New Internationalist

In the name of fighting terror

Issue 427

Has our panic over terrorism given permission for unchecked abuse? Dinyar Godrej argues for a steadfast reiteration of the value of human rights.

Photo by Bill M.
Graffiti artist Banksy strikes under an ever-snooping eye in central London to make point about the increasing surveillance of public spaces. Photo by Bill M.

On 30 July 2005, Masood Janjua, a Rawalpindi entrepreneur, set off for a bus trip to Peshawar – and vanished without a trace. A friend he was supposed to be travelling with, Faisal Faraz, also disappeared. The bus company confirmed bookings in the men’s names but in the short distance from their homes to the bus station, it seemed as if they had slipped into another dimension.

Most of us have, at some point, experienced the failure of a loved one to turn up at the expected time and place, and the delirium that follows. The repeated checking of the clock, the monitoring of the silent phone, the paranoid worst-case scenarios ticked off by a racing mind. As time slips by, numerous internal struggles start – should one call the police or is it too early? Should the missing person be worried over or blamed for not arriving? Had anything happened in the past days that could have prompted this absence?

Most of us, fortunately, will also experience the late arrival with valid explanation of the loved one. The queasy terrors of a few moments ago will be dismissed as delusion. But briefly we have experienced a little of what goes on, day in, day out, in the lives of those whose loved ones don’t return.

Amina Masood Janjua, Masood’s wife, recounts how her world convulsed that day: ‘We had a heavenly life together. We have three kids, we are such a close-knit family. We had no worries. All of a sudden this happens – it was such a big shock. During the first few months I was in such a deep depression, all I could do was lie down and keep crying. I just wished it was a bad dream. But then I had to realize it wasn’t a dream and I had to get up and do something.’

Amina Masood did all she could: lodge a missing person’s report with the police, knock at the doors of various authorities and intelligence agencies pleading for information. But nothing would pierce the void.

Carrot and stick

In all likelihood Masood Janjua had joined the ranks of up to 4,000 people who are victims of ‘enforced disappearance’ by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, among them the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistan, with its porous border with Afghanistan and numerous Islamist groups, militant Taliban fighters among them, has long been considered a wellspring of extremism. Historically, Western meddling has bred a significant proportion of it – such as the CIA funding of the Taliban during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Today, the West’s approach combines carrot and stick. Pakistan, it is often reiterated, is a key ally of the West in the fight against terrorism. But it is also on the receiving end of threats it cannot ignore if it fails to produce results in that fight. In ex-President Musharraf’s memoir In the Line of Fire, he divulges how the US threatened to bomb Pakistan after 11 September 2001, if it did not immediately get on-side in the ‘war on terror’. He claims that then-US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told his Pakistani counterpart: ‘Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age!’

‘Fighting terror’ lifts the means used, however obscene, beyond criticism. Indeed, counterterrorism is the excuse increasingly being used to silence criticism and dissent

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was crawling with CIA agents working hand in glove with their Pakistani counterparts, looking for militants who had slipped across the Afghan border into the country. Huge bounties were on offer to people to shop suspicious strangers. The lower end of the scale was a cash reward of $5,000, equivalent to seven years’ earnings for an average Pakistani. Is it any wonder that a steady stream of ‘suspects’ for sale was supplied? 

Such suspects were then interrogated by Pakistani intelligence and CIA agents, and often shipped out on notorious rendition flights for more brutal torture elsewhere, before landing up in the legal black hole of Guantánamo Bay, a US-occupied area on Cuban territory.

One of the people to be sold was Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian who had sought asylum in Britain. He was captured in Pakistan in connection with a ludicrous ‘dirty bomb’ plot, which accusation unravelled almost as soon as it was investigated. Nevertheless, Mohamed was ‘rendered’ to three different countries for torture. In Morocco, his torture included sessions where a series of cuts would be made with a scalpel or razor to his chest and penis. Mohamed alleges British collusion because his tormentors asked him questions about his life in London which must have been fed by a British source. Eventually, with torture proving a dead end, as Mohamed had no information to give, he was locked up for years in Guantánamo before being released without a proper trial or charge. All of this happened on the basis of nothing firmer than suspicion – and possibly the lure of the CIA bounty.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of the detainees caged in Guantánamo were supplied by either the Pakistanis or members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, rather than captured by US forces themselves in Afghanistan.1 

This legacy of bounty hunters and enforced disappearances likely had a role to play in the disappearance of Masood Janjua. It is also a legacy of ‘intelligence’ spinning out of control with no check imposed on it either by the military government of Musharraf or the current civilian administration. When asked to speculate on why her husband was ‘disappeared’, Amina Masood is clearly at a loss: ‘He had a beard, maybe that was the reason – I don’t know why they picked him up. A person like Masood, he’s so kind and loving, he’s not political, he’s attached to his family and taking care of his elderly parents…’

The first credible confirmation of Masood Janjua’s abduction came in 2007, when Malaysian doctor Imran Munir – who had undergone severe torture – was brought to trial. ‘He gave a statement to his lawyer in which he wrote my husband’s name, saying that he was in the opposite cell in a solitary confinement underground torture chamber. Masood Janjua told him his name and that he had never been charged or brought before any court of law. And he had been tortured in that underground cell all that time.’

