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A Loss of Direction

Reprinted with permission from South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 3, No. 8, September 6, 2004.

As the third year since the catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001, in USA approaches completion, with much of the world sliding, once again, slowly but steadily into a torpor of denial, terrorism has once again issued multiple reminders over the past weeks that liberal democracies everywhere are under siege.

The worst of shocks were reserved for Russia, where Chechen terrorists, apparently aided by a number of Arab nationals, took over 1,200 persons hostage – a majority of them children – in a school in Beslan. The bloody dénouement of this operation left 338 dead, including at least 155 children. But this was only the worst of what Russia had already been subjected to in the preceding week: two Russian passenger planes were blown up, apparently by Chechen women suicide bombers, killing 89 persons on August 24. Then, on August 31, another suspected woman suicide bomber blew herself up, along with 10 commuters, at a Moscow subway.

In Iraq, on August 31, terrorists of the Ansar-al-Sunna slaughtered 12 Nepali hostages in cold blood, because they were “working for Jews and the Christians”. A number of other hostages of various nationalities continue to be under threat in the custody of a variety of Iraqi groups, including two French journalists, who they have threatened to execute if the French Government fails to lift its ban on headscarves for Muslim schoolgirls.

And so it has been over the past three years, with some tactical and operational variations. Americans, Spaniards, the French, Italians, Russians, Indians, Iraqis, Philippinos, Afghans, even Pakistanis and Saudis – the terrorists’ now-ambivalent allies and supporters – , along with others of various nationalities, have repeatedly been targeted over the past three years by Islamist extremists hell-bent on imposing their fantastical vision of a ‘cleansed’ and ‘Islamised’ world order.

The liberal democratic response, however, has been, at best, tentative and inconsistent. Indeed, the pattern of Islamist terrorist attacks is itself at least partially responsible for this. While targets have been attacked across the world, there has been no attempt to engineer simultaneous attacks in a wide range of countries. While part of the reason for this would be purely operational, it is also the case that this has resulted in a substantial fragmentation of responses. There is clearly a deliberate, calibrated terrorist strategy, relying on a systematic exploitation of the ideological divisions, the historical faultlines and the geopolitical tensions in the free world – everything, in fact, that creates obstacles to the emergence of a concerted and coordinated global counter-terrorism response.

These multiple tensions within the loose global counter-terrorism coalition remain visible even at moments of the greatest crisis and tragedy. In the aftermath of the terrible catastrophe at Beslan, at least some expressions of shock and condolence – most notably, those emanating from Europe – were qualified by entirely inappropriate riders seeking ‘explanations’ from the Russian Government about how such a tragedy ‘was allowed to happen’. Some commentators dwelt on the ‘root causes’ and ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Chechens at a time when all such political issues should have been clearly and unambiguously subordinated to the unqualified condemnation of the enormity and inhumanity that had far transgressed any conceivable borders of explicable violence. It is useful, in this context, to recall that Chechen separatism and terror continues to receive ‘diplomatic support’ and ‘moral sympathy’ at a number of international, particularly including European, fora, as well as a substantial measure of material support from sympathetic state sources that largely remain outside the ambit of the international condemnation of the ‘sponsorship of terrorism’.

Within this context, it is useful to note that no single country in the world has, in fact, any concrete idea, policy or strategy on how it would deal with the kind of mass hostage situations – particularly those targeting ‘sensitive’ segments of the population, such as children, women, or very important personalities – on the pattern of the Beslan Operation. For those who believe that it is too soon after Beslan to expect state institutions to have devised an operational policy of response, it is useful to recall that this is far from the first hostage crisis at this scale, and Russia itself has witnessed several in the past. Among the more prominent of these, on October 25, 2002, Chechen rebels took 800 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. All 41 attackers were shot dead, and 129 hostages also died as a result of the anaesthetic used to immobilize the terrorists. Earlier, on January 9, 1996, militants seized as many as 3,000 hostages in Kizlyar. They were eventually attacked by Russian troops, and at least 78 persons were killed. On June 14, 1995, rebels took 2,000 hostages in Budyonnovsk. In this case, Russia eventually negotiated the release of hostages in exchange for the rebels’ escape, but more than 100 persons were killed during the crisis.

Most Governments across the world would respond to comparable crises with hysteria, despair and confusion, adding to the natural risks attending such calamities. It is, consequently, imperative that hard answers now be defined for the many questions of morality, policy and tactics raised by such horrific possible scenarios. A clear, detailed, unequivocal and unremitting policy for dealing with hostage situations needs to be defined at the earliest, and this must secure the sanction, if not of the entire ‘international community’, at least of those within it who are committed to the ‘war against terrorism’. Regrettably, the struggle against terrorism needs an ideological commitment far beyond the opportunism and political expediency that currently dominates the policies of most countries.

It is imperative, moreover, to revaluate our understanding of the ‘war on terror’. This struggle cannot simply be conceptualised as a military operation, and has far deeper and more complex dimensions, which require inputs across a wide range of non-military parameters. Unfortunately, the world has substantially failed to recognize these parameters, and existing institutional responses, sanctions and penalties are simply not enough.

The reasons for this failure are not, by any means, rooted in the impossibility of the task. Indeed, responses are not all that difficult to work out. The tragedy is, most of the ‘experts’ currently working in this field are mere academics, desk officers, policy makers and politicians, most of whom have little real experience of the field, and who jealously guard their ‘turf’ against hard practitioners of counter-terrorism strategy and tactics. The examples of the miscalculations and misadventures of these doctrinaire ‘experts’ are too numerous to be listed and can, indeed, be multiplied ad infinitum. What is needed, however, is to evolve systems within and between countries that will optimize coordinated responses on a day-to-day operational basis. It is critical to realize, today, that we are in fact confronted with the challenge of policing a menace that is dispersed across the globe, and the formalism of international treaties, bilateral agreements, and the joint working group mechanisms that have been hammered out between some countries, remain mired in legal and diplomatic formalism, and are simply not working. Unless we develop instrumentalities beyond these paper exercises, we will only see horrifying events like 9/11 and the Beslan tragedy multiply in ever-widening areas of the world. Any country that believes that it is safe, or that it can exempt itself through policies designed to appease or conciliate the terrorists is simply deluding itself.