‘Al Qaeda continues to function from Pakistan’

Europe has been on high alert for some time now over increased fears of terror attacks.

Europe has been on high alert for some time now over increased fears of terror attacks. According to Western security officials, al Qaeda may be plotting attacks in Europe similar to the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora and Shruti Saxena of Zeenews.com, Dr Ajai Sahni, a counter-terrorism expert, discusses the Europe terror plot, al Qaeda’s strategy, and India’s preparedness to tackle terror attacks.

Dr Ajai Sahni is founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management.

Q: Reports claim a group of al Qaeda terrorists trained in Pakistani camps and assisted by India’s most wanted man – Dawood Ibrahim – are planning 26/11-style attack on German Parliament. How grave is the threat?

Dr Sahni: Reports indicate that two al Qaeda operatives have arrived in Berlin to attack Parliament. More intelligence was passed on to Germany`s Federal Police by the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in early November. The FBI warnings claimed Dawood Ibrahim had dispatched two operatives to stage an attack in Germany. The two men, the FBI said, were due to travel through the United Arab Emirates, holding travel documents allowing them to enter Europe.

Reports indicate that the German Federal Police Office (BKA) had received a telephone call from a man living abroad who sounded as though he feared for his life and said he "wanted out of the terrorist scene”. The man was said to have called for a third time on November 15 and told officials that a small group of terrorists wanted to conduct a 26/11-style raid on the Reichstag (Parliament) building in Berlin among other targets. However, the source said the pair had not yet procured the submachine guns, automatic rifles and explosives they needed. Another four volunteers – including a German, a Turk, a North African and another man of unknown identity – were said to be in training camps run by al Qaeda and were planning a second attack in February or March.

Meanwhile, the glass dome on top of the Reichstag building has been closed to visitors till further notice. Thomas de Maiziere, the German interior minister, has put the country on high alert, stating that Germany faced the threat of al Qaeda terrorist attacks at some point in November 2010. Significantly, de Maiziere had played down the threat of 26/11-style attacks when Britain and Germany were the focus of a similar threat in October 2010. That threat was sparked by the interrogation of German informant Ahmed Sidiqi, who said he had met al Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri in Pakistan, who boasted that he had already sent al Qaeda cells to Britain and Germany to launch 26/11-style attacks. Sidiqi and 10 other militants from Hamburg had set off for the tribal areas of Pakistan in March 2009. Four were said to be part of a plan to return to launch attacks but it is unclear if this is the same group reported over the weekend. Meanwhile, the German security services have cancelled all leave and launched high visibility armed patrols by officers with sub-machineguns at railways and airports.

Though, Joerg Ziercke, head of the BKA, said they had "no firm lead on a specific location of a potential attack, or names or groups”, adding, potential targets could be "highly symbolic places, buildings, venues" and "we cannot yet make connections to specific threats on specific locations or type of attacks," the developments are indicative of the fact that the threat is potent. German authorities have rightly initiated preventive and proactive measures.

Q: The Yemen-based group ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ recently revealed that the group’s aim is to inflict "a thousand cuts" on the West at low cost. What do you read out of this new strategy of al Qaeda?

Dr Sahni: The ‘thousand cuts’ strategy has been a recurrent theme in al Qaeda documents and rhetoric since shortly after 9/11. This strategy has been reiterated in a detailed account of the failed parcel bomb plot of October 2010, when al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen disclosed, on November 20, that the operation had cost just USD 4,200 to mount, and was intended to disrupt global air cargo systems, reflecting a new strategy of low-cost attacks to inflict broad economic damage. The group, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, released to militant websites a new edition of its English-language magazine, Inspire, devoted entirely to explaining the technology and tactics of the attack, in which toner cartridges packed with explosives were intercepted in Dubai and Britain. The printers containing the cartridges had been sent from Yemen’s capital, Sana`a, to out-of-date addresses for two Chicago synagogues. The attack failed as a result of a tip from Saudi intelligence, which provided the tracking numbers for the parcels, sent via United Parcel Service and FedEx. But the Qaeda magazine said the fear, disruption and added security costs made what it called Operation Hemorrhage a success. It mocked the notion that the plot was a failure, saying it was the work of “less than six brothers” over three months. “This supposedly ‘foiled plot’...will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures. That is what we call leverage.” The magazine said it had adopted a “strategy of a thousand cuts”. “To bring down America we do not need to strike big... In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect.”

`Operation Hemorrhage` is definitely going to force the Western countries as well as other countries facing terror (threat) to spend a lot more on enhancing their security apparatus. Governments the world over will have to look for new technologies and gadgets to counter potential terrorist plots. The more sophisticated gadgets the terrorists use in their operations, the higher will be the expenses of the Governments to procure better preventive technologies. This will eventually shape elements of the world economy, even as nations struggle with presently difficult economic conditions.

Q: Top American officials recently said that al Qaeda might have depleted organisationally but the group has shown "resilience". The group’s regional affiliates have been involved in training new recruits and launching attacks, making the whole situation much more complex. How should the international community prepare itself to counter this threat?

