Problems in countering terrorism in Pakistan

The unedited version of BAAGHI, originally published in the Daily Times on Monday July 18, 2011

Garlanded Together! Right: Terrorist Malik Ishaq; Left: Rana Sanaullah, Punjab Law Minister


Recent acquittal of Malik Ishaq, the prime accused in over 40 cases of terrorism, would have been a shock had not one been aware of the legal mess and half-hearted political will to counter terrorism in Pakistan. Acquittals of the accused in various terrorist cases including those involved in 2008 attacks on Mumbai as well as hundreds others involved in attacks against Pakistan itself, raises eyebrows internally and as well as internationally. The challenge needs to be seriously analyzed.

For effective anti-terror legislation, criminalizing the offence is important but is possible only after resolving conceptual issues like defining the offence and branding it as terrorist act in completely unambiguous and undisputed manner. In case of Pakistan, even after a long history of terrorism, this conceptual problem still remains unresolved and is posed with very real questions such as, if guerrilla movements (or freedom fights, so to speak) should be branded as terrorism, why to exonerate the state when it acts violently to curb internal dissent? In Pakistan’s context, the question carries weight in the backdrop of state’s behavior in curbing ‘insurgency’ in Balochistan.

Quoting Grant Wardlaw, an act becomes a terrorist act if violence or threat of violence is used against a group to make it concede to specific political demands of the perpetrator. If so, we would end up calling freedom fighters as terrorists who fought imperialism in pre-partition united India. This conceptual ambiguity however is global, not specific to Pakistan. But the handicap is severe as it affects the measures to combat terrorism as well as making operable anti-terror legislation. The inability to criminalize terrorism in most cases causes failure in framing laws and coining policies, as well as in implementing anti-terror laws.

While USA, Australia, UK, and other western countries have taken drastic legislative measures to counter terrorism ever since 9/11, Pakistan severely lags behind despite numeracy of attacks and a long evolutionary history of anti-terrorism legislation. While Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was first to introduce the word ‘terrorist act’ in legislation, first Anti-Terrorist Act was promulgated under Mian Nawaz Sharif in 1997. Apparently, the ATA of 1997 was promulgated in response to sectarian threat especially the January 1997 bombing in District Courts Lahore by Shia militant organization Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqha-Ja’afria (TNFJ). What made the law controversial was its misuse to settle political scores. At the same time however, some Sunni sectarian organizations like Sipaah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) were selectively patronized despite ATA.

The political patronage of terrorists by some political parties for their petty electoral interests, as well as by the military establishment, has been responsible for impotency of anti-terror laws in Pakistan. The list of proscribed organizations has neither been made public officially, nor it is being implemented. Despite a public perception (quoted in many OpEds and writings) that LeT has been proscribed along with many others, Pakistan government has never come up with the clarification that it is NOT banned to date. Many proscribed organizations are allowed however, to operate and collect funds under changed names, the original identity of whom is no secret.

What is most perplexing is that despite being amply covered by the ATA 1997 and amendments of 2000, 2002 and 2005, the glorification of terrorists and terrorist organizations by media remains unchecked. Undeterred media space is still available to the representatives of proscribed organizations under the garb of a highly confused interpretation of ‘freedom of expression’. Those using violence against the state and the people, e.g., the Lal Masjid brigade including Abdul Aziz and his brother Rasheed Ghazi killed in a military operation against the Lal Masjid terrorists, are shamelessly glorified as ‘martyrs’ and ‘innocents’ by media and some political parties.

Moreover, no action could ever be seen on those using hate speech to radicalize people. Not only the militants are acquitted from courts on regular basis, these terrorists have unchallenged freedom to organize public rallies, amass funds and weapons (which they display unabashedly). Media has, in past, reported on front pages, extreme hate expressions by these militants in public rallies, like desecrating and burning the flags of USA, Israel and India. It seems a joke to even think about any legal action on such incidents by the state institutions.

That points to a serious problem of state’s will to counter the militant organizations’ influence on larger public, which ultimately is responsible for public confusions in criminalizing terrorism. Democratic governments cannot be expected to take stringent steps against militants if these militants enjoy public support. Religious political parties like Jama’at-e-Islami have openly manipulated this public support especially among youth through its students’ organization Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba. The Jama’at now has a competitor in Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) that radicalizes urban middle class youth using anti-imperial slogans against USA.

In addition to these larger problems of state’s patronage and absence of its will to counter militancy, a big problem exists in terms of implementing the laws as well as weak prosecution in cases of terrorism. Limited human & technical resources available to Police are the main hampering factor responsible for extremely weak investigation. Civilian intelligence agencies e.g. Intelligence Bureau remain resource starved and incapable to gather actionable intelligence using modern technological means. If USA wants a stable and terror-free Pakistan, it has to invest in civilian set-up rather than filling the military coffers non-stop. Many problems that Pakistan has been facing in countering terrorism are direct results of unquestioned monopoly of counter-terrorism efforts by the army. Conceptually, army should have no business in a turf that should be exclusively handled by the Interior Division, unless the later invites army’s support.

What further fans the terrorism ambers are the alleged deals between the military and the militants, for reasons described as ‘national interest’. One would, however, keep chewing nails while trying to make out how and why a nation would describe patronage of terrorism as its national interest. One of the prime examples of such tactics is Mulla Abdul Ghani Birader, most influential Afghan Taliban leader after Mulla Omar.  His arrest caused ripples among the US and Afghan authorities engaged in unilateral talks with Afghan Taliban, isolating Pakistan. In a joint operation by ISI and CIA, Birader was arrested ‘mistakenly’. However, when the air cleared between the ‘stakeholders’, he was sent back to “the safety of his people” clandestinely. Similar barter deals have become rampant in terror-theater of Waziristan and Afghanistan lately, while Pakistan Army decides to act as foreign office, and Foreign Office is reduced to an events management company for the army.

Things cannot be expected to change unless some difficult decisions are taken, however unpopular they might be with a radicalized Islamist population and an unbridled army. One relatively benign decision could be the activation of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) and the formation of a high powered parliamentary committee that reviews the legislation and associated implementation problems. The Committee could become key elected machinery to table legislative proposals, make policy recommendations and advise the government to take viable steps to empower prosecution, judiciary, police etc.

This committee should be a joint body of both the Houses of the Parliament and might be chaired by a strong parliamentarian. Its membership might include representatives of all parliamentary parties, with Chairs of Standing Committees on Defense, Interior and Law & Justice be included as ex-officio members. The involvement of three key committees related to national security, I.e., Law & Justice, Defence and Interior, would make the coordination possible. If not through NACTA, solid steps need to be taken for the consolidation of intelligence collected by different agencies – military or civilian. Rigorous measures should also be taken for providing foolproof security to witnesses, counsels and judges (over 8 people were killed associated with the cases on recently acquitted terrorist Malik Ishaq).

If Pakistan wants to come clean out of what its establishment calls a ‘negative international propaganda’, she has to act. Our insistence on not going in North Waziristan can be taken as an evidence of our possible complicity, but is also an open announcement that we have willingly withdrawn our sovereignty from the area in favor of militants capturing that area since long. Save Pakistan’s Integrity is a challenging project ahead for not only the government, but also the armed forces of Pakistan.