Situation Report
16th September 2001

Attack on America and the lessons for Sri Lanka

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"I fear that we have only awakened a sleeping giant, and his reaction will be terrible…"

Those words of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, uttered 60 years ago, rings true even today. His remarks came after droves of Japanese aircraft swooped out of the sky and bombed United States naval and air bases at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii. That was at 7.55 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

By 10 a.m. that day, eighteen vessels - battleships, destroyers, cruisers, minelayers, seaplane tenders - were sunk, beached, or badly damaged. In addition, 188 planes were destroyed and 159 were damaged. Casualties included 2,008 sailors killed, 710 wounded; 218 soldiers killed, 346 wounded; 109 marines killed, 89 wounded; 68 civilians killed, 35 wounded.

Six decades later, at 8.45 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a new chapter in the history of modern warfare in this new millennium has begun. The worst attack in terrorism anywhere in the world, was launched on two major landmarks of United States of America – the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the proud symbol of the nation's economy and Pentagon, the nerve centre for its military, the mightiest in the world.

If America's political leaders were unanimous that war has been declared on their nation, they were equally unanimous the attacks were much worse than the Japanese raids on Pearl Harbor. The damage caused by the savage attacks to lives and to the US economy is yet to be fully determined. Thousands have died with more thousands wounded. Billions of dollars worth of equipment and property have been destroyed. The world's only super power, with unmatched military superiority and technological capability, was under siege.

And this is what gives new meaning to Admiral Isoroku's assertions six decades ago. If the US was then described as a sleeping giant, it is now the world's most powerful nation and has vowed to avenge the perpetrators of the attacks. "… the attacks….were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war," declared President George W. Bush. Added Secretary of State, General (retd.) Colin Powell "it would not be resolved by a single counter attack against one individual…. but …going to be a long term conflict….fought on many fronts."

Tuesday's attacks in New York and Washington have given added significance to a word long enshrined in the lexicon of military strategists – "asymmetric warfare" – forms of violence that cannot be matched by conventional military responses. "….we are seeing the definition of a new battlefield in the world, a 20th-21st century battlefield, and it is a different kind of conflict…. unique to this century…. new for this country," declared Defence Secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Be that as it may, when the world's only super power now goes to war, it would affect every nation in the world, either politically, economically or militarily. Sri Lanka, saddled with a festering 19 year old separatist insurgency, is no exception. Yet, there are several lessons for Sri Lanka from last Tuesday's incidents. More on that later.

First to the aftermath of the human carnage and the deadly devastation. Increasing evidence unearthed by US authorities point to the attacks being master minded by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire, now said to be living in exile in Afghanistan, under the protection of Taliban rulers. Some US organisations are now describing him as a terrorist "midwifed" by none other than the United States.

My friend and colleague at the Washington based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), leading Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, in his latest book "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia", gives an interesting insight about Osama bin Laden. Here are some edited excerpts:

"In 1986 CIA Chief William Casey had stepped up the war against the Soviet Union by taking three significant, but at that time highly secret, measures.

"He persuaded the US Congress to provide the Mujaheddin with American-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Soviet planes and provide US advisers to train the guerrillas. Until then, no US-made weapons or personnel had been used directly in the war effort .…

"…. Casey committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI (Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence) initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujaheddin. The ISI had encouraged this since 1982, and by now all the other players had their reasons for supporting the idea …..

"…. Among these thousands of foreign recruits was a young Saudi student, Osama Bin Laden, the son of a Yemeni construction magnate, Mohammed Bin Laden, who was a close friend of the late King Faisal and whose company had become fabulously wealthy on the contracts to renovate and expand the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. The ISI had long wanted Prince Turki Bin Faisal, the head of Istakhbarat, the Saudi Intelligence Service, to provide a Royal Prince to lead the Saudi contingent in order to show Muslims the commitment of the Royal Family to the Jihad. Only poorer Saudis, students, taxi drivers and Bedouin tribesmen had so far arrived to fight. But no pampered Saudi prince was ready to rough it out in the Afghan mountains. Bin Laden, although not a royal, was close enough to the royals and certainly wealthy enough to lead the Saudi contingent.

"The Centre for Arab-Afghans was the offices of the World Muslim League and the Muslim Brotherhood in the northern Pakistan city of Peshawar. The Centre was run by Abdullah Azam, a Jordanian Palestinian whom Bin Laden had first met at university in Jeddah and revered as his leader.

"… Until he arrived in Afghanistan, Bin Laden's life had hardly been marked by anything extraordinary. He was born around 1957, the 17th of 57 children sired by his Yemeni father and a Saudi mother, one of Mohammed Bin Laden's many wives. Bin Laden studied for a Master's degree in business administration at King Abdul Aziz university in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) but soon switched to Islamic studies. Thin and tall, he is 6 feet 5 inches, with long limbs and a flowing beard.