Dr Sahni: First of all, it will be unwise to believe that al Qaeda has weakened. Its top leadership is largely intact and continues to function with a fair measure of freedom from Pakistan. Al Qaeda is continuously restructuring its relations with a widening range of affiliates, even as the core group continues to design focused operations to target the West. The arrest or death of a few second and middle rung leaders has not altered this. Indeed, al Qaeda has now taken over a lead role in directing or at least inspiring a multiplicity of Islamist terrorist groups across the world. The organisational and operational structure of these groups has now come to overlap to such an extent that it is difficult to distinguish their boundaries. Ilyas Kashmiri, for instance, while he remains the chief of the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI), is now also designated a top ‘commander’ of al Qaeda, and is reported to be affiliated with the Taliban as well. It is no longer possible to assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual organisations independently. It is, rather, their collective operational capacities that are critical to any threat assessment.

The first element of international response must deal with the canker of Pakistan, which has become the source and hub of global Islamist terror. The international community will also have to build an unflinching consensus to target and neutralise all terrorist groups, irrespective of their ideological or political pretensions, their state affiliations, and whether or not particular countries are directly threatened by particular groups. The nonsense about “one man’s enemy is another man’s freedom fighter” has to be rejected once and for all, and this scourge must be fought unitedly and globally. Any state or non-state grouping that supports terrorist organisations must be treated as an international pariah, and must be subjected to the harshest penalties possible. It is crucial, in this context, to recognise that non-state grouping would have very little capacity to engage in catastrophic or large-scale terrorism if they did not enjoy at least some state protection and patronage.

Q: Do you think the governments across the world have done enough to secure their countries from an attack? Two years after 26/11, do you think India is prepared to tackle such an attack?

Dr Sahni: Developed countries like the US and nations in Europe have done a great deal to safeguard their countries, with massive increases in spending on internal security, and the acquisition of dramatically augmented capabilities. At the policy level, however, there are glaring shortcomings, and expediency and the opportunism of purported ‘national interests’ continue to dictate responses. There is little coherence and only rudimentary or sporadic counter-terrorism cooperation across countries. There is a complete absence of consensus on the treatment of state sponsors of terrorism.

The response in India has been entirely incoherent, contradictory, and abysmally inadequate. All that we have to show, after decades of terrorism, and two years after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, are a handful of purely cosmetic initiatives such as the setting up of a tiny National Investigation Agency, a few National Security Guard (NSG) ‘hubs’ in the top metropolises, and a few tiny and ill-equipped State Police anti-terrorist units. These will have no impact whatsoever on the country’s vulnerabilities to terrorist attack, or on response capabilities. As for the substantive proposals on improvements to general policing, training, building of necessary force strength and intelligence capabilities, national database systems on terrorism, and core counter-terrorism technological acquisitions, most of these are bogged down in political procrastination, bureaucratic obstruction and systemic constraints. At the policy level, we have simply failed to evolve any coherent policy structure of response to Pakistan, and our entire arsenal is exhausted by the vacillation between ‘talks’ and ‘no talks’.

Q: The Lashkar-e-Toiba has emerged as the next big threat to the world after al Qaeda. Do you agree with this? If yes, what sort of action should be taken to crush this organisation?

Dr Sahni: The threat of the LeT is augmenting continuously. Within the current environment, however, it is incorrect to make individual assessments of terrorist organisations. LeT increasingly combines with various other terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, to secure its operational capabilities, and it is the combined strength of these groupings that is the real threat. This threat is certainly growing globally.

In any strategy of response, it must first be recognised that the core of the Islamist terrorist threat today is located in Pakistan, and thrives on state sponsorship and benign state neglect. It is impossible to fight terrorism only at its points of delivery – on Indian, Afghan or Western soil. Terrorism must be neutralised at its source and fountainhead, and neutralising the structure of state support for terrorism in Pakistan is the first and necessary step in this direction. Little is being done to this end, and terrorism can, consequently, be expected to continue.

Beyond this, there is a continuous range of counter-terrorism measures, initiatives and capacities that need to be expanded to deal with the operational infrastructure of terrorism across the world.

Q: Is it naïve to dream of a terror-free world?

Dr Sahni:As long as the moral and intellectual ambivalence to terrorism persists, and as long as the world continues to give credence to a range of ‘false sociologies’ such as the ‘root causes’ argument, and fails to respond effectively and in a focused manner to the actual processes and organisations involved in extremist mobilisation, terrorist recruitment and operational deployment, a terror-free world will remain a mirage. There has been a great deal of rhetoric about ‘zero tolerance’ of terrorism, but the reality is, most states and societies remain indulgent towards, and justify, certain patterns of terrorism, while selectively condemning others. A global consensus may remain elusive, but the liberal democracies of the world must realise that they are the worst threatened by this menace, and must unite to fight and defeat it. Even if they do so, it will be decades before a terror-free world can even begin to look possible.

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