Terrorism Update
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K.P.S. Gill

We live in a violent age, and terrorism is a phenomenon of extraordinary, extreme and unsettling violence. Yet, I recall the words of the poet: “Why do you weep, good sirs? The earth is old, and there is not a single spot, but has in its dust, the dust of man…”

Violence has been with us since the beginnings of history, and so have the instrumentalities of terror. What is it then, about the phenomenon of terrorism today that provokes such an urgency of response? Why do we gather from the world over, transcending all concerns and considerations of race, of religious affiliations, of nationality, even of strategic advantage and historical grievance, to discover how we can contain and counter this scourge?

The truth is, terrorism has emerged as the gravest threat, not only to individual nations, not, indeed, just to the entire civilized world – as is finally acknowledged now – but, possibly, even to the long-term survival of the human race itself. Terrorism has become the new face of warfare in the present era, and warfare in this century has equipped itself with weapons of limitless destruction. These weapons and their source technologies are, of course, still substantially within the control of stable nation states, but recent events undermine all complacency on this count. We are now very close to the threshold of access by terrorists – or by rogue nations allied with them – to weapons of mass destruction that can draw nations into ‘total wars’, that can plunge entire continents into disorder, and that could send the whole world hurtling towards an oft-prophesied Armageddon.

The trajectory of terror over the past decades has been startling. I recall the early years of terrorism in Punjab, and an incident in which eight militants, armed with revolvers, opened fire in a marketplace. At the end of half an hour of shooting, they had killed under a dozen people. But, when the AK-47 entered the conflict, an exchange lasting no more than a few seconds could inflict a greater loss of life. On September 11, 2001, however, we saw a succession of incidents – incidents in which not weapons, but civilian aircraft were employed – that snuffed out some 4,000 lives in a single co-ordinated series of attacks that lasted under an hour and a half. The subsequent postal attacks involving Anthrax – and their sheer dispersal across so many countries in different parts of the globe – while they failed to inflict major loss of life, do underline the potential dangers that could arise if more active and potent biological weapons fell into the hands of individuals and organisations who shared similar motives, and an equal intensity of hatred and contempt for the lives of others.

How did this come about? Any objective assessment would force us to the conclusion that we are all culpable – this terror has been seeded and nurtured under the umbrella, at best, of our own benign neglect and, at worst, has profited from our active succour and support. In my own engagements with counterterrorism, I was confronted with many situations where intelligence agencies of many Western countries knew far more than our own police or intelligence formations did about the activities of terrorists in the Indian Punjab, and especially of their support structures abroad; but, far from sharing this information, they constantly obstructed our efforts by diplomatic denials and entirely unreasonable demands for ‘evidence’ – and, irrespective of what was provided, the evidence was never enough. This has been a persistent characteristic of the discourse of terrorism, where disputes over definition – the constant refrain, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ – and the insatiable demands for ‘evidence’ become devices, not of an honest exertion to arrive at the truth, or of an effort to protect the rights of the innocent, but stratagems to shield the guilty, and to manipulate terrorist violence to strategic or political advantage.

It is interesting in this context that, in the wake of the September 2001 attacks in America, it was precisely these demands for evidence and for clarifications on what constituted ‘terrorism’ that were most persistently voiced by those sympathetic to the terrorist cause. More significantly, even after the evidence piled up, taking the issue beyond the realm of doubt, even, indeed, after the world had seen video tapes of Osama bin Laden boasting about the brilliance of his planning of the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centres, these voices continued to bleat away without let, insisting that the evidence was fabricated, that the tapes were doctored, that there was a Jewish-American conspiracy to demonise Islam, that – incredibly – the Americans and the Jews themselves had engineered the attacks.

The problem is that an unyielding moral ambivalence has persisted over the years regarding the character of acts of terror. This ambivalence has, of course, undergone some dilution since ‘9/11’, but it is yet to disappear in its entirety from the international discourse on the subject. While the crude partisanship of unending demands for evidence and absolute universality in definitions, and of the ludicrous ‘conspiracy theories’ that abound are easy to counter and dismiss, there are far more insidious expressions of this ethical ambiguity. The most powerful and tenacious line of intellectual reasoning, in this context, is the ‘root causes’ thesis that has embedded itself in the liberal-democratic and ‘human rights’ discourse on terrorism. Much of this discourse is, of course, motivated – orchestrated by front organisations of terrorist groups who seek to exploit the instrumentalities of democracy to destroy democracy. Some of it, however, is well-intentioned, but simply and essentially misconceived.

Broadly stated, the ‘root causes’ theory suggests that terrorism is directly ‘caused’ by certain social and economic conditions of deprivation, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, legitimate political grievances, historical wrongs, etc., and that no counter-terrorism initiative has any possibility of success unless these ‘root’ grievances are redressed. There is no empirical basis to this theory, and it is largely supported on the ‘authority’ of various streams of Marxist and revolutionary literature, of anecdotage, and on the personal and intuitive interpretations and observations of its proponents. Indeed, the limited empirical research that has, in fact, been carried out on the subject, has failed repeatedly to establish any consistent correlation between these various ‘root’ social and economic conditions and the resort to terrorist or other patterns of mass violence.1 The root causes theory is, in fact, evidently contrafactual even on a general overview of the available data and information. It reflects an ‘ivory tower’ approach to the analysis of conflicts, high levels of intellectual indolence and neglect, and the obdurate refusal by its advocates to actually engage with the realities of various conflicts on the ground.

