Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Counter Terrorism - The Role of Police Stations Concerns and Way Forward



By Afzal A Shigri
         Pakistan is today faced with a complex and difficult security situation due to widespread terrorism and insurgency.  Even terrorism by a single group with a clearly defined cause is always difficult to confront and fight, but we have to deal with a faceless enemy that has varying points of genesis, shades of ideologies and multiple agendas. What is the most obvious fact about this enemy is that its acts have affected the entire country. These various groups are challenging the writ of the state with unprecedented violence and impunity; in some situations we even note an alliance amongst them in their fight against the law enforcement agencies.  Fight against terrorism is not only difficult but is also bloody and messy particularly when the political leadership does not have a common stance or clarity of vision to deal with a threat of this magnitude that is threatening the very existence of the state. It needs to be tackled at various levels i.e. ideological, strategic, operational/tactical and developmental. It is absolutely crucial that these aspects are addressed simultaneously through a sound and comprehensive policy.
      Police and law enforcement agencies have the responsibility to confront and fight against the terrorists through strategic planning and effective tactical action on ground.  Today Pakistan Army, civil armed forces and police are engaged in this complex fight and have given unmatched sacrifices to counter the terrorists despite the handicap of a confused response by the political leadership.  When we talk about anti terrorism policy on the aspects of strategic and technical aspects, we think of modern weapons, high-tech intelligence collection, and of new specialized forces.  However, the key criminal justice system dealing with this threat in the frontline does not receive the same level of importance thereby endangering the existential struggle for this country. This system comprises police, civil law enforcement agencies, army, prosecution, and most important the courts.
      We will be talking about the role of police stations that is the most important part of the police structure in this effort to deal with terrorism in the country. The basic unit of law enforcement in Pakistan, and for that matter internationally, is a police station.  This unit is pivotal to the long complex and sustained fight against terrorism. Since fancy gadgets, SWAT teams and specialized counter terrorism forces are attractive and have a media value that has been embedded in our sub-conscious due to multiple stories of onscreen heroism; we tend to lose sight of the basics and rush to create new forces as quick fix. 
       The police station has a unique position of being a part of the community where it is located. It has a wealth of information about the local population, the very populace amongst whom the faceless terrorists find refuge.  It is this population where it also has its affiliates and supporters.  The terrorists also have the advantage of free movement without being noticed.  Only alert, experienced, sensitized and well trained police personnel posted in the police station can identify and collect actionable intelligence during their patrolling and in their daily interaction with the local population.  Police station also has an elaborate system of documentation and an institutional memory about the people, their background and a system of information about any unusual activity in its jurisdiction.  We have not tapped this resource.  The information that flows into the police station in bits and pieces may look insignificant but is of tremendous value in the jigsaw puzzle of the overall picture. We only need to reorient the direction of the police stations and gear them to focus on this continuing battle against a network of terrorists spread far and wide.
      The Central Intelligence Units at the provincial level as well as at the Federal level need to create that link to benefit from these very important sources of information. This will not help in gathering hard intelligence about the terrorists but would help in assessments, trends in terrorism/insurgency and their inter linkage at the national and international levels. 
      Repeatedly we have observed that actionable intelligence and successful investigation have emerged from the local police station.  Its importance has never been recognized and the police station has only been maligned by repetitive negative political statements in the media that talk of only so-called thana culture.  It is time that in the national security plan, the crucial role of the police stations is recognized and integrated in the overall plan as a key source of intelligence and the information emanating from it is used to develop actionable intelligence against various terrorist outfits and also used to determine the trends and devise the strategies to win this ongoing battle.        
       The police station is also the first responder in dealing with terrorist attacks or action on information about an incident or presence of terrorists.  They are present in every corner of the country and have the advantage of securing the support and help of local population. Their local knowledge is of immense value in avoiding collateral damage in fighting the terrorists in their hideouts. Comparatively specialized forces are small in number and have the disadvantage of being located away from the scene of incidence.
      It needs to be accepted that the terrorists have the inherent advantage of selecting their targets.  Its purpose is to create fear and a sense of insecurity by targeting specific sections of the population in a way that attracts media attention.  This can be done anywhere and at any time. The only check against such act of lawlessness is the local police station that can also ensure the support of the local population. It is therefore important that while going for huge investments in any anti-terrorism forces and units, the police station is not neglected. Its strength should be integrated in the overall plan with a key role allocated to it for dealing with the terrorists groups. It should be properly resourced, and the police station should be given modern equipment, reliable transport and improved communications through Telecom and Internet.  It is essential that well trained and educated officers are appointed in these police stations who are able to use the modern gadgets for exchange of information; they should also be trained to collect information and confront the terrorists locally.
      Because of the outreach of police station in every nick and corner of the country, it has unique advantage of playing an effective role in general crackdown on the suspected targets simultaneously on ground and in denying the space to the terrorists. A coordinated and sustained action on a wide scale for search and arrest of the terrorists and their supporters will pay immediate dividends in our fight to restore peace. It will also degrade the capability of the terrorist organizations who will find it difficult to find refuge in the face of such unrelenting action by the local police. This will snatch the initiative from the terror groups.
      If we recognize the importance of the police station as a key element in anti- terrorism strategy and integrate it in the plan, the battle would be half won.  It is the only police station that can ensure a sustained operation against the terrorism.  The sooner we recognize it, the better it would be for Pakistan and the world at large.
      Preceding paras bring out the following important aspects of the role of the police in fighting terrorism comprehensively:- 
i)       Police station is essentially part of the local community. It can therefore secure the cooperation of the local population and also deny space to the terrorists and their supporters.
ii)    It can become a prime source of intelligence for the national data base.
iii)  Being the first responder and with its far reaching presence, it can act on actionable intelligence in real-time.
iv)  Its association and involvement will be of immense value in investigation of the cases involving acts of terrorism.
v)     It can also help in drying up the resources of the terrorist organizations by creating awareness amongst the population against the violence/terrorism.
Recommendations
i)       Training of the personnel in public relations and service orientation to make their role acceptable and effective as part of the community.
ii)    Building a linkage of the police station with the NGOs and organizations that should be given due priority through provision of resources to all concerned for awareness and cooperation of community.
iii)  Creating direct linkage for sending information in time to the Central Data Base through Internet and Telecommunication.  This will require equipment and trained personnel to be located in the police station for transmission of the information.
iv)  Being the first responder it is absolutely essential that each police station is provided the latest weapon and other security gadgets to confront terrorists and required training.

v)     Posting of trained personnel from elite and investigation wing to exclusively deal with terrorist cases.
vi)  Integrating of the role of the police station for sustained and wide scale action to be incorporated in the national strategic and tactical plans.

               We do not have the luxury of unlimited time line as we are fast approaching a total collapse of the law enforcement structure with ominous future for the country. An all embracing security plan with the Police Station as a key component is absolutely necessary to deal with the ongoing war against terror.
This paper was read in a seminar held at Islamabad on 28th January, 2014 organized by Center for Research & Security Studies.