Dirty War: How America’s Friends Really Fight Terrorism

The New Republic
November 2002

If you happen to believe the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist, you are quite possibly a member of the U.S. government. I realized this while visiting the home of a U.S. official in Pakistan one Sunday afternoon. Security guards are always stationed outside his residence. When he ventures beyond his front door he does so in an armored car, with bodyguards at his side, and another vehicle follows his–lest he end up like Laurence Foley, the American diplomat who was killed outside his home in Amman, Jordan, on October 28.

We drank coffee and nibbled biscuits in his living room and chatted about the best place to buy handwoven carpets, which are plentiful in Pakistan, at prices that coincide with the sum the salesman believes he can extract from your American wallet. Our conversation then moved to the crackdown on religious extremists by Pakistan’s military leader, General Pervez Musharraf. I assumed the official wanted every actual or potential terrorist thrown in jail. He shook his head; I didn’t get it at all.

“We don’t want them arrested,” the official said. “We want them e–.”

He interrupted himself. He was reconsidering his choice of words.

“Were you going to say, ‘exterminated’?” I asked.

He smiled uncomfortably.

“No. I was going to say, ‘eliminated.'”

I cannot disclose his name or the city where we met, but I can add one detail about my host: He was telling the truth. It is impolitic for U.S. officials to give their blessing on the record to regimes that skip judicial niceties and go directly to the gallows, but that is the reality of America’s war on terrorism. Due process is a rarity in most Muslim nations; police and courts are rotten with ineptness, corruption, torture, and meddling by political and religious authorities. When the White House urges a crackdown, as it frequently does in public statements and private meetings, it knows–and does not mind–that terrorism suspects are far more likely to face summary executions than fair trials.

Publicly, the administration pretends this isn’t true. “In the context of our counterterrorism efforts,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said after meeting his Asian and Pacific Rim counterparts at the end of July, “I made the point to all my interlocutors that we still believe strongly in human rights and that in everything we do we have to be consistent with the universal standards of human rights.” The next day Powell added, “The United States feels strongly about these sorts of issues and believes that if we are really going to prevail over this plague on the face of mankind, then we have to do it in a way that respects human dignity.”

Powell, who is a smart man, knows this is nonsense. Earlier this year, in a report titled “Rights at Risk,” Amnesty International warned that “the `war on terror’ may be degenerating into a global `dirty war’ of torture, detentions, and executions.” In a statement accompanying the report, which cited a pattern of abuses in Egypt, China, Malaysia, Turkey, and elsewhere, Amnesty International said, “A number of states have introduced new laws that violate human rights standards while others have used existing measures to crack down on opposition.” Says Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, “The U.S. is facilitating these countries in committing torture to further its aims in the war on terror.”

Take Egypt, which is second only to Israel in the amount of aid it receives from the United States. Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is a brutocracy in which Islamic fundamentalists have in recent years been snuffed out in ways so unkind that even the State Department feels obliged, in its annual human rights reports, to criticize it. Mubarak’s regime has jailed several thousand Islamists without trial–some held for more than a decade–while hundreds of others have been convicted by military courts in which defendants’ rights are few. Since September 11, 2001, arrests and sham trials have been ramped up, according to human rights groups. This is not good news for the alleged perps because, as a 1996 U.N. report has noted, “torture is systematically practiced by the security forces in Egypt, in particular by State Security Intelligence.” Their preferred methods include electric shocks, whipping, suspension by the wrists or ankles, death threats, and threats of rape against male prisoners. Detainees occasionally die in custody due, as the authorities put it, to “a sharp drop in blood pressure.”

This is the environment into which, according to newspaper reports, the United States is discreetly transporting some of the terrorist suspects for interrogation. (Others have been transferred to Jordan and elsewhere.) “After September 11, these sorts of movements have been occurring all the time,” a U.S. diplomat told The Washington Post on March 11. “It allows us to get information from terrorists in a way we can’t do on U.S. soil.” As Powell put it in a remarkable statement on September 26, 2001, during the hot aftermath of the September 11 attacks: “Egypt, as all of us know, is really ahead of us on this issue. They have had to deal with acts of terrorism in recent years in the course of their history. And we have much to learn from them and there is much we can do together.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Mubarak is bubbling with satisfaction over the go-for-it signals he has received from Washington. “[W]e were right from the beginning in using all means, including military trials,” he said in a December interview with Al Gomhuriya, a state-owned newspaper in Cairo. “There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy that differs from the concept that Western states defended before these events, especially in regard to the freedom of the individual.”

