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Point of departure

The Heathrow conspiracy is measure of deadly determination and resolve of conspirators and their masters, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Aug 16, 2006 06:07 IST

The Heathrow conspiracy is a measure of the deadly determination and resolve of the conspirators and their masters. It is a measure of their anger and hatred that they are willing to die and kill innocent people of all nationalities and faith, including their own. It is a measure of a world going mad.

And this Heathrow anger predates Lebanon. So, logically, one should expect another wave.

It is too early to say who masterminded the plot. Counter-terrorism experts are divided on whether this has al-Qaeda fingerprints but there is finally a realisation of the Pakistani connection. The suggestion that a Pakistani, Matiur Rehman, wanted for an assassination attempt on General Musharraf, was the mastermind has been denied by Pakistani authorities. British authorities suspect that more than a thousand people in Britain are involved with terrorism; there may be dozens of plots with hundreds of people involved so that the potential for more terrorist attacks is very real.

Had the terrorists succeeded in destroying even three of the 10 aircraft they wanted to bring down as part of their diabolical plot, the loss of life, the economic and financial costs and panic would have been unimaginable. British intelligence, the police and others worked overtime to prevent a catastrophe over the Atlantic Ocean. Within a day they released the names and addresses of those arrested. All this is in sharp contrast to our performance — where we have been running around without a clue about the Mumbai bomb blasts.

The British must have had the data and information to act upon. They would have had photographs, access to phone taps, bugs in rooms and surveillance reports charted over months. Suspects’ bank accounts were checked and the trails led to the US, North Africa, Germany and, inevitably, Pakistan.

Some reports mentioned that the British intelligence had a mole in one of the terrorist cells. This time around the Pakistanis had a dual role — the ISI assisted in unravelling some of the terrorist links while others conspired to kill innocent people. Would Pakistan ever assist India in a similar situation?

Pakistani authorities arrested three of the terrorists (all of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir origin) who had gone to Pakistan where huge sums of money were wired to them by a UK-based charity in December 2005. The money was ostensibly for ‘earthquake relief’ but actually meant to help them carry out the Heathrow bombings. Pakistani authorities would like to see this as a possible al-Qaeda plot, but one has to keep in mind the possibility of a Lashkar-e-Tayyeba connection for two reasons. One, that al-Qaeda does not have members from South Asia and is primarily an Arab outfit. Second, the Lashkar is extremely active in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir from where, with ISI assistance, it launches its operations into India and has become immensely popular after the October 2005 earthquake. The Lashkar’s mother organisation, the Dawa, was the first off the mark with relief assistance. It would be more natural for the three to gravitate towards the LeT rather than opt for al-Qaeda.

After 25 years of terrorism in India, the question still is why we are not able to act in this fashion while the British have been able to. The Americans have ensured that there was no terrorist incident in the US after 9/11, there has been one in Britain and at least one calamity prevented. In India, we have had 100 major incidents in J&K alone and about 4,200 security personnel and civilians have died since 9/11.

Soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Americans promulgated their Patriot Act and the British followed it up with a somewhat less severe Anti-Terror Act. We, on the other hand, abolished Tada, abolished Pota despite December 13, despite Kaluchak and left no single law in the hands of the counter-terror establishment.

But mere enactment of laws is not enough. Laws by themselves do not prevent terror any more than the Indian Penal Code prevents crime. One permanent federal law that is stern yet humane would enable prosecution of cases and hopefully, if there are fast track courts, assure speedy justice and be a deterrent to would-be terrorists. On the other hand, multiple laws lead to confusion and possible misuse. In all such cases, there have to be witnesses secluded by a fool-proof witness protection scheme. We have nothing like that and no witness is willing to risk his life. Our in-camera trials are a joke where almost every one plus one is present.

Of course, there will be mistakes, horrible ones at times, or misuse; society has to decide what it wants — unabated terrorism and communal fires or peace and tranquillity. Above all, there has to be the political will to sustain this campaign for decades and not use each crisis for political gains. The battle against the terrorist is a long haul. We cannot ask Bhutan to throw the Ulfa out of its territory and then call off our own operations against these secessionists.

The US and other Western governments realised that the counter-terrorist establishment had to be equipped and reoriented to handle the new task. Western governments, therefore, strengthened their intelligence networks, spent huge sums of money to equip them, hired experts and strengthened coordination between the various agencies. For India, there is still a long road ahead and we have lost so much time. Our Multi-Agency Centre, designed to coordinate the fight against terrorism, is, from what one hears, languishing.

We had a warning in February 1998 when Osama bin Laden formed his International Islamic Front with Pakistani participation. In 1999, Yossef Bodansky, Director of the House of Representatives Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, wrote in his book Bin Laden — The Man Who Declared War on America that bin Laden had struck a deal with the ISI, in the spring of 1998. This agreement enabled the ISI/Lashkar-e-Tayyeba combine to carry out attacks in India under the ‘banner’ of al-Qaeda while the ISI gave logistic support in Pakistan for al-Qaeda to carry out attacks in the rest of the world. Terrorist attacks in the rest of India would indicate that this agreement is in force. Bodansky also speaks of the Talibanisation of Pakistan and how Nawaz Sharif was warned by the Islamist army and the ISI that the only alternative to chaos was to Islamise in the extreme. Prophetic, one might say, for that is the way Pakistan is unfortunately headed.

Khalid Mohammed Sheikh, the master planner of the 9/11 attacks, surfaced in Pakistan. So did others —Ramzi Yousef, who carried out the first attack on WTC in 1993, was arrested in Pakistan. He had escaped from the Philippines after their Bojinka plot to target 11 aircraft over the Pacific in 1995 was discovered. Rashid Rauf, whose arrest in Bahawalpur (headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammed) on August 4 triggered the arrests in Britain is another link in the Pakistani terrorist chain. Who knows, even the brains of the Heathrow conspiracy might surface in Pakistan one day.

The Americans, blinded in their love for Pakistan, have refused to see the ugly warts while the Pakistani chest-thumping for its dubious contribution in the latest episode is a show of low opportunism and hypocrisy as they shelter and inspire terrorists. It is time for us and the rest of the world to take the Pakistani threat seriously before we run out of time and options.

The writer is former Secretary, Research &Analyis Wing (R&AW)

First Published: Aug 16, 2006 06:07 IST