TERRORISTS operate in small groups, at times individually, and can blend in with the masses. Unconstrained by time and space, they can pick and choose between a wide range of soft targets.
They can network with others of their ilk and are often supported by forces, domestic and foreign, inimical to the state or its system.
With all these assets, and easy access to modern technology and means of communication, the terrorist of today can be very flexible and evasive.
Over time, intelligence agencies like the ISI and the IB may get a reasonably accurate big picture, but real-time information to track down the perpetrators is hard to get. (The special branch of police with its countrywide presence could have helped but has long been ignored.)
In rare cases when we do get ‘actionable intelligence’, clandestine means are best suited to nab the culprits. Such operations, however, require immaculate planning, deliberate execution, and plenty of patience.
Even when successful, they eliminate only some individuals but not the malaise that motivates them to commit acts of terrorism.
To tackle the root causes, besides political and administrative tools, sustained civic action is needed. Assuming that we know how to go about it, it would still be a long drawn process.
The problem is that when a major terrorist attack occurs, or a series of them as it happens here every now and then, people want a rapid response.
The state then has to do something, or at least be seen to be doing something.
The principles of counterterrorism (CT) are then short-circuited — in every country. Let’s take our own example.
North Waziristan had to be depopulated because the militants were too deeply embedded in the people (too bad that Karachi and Lahore cannot be evacuated).
Indeed there was no way to ensure that the culprits would not slip out and live to fight another day. When they did, again something had to be done.
So we cracked down on the Afghan refugees. For four decades we had hosted millions of them. Besides serving a humanitarian cause, it was an investment in a neighbourly relationship.
But now that we were running out of easy options, throwing them out happened to be doable. And although the terrorists — if any — amongst them would have relocated in good time, the powers that be could still claim ‘firm action’.
We may criticise America, Israel and India for using massive force against population centres that produce ever more militants, but when bombing our tribal areas, even the mention of ‘collateral damage’ was taboo.
Does it really matter that unlike the above-mentioned villains, we were shelling our own people; and does anyone have any idea how many of them lost their kith and kin, and indeed whatever property they had?
Just because we did not have the time and patience to follow the first principle of counter-insurgency: employ force only to facilitate use of non-military means.
The outcry over ‘Pakhtun profiling’ was admittedly a bit over the top, but in some crude form and at some local level it did take place, probably to satisfy someone’s itch for some action.
If it netted any terrorists, I do not know, but it did provide all the right fuel to all the wrong quarters.
I may not have any idea how many potential bombers were deterred or pre-empted at the checkposts — now more or less a permanent fixture of our landscape — but I am grateful that none of them blew themselves up when hundreds of vehicles crawl through the barriers.
At least one cannot charge the security establishment of doing nothing.
Before the Afghan refugees became our favourite punching bag, it was the madressahs that took most of the flak for being ‘nurseries of terrorism’.
According to statistics compiled by researchers like the political scientist Robert Pape, less than one-fifth of those involved in terrorist attacks had been to madressahs, and over two-thirds had studied up to college and beyond.
But as we cannot ban any universities, the seminaries will remain our expedient explanation of the jihadi mindset.
Of course nothing comes close to a non-remedy to fight the menace of terrorism than our latest gimmick — ‘the terrorists have been brainwashed, so let’s read to them another narrative’.
Anyone who believes that those committed to a cause deeply enough to blow themselves up could be reprogrammed by a mantra, obviously has no idea what ‘de-radicalisation’ entails: plenty of sustained and thoughtful action.
But where even a National Action Plan has not brought about any movement where it actually matters — in the civil society — a narrative is all that we have.
And if that too did not work, we could always hold a cricket match to show that our CT was working.
The writer is a former head of the ISI.