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Counterterrorism: Ruthlessness or Discrimination

by Ejaz Haider

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Facing extremists from within its own populace, Pakistan needs to formulate policy on how to treat captured would-be militants

The capture and release of Naureen Leghari, an ordinary, inarticulate, first-year student of a medical college in Sindh has begot a very negative reaction from many on social media.

Earlier, the ISPR director-general’s reference to her as qaum ki beti (daughter of the nation), after she was caught in an operation in Lahore, drew a sharp response too, given that through her own video statement she had confessed that she was to mount a suicide attack on a church on Easter Sunday.

There’s been more negative reaction after a TV channel aired an interview with her, in which she detailed how she got influenced by radical Islamist ideology.

People voice multiple objections. How can a terrorist be qaum ki beti; why should she be released; why should she be interviewed; while liberals are considered enemies, terrorists are being let off; since she was going to attack a church, it seems that the state doesn’t think much about minorities (quite wrong given how many Muslims have been killed and mosques attacked). First it was Ehsanullah Ehsan, presented as a reformed human being. Now it’s Naureen Leghari. Has the state decided to go soft on those who are waging war against it; is it now the policy to let them off, et cetera. The list is long but anger and frustration are the underlying factors in all this.

The anger is justified. The analysis is, well… not quite right. Let’s consider these objections.

One, comparing Naureen with Ehsan is wrong. Ehsan was a leader, planner, motivator, exploiter, and communicator. Naureen was a recruit, the exploited. She is no leader, just like a number of suicide bombers and would-be suicide bombers were/are not leaders, planners, motivators, recruiters and trainers. The difference in treatment is the distinction between the cold exploiters and the naive exploited.

Two, the state has not decided to go soft or let everyone off. Perhaps unbeknown to many, since 2009 the state (primarily through the Army), has been running rehabilitation and de-radicalization centers: Sabaoon, Nawa-i-Sehar, Mishal. These centers have sought to rehabilitate and de-radicalize dozens of captured/surrendered terrorists, would-be terrorists, would-be suicide bombers, facilitators, helpers etc.

So, this is not a new policy. What’s new is the policy to bring out the poverty of a narrative that, nonetheless, continues to impact the young both from the seminary as well as from the mainstream educational institutions. The idea, in line with the imperative of building a counter-narrative, is to put in the public domain the factors that go into radicalizing the youth.

How far this exercise has been successful remains unknown. There’s always the problem of recidivism and I know of no mechanism in place to measure the effectiveness of these rehab/de-rad programs. The United Kingdom uses what’s known as National Offender Management Service, which employs techniques and peer reviews for assessing the recidivist risk, but even that is not foolproof. In fact, nothing can be, and there will always be risk of relapse for some inmates.

A Feb. 24, 2017 report in the Washington Post says France’s deradicalization centers are seen as a ‘total fiasco’:

“This failure fully illustrates the lack of evaluation of the mechanisms set up by the state in the area of taking responsibility for radicalization and the lack of a comprehensive prevention strategy,” Catherine Troendlé, a senator from the Republicans who signed the report, said in a statement. The Washington Post story says: “The report concluded that the programs had been designed hastily without proper due diligence.”

Yet, this exercise cannot be dismissed for two reasons: one, states are now fighting with segments of their own society and among the people; two, not everyone can be killed. Who is to be killed cannot be decided indiscriminately. It has to be determined by the context and circumstances. If it’s a young suicide bomber who is about to blow himself up, has been identified and is in the crosshairs of a sniper, no one can or should second-guess the kill-shot. The moment informs the decision to kill. But how does one deal with a teen suicide bomber who lost his nerve or was captured before mounting the attack? The state could kill him and continue to kill many that will come after him or try to address the narrative that recruits the teens into blowing themselves up. Shedding blood must be a function of strategy, not revenge, as is clear from the Mytilenian debate in Athens.

Revenge takes a snapshot view: he was preparing to kill us, now he gets a bullet between his eyes. Strategy takes a longitudinal view and appreciates that the Clausewitzean schwerpunkt (point of effort, not center of gravity) demands striking at the ideology. [NB: that the state isn’t doing much toward that end is of course another debate and perfectly justified.]

Martin van Creveld, in his essay, On Counterinsurgency, details two models: Syria, referring to the scorched Earth approach by Hafez el-Assad in Hama against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the British army approach in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The British policy, barring some incidents, was informed by discriminate operations, underpinned by superior intelligence, the decision to not employ heavy weapons (artillery, tanks, aircraft), demolishing houses to clear the field of fire and heaping body-count on the Irish Republican Army. In fact, at the end of it, the British army lost 1,000 men to 300 IRA cadres killed. By contrast, Assad, according to various estimates, killed anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 people in Hama and razed the city to the ground.

So, the two models are clear and distinct: extreme ruthlessness or discriminate operations, the latter to be conducted mostly within the ambit of legal rules of engagement.

It’s the same judgment call for us. We can either go on a killing spree, arguing that the terrorists do not operate under any rules of engagement and we mustn’t either. Or, because the narrative is that we are fighting them because our values are better than theirs, we must operate according to some legal norms. I will be the first, as a student of CT, to concede that, on the ground, it is never so neat. Context will always be important. Yet, the broader policy must be clear on which approach is to be taken.

Should we kill all the teen/young would-be suicide bombers we capture? Should we put them away for good? Should we try to rehab/de-rad them? There are costs involved in all the approaches. Far away from the kneejerk, 140-character angry reactions on Twitter lies the domain of serious policymaking. Unlike social media, it’s also the domain of responsibility, not just criticism, memes and vitriol. If people in that domain work earnestly (a big if), they have to plod through a veritable minefield every day. If you really want to know, to borrow from Jung, “the terrible ambiguity of immediate experience,” which involves decision-making, read up on the trolley problem.

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