"His father backed the Afghan struggle and helped fund it, so when Bin Laden decided to join up, his family responded enthusiastically. He brought in his company engineers and heavy construction equipment to help build roads and depots for the Mujaheddin. In 1986, he helped build the Khost tunnel complex, which the CIA was funding as a major arms storage depot, training facility and medical centre for the Mujaheddin, deep under the mountains close to the Pakistan border. For the first time in Khost he set up his own training camp for Arab Afghans, who now increasingly saw this lanky, wealthy and charismatic Saudi as their leader.

Smoke and flames rose over the Pentagon at about 10Smoke and flames rose over the Pentagon at about 10 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, after a hijacked plane ploughed into the building: Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore US Department of Defence.

"… By 1990, Bin Laden was disillusioned by the internal bickering of the Mujaheddin and he returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family business. He founded a welfare organisation for Arab-Afghan veterans. Some 4,000 or them had settled in Mecca and Medina alone, and Bin Laden gave money to the families of those killed.

"After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait he lobbied the Royal Family to organise a popular defence of the kingdom and raise a force from the Afghan war veterans to fight Iraq. Instead, King Fahd invited in the Americans. This came as an enormous shock to Bin Laden. As the 540,000 US troops began to arrive, Bin Laden openly criticised the Royal Family, lobbying the Saudi Ulema (theologians) to issue fatwas, religious rulings, against non-Muslims being based in the country.

"… In 1982, Bin Laden left for Sudan to take part in the Islamic revolution under way there under the charismatic Sudanese leader Hassen Turabi. Bin Laden's continued criticism of the Saudi Royal Family eventually annoyed them so much that they took the unprecedented step of revoking his citizenship in 1984. It was in Sudan, with his wealth and contacts, that Bin Laden gathered around him more veterans of the Afghan war, who were all disgusted by the American victory over Iraq and the attitude of the Arab ruling elites who allowed the US military to remain in the Gulf.

"As US and Saudi pressure mounted against Sudan for harbouring Bin Laden, the Sudanese authorities asked him to leave. In May, 1996, Bin Laden travelled back to Afghanistan….in a chartered jet with an entourage of dozens of Arab militants, bodyguards and family members, including three wives and 13 children….. In August, 1996, he had issued his first declaration of jehad (holy war) against the Americans, whom he said were occupying Saudi Arabia.

In the wake of a CIA snatch operation, Bin Laden moved to the safer confines of Kandahar where his Al Qaeda issued a fatwa: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to."

"….it was the bombings in August, 1998 of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 220 people that made Bin Laden a household name in the Muslim world and the West. Just 13 days later, after accusing Bin Laden of perpetrating the attack, the USA retaliated by firing 70 cruise missiles against Bin Laden's camps around Khost and Jalalabad. ….. The Al Badr camp controlled by Bin Laden and the Khalid bin Walid and Muawia camps run by the Pakistani Harakat-ul-Anasar were the main targets. Harakat used their camps to train militants for fighting Indian troops in Kashmir. Seven outsiders were killed in the strike – three Yemenis, two Egyptians, one Saudi and one Turk. Also killed were Pakistanis and 20 Afghans.

"…As US pressure on the Taliban to expel Bin Laden intensified, the Taliban said he was a guest and it was against Afghan tradition to expel guests. When it appeared that Washington was planning another military strike against Bin Laden, the Taliban tried to cut a deal with Washington – to allow him to leave the country in exchange for US recognition. Thus, until the winter of 1998 the Taliban saw Bin Laden as an asset, a bargaining chip with whom they could negotiate with the Americans.

"The US State Department opened a satellite telephone connection to speak to Mullah Omar, (Taliban leader), directly. The Afghanistan desk officers, helped by a Pushtu translator, held lengthy conversations with Omar in which both sides explored various options, but to no avail. By early 1999 it began to dawn on the Taliban that no compromise with the US was possible and they began to see Bin Laden as a liability. A US deadline in February 1999 to the Taliban to either hand over Bin Laden or face the consequences forced the Taliban to make him disappear discreetly from Kandahar. The move brought the Taliban some time, but the issue was still nowhere near being resolved…."

Now to some matters arising from Tuesday's incidents in New York and Washington which are relevant to Sri Lanka. Firstly, the incidents lay bare the futile claims of pundits that the July 24 Black Tiger attacks on the SLAF base and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake were directly the result of an intelligence failure. Would they now say it was the same in the case of Tuesday's attacks in New York and Washington? If so, was it a failure on the part of only the US intelligence agencies?

