Vol. 5 Num 591 Thu. January 26, 2006  

Counter-terrorism bureau, unit, agency or what?

Stories have been making the rounds last week of the possibility of some sort of arrangement between the governments of Bangladesh and the US with regards to enhancing Bangladesh's capability of combating terrorism. The people are generally in the dark about the what and wherefore of the concept, and as such, speculation has been rife as to the type, set up, manning, terms of reference and what have you, of the proposed organisation.

Some political parties have been quick to express their reservations about any arrangement with the US on matters related to the country's security, their main concern being whether doing so will cause abridgement of our sovereignty, given the US stance in this matter, demonstrated strikingly in the violation of Pakistan's air space in what the US termed as an attack on a location where the number two in the Al Qaeda hierarchy, Ayman al Zawahari, was suspected to be present. Not only is note made of the fact that there was no remorse for the action that caused the death of eighteen civilians, statements from the administration as well as from members of both the political parties in the US, and their attitude, displayed scant respect for a third country's sovereignty.

There are several reasons for public speculation and fear about the whole matter of establishing a counter-terrorism "bureau" of sorts in Bangladesh linked to the US. As reported, the two countries are likely to "set up an institutional framework of counter-terrorism bureaus," the modalities of which is to be worked out during the visit of Ms. Christina Rocca, who is in fact arriving in Dhaka today.

We are willy-nilly a partner of the US in its war against global terrorism. And to jog the readers' memory a bit, it was during the visit of Cofer Black, head of counter-terrorism in the US State Department, to Dhaka in September 2004 that he described Bangladesh as a partner in the US war on terror. And it was not without the prospect of a long-term strategic dividend that Bangladesh was included as one by the US in its war against terrorism. Christina Rocca's statement in September 2005: "Bangladesh's membership in the counter-terrorism coalition has helped to remind the world that this is a war against terror, not one against Islam" illustrates the US motivation in taking Bangladesh onboard.

Bangladesh has many protocols with the US but one is not sure how many of those relate to security, particularly to counter-terrorism. However, what we get to hear about a new arrangement to combat terrorism is perhaps a fructification of ideas that might have been floated during several visits of high-ranking US officials in the past several years. At the end of Cofer Black's visit in September 2004, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister had said that there were many protocols with the US, and replying to a question if there were any agreement in combating terrorism, the Foreign Minister added that "if required new protocols could be signed." What is probably on the anvil is the first draft of a likely protocol to formalise and concretise an institutional arrangement in this regard

And that has caused consternation to be expressed in Bangladesh, not unnaturally, at a public level, given the wide chasm that exists between the government's perception of the US war on terror and that of the common man.

Some of the gray areas that are being talked about may be worth a look.

There is apprehension as to the form of the new arrangements. A "bureau" means very little and conveys nothing about its character. Whether it would be a uniquely organised unit, with all the elements that go with anti-terrorism activities organic to it, is not clear. Some wonder whether there will be an altogether new agency in the shape of the NSI, for collecting and collating intelligence, and advising the government on anti-terrorism matters. If that were so what will be its status in relation to the existing agencies? And what will be its terms of reference? Whatever may be its form, one is not sure as to the substantive work that it might be employed in. What frays some Bangladeshi nerves is the prospect of the new organisation making the highest intelligence agency in the country subservient to it. If not so, at least one is uncertain as to the nature of the hierarchical arrangements in dealing with intelligence matters in the country. What, however, has been foremost in the minds of the people and some of which have appeared in the newspapers is whether there will any element of "jointry" in the proposed set up and, whether and if, there is an US element in the set up, what will be its modus operandi, in that event?

Confusion has been added to the matter by reports quoting security officials unwilling to be named, suggesting that the Bush administration wants to establish a counter-terrorism unit in Bangladesh, with an initial grant of $100 million for the outfit. The US Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns was to have discussed Washington's proposals, which will now perhaps be done by Ms. Rocca. The counter-terrorism unit would be developed under direct US supervision. The US would also provide training and equipment to Bangladesh's 707th Special Mission Battalion counter-terrorism unit.

There is little doubt that Bangladesh is ill-prepared in addressing the menace of terrorism that has afflicted our country more virulently recently. Our record in unearthing the incidents of bombings that so far have taken several hundred lives is hardly convincing evidence of our competence in collection and collation of intelligence and is even a worse specimen of our investigative abilities, though not all the faults lie with our intelligence agencies.

It is equally true that we ought seek all the help that is available, without any strings attached, to enhance our capabilities to address the threats of terrorism that the nation might face in future. And we must seek the best that is available in the form of hardware and software. And cooperation must be sought not only internationally but also regionally. But it is for the government to make clear to the public the arrangements that have to do with the security of the country.

Any arrangement that has the potential of impinging on our sovereignty must be abjured.

The author is Editor, Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.