The myth of zero tolerance

The myth of zero tolerance

The first of this two-part series described how the Internet and social media have exacerbated the effectiveness of terror. This phenomenon is not just an extension of terrorism’s physical manifestation in another domain. Instead, it is a paradigm shift in the way terrorists have subverted the global network to wreak havoc.

Surprisingly, many of us participate in this network. At times, we even facilitate the proliferation of organized crime and terrorism. Shocked? Read on.

It is estimated that over 10% of all global trade is illicit. This includes fakes of Louis Vuitton bags, Gucci shoes, Rolex watches, famous apparel labels, as well as pirated movies, software and music. Most people think of this as a harmless “no-loss" crime.

But illicit trade doesn’t end there. Over 10% of all medicines consumed in the world are estimated to be spurious. This figure is 25% in India. More than 37% of auto parts sold here are counterfeit. Narcotics, weapons, conflict diamonds, endangered wildlife, human body parts and sex slaves are traded illicitly all over the world. The Internet has multiplied the market reach of such goods across continents through a sophisticated supply chain that rides on legitimate business conduits.

The splicing of legitimate and illegitimate businesses manifests itself in the laundering of billions of dollars generated by illicit trade. This dirty money hops across countries and accounts, and eventually funnels into legitimate businesses, many of which operate as fronts to facilitate the laundering process.

Illicit trade has swollen into organized crime at a global scale. Like any global trade, it has a network of intermediaries who procure the contraband from the source, and transport it through various conduits until it retails to the end customer. Coca leaves harvested in Columbia are refined in Mexico and transported to streets in the US and Europe using sophisticated delivery channels that include aircraft, high- speed boats and even submarines. Along the way, border guards, customs and other law enforcement entities have been incorporated into the business, so much so that even large contraband seizures hardly dent the street price. This indicates the multitude of channels through which these pass, and their tenacity.

Illegal trade has become so pervasive that their retail markets often operate in open view. Every city has its own illegal goods street, which can be found in tourist guidebooks. There are other less known but equally accessible markets—Dara Adam Khel in Pakistan manufactures thousands of weapons, from AK-47s to anti-aircraft guns. It is ironic that while the US attacked Iraq on suspicions of producing weapons of mass destruction, A.Q. Khan—the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme—was peddling blueprints and nuclear technology to Iraq, Libya and North Korea.

This problem becomes increasingly menacing when the conduits that service illicit goods are used for more sinister cargo such as weapons, explosives, classified know-how and physical transportation of terrorists.

A future terrorist threat scenario could leverage the illicit supply chain that stretches across continents. It could source explosives from one country, the technical expertise to manufacture dirty nuclear devices from another, ship the bomb in one of the millions of containers that criss-cross the globe, land it in ports that check only a fraction of the cargo, and move it through the lattice of corrupt officials right to the target. This supply chain that transports thousands of smuggled goods or drugs can easily carry high explosives with impunity.

There is no such thing as mild corruption. Terrorists know this Achilles heel in the system too well. The current scale of organized crime would have been impossible without the connivance of officials and the state machinery. In such a scenario, identifying and intercepting terror-related consignments or transactions, among other contraband, is like looking for a needle in a stack of needles.

In 2002, Chechen terrorists killed over 200 people at a Moscow theatre. A year later, they massacred over 350 people, including 186 children, at a school in Beslan. In both these instances, the heavily armed terrorists allegedly drove in minivans all the way from Chechnya, bribing their way through checkpoints. It is also estimated that a high degree of corruption among security personnel was instrumental in facilitating the bombing of the Moscow airport last month.

Closer home, in Mumbai, powerful blasts killed over 250 people and injured 1400 others in March 2003, making it the most devastating single-day attack ever. This operation was masterminded by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), using notorious gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s resources to transport 3,000kg of RDX used in the blasts, and his henchmen for executing the attacks. Over a hundred people were convicted, of which the prosecution sought death penalty for 44.

Those convicted included two landing agents, five customs officials and two policemen. The prosecution alleged that these individuals had facilitated the landing of the explosives despite knowing the deadly nature of the consignment, in return for bribes.

Societies have to decide when enough is enough and start making paradigm shifts of their own to address this issue in a proactive, systematic and structured manner. It is impossible to have a zero tolerance response to just terrorism in an environment that is tolerant of every other crime.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Comments are welcome at