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Neither ‘fundamental’ nor a ‘shift’

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 19, 2010

    A report published by the Wall Street Journal (August 17) on a recent assessment by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan on the changing nature of threat the country currently faces, has made headlines not only in the media of the sub-continent, but made a sensation in the West as well. The sub-title of the Wall Street Journal story terms it as a ‘fundamental shift’ which could affect the course of the war in Afghanistan and India-Pakistan bilateral talks, because India is no more considered as the greatest threat but the terrorist groups. The timing of the so-called ‘internal assessment’ and its sharing with the powerful Western press should be questioned. Given the ‘trust deficit’ between India and Pakistan, no security analyst on this side of the border would perhaps take this report seriously. The reception of this report by Western experts however remains to be observed.

    Pakistan is indeed going through the worst catastrophe in its history. While millions of Pakistani citizens have been affected by the floods and associated miseries, the port city of Karachi is engulfed by sectarian strife and communal violence in the streets. While international aid has been announced and rescue workers from different parts of the world are willing to volunteer, the primacy of the militant organisations and terrorist networks in the rescue operations in the devastated areas have been watched with concern by the international community. This apprehension is also the cause for hesitation by international aid workers to actively participate in rescue work. The latest ISI threat assessment needs to be seen against this current domestic backdrop.

    Though the Wall Street Journal report on the ISI threat assessment is not as revealing as the secret war logs recently posted by Wikileaks, it undoubtedly evokes interest. But it needs to be seen in juxtaposition with a recent public opinion survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre in Pakistan, which showed that 53 per cent of Pakistanis consider India as the greatest threat whereas 23 per cent consider the Taliban to be so and 3 per cent consider the Al Qaeda to be so. Hence, what methodology and parameters the ISI chose to conclude that terrorist networks have surpassed India as an existential threat to Pakistan is not known.

    As it seems at present, the ISI is seriously aiming at an image makeover. Not only the damning disclosure by the Wikileaks on its role in the War on Terror, but also the comment on Pakistan’s role in international terrorism by the visiting British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in India have been cautionary enough for the agency to go for a PR drive. Though in the aftermath of the comment by Cameron, the visit of an ISI delegation to the UK was cancelled and apprehensions articulated in the British media that the Pakistan-British intelligence and security cooperation might experience a severe jolt, the present security scenario in Pakistan and in the UK and in Europe in general are suggestive that both Pakistani and European security are umbilically linked.

    Some recent European research findings may not be out of context to be noted here. The British think tank, The Centre for Social Cohesion, in its qualitative and comprehensive research tome, ‘Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections’ have drawn some very interesting trends for the time period of 1999-2009. 28 per cent of individuals who committed ‘Islamism related offences (IROs)’ in the UK have some Pakistani origins and of whom at least 80 per cent were British nationals with Pakistani origins. The most common location of British nationals attending terror training camps is Pakistan, which is 17 per cent. The proportion of terror cell members who had been trained in Pakistan is 38 per cent, whereas in Afghanistan it is only 14 per cent. Cells that carried out major terrorist attacks like the 7/7 had connections with Pakistan. The study concludes that “Pakistan has been a popular site for terrorist training.”

    The Barcelona terrorist plot of 2008, unearthed by the Spanish authorities just before a suicide attack on the Barcelona metro - another attempted reenactment of 3/11 in Madrid – was pan-European in nature. Some persons of Pakistani origin had been arrested and subsequently convicted for this plot. Fernando Reinares, the author, has painstakingly reconstructed the plot from the original court proceedings. Though the author has titled his paper rather rhetorically, ‘A New Composite Global Terrorism Threat to Western Societies from Pakistan? Making Sense of the January 2008 Suicide Bomb Plot in Barcelona,’ the conclusion is rather intriguing: “The thwarted attacks (in Barcelona) suggest a mixture of foreign extremists coming from the country which then as now occupies a central locus in the cartography of global terrorism, that is to say Pakistan….” Though some research on the same phenomenon has already been done on the other side of the Atlantic, more quantitative studies would certainly establish the same trend.

    Western and Pakistani authorities are not oblivious of the centrality of Pakistan in the global terror scenario, but Western analysts are predominantly and understandably concerned about the security in the streets of London, Manhattan, Madrid and elsewhere as well as about transatlantic air traffic. Opinion makers and policy advisers to Western governments may therefore be overtly optimistic about the Wall Street Journal report and also recommend some additional military hardware to be transferred to Pakistan to combat terror. But in Pakistan’s neighbourhood the ISI’s sudden change of heart is likely to be always seen with great scepticism until the ground reality like the presence of terror training camps on its soil and their cross-border terrorist potential cease to function. The ISI assessment may be received with great enthusiasm in Western capitals and policy circles, but for observers from the subcontinent it is neither ‘fundamental’ nor a ‘shift’.