By now Amina Masood had linked up with other families of disappeared persons to form an organization called Defence of Human Rights Pakistan. They compiled data and registered the cases of hundreds of families with the judiciary in the hope that if anyone could get to the bottom of things it would be the courts of law. But then Musharraf, clinging desperately to power, suspended the judiciary; it was only restored in March this year. Since then, Amina Masood has begun waiting again for the day when the case of her missing husband will come up in the Supreme Court.

Her family’s extraordinary story blends in to the thousands of stories of human lives being ripped apart – not by terrorism but by the lunatic measures we have let ourselves be persuaded are necessary in the fight against it. We are witnessing an erosion of civil liberties and abuses of human rights on an unprecedented scale in the name of fighting terrorism. The Bush regime’s ‘war on terror’ and the rest of the democratic world’s refusal to stand up to it has been a boon to every despotic government which now claims to be fighting terror – whether it be Burmese generals crushing democracy activists or the Chinese banging up Tibetan protesters. ‘Fighting terror’, they have discovered, lifts the means used, however obscene, beyond criticism. Indeed, counterterrorism is the excuse increasingly being used to silence criticism and dissent.

Pulling the trigger

It all began with a terrorist attack quite unlike any other on 11 September 2001. It was the first – and thus far the only – such atrocity in the US. The response could have been: this is a terrible event but extremely rare, so let us not immediately change our laws and give up our freedoms, but rather assist the victims the best we can; let us seek to root out the perpetrators instead of invading countries in the knowledge of certain civilian casualties far beyond the scale of the original tragedy; let us remember that terrorist ideology is irrational, so let us not think a one-against-one war is possible; let us reconsider the parts of our foreign policy which may be feeding terrorism. Instead, a trigger-happy US President pulled the trigger. And the rest of the world went terror mad.

Let’s be clear: the high watermark of terrorist activity in the West was during the Cold War, not now. Terrorist attacks are rare. Westerners are more likely to die being struck by lightning.2 In the US alone, 40,000 people die in car accidents each year, yet that hasn’t deterred many people from taking the risk of getting into them.3 Yet when it comes to high-profile terrorist events, our capacity to assess the risk seems to abandon us. Our politicians have encouraged this climate of fear and the media has responded by milking such unusual events for as long as possible, more (it must be said, distasteful though it is) for our entertainment than our edification.   

The Bush Administration launched into a completely lawless ‘war on terror’, which disregarded the safeguards of the Geneva Convention that had emerged from the considerably more cataclysmic events of the Second World War. It kidnapped people willy-nilly and subjected them to torture, despite an absolute prohibition against torture in international law.

Worse, public revulsion to torture was worn down, with pundits pronouncing that it was OK to torture in order to save lives. The commonest scenario drawn was that of the ticking time bomb and the torture of a terrorist resulting in its dismantling. The problem with such hypothetical situations is that they bear no relation to reality – no-one has ever been able to provide an example of a real event where this has been the case.1 Instead, torture makes little sense. Tortured people will confess to anything just to make the torture stop. If the person being tortured is indeed a member of a terrorist cell, they will have been missed and the cell will have altered its plans accordingly. Hence, any information revealed will be worthless. Nonetheless, in Germany the Federal Prosecutor stated that evidence obtained through ‘dubious circumstances’ could be used in criminal procedures to prevent terrorist attacks.4 Terror suspects are being picked up and left to rot without trial on the basis of ‘confessions’ of other suspects picked up in other parts of the world, tortured and similarly left to rot.

This year the International Commission of Jurists published an extensive report that country after country has enacted anti-terror legislation, often with vague wording that left much to the discretion of law enforcers. They also assessed existing international law before it got savaged by the ‘war on terror’ and found that it had ample provision to ‘provide a robust and effective framework within which to tackle terrorism’.5

It is important to ask of our representatives in government that they ensure our security by strengthening our freedoms, not by limiting them

The judicial erosion continues, with governments seeking increasing powers to treat terrorist suspects as guilty until proven innocent, to lock them up for as long as possible without bringing them to trial, to lower the standards of proof in such cases, to introduce crimes which seem suspiciously like thought crimes. (And governments who were doing all this and worse anyway, can now invoke counterterrorism.) Take the case of Hicham Yezza of Nottingham University, who was hauled off by police officers because he had a version of the al-Qaeda training manual on his computer which he had downloaded from the US Department of Justice website. Heck, the real deal is on sale on Amazon. Still, Yezza was put through the wringer – interrogation, DNA sampling, the search of all his possessions, investigation of all his connections. When they couldn’t find anything, they tried to deport him on the basis that he is Algerian, even though he has been living in Britain for 11 years.

Such deportations are becoming common for getting rid of people the state sees as undesirable, regardless of whether they have done anything suspect. Another trend is to seek worthless ‘diplomatic assurances’ of humane treatment so as to justify deporting terrorist suspects to countries where they are at risk of torture. Britain, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Spain have all sought to do this.

