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June - July 2004


Political News

Terrorism In Europe's Backyard

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


The British Metropolitan Police supported by MI5 , MI6 , SAS and Scotland Yard said to be 1000 in strength, on a lead from America's National Security Agency, in an early morning swoop at several locations in the south east of England on March 30, 2004 arrested 8 suspected militants of Pakistani origin holding British passports . The police action was code-named Operation Crevice. The Canadian Police later arrested 1 more in a joint operation. Half a ton of bomb-making material ammonium nitrate was found with these alleged terrorists. Allegedly, they had in their possession a plan of action to launch spectacular and synchronised terrorist attacks in public places in the capital .

If they had succeeded in their gruesome plan, it could have seen the tragic loss of innocent lives by the hundreds. These men aged between 17 and 32 are said to belong to a band of " disenchanted, disaffected and alienated " angry young Muslims whose numbers are on the rise in ethnic ghettos all over the world. According to a front page news-item in The Sunday Times dated April 4, 2004 terrorist chiefs based in Pakistan led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was said to have allegedly masterminded the failed bombing campaign.

Closely following these developments, the British Police reported on April 6, 2004 that they foiled a poison gas attack that could have led to Britain's worst ever terror attack. The Police claimed that the 9 suspected terror suspects arrested earlier were planning to blast the London Underground with a dirty bomb that would have included a highly toxic chemical called osmium tetroxide.

Britain's tryst with terror, mercifully avoiding more than one carnage thanks to a vigilant security service, followed soon after the Madrid massacre on March 11, 2004 which killed 191 innocent men, women and children and injured 1800. The pain in Spain has been described as the nation's very own 3/11 of 2004 resonant with America's 9/11 of 2001. It is beginning to look as if Spain's 3/11 is about to alter the European perception and response to terrorism from the status of complacency to resolute action. Only the focus will shift from Iraq to internal security within the European Union. Consider also the change in European popular level responses : In 2003, one million people came out on the streets of London to protest against the War on Iraq described by Prime Minister Tony Blair as an extension of the War on Terror, whereas in 2004 one day after the Madrid massacre, 11 million Spaniards came out on the streets across the nation to mourn the dead with great dignity and express solidarity with the on-going war against terror. William Rees-Mogg, a columnist in The Times, described the street protesters in London as Saddam Hussain's useful idiots.

The Madrid bombings were claimed by Osama bin Laden in a tape-recorded message broadcast on April 15, 2004 in two Arabic television channels Al Jazira and Al Arabiya to be the handiwork of the Al Qaida. The statement asserted that it was meant to punish Spain for sending troops to Iraq. The outrage was timed with an eye on influencing the outcome of the general elections in Spain. Senor Jose Maria Aznar who had committed Spain to partner America's War on Iraq and sent troops to Baghdad, lost the elections. In a surprise victory, Senor Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Party was catapulted to power . Hailing from the opposite political spectrum , Senor Zapatero wasted no time in declaring that he would withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq as early as possible.

Whatever the Spanish authorities may have to say in defence of their decision, the fact remains that Osama bin Laden will see Zapatero's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq as his victory . By announcing troop withdrawal, Spain's new rulers may have set a new trend in motion of providing by default encouragement to al Qaida and its franchised network to repeat Madrid-style terror tactics and influence the outcome of elections, as and when they are held, in other European countries and elsewhere. In the meantime in an effort to capitalise on the rift between the US and the European Union countries, bin Laden promised to call off terror attacks in Europe if the governments there withdrew their troops from Muslim countries. He added a warning that al Qaida's war on America and Israel would continue in full force .

This is the first time that the West, between America and Europe, is a divided house - the Atlantic is looking wider by the day - in its on-going war on Iraq. Also US President George W Bush's cart blanche support extended recently to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on his policies on the Jewish settlements of West Bank and the targeted assassinations of Hamas leaderships has many dissenters in Europe. The West stood as a solidly unified bloc during the Cold War and before that in WW1 and WW2 winning all of them decisively. Not this time, at least as of yet. Which is why the on-going war does not appear to be America's finest hour. It has also united the Shias and the Sunnis against their common enemy, transforming them into a formidable sub-conventional fighting force, low-tech though that it is.

The deteriorating security situation in Iraq is evidence of this trend. On the other hand , the one advantage that the US has, is the enormous technological superiority and overwhelming firepower. One can argue that these may be more effective in fighting conventional wars than in confronting insurgency and terrorism. Yet it will be a mistake to dismiss the value of high technology and overwhelming fire-power even in sub-conventional warfare. When the final balance sheet of victory and defeat is drawn, these will be the deciding factors more than anything else . There is a good chance that Osama's attempt to split the West through broadcasts like the one on April 15, 2004 could, driven by its own reverse logic, unite the West , which in due time may prove too much for radical Islam to contend with.

