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Counterterrorism In Perspective

by Ejaz Haider

Arif Ali—AFP

Police performance in preventing terror attacks is not a zero sum game.

At least 15 people, including six police personnel, were killed and 82 others injured when a suicide bomber attacked a protesting crowd at Lahore’s Charing Cross on the Mall. The dead included two senior police officers, DIG Traffic Capt. (retd.) Ahmed Mobin and SSP Operations Zahid Gondal.

At the time of the attack, the area was crowded with protesting Chemist and Pharma manufacturers’ associations, the Mall traffic was choked and there was a large presence of police and media. Mobin was there to negotiate with the protesters and help clear the road: an ideal setting for a possible attack.

The attack, expectedly, has got critics of the government pulling out their knives. The government, predictably, has gone on the defensive with the Punjab law minister blaming the protesters for the attack—the remark giving a fillip to the critics.

The media also circulated a Feb. 7 “threat alert” by the National Counterterrorism Authority, which warned of a possible attack by an unknown terrorist group and advised strict security measures for ‘vital installations,’ including government buildings, hospitals and schools. The ‘obvious’ and ‘expected’ question in the media, including in the unregulated jumble called social media, was why did the attack happen when there was a ‘terror alert’?

Pictures have emerged on social media of policemen ‘arresting’ people with kites and balloons, with comments about government priorities while terrorist attacks continue apace.

The media has also questioned the government’s inability to prevent people from protesting on the Mall when there are clear executive orders against such assembly, orders that are also supported by a Lahore High Court decision.

All in all, as with every terrorist attack, commentary on the media, especially social media, has created bedlam with people segueing in all directions and voicing tangential thoughts.

Let’s try and deconstruct.

No state, regardless of its resources, can prevent every terror attack, especially when it is being attacked internally. Point number one, then, is simple and obvious: it’s easier to prevent an external attack. Not so, internal attacks. Exhibit: check data on terror attacks in the U.S. before and after 9/11.

Next argument: that there was a terror alert and therefore the government should have been able to prevent Monday’s attack. Except, as is clear from the phrasing of the NACTA letter, it was a general warning with absolutely no specifics. There is also an urgent need to understand what such alerts mean and how they are categorized.

After 9/11, the U.S. developed a system of color-coding threat levels. That system was abolished in 2011 in favor of a three-level system called the National Terrorism Advisory System. The NTAS rests on three categories: elevated, intermediate, imminent. Janet Napolitano, then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, described the system thus: “When [the Department of Homeland Security has] information about a specific, credible threat, [it] will issue a formal alert providing as much information as [it] can.”

The DHS’ new system also rests on sharing information with the public, where and when necessary. An alert can have various specifics: geographic region, specific target, mode of transportation of the threat, infrastructure that can be potentially affected by the threat; protective actions taken by the authorities, and the measures individuals or communities can and must take to protect themselves.

To put it another way, the ability of law enforcement to act on a threat alert is directly proportional to the specifics in the alert. Intelligence agencies work these out in several ways: with moles in terror groups; interrogation of arrested terrorists; picking up communication chatter; collaboration with and alerts from other intelligence agencies, et cetera. Sometimes, even when there is a vital piece of information that can help preempt attacks, analysts can fail to either pick it up or ignore it. This is what I would call the noise effect in organizations.

The Lahore terror alert provided no specifics. NACTA did not and could not follow up with any specifics after its Feb. 7 general alert. To expect the police or intelligence agencies to prevent an attack in a city like Lahore on such basis is like asking someone to find a needle in the proverbial haystack—or, to perform a miracle. And miracles don’t happen. One can get lucky but that is not the same thing.

The critics would say that if the police weren’t ‘arresting’ kites and balloons, they would have a better chance of focusing on counterterrorism. Going after kites and balloons is of course moronic with or without an Islamabad High Court order against celebrating Valentine’s Day, but the criticism shows a woeful lack of information on police organization, functions and even logical fallacies.

But before I say a few words about police organization and functions, let me reiterate that I have often written about reforming the police: that is a different subject. Here, I am attempting to describe the police as its stands. Also, and this fact can be easily checked, the photo of balloon-sellers being taken away is from 2011 and the one with arrested kites and kite-sellers is from 2015. See here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1357176/No-love-allowed-Pakistani-police-round-Valentines-Day-balloon-sellers-crackdown-immoral-celebrations.html and here: http://nation.com.pk/islamabad/15-Mar-2015/156-held-for-selling-flying-kites-cpo Of course, facts mustn’t stand in the way of ‘alt-facts’ to create perceptions. That said the exercise remains dishonest to the core.

But let’s get back to some perspective.

Punjab has 183,000 police personnel. Of this number, 125,000 are constables who have no policing skills in terms of investigation, intelligence gathering, forensics, communication et cetera. They deal with security duties, watch and ward, riot/crowd control, patrolling—general functions. The rest have specific policing functions/skills. The point is that while it is stupid to get the police to start arresting balloon- and kite-sellers, that activity has no real impact, good or bad, on the policing functions that others are performing or have to perform. To further clarify, CTD personnel do not arrest kite- and balloon-sellers. They perform their specialized function of counterterrorism. Ditto for forensics and investigation or communication.

While it is important to not waste time and energy on arresting kite-sellers, which is a different issue altogether, it is equally ridiculous to argue, even if implicitly, that if policemen weren’t arresting them, there would have been less terror attacks or the police by the very fact of not arresting kite-sellers would improve its performance. And yet, this is exactly the kind of ‘reasoning’ one sees in social media and in private conversations!

The practitioners know the real difficulties and deal with them every day. CT is not for the faint-hearted or those who have very little knowledge regarding its intricacies. The problem is that the many attacks the intelligence agencies have managed to preempt and prevent do not make news. There’s no spectacle in success. Failure, the attack that goes through, is what makes headlines.

This is not to argue that we do not need to improve policing or governance or inter-agency coordination. On all those fronts massive improvements are needed. The point is that we have to put the correct perspective on how and where things stand, what is doable and what is desirable. As I once wrote, quoting J. Frank, when you mix your wishes and is-es, what is and what aught to be, “You will insist that your ‘wish assumptions’ are ‘is assumptions,’ that they are self-evidently true in present fact. In short, you will practice magic.”

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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1 comment

Khalil Ahmad February 14, 2017 - 10:59 pm

Whoever used pictures from 2011 and 2015 he committed dishonesty. Whoever commented on those pictures committed errors. But taken in earnest the whole thing is like a Comment on the state of Governance (rather perpetual mis-governance) and the State of Pakistan; to miss that point is to not appreciate the way the citizens see the things.


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