Law for criminals

Terrorist acts are crimes, so terror suspects need to be judged in courts of law and punished. Yet here too the ground is slipping under our feet, with military kangaroo courts – where actual evidence is of little concern – springing up from Guantánamo to Egypt. There’s also a rising tendency to lock up suspects for increasing periods of time (indefinitely in some countries) without so much as telling them the charges against them.

Court officials around the world have been the first line of defence against such encroachment, fighting rash government measures with salutary reminders of what is required for real justice. Take the considered view of Ken Macdonald, Director of Public Prosecutions in Britain until 2008, who declared: ‘London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered on 7 July 2005 were not victims of war… On the streets of London, there is no such thing as a ‘war on terror’, just as there can be no such thing as a ‘war on drugs’… The fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws and the winning of justice for those damaged by their infringement.’5

Increasingly in the Western world, powers of surveillance brought in as counterterrorism measures are being used instead against peaceful protesters. In Britain, searches under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows police to stop and search people in a specific area, grew fourfold in 2008 according to human rights group Liberty. (Such searches were already running at nearly 30,000 in 2004.) Of these, fewer than 0.1 per cent were arrested (as opposed to charged or convicted) on terrorism charges. If you were black or Asian, you were four times more likely to be searched.6 Closed circuit television is being touted as a terrorism deterrent, when not one case of it ever having acted as such can be cited.

The global picture is truly alarming – injustice on a massive scale is being perpetrated in the name of counterterrorism. In unstable areas, it will fuel more violence and instability.

Fighting apathy creep

The idea of rough justice has polluted our public discourse. When Binyam Mohamed was released, comments on news websites ranged from questioning what he was doing in Pakistan in the first place to demanding his deportation to Ethiopia, even from those who accepted that he had undergone terrible torture and unjust detention. Indeed, to have a family member suspected of being a terrorist often means stigma, exclusion and the loss of jobs. Whole communities have been singled out as terrorist sympathizers. At its most extreme, there’s an ‘anything goes’ attitude best exemplified by US columnist David Brooks, who wrote on 5 November 2001: ‘We will destroy innocent villages by accident, shrug our shoulders and continue fighting.’7

A human rights activist in this field admitted off the record that the toughest challenge was to engage people in why these injustices matter. She felt that most people still took the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ view of terrorism suspects, proof be damned. This despite the numerous high profile miscarriages of justice that have been exposed. What better mandate could the State ask for to blunder about at will?

With President Obama in the White House, there is the announced future closure of Guantánamo Bay and a move away from legitimizing torture. But there is no promise yet on ending rendition or ‘prolonged detention’, and no moves to gain justice for those who were detained in barbaric conditions for years or to prosecute their torturers. Can the damage done ever be reversed now that the Western democracies, who’ve ridden the high horse of human rights, have lost all moral authority on this front?

Don’t expect it to happen overnight. But with every restrictive measure that is challenged, with every campaign fought to preserve our civil liberties, a step in the right direction gets taken. That is why it is important to get involved and to convince others why these injustices must be fought against. And to ask of our representatives in government that they ensure our security by strengthening our freedoms, not by limiting them.

People like Amina Masood have compelling personal reasons for their activism. ‘We had the most precious thing snatched away from us,’ she says. ‘We were so bold because we were desperate. Why don’t the authorities answer – why don’t they show where he is, what crime he has done? If they had anything substantial against him, they would have brought him to the courts long ago. Their methods of torture are so notorious, they can break anybody within a week. Here it has been years.’

She talks of successes achieved by her organization – the tracing of some missing people and arrangements made to fight their legal cases, the return home of others. ‘But at a personal level we are still heartbroken. I can work all day and still spend the night awake, missing my husband and crying, trying to restore myself.’

Forked tongue

How the Bush Administration used words that conceal.

Enhanced interrogation techniques – sophisticated terminology for what was, in effect, torture. These ‘techniques’ included the infamous waterboarding, where the subject is made to experience drowning by having water poured over clingfilm laid over their face. The gag reflex is triggered immediately, air supply is cut off and water can get inhaled. Human rights groups have condemned it as being equivalent to a mock execution. Volunteers who tried it held out for mere seconds.

Mild non-injurious physical contact – a beating.

Exploiting individual phobias – for example, setting ferocious dogs on the subject.

Manipulative self-injurious behaviour – a suicide attempt. This terminology was used to disguise the number of suicide attempts made by Guantánamo Bay inmates.

Detainee – this term was preferred, rather than ‘prisoner’ which carries undesirable connotations of someone who has undergone trial and been sentenced.

Source: Clive Stafford Smith, Bad Men: Guantánamo Bay and the Secret Prisons, Phoenix, 2007.

  1. Clive Stafford Smith, Bad Men: Guantánamo Bay and the Secret Prisons, Phoenix, 2007.
  2. Loretta Napoleoni, ‘The folklore of terrorism’, Colors, Winter 2008-09.
  3. Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear, Springer, 2006.
  4. Amnesty International Report 2009: The State of the World’s Human Rights
  5. International Commission of Jurists, Assessing Damage, Urging Action, ICJ, 2009.
  6. http://tinyurl.com/2s7tvx
  7. As quoted in Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream, Atlantic Books, 2007.

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