Counter-terrorism measures: An Analysis

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Fighters with Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, wave Iraqi flags while mourners and family members prepare to bury the body of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias who was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq on Friday, in Wadi al-Salam, or "Valley of Peace" cemetery, during his funeral procession in Najaf, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)

Since the beginning of the year, terrorist attacks continue to be a global occurrence. The general presumption of many is that following the defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the world will be at peace without ‘problems’ from these terrorist groups. The reality is however different.

Why can’t these terrorist attacks be prevented? Aren’t the countermeasures taken by the various global intelligence agencies effective in dismantling the rise of terrorist attacks internationally? What are the root causes of terrorism? Does religion alone motivate such heinous attacks on innocent people or are such attacks instigated by manipulative religious and political leaders for their hidden agendas?

Terrorists by nature are unpredictable, making them dangerous to deal with. For instance, last November in London, Usman Khan who had earlier been released from prison for terrorist-related offences stabbed five people killing two.

At the time of this attack, he was attending an offender rehabilitation conference. He was also a staunch supporter of Al-Muhajiroun, a home-grown militant cell identified by UK intelligence and security agencies, and a personal friend of its co-founder, Anjem Choudary. Choudary is deemed one of the UK’s most notorious radical Islamist preachers.

The question is whether the UK’s de-radicalisation programme is effective. If so, the London Bridge attack should not have occurred. Anjem Choundary himself should have been reformed and been of assistance to security agencies in identifying and de-radicalising other potential terrorists. This veracity has not transpired.

Even though the senior members of Al Muhajiroun including Choundary are under strict surveillance, they still appear to be conducting their ‘activities’ undetected. According to the UK intelligence agencies, they are using internet forums for recruitment purposes and have regular smaller group meetings in discreet places.

One of the biggest task of the intelligence and security forces is to monitor the activities coxed by the hate preachers and the ‘dubious’ religious NGOs. These preachers and NGOs normally will hide all their activities in the name of the religion. Unless with collaboration and cooperation between security agencies and government religious authorities to tackle the threats inflict by these preachers and NGOs, terrorism related incidents can be eradicated totally.

Terrorism is always evolving. Terrorists are ‘innovative’ people who always adjust according to their needs. The terrorist attacks now do not require huge funds or a big group to coordinate attacks like the September 11, Bali and Mumbai attacks. Most of the present terrorist attacks are self-funded, involving rather ‘unconventional’ weapons like knives, vehicles and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

This ‘unconventional’ modus operandi was seen in the Villejuif, France incident where Nathan Chiasson stabbed three people, killing one. Last week, in Quetta, Pakistan a suicide bomber carried out an attack using an IED at a mosque killing more than 15 people and injuring at least 20 pointing to a re-emerging trend of suicide bombers.

Last May, the director-general of MI5 warned of the threat posed by groups sympathetic to ISIS. He said that ISIS propaganda is still effective in inspiring people even though the possibility of potential terrorists to traveling to Syria has been restricted. The attempt of Al-Muhajiroun to recruit returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) and sympathisers to achieve its objective is distressing.

Militant groups like Al-Muhajiroun and hate preachers like Anjem Choudary not only inspire locals but others, encouraging them to commit acts of terrorism. For instance, one of the Easter Sunday terrorist attackers in Sri Lanka, Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed was radicalised by Choudary after attending his sermons in 2016.

Last October, Bukit Aman’s Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division (E8) chief had pointed out that 40 of the 65 Malaysians detained in Syria had contacted PDRM wanting to return home. According to him, the Malaysian men who are brought home will be charged in court and the women will be assessed for their level of ideological influence. He added that their children would also go through rehabilitation programmes. Recently, Yazid Sufaat was released from the Simpang Renggam detention Centre after two years. He was jailed three times in the past 18 years for terrorism-related activities.

The question is whether the de-radicalisation programme is functioning well and can rehabilitate the supporters, sympathisers and terrorists.

In my opinion, these hard-core, extremist individuals are immune to rehabilitation and reform. There are no comprehensive rehabilitation programmes that can completely reform such individuals. The security and intelligence agencies must accept this hard-hitting fact. Therefore, there is no final solution to counter-terrorism. As the terrorists evolve and find ways to commit acts of violence, the intelligence and security forces need to be alert and pre-emptive in their approach.

One measure, albeit extreme, is to create a designated place to gather hard-core supporters, sympathisers, and terrorists where they can be monitored completely. They also need to be isolated from society with limited access or contact allowed to family members. Further, they need to be examined by independent experts. Unless there is significant progress with these persons the authorities should not consider releasing them into society. This can be seen as cruel and against the fundamental rights of a person but the peace and security of a nation should be paramount.

Another counter-terrorism measure is the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Terrorists are very skilful at using the internet, especially social media to spread their propaganda for recruitment and fundraising purposes. As such, intelligence agencies can develop and use AI to identify, monitor and counter such activities. The agencies can also use AI to trace members of sleeper cells who may pose future threats.

To hinder terrorist groups and individuals, security and intelligence agencies must practice continuous monitoring. This will restrict their movements. Having more robust border security measures in place supported by well-trained officers at vulnerable boundaries such as Perlis to Kelantan and Sabah may also prevent terrorists from attacking critical infrastructure facilities in the country. The role of frontline officers at ports of entry are vital in identifying and preventing terrorists from easily entering the country. Also, all efforts need to be made to ensure terrorists do not acquire materials which are potentially dangerous and can be used for an attack.

In a nutshell, terrorism is not about any religion.  Often, terrorists have been brainwashed by their recruiters in the name of religion and ideology.  Therefore, I am urging the relevant agencies to increase their efforts to protect the people and nation as a whole rather than focusing on a small number of persons who are misguided by false ideologies and the misinterpretation of religious texts.


Paneir Selvam is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Crime and Criminology based at the HELP University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.