avenue after Mahatma Gandhi. Local Pakistani-Americans put in a claim for their founding father as
well. As such, today, three sections of the road are named for M.K. Gandhi, M.A. Jinnah and Mujibur Rehman.

Countless small businesses and hole-in-the-wall offices run on the street named for Jinnah. Which of these are owned by Islamist sympathisers or, worse, are fronts for sleeper cells? After Headley, that ceases to remain an academic question.

Headley and Rana may be big news in India, but in the US they are part of a small but worrying trend. In July 2009, a terrorist group of at least eight members was busted in North Carolina. Seven were arrested; the eighth had already vanished into Pakistan. In September, Najibullah Zazi — an Afghan-American who among other things drew inspiration from videos of Mumbai televangelist Zakir Naik — was arrested for conspiring to carry out bombings in New York.

These were not stray incidents — as the case of a Muslim US army doctor who went on a shooting spree at a Texas military base may have been. Like with Headley-Rana, they indicated meticulous planning and the structure of a terror organisation. They also suggested America’s economic and integrative model, exemplary as it is, does not necessarily firewall it from immigrants unable to throw off an innate extremism.

All these years America has believed such imperfect immigration to be a British problem. Indeed, the 800,000 strong British-Pakistanis have been regarded as the Western-located community most likely to produce jihadists.

At a Brookings Institution discussion in Washington, DC, shortly after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, intelligence veteran Bruce Riedel spoke of the “Pakistan-isation of al-Qaeda”: “More and more of its activities outside of the South Asian arena, and particularly in Western Europe, used Pakistanis, principally… [from] the United Kingdom, but also Pakistanis in Denmark, Germany, and Spain.” At the same event, strategic affairs specialist Stephen Cohen reckoned British Pakistanis were “al-Qaeda’s number one target today for recruiting individuals that can be used to target both the United Kingdom and the United States”.

The concerns about Britain are not invalid. As a recent Heritage Foundation report (‘The Pakistan-Britain Terror Connection: Lessons and Warnings for the United States’) pointed out, of the 125 terrorist prisoners in England and Wales as of March 31, 2008, “91 per cent classified themselves as Muslim… [and] 62 per cent were British nationals”. Another statistic was equally revealing: “Three quarters of the most serious terrorism cases investigated by British police have links to al- Qaeda in Pakistan.”

While the British and American situations are superficially similar, they offer different challenges. From what is known, ‘Brit-Pak’ jihadists are more numerous, and tend to be visibly non-integrated (long beards and the like). If one goes by Headley, the American jihadist is part of a smaller group but is also going to be much more difficult to identify.

What does all this mean for India? In the short-run, there may be informational benefit since at least some of the plans of West-based jihadists target India. New Delhi could learn a lot. In the long-run, politicians in both the US and Britain may be persuaded that breaking up such terror rings at home makes more sense for their citizens’ security than an expensive war abroad, especially one without an obvious deadline.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal