With a Grain of Piquant Salt:
If there is one target which gets policemen, counter terrorism strategists and tacticians, politicians and other assorted terrorism managers very nervous, it is a religious place of worship getting involved in terrorism. Mostly, this involves terrorists holing up inside a temple, mosque or church or might involve terrorists attacking a temple, mosque or church. We unfortunately have quite a few of such events in the recent past and we can draw some inferences. Despite these implications and lessons learnt, with the best will in the world, best media control, best money, and best everything, this is a nightmare situation which very rarely comes out fine. Let us take a look.
This essay's idea came up from three angles. The first being a very interesting book by Yaroslav Trofimov, 'The Siege of Mecca' (ISBN: 0385519257) which talks about the events of 1979, when a bunch of Islamist Holy Warriors took over the Holy Mosque in Mecca - the Muslim holy of holies. How they were driven by religious fervor and how they believed the Mahdi is back. How the corrupt, power hungry, autocratic Saudi regime reacted? How was it linked to the Iranian Shia Islamic revolution in 1979? The other small insurrection on the eastern side of Saudi Arabia. How there is a direct link between the old Wahhabi's of the 18th century right down to the Osama Bin Laden's of this world. How Al Qaeda has roots in this 1979 terrorist incident. How hundreds died in the indiscriminate fighting. How nobody had a clue on what to do after the news of the incident broke? How the various idiots of the world still blame everything on the Jews / Zionists / Crusaders. How the American Embassies in India, Pakistan, Iran, Libya were attacked?
I have come across a huge amount of very interesting material in this book and will be exploring this in the coming weeks in different essays. I strongly recommend this book, it is a real eye opener. The author is brave and has managed to get information, which was very secret and hidden, drawn factual yet scary links and told us that the problem is fundamentalism and Saudi Arabia. Something that the Americans are very stupidly ignoring or denying in pursuit of cheap oil. The tragedy is that they are not getting cheap oil and they are dying in their hundreds and thousands in pursuit of a pig-headed and stupid foreign policy.
Second was when I was reading about the Babri Masjid (during my review of Shashi Tharoor's book. It was truly a shameful episode and a very big blot on the pluralistic and humanist image of India. The rage boys were in full flow and every time I read about it or saw images, the blood boils at the thought of these thugs. Third was when I read about several mosques in the UK which have been and are considered to be hotbeds and breeding-grounds of fundamentalist thought. And I was just wondering, the probability of some of those hotheads bunking in a mosque or doing something silly is pretty high. And then you can just imagine the SAS boys having to dig them out or something.
But we have had way too many examples already. I refer to situations where terrorists have taken over religious houses of worship, such as this Grand Mosque Mecca incident in 1979, the Golden Temple siege in 1984, the following incident in Mecca in 1987, the innumerable mosque incidents in Kashmir, the Church of Nativity incident in Bethlehem in 2002, Baruch Goldstein's attack on a mosque in 1994, the Askari bombing in Samarra in 2006, the various attacks on Hindu temples as Akshardham in 2002, Ayodhya in 2005, Varanasi in 2006, Mosque bombings in India such as the Jama Masjid Bombing in 2006 and Mecca Masjid in 2007; the siege of Lal Masjid in 2007 in Pakistan, attacks by the LTTE on Buddhist temples and use of temples and churches as camps and storage depots.
Now I am going to indulge in a spot of very broad generalization. If I was asked to come up with some broad principles of dealing with situations like having terrorists holed up inside a religious place, then I would suggest the following six principles (not in ranking order!)
Move very fast. Your best chances of success are right at the beginning, rather than at the end. With operations of this kind, the battle is as much in the mind as on the ground. The more the operation drags on, the worse it is, as you are then handing over the initiative to the terrorists, because they are allowed time to propagate their ideology and other people's biases get entrenched. Do something, anything at all, even if it is wrong, but this should not be the case. Your emergency committee staff should have a huge range of contingency plans. If not, fire your head of counter-terrorism and get somebody who can do this. Do war-gaming and find out the speed of reaction. Ask why you did not do better? Where are the decision making bottlenecks? Is it legislative? Judicial? Executive? Military? Police? Intelligence? Where are the issues? Are there any governance problems? People not getting involved? Or too many people involved? What is stopping you from immediately taking action against common terrorist scenario's?
Have very highly trained soldiers who are explicitly trained on this kind of scenario (such as the SAS or SWAT); do not let your ordinary policemen handle this. In this scenario, as history has taught us, you need pin-point highly targeted, exceedingly violent, minimal civilian casualties, but maximum elimination of the bad guys' potential. This means very highly trained operatives. In other words, Special Forces. Do not use your Mr. Plod for this kind of operation. At this moment, only very few countries have this kind of ability, such as France, USA, UK, India, Germany, etc. Do these operations have legal cover (see the example of German and American Special Forces being hemmed in with legal restrictions which do not apply to operations carried out by Indian and British forces). They should also be able to cut across all the usual political kingdom fights which are endemic in police forces. For ordinary crime fighting, you have the time and small impact so that you can sit and masticate over organizational structures, reporting lines and the like. But for very fast moving scenarios such as religious place attacks or take-over, you need Special Forces.
Public Relations and Media communications is more important than knocking off the terrorists. The bigger battle is in the minds, on the air-waves and the media. The terrorists are not fighting you, the police or the soldiers. Their objective is political and ideological. For that they need publicity. And given the shameless, incestuous, demanding and voracious nature of current media, you need to be extremely switched on and clued up to deal with it. The ideal situation is a total media blackout, starve the terrorists of the oxygen of publicity and their terrorism gets strangled. See what the British did in Northern Ireland and what India is doing in Kashmir and North Eastern India. A media clampdown is in operation which is well over half of the battle. But given that most of the religious places are in built up urban areas, it will be very difficult to impose a total black-out. That means that you have a choice. You have a choice of being totally transparent and hoping for the best or managing the incident through a proper PR and communications department. Talk to the experts, listen to them about how opinion is formed. See how Gulf War I was run, that was the best run media operation ever. Gulf War II was not as good, because they lost control over the media and did not consider Al Jazeera, mobile photography, internet and others.
Treat the incident as a crime, never ever give the terrorists the chance to say that it was politically motivated. Treat them as criminals, armed robbers and murderers. They will be talking absolute rot about how their religion allows them the license to act like thugs, brain dead zombies and various other assorted low-pond lives. Well, do not entertain this idea at all, it is not. The goons were simply criminals. If you even give the slightest hint (such as Islam is a religion of peace, Hinduism is pluralistic, Judaism is for non-violence, Buddhism is peaceful'), then you have lost the mind battle. Do not care what your religion or what you think your religion says. You are an ordinary criminal and will be treated as such.
If possible, raze the temple/mosque/church to the ground; don't let it become a future physical focal point. If that is not possible, then change the building's importance; convert it to an elephant stable or a warehouse for stocking old car tires. Nobody cares about warehouses if they go up in flames. These buildings attain 'shrine' status. People visit there to pay respects and myths are accrete around it. The people who died there become martyrs. People then have a physical focal point. Remember what the Romans did to the Carthaginians? They invaded the empire, sold the people into slavery, tore down the buildings and sowed the land with salt. That might be a bit extreme and might be difficult today, but that's what earthquake, fire, health and safety building codes are there for. Fence it off and let it fall into disrepair or give it a discreet poke with a bulldozer.
If applicable, do not allow the same religious groups to retain control over the building, give it to a secular body like a municipal council or change ownership or something. Finally, under absolutely no circumstances, allow the same people to have control over the building. You just spilled so much blood, sacrificed a huge number of soldier lives to get the poxy buggers out of there and then if you give it back to the same group, you are just storing up trouble. You can be smart about it, give it to an association, or the municipal corporation, or setup a inter-religious group to oversee it, etc. etc.
But people do not learn and I am afraid religious houses are just too attractive a target. The only thing which I am sure of is that this will happen again, and soon, somewhere in the world. Perhaps these lessons will be taken to heart.
All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!