Its impact, however, has been extremely unfortunate. While it is intended by its more honest adherents to provide a basis for constructive and humane policies and practices of conflict resolution, it has progressively been translated into a justification and an alibi for terrorism. Within countries, it has established itself as an obstructive argument against any effective counter-terrorism policies, initiatives or legislation based on the use of legitimate force by the state. Internationally, it has undermined co-operation to contain and destroy expanding

terrorist networks, to extradite and bring known terrorists to trial, and to penalise state sponsors of terrorism.

As is increasingly evident, where any honest effort is made to resolve the problem – and not merely to exploit existing loopholes in definition and procedure – it is entirely possible to arrive at requisite definitions, criteria of evidence and common grounds of action against terrorists. As with all human affairs, our conceptual framework on these matters will have to be tentative, and no ‘absolutes’ can be decreed for all time. Nevertheless, the growing international consensus on this has been clearly reflected in more than one resolution of the United Nations. Thus, the United Nations’ Declaration on ‘Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism’:

  • Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed;

  • Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them;

  • Calls upon all states to adopt further measures in accordance with the relevant provisions of international law, including international standards of human rights, to prevent terrorism and to strengthen international co-operation in combating terrorism.2 The clarity and strength of this language, as of the subsequent anti-terrorism

Resolutions,3 including those passed after ‘9/11’ are, however, misleading. The ‘Global War against Terrorism’ is yet to crystallise into workable institutional, procedural and legislative structures, both in the international arena, and within nations. The US has, of course, initiated a massive, unprecedented diplomatic effort to mobilise world opinion in favour of this ‘Global War’, and its ‘Coalition against Terrorism’ now includes a number of ideologically disparate nations – some of which are and have been open conflict over extended periods of time. The operative structures of this ‘Coalition’, moreover, are a series of unconnected bilateral Joint Working Groups between the US and, separately, each of these countries. The ‘Coalition’ is, consequently, not integrated into a multi-layered

structure that creates a space for complex exchanges of information or cooperative action between its various members, but is essentially held together by the ‘hub’ of current US interests. Participants in this Coalition, moreover, are bound by nothing more than their commitment – which is often little more than a rhetorical stance and, at least in some cases, even this has been secured through coercive diplomatic efforts. There are, on the one hand, no binding international conventions on the basis of which certain actions – such as the extradition or punishment of terrorists – can be mandated. Even if such conventions were to be ratified by some nations in the future, it would take substantial time, perhaps years, to bring national legislation in line with the requirements of such conventions and to pass enabling legislation. In the meanwhile, the co-operative effort against terrorism would have to rely exclusively on the varying intentions of the participating states.

The difficulty is intensified as a result of the very wide divergence between legislative and judicial systems and standards of policing and law and order management in various countries. The deterrence of any crime depends overwhelmingly on the certainty and swiftness with which it invites punishment. Unfortunately, terrorism does not even find mention on the statute books of many countries, terrorists often tread the murky ground between crime and politics, and there is neither universality nor consensus on the appropriate legal, political and security response to terrorism. India, for instance, is among the worst cases of such ambiguity, with terrorists, on the one hand, being brought under the scope of the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance and, on the other, being invited as parties to negotiations with special envoys of the country’s Prime Minister. Until such confusions are entirely cleared, and the political community – national and international – adopts a completely uncompromising stand against terrorists, and translates this stand into policy, legislation and practice, the war against terrorism will continue to be waged under an extreme handicap to the forces charged with the defence of democracy and civilisation.

There is, consequently, urgent need for democracies to examine the ideological basis of their constitutional orders, and to come to terms with the fact that the freedoms and rights, they have been instituted to defend, are entirely inconsistent with the use of terrorist violence on any grounds, and that harsh punitive measures and narrowly targeted use of force are necessary and integral to the responses mandated by the challenge that terrorism constitutes to the future of pluralistic and liberal societies. Such an examination cannot last forever, and it must be carried out, and produce the requisite transformations, within a timeframe that has been imposed by the pace of events, and by the impatience, the dynamism and the contempt for democracy and due process that are the source and strength of terrorist violence.


  1. For one – perhaps the only – such study on terrorism in Punjab, see, Harish K. Puri, Paramjit Singh Judge and Jagrup Singh Sekhon, Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality, New Delhi: Har Anand Publications, 1999. For international empirical research on causal elements in other patterns of mass violence, see for instance, Bingham Powell, Contemporary Democracies: Participation, stability and violence, Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1982; Matthew Krain, “Contemporary Democracies Revisited: Democracy, Political Violence and Event Count Models,” Comparative Political Studies, Seattle, April 1988,

  2. A/RES/51/210, 16 January 1997, Fifty-first session Agenda item 151, RESOLUTION ADOPTED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY [on the report of the Sixth Committee (A/51/ 631)] 51/210. ‘Measures to eliminate international terrorism’. gopher:// ga/recs/51/RES51-EN.210

  3. See, for instance, UN Security Council Resolution No. 1373 (2001) on Suppressing the Financing of Terrorism and Improving International Cooperation, Adopted on September 28, 2001; UN Security Council Resolution No. 1368 (2001) Condemning the Terrorist attacks on the US, Adopted on September 12, 2001; UN Security Council Resolution on Freezing the finances of the Taliban and Ban on flights to Taliban-held territory October 15, 1999. South Asia Terrorism Portal; Terror Tuesday; United Nations;





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