New Delhi: Michael A Sheehan, the author of Crush The Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism without Terrorizing Ourselves, has spent 30 years in the United States public service, most of it involved in counter terrorism, peacekeeping, police operations. He served at the White House on the National Security Council staff for George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. After the bombings of US embassies in East Africa, Sheehan was named Ambassador-at-Large for Counter Terrorism (1998-2000) and from 2003-2006, he was the Deputy Commissioner for Counter Terrorism at the New York Police Department. He is now a security consultant and spoke to Mint in New Delhi. Edited excerpts:
It is the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. How do you think the world has fared in its war against terror in this period?
Generally, we have made some great progress in some areas. And, we have a lot of work to do in a few others. The progress has been in the debilitation of al-Qaeda’s ability to attack strategically in the West. They have been severely debilitated. If you think that as part of 9/11 they attacked the United States three times in 37 months—two embassies in East Africa, USS Cohen and 9/11—between August of 1998 and September 2001; that is like hitting us once a year. And, now we are looking at seven years where they have been unable to attack the United States again. That is a major success for the United States and its allies around the world trying to defeat this organization. They have attacked London and Spain; two attacks on the West in seven years. That is pretty good. Bad news is that they are still very, very active in Afghanistan, the federal administered tribal areas of Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Qaeda has demonstrated tremendous resilience; a lot of numbers, car bombs, suicide bombers, technology. So, I still worry about them. Hopefully, we will be able to contain them in those regions where they still remain strong.
Countering terrorism: Michael A. Sheehan says an environment of hope and opportunity dissipates attraction for potential terrorists. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
But the rest of the world has not been so lucky?
No. It is up in Iraq; in the sub-continent it is still problematic or worse. It is obviously gotten worse in the Pakistan area, the Taliban is back in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka seems to be deteriorating. I am very concerned about the violent radical groups in India; very troubling. There needs to be an effort internationally to help with this threat. Obviously, all of these groups are local in nature, but have their international connections. That is where international community partners such as the United States has a role to play in assisting countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and India deal with these groups, have both a local and international dimension. So, we have to find ways to cooperate and change the momentum in the other direction.
Why do you think the West has succeeded and the rest of the world has failed so miserably in containing terror?
I don’t think that the rest of the world has failed miserably. You take a country like Indonesia, where, a year after 9/11, you had the Bali attacks and other attacks in Jakarta, it looked as though the al-Qaeda franchise in Indonesia was very strong. But actually, over the last several years they have been severely degraded. So, I think there are other areas in which there has been success; in the Islamic world, outside of the West. In Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf group has been pushed back; some other groups that we worried about after 9/11 don’t seem to be developing any strategic reach. They are still around, but do not seem to have developed much. So, I think it is actually, in pockets where there are conflicts, al-Qaeda seems to be able to continue to survive—whether it is in Iraq or in that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obviously, we need two approaches. One, we hope will stabilize the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. That will drain the swamp, a term I used to use prior to 9/11, to eliminate these sanctuaries. But, in the interim, while we try to resolve these insurgencies, we have to continue to go after the terrorist cells that operate in those areas. Their intention is to project strategically from those areas. So, it is more than just blowing up a column of soldiers or killing a soldier with a bicycle bomb or blowing up a base; they want to go back to bigger attacks against embassies, aircraft hijackings against major targets. That is their intention. And we have to keep the pressure on those organizations to prevent that or marginalize their ability to do that, while we tackle long term issues—insurgency, regional conflicts.
This nexus between ideology and terror, has it diminished marginally or has it gotten worse?
Counter-terrorism experts are looking at the fissures and the ideology within this radical sunni violent wing; it has always been a small number of people. And, right now there seems to be cracks within their ideology. And, they seem to be coming from within. I have always believed that is exactly what will happen to this movement. Because it is so devoid of any moral foundation that it is such a subversion of Islam that over time their inconsistencies and hypocrisy will lead to their downfall. And, that will come from within the Islamic world; and, we on the outside, such as United States and other Western countries, should be careful as to how we assist that process…lecturing for instance from the United States is not going to convince Ayman Al-Zawahiri to change his ideology.
What does the resurgent Taliban in the context of the political chaos in Pakistan mean?
It complicates everything for India, United States and Pakistan obviously. Right now Pakistan is in a very unstable political environment since the killing of Mrs Bhutto and the departure of Musharraf has left tremendous uncertainty in Pakistan. There is also some resentment amongst some sections within Pakistan about the American involvement there. So, it is going to complicate the ability of the United States to operate in that border area as it continues to go after the al-Qaeda. So, I think the United States will face a huge challenge in working with Pakistan as it goes through this political transition period to both assist Pakistan develop some democratic processes there, while at the same time continue a relentless focus on the terrorist front. I think it will be for India as well. As Pakistan goes through this difficult political period there will be opportunities for al-Qaeda to resurge even more. So, we will have to be very, very careful; vigilant during the months ahead.
You played a key role in New York in counter terror activities. Like India, it is a very multi-ethnic city. What are the takeaways for a country such as India from your experience?
There are two things that make New York city’s efforts successful. The first is the city itself. It is a city of immigrants. And, every immigrant has a chance in New York city. It is a very open, free wheeling economy. Most immigrants who are there, first or second generation, really see that there is an opportunity for them there to start a business, have a career, get their kids into school and really reach the American dream. And, that environment of hope and opportunity dissipates attraction of potential terrorists. Nevertheless even within that arena; some of the people I was monitoring were successful businessmen and students—had every opportunity, but were also filled with this hateful ideology. At the same time, you want to create an environment of hope and opportunity for people, never lose sight of the fact that there are those who still are product of this ideology that wants to strike out and kill. In that regard, you have to have a very aggressive counter-terrorism programme that finds these people and arrests them before they attack you. So, it is a combination of a welcoming environment and opportunity coupled with a very focused and relentless counter-terrorism strategy that finds people who are violent. This is the dual takeaway for any city or country.
You also talk about distinguishing between international terrorists and local insurgents. But, increasingly it has been found that there is a melding of the two. How do you address this?
There has always been. It is not new. Terrorists, who often wrap themselves around local insurgencies that have some degree of popular support, find that it provides them political and operational insulation. So, you have to distinguish between the two. Counter-insurgency ends with a political solution; insurgents disarm and join the process. In the case of terrorism I don’t believe there is a political solution. Those people have to be arrested or eliminated. Those on the fringe of a terrorist organization may quit and go back and join a normal lifestyle; but a hard-core terrorist like a bin-Laden or Zawahiri, you are not going to have a dialogue and they are not going back to the potato firms. So, I think you have to distinguish between insurgent groups that have whatever grievances that require political, military, economic, social, ethnic and religious solution, versus the terrorists who are killing civilians; within that you have to go after them with a relentless focus. So, you have to just sort out the two. It is not easy.
India has been beset by a combination of terrorism and insurgency. What will it take before it becomes part of the risk-assessment of India as an economic destination?
I am not sure it is hurting India that much fortunately. I think it potentially can. I think right now the trade relationship between India and the US are growing at a very steady rate. I remain optimistic on that. But if the security concerns can’t be turned around then it will start to erode that. Right now I don’t think that it is such a big issue that it is degrading our bilateral economic relationship. But the potential is there. So, I think it is really important that now India turn the corner and hopefully try to dissipate counter-insurgency and get after these terrorist networks.