Many Americans might agree (with apologies to Barry Goldwater) that Egyptian-style extremism in the name of anti-terrorism is no vice. They would be wrong. Not only for moral reasons but for pragmatic ones as well: Arbitrary arrests and executions, carried out by unloved governments at the bidding of the unloved United States, can lead to those governments being replaced by ones that support terrorists instead. The election in Pakistan in early October was a warning sign: A coalition of religious parties, which had never before fared well at the voting box, won a shocking 45 out of 272 available seats, making them the third-largest group in the National Assembly. Their campaign was based on explicit opposition to Musharraf’s support for America’s war on terrorism, almost every component of which–from ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan to rounding up Islamists in Karachi–has led the public to view their government as a puppet of Uncle Sam. It would not be terribly surprising if the October 12 terrorist bombing in Bali sparks a similar process in Indonesia, in which an abuse-laden crackdown by a moderate and inept government leads to a surge in support for Islamists. The United States cannot afford another round of blowback. If history teaches us anything–our support for anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan begat the post-Soviet chaos that led to the Taliban, which hosted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, spawning Mohammed Atta and September 11–it is that unintended consequences matter.

Pakistan’s criminal justice system does not operate in a way that William Rehnquist or even Johnnie Cochran would recognize. If police cannot find a suspect–a common occurrence–they often lock up his family and wait for him to turn himself in. The police are, with the exception of elite units, ill-paid and corrupt. You can pay a police officer not to arrest you, or you can pay him to arrest someone else; you can pay him not to torture you or to torture someone else; if you offer suitable incentives, you can involve a police officer in a crime that you wish to commit; and if you wish to escape from jail, that can be arranged for a price, too. A police officer’s typical official salary is the equivalent of $30 per month–not enough, as Karachi’s police chief told me, to survive on.

Judges are generally made of the same gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight fiber as the police. When a judge in the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder case was asked to subpoena Yahoo for information–the kidnappers issued their demands through e-mail–he suggested the police just arrest “Mr. Yahoo.” In addition to ignorance, judges are vulnerable to intimidation. Since the police cannot assure anyone’s security, even their own, criminals know that a whispered threat will silence most witnesses and persuade most judges to modify their decisions. It is a vicious circle because police have little incentive to arrest criminals, or let them survive until trial, if they know a conviction is unlikely.

Pakistan has special anti-terrorism courts that were set up in 1997 and–in contrast to regular courts–are supposed to dispense swift and fair justice in cases that involve major crimes, especially sectarian murders and kidnappings. That’s the theory, at least. The trial of four of Pearl’s murderers was intended to showcase the system. But the case was transferred from one anti-terrorism judge to another and then another; and it involved a change of locale, from Karachi to Hyderabad, because of security concerns of every sort–for the defendants, the lawyers, the witnesses, the judge. The trial was finally held in a jail with no reporters present, and–although the defendants were convicted in July–the verdicts may be overturned on appeal due to evidence that emerged after the trial that indicated the men were not the principal killers.

Whether or not the kidnappers are released on appeal, the men who testified against them are in jeopardy. Jameel Yusuf, director of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), a private-sector crime-fighting group, now travels with an armed guard and varies the cars he drives so that colleagues of the men he helped to convict will have a harder time assassinating him. Yusuf met with Pearl just before he was kidnapped and later testified at the trial, prompting one of the defendants to call him a “Jewish agent”–tantamount to a death threat in Pakistan. “In this country you can be bumped off very easily,” he told me as we were driven to lunch at a private club. There was a police guard in the front seat of our car, and an unmarked car with more bodyguards followed us.

The upshot is that police in Pakistan, as in other judicially deficient nations, take shortcuts to what they consider justice. These days Pakistan faces enormous U.S. pressure for action against suspected terrorists because it has been a breeding ground for extremism for more than two decades, since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Many Al Qaeda members have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban’s fall and have linked up with local militants who wish to destabilize Musharraf’s pro-U.S. regime. Since May, car bombs outside the Sheraton Hotel and the U.S. consulate in Karachi have killed more than two dozen foreigners and Pakistanis, and in August a school for the children of Christian missionaries was attacked outside of Islamabad.

In response to this escalation and to American pressure, Musharraf’s government has arrested some of the perpetrators, including key figures in Al Qaeda. It has also, according to Amnesty International, arrested hundreds of Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis without just cause. “The rule of law has been swept aside,” the group said in a June report. “Detainees are not treated in accordance with either Pakistani or international law. … Who is being held where is unknown. Detainees are cut off from family and lawyers, and there are no official notices.”

If you want to know why these excesses occur, a look at Yusuf’s work is instructive. When he co-founded the CPLC in 1989, Karachi–a city with a population of approximately 12 million–was known as the “City of Death.” Every morning a few dozen corpses would be scattered around its streets, often with fatal wounds caused by unconventional instruments of torture, such as power drills. The city was a free-fire zone in which violent turf battles were fought among political parties, criminal gangs, and the police; the streets would empty at dusk, like Dodge City at the worst of times.

The police were worse than useless. They were such notorious shakedown artists that citizens were afraid to enter a precinct station to report a crime because they might be arrested or tortured by police trying to extort money from them. Kidnappings by criminal gangs seeking to gain lucrative ransoms from businessmen and their relatives reached epidemic levels because the police were incapable of catching the perpetrators and not terribly interested in doing so; families didn’t report abductions until after they paid the demanded ransom, fearing the police would botch any raids they attempted. Of course this fed the epidemic; kidnapping became an industry.

Enter Yusuf and the CPLC.

Under Yusuf’s direction, the CPLC adopted a ruthlessly efficient strategy of investigation, intimidation, and elimination. The CPLC was set up as a semi-official agency by the provincial government; its headquarters is located on prime government property in the city center. Yusuf–who owns a successful textile business and accepted the unpaid CPLC job because he is essentially a good Samaritan with the righteous anger of a vigilante–worked with army commandos and elite police officers, becoming, in effect, their unofficial leader. He is a short man with the don’t-mess-with-me mannerisms of a lion-tamer. His style of speech is not unlike the rhythm of a machine gun–there are short bursts and long bursts that stop as suddenly as they start, and just as you duck when bullets are flying, you listen when Yusuf is speaking.

During a lull in one of our chats, Yusuf pointed to my digital recorder, which was on his desk. He said that he has a digital recorder that looks like a pen. I asked to see it.

“I keep it here,” he said, tapping a pen/recorder on his desk.

“A spy device?” I asked.

“This is the type I want,” he replied. “You ask permission [to record]. We don’t ask permission. No laws to prevent us.”

“There are some,” I noted delicately.

“We misuse them,” he smiled. “That’s how we get a lower crime rate.”

In the early days of his work, when he wasn’t sure whom he could trust, Yusuf deployed his wife and teenage daughters on stakeouts; because Pakistan is a male-dominated society, kidnappers did not imagine that women would be used against them. Yusuf’s daughters, wearing scarves over their faces, would stand near drop-off points for ransom payments and provide descriptions of the kidnappers. At times his wife trailed the kidnappers in a car.

The core of Yusuf’s strategy was, as the euphemism goes, extra-legal. And it worked. According to CPLC figures, the number of abductions has dropped from 79 in 1990 to 13 in 2001. The reasons why this happened became clear as Yusuf described a case that occurred in October 2001, when two kidnappers were caught by police teams led by Yusuf and other CPLC members (most of whom are, like Yusuf, businessmen donating their time and risking their lives). A third member of their gang remained at large, along with the hostage, who was a businessman’s wife.

“When we get two guys, it is very nice, very easy,” Yusuf said, sitting in his modern office at the CPLC headquarters in downtown Karachi. Across the hallway were several rooms with modern computers and neatly dressed workers who would not have looked out of place in an American crime lab. (In most police stations in Pakistan, by contrast, you rarely see a computer.) Yusuf recalled that the kidnappers were taken to a nearby police station where he interrogated them. “One guy was weaker so he broke really fast. I told him, `Look, I am going to torture you so much that you might die. We don’t bother about that because we have two of you. Whether a man in custody dies or not, who cares? You better save your life. The earlier you speak up the better; otherwise let’s see how much torture you can take. If you die we will throw you out. Who cares?'”

Yusuf began chuckling, because, as he has been delighted to discover over the years, terrorists themselves can be terrorized quite easily.

“And then of course we promise him, `Look, we’ll feed you. Don’t do it again, alright? We’ll spare you if you promise on the Koran you won’t do anything after this.’ Oh, he is most happy. He thinks he’s going to be left [alone]. He says, `Alright, alright.’ We get some hot tea for him. So from the hard treatment you come to this state.”

The kidnappers were told to give a precise description of the house where their hostage was being held; not just its location but what it looked like, the number of entrances, the room in which the abductee was held, and so on. The kidnappers were then taken to the site with Yusuf, on the excuse that further help might be required. As it turned out, the third kidnapper left the house moments before Yusuf and his squad of police officers arrived, so the hostage was freed unhurt.

But the work was not finished. Karachi’s newspapers often report in crime stories that a suspected robber, kidnapper, or murderer was “killed in an encounter with police.” This tends to be shorthand for saying that the police dealt with the suspect in a summary manner, though as a courtesy they might permit the victim or a relative to deliver the coup de grace. “Encounters in our country have never been a problem, you know,” Yusuf said. “When a judiciary fails, extra-judicial systems take their place. It’s a very natural phenomenon, however bad you may feel about it. Everybody wants to protect their people.”

So what happened to the captured kidnappers? “Wiped out in the encounter, sadly,” Yusuf smiled. “That’s how it is. Look, in America you used to hang horse thieves.”

That’s true, but if you want to understand the downside of “justice” of that sort, all you need to do is go to the nearest video store and rent The Ox-Bow Incident, a classic western starring Henry Fonda in which three men accused of murder and cattle-rustling are captured by a lynch mob. As one of the posse members says in the film, “‘Cause the law’s slow and careless around here sometimes, we’re here to see it speeded up.” Fonda, who opposes the hanging, tells the posse leader, “All you know is you’ve lost something, and somebody’s got to be punished.” The three men are hanged, and, as it turns out, they were innocent.

But in today’s world, might not this unhappy trade-off be an acceptable price for security? I mentioned to Human Rights Watch’s Bouckaert that the unkind methods of justice, such as those used by Yusuf in his anti-kidnapping campaign, can work.

“I’m willing to take those arguments into account, but I don’t think we should accept their validity at face value,” he replied. “I can just as well say that it’s been proven time and time again that torture is not useful in interrogation, that it doesn’t lead to reliable information. Look at the Algerian civil war–[torture] led to an escalation of the conflict. The same thing for Zimbabwe’s civil war. Israel has been using these techniques for decades, and they certainly haven’t stopped terror attacks against Israel.

“I think that’s a fundamental error in the war on terrorism. The U.S. could take the moral high ground to distinguish its actions from the actions of the Russian government and Egyptian government, who have committed serious abuses that serve as prime recruiting propaganda for Osama bin Laden. His websites are filled with information about abuses by Russians in Chechnya and the Egyptians and Saudis. It would benefit the U.S. if it clearly distinguished itself from those abusive campaigns and said there is no need to commit torture and kill civilians.”

In fact, however, the Bush administration has yet to break a sweat promoting democracy in any country that is not spelled I-r-a-q or C-u-b-a. When Musharraf, who came to power in a coup, staged a crooked referendum in May that extended his rule by five years (one woman said she voted for him 60 times), the State Department had little to say. It has been almost as muffled about Mubarak’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists. (The United States decided not to increase aid in protest of Egypt’s imprisonment of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, but Cairo’s $2 billion in annual aid was never in jeopardy.) And you will need to be infinitely patient if you wish to hear a word of serious criticism from President Bush about the Russian army’s continuing violations in Chechnya. The White House has even refused to criticize Russian authorities for using chemical gas to end the siege of a Moscow theater by Chechen terrorists, which killed more than 100 hostages, including one American. “Given the fact that the terrorists were clearly serious and had already killed people, and apparently had the theater booby-trapped so all would die, it’s important to know what the full circumstances are before venturing further,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Sunday.

All is not totally bleak, though. The FBI is increasing its presence in Pakistan and throughout the Muslim world, working with local police departments and security agencies as much as its hosts permit. This can improve the efficacy and fairness of faulty criminal justice systems. In Karachi, terrorist attacks have led to close cooperation between the FBI and the police department’s Criminal Investigation Division, an elite unit that focuses on terrorism, and that cooperation has helped produce some of the recent arrests of Al Qaeda members. The FBI has also agreed to train members of the Pakistani police department in the United States and to provide crime-fighting equipment, such as computer and telecommunications gear. Much more of this is needed throughout the Muslim world.

Senior police officials in Pakistan welcome their contacts with the G-men. I had lengthy conversations with Karachi’s top anti-terrorist investigator, who, it turned out, is a fan not only of the FBI but of movies about the FBI. When I happened to mention In the Line of Fire, which stars Clint Eastwood, the investigator corrected me, noting that the film is about a Secret Service agent. But the world of the FBI, and the world of due process, is far away from his; on his wall is a framed slogan that sums up the quandary of a good cop in a dysfunctional system: “We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

For the foreseeable future the war on terror in foreign lands will be waged by the faulty criminal justice systems that do exist, rather than the ones Powell wishes us to believe exist. The United States needs to be more honest about what our allies are doing, and we must do more to ensure that the eliminations we have urged upon them do not backfire. We have already seen, after all, where that leads.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.