For the moment however, America's battle plan seems flawed in this war, even to the layman. Never before in military history, has a winning combatant self-created a bloody diversion for itself as the US has done by opening a second front in Iraq before completing its task of pacification in Afghanistan. The result is there for all to see. As the insurgency escalates and the security situation deteriorates, Iraq is stretching mighty America to its limits. Let us imagine, as the US gets increasingly militarily over-stretched chasing the terrorists and overexposes itself , two other Islamic nations like Iran and Syria - both deeply offended by the description 'axis of evil' - decide to militarily provoke the US. Washington is forced to respond. Will America with all its military might be able to confront four insurgencies at the same time ?

A critical question that should be causing much worry to all mankind is : Will a nuclear device ever be used in this West's war on terror or radical Islam's war on the West ? I am not thinking of a Hiroshima type bomb. What I am imagining is a situation when he West is persuaded by force of circumstance to use a theatre nuclear bomb in a limited operation on a large concentration of heavily armed and uncontrollable insurgents and terrorists. Alternatively the al Qaida assembles a dirty nuclear or biological bomb and lobs it on a bustling western city resulting in unimaginable civilian casualties. If so who among the combatants is likely to use the bomb first? When will the point of desperation arrive for either of the parties to launch such an attack? This is a worst case scenario and I would only pray that such an eventuality does not arise. But the possibilities should not be ruled out.

Turning to the present predicament, while nobody in the civilised society can dispute the need to fight the menace of terrorism with all the available resources, the downside is likely to be an unfortunate abridgement of the civil liberties and freedoms of the citizens, across the board. Make no mistake, it is already happening in the United States and considering their circumstances, who can honestly holding their hands on their hearts criticise them for what they are doing for their self preservation . Should this happen in Europe, as it is looking increasingly likely, the bigger losers will be ethnic minorities. What I fear most is that some of the human rights gains, for no fault of theirs , may perhaps be eroded in some measure. It is therefore vitally important and a matter of great urgency for them to stand up and speak out against this self-defeating rise of terrorism at our door steps which must stop, here and now .

The rising phenomenon of the terrorist threat in Britain and elsewhere in Europe will have their impact across the communities. There is a need for serious analysis and understanding. They have produced at least three mile-stones in the road map on the War on Terror . These are of great significance to our daily lives . I will deal with them below :

The first mile-stone - Appointment of an EU Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator.

Quick on the heels of the Madrid massacre, the European Union, sinking their differences, rushed headlong to appoint a Counter-Terrorism Czar with the responsibility of co-ordinating the European Union's anti-terrorism drive on behalf of all the member nations . This would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Europe's war on terror may have begun only now and in right earnest.

The second mile-stone - Introspection within the Muslim Community

A news-item in the various national newspapers in Britain on April 1, 2004 reported that a letter was written on March 31, 2004 by Mr Iqbal Sacranie , Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain to 1000 Mosques urging the Imams to co-operate with the law enforcement agencies and help in clearing the name of Islam from the taint of terrorism, represented a triumph of hope over despair . Mr Iqbal Sacranie must be a very brave man to have taken up the cudgels and appeal directly to the peace-loving majority among the British Muslims to be vigilant against the fanatical fringe , described as " criminals ", who commit atrocious barbaric acts of terrorism .

The true value of Mr Sacranie's intervention can be measured by the fact that he has opened, at a critical moment, a new chapter of debate and introspection within the Muslim community which is exactly where the process of reform in Islam should start.

Unless the large majority of the peace-loving section of the Muslim community in Britain come forward and identify themselves with the West's war on terror, the fear is that a time may come, in the not too distant future, when the distinction between moderates and fanatics may get blurred and the entire community may be looked upon with suspicion. One should not forget the historical experience of WW2 when in the US people of Japanese origin, across the board, were rounded up and put behind bars merely on suspicion that they could be fifth-columns helping the Japanese Imperial Army. It is already an acknowledged fact that the number of Muslim prisoners in British jails has now outnumbered all other ethnic groups which must be a matter of much concern to the community leaders. In this background, it was heart-warming to see on April 13, 2004 in print a Letter to the Editor in The Times from a group of highly qualified Muslim doctors condemning terrorism. There are also other ways open to the moderate sections among the Muslims, to take advantage of, to distance themselves from the fanatics.

I believe that there is the need to adopt a holistic approach to the problem of terrorism of radical Islam. It cannot remain limited only to the political and social levels and military responses. There is some scope to address the issues at the theological levels also.

The full version of this article is available in the print edition.

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