It is true that intelligence is the cornerstone on which the national security of any nation is based. As stated by then US President George Bush, at Langley (headquarters of the CIA) USA, in November, 1991, "In sum intelligence remains our basic national instrument for anticipating danger, military political and economic. Intelligence is and always will be our first line of defence, enabling us to ward off emerging threats whenever possible before any damage is done." On September 11, 2001, it failed. None other than Secretary of State, Colin Powell, declared they had no prior warning of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Why, is the billion dollar question. It requires a lot of introspection.

To a great extent, the intelligence agencies of the USA were a product of the Cold War, at least in much of its global perspective. Its allies had begun sophistication of their agencies during the Second World War. Post-war technological advances soon made USA an intelligence super power in the then prevailing Cold War situation.

However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the easing of the Cold War, however, compelled the US to change its intelligence priorities to meet newly emerging global conflicts resulting from competing interests based on nationalism, ethnicity, social and cultural differences. Whether the US has fully adjusted its intelligence outlook from its traditional Cold War role to its new role as the only global super power is a question now in issue.

In a changed world order and re-arrangement of global power, the dissimilarity between nations becomes further exaggerated with the smaller and weaker nations having to device methods for survival and projection of their own national interests. From this arises resorting to the use of asymmetrical power and of war. This is not a new concept, it is as old as the legend of David and Goliath.

This changing role requires new techniques and technologies. The proliferation of weapons and know-how poses new challenges. An ever shrinking global village demands fresh political thinking. These changing circumstance in turn poses new challenges to the intelligence communities. The challenges of asymmetrical war techniques like that of terrorism demands a fresh approach to intelligence gathering. The threat of the proliferation of weapons, particularly nuclear, biological and chemical weapons know-how and the spread of technology offers to a demented regime or individuals options, which hitherto were not available, as was demonstrated on the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

The use of the suicide bomber poses almost an unrecognisable threat until the bomber has accomplished his or her mission. The bottom line in whatever type of conflict is that it originates from the human mind, which is unpredictable and not accessible other than to human intelligence. It is no different in Sri Lanka. In the situation, without a combination of the traditional human spy and technology, it will not be possible to monitor the danger, especially in the increasing context of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare.

Another aspect is the sweeping technological revolution in this new millennium. Conditions were different when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

During 1940, Colonel William Friedman, army cryptanalyst, and his assistant Harry Lawrence Clark had successfully created a machine that broke the most secret diplomatic code of the Japanese. Given the name "Magic," the code breaker was the first to intercept messages showing that – but not where – Japan planned an attack. On Saturday, December 6, 1941, Mrs. Dorothy Edgen, a new employee in the Office of Navy Intelligence, attempted to inform her superiors that a message showed Honolulu as a target.

However, the officers in charge said the message could wait until Monday. On Sunday, less than three hours before the attack, General George C. Marshall, army chief of staff, received an intercepted message that indicated that an attack in the Pacific was imminent. Marshal sent messages of warning to Manila, Panama Canal Zone, and San Francisco. But atmospheric conditions prevented the relay to Fort Shafter near Pearl Harbor. The chief of traffic operations sent the message by commercial facilities and the warning arrived in Honolulu ten hours later when the attacks on Pearl Harbor were over.

But today, a communications revolution has left the military, more particularly the United States, with the most sophisticated communications technology. These benefits have also accrued to the media to transmit words and images from one corner of the globe to another just as things happen. That is how an entire world saw from their bedrooms and living rooms the tragedy that unfolded in the United States. The entire world was not only witness to the events but also saw how the American public, irrespective of their differences, were galvanised to rally behind President George W. Bush.

Fortunately, crusaders for the Government in Sri Lanka, self-acclaimed expert commentators/presenters/campaigners like the Government's Mahinda Abeysundera and his ilk are not there in the United States to pour scorn over the airwaves of the national radio or television against any comment perceived or imagined to be against the State. That too at times of national crisis. Little wonder, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, has chosen to retain the media portfolio to herself and allotted Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, another assignment as Deputy Minister. The fact that things did not move at the Media Ministry under his term of office is no secret. It will now be up to President Kumaratunga to clean up the mess.

Reports of moves by the US and its allies to launch a global crack-down on terrorism has led to euphoria within a considerable section of the defence establishment. They believe such a move will be a great blow to the Tiger guerrillas. However, it seemed highly unlikely there would be any concerted US action pointedly at the Tiger guerrillas though they remain designated as a terrorist organisation and a Federal Bureau of Investiaation (FBI) probe has been underway in th US for many months over their fund-raising.

It is in this backdrop that major state intelligence services of the Government were unanimous in their view that Tiger guerrillas are unlikely to carry out any major attacks in a immediate future. They are of the view that the guerrillas would not want to risk international condemnation and response. This is despite a communications intercept last Wednesday where during conversations between two guerrilla bases, one is said to have directed the other to carry out an attack "no matter if there were a few civilian casualties."

Whether the guerrillas will really be compelled to slow down their plans or will obliviously seize the opportunity to launch another major attack, the coming weeks will reveal.

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