Sajjan Gohel on the Heathrow Terror Plot: 'Transnational Terrorism's Obsession with the Aviation Industry'

23 May 2007

Interview by Jesse Brown

Sajjan Gohel is currently, Director for International Security for the Asia-Pacific Foundation (APF), which is an independent security and intelligence think-tank based in London. In addition, he has written Op-Ed pieces for the national print media, he is also makes frequent contributions to television and radio. In 2005, Sajjan was asked by the UNHCR to produce an assessment on Lebanon and the security concerns after the killing of prominent Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri. Sajjan has been one of the leading authorities in investigating the profiles and nature of terrorist individuals and trans-national groups throughout the world.

Madrid11: Regarding Thursday’s(10/08/06) terror plot on Heathrow Airport, was there anything particularly different or surprising in your view?

Sajjan Gohel: Yet again with this alleged plot we've seen another obsession by transnational terrorism to target the aviation industry, using planes as weapons and inflicting a mass causality atrocity. With the particular plot itself, it would have been perhaps the most catastrophic since 9/11. We’ve seen that whenever Al-Qaeda is trying to use airplanes as part of a terrorist attack the goal is designed, ultimately, to inflict as many causalities as possible and create a political, social and economic reaction.

It’s interesting that it comes at a time just before we get close to the 5th anniversary of 9/11. There was worry in the intelligence community that terrorists in any part of the world would want to be planning something spectacular that would attract attention. Fortunately, thankfully the authorities were able to act quickly and decisively, spoiling a plot of this scale and size, which, if had worked, would have had devastating, long-lasting consequences and would have seriously curtailed the aviation industry.

Madrid11: You touch on the similarities with 9/11. Why this trend amongst terrorist in targeting airplanes and airline passengers?

Sajjan Gohel: the aviation industry is so essential for today’s world; commerce, business, travel, those wishing to go on holiday. It bridges a very important divide, it brings people together. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have seen that by targeting it, it has an economic impact by creating problems for businesses. It also puts pressure on governments. It means that more security is needed for airports and other transportation hubs. It makes the life of the average individual much more complicated. That’s the thing we have to remember, that even though a plan can be thwarted, like the one we’ve just seen in the United Kingdom, the secondary goal of the terrorists has still actually worked. That goal is to cause disruption, confusion, anger, and resentment.

They always want and try to create psychological reactions and emotions. Their goals are two different guises. One is a psychological reaction and the other is to actually inflict maximum harm. For that reason, you will always see the transportation system throughout the world being attacked. We saw with devastating effect the train system being hit in London, Madrid and most recently in Mumbai. The transpiration system is always a target because it almost serves as a guarantee. If a successful attack takes place, it will create a maximum, mass causality atrocity, and it assures to attract attention. It gives the terrorist notoriety, and they’re able to use it for their own propaganda purposes. So it serves them pretty well because it is effective it is in creating horror, shock, and fear. Therefore, transportation systems will always be under threat in any part of the world.

Madrid11: Do you find any connection between the timing of this terror plot and the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Hezbollah?

Sajjan Gohel: Throughout the world there will always be problems, there will always be conflict. What the extremists and terrorists like to do is exploit the situation for their own agenda. They know how to pick on a certain issue and turn it around in order to inflame and insight tension, that’s what they do very well. Of course, whenever there is conflict, particularly in the Middle East, it does provoke a reaction. What the terrorists know how to do is channel that anger and frustration, and direct it toward targeting innocent victims.

We have to bear in mind that those who are actually recruited to take part in a terrorist act, aren’t always motivated by some regional grievance or conflict. They’ve been brought into a terrorist group primarily because they espouse the same ideological influence as people like Osama Bin Laden. The war on terrorism is a war of ideas, of ideology, of concepts. When Osama Bin Laden or his affiliates issue a statement, whether we see it on the internet or on television, it’s there as a message, as a platform, as a source of propaganda to encourage individuals to join different terrorist groups. So an attack may not be planned by Al-Qaeda central, but they are always Al-Qaeda inspired and influenced by the ideology that Osama Bin Laden preaches. And that’s now the most powerful tool that groups like Al-Qaeda have, even though they’ve evolved from being an organization to a movement.

Madrid11: In mentioning ‘ideology’ and ‘regional recruitment,’ there were also several arrests in Pakistan linked with the UK plot. What is it about Pakistan that has made it such a good breeding ground for fundamentalist or radical sentiment?

Sajjan Gohel: Pakistan became the new home for Al-Qaeda after the group fled following operation Enduring Freedom. It basically transferred itself and set up shop there. We know it has remained. Key members of Al-Qaeda have been captured in the major urban heartland of Pakistan. Perhaps most importantly at the moment, Kalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the master planner of 9/11, was captured inside Raul Pindi, which is very close to the capital Islamabad. The problem is that in the past there have been elements in Pakistan that have been very sympathetic to the extremists and terrorists, and those elements have often had ties at a governmental and security level. They still largely exist, which is why the terrorists have found Pakistan a very comfortable sanctuary, where they are able to carry out their agenda. It’s largely believed and assumed that Osama and deputy Zawahiri are based there. Let’s not forget that when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was the base for the Mujahadeen from all over the Islamic world to go into Afghanistan and that has largely remained. The structures of that, the bases, still exist. So it’s become an extremist hot bed.

Now the fact that a lot of Britons have been connected to Pakistan is primarily because they go there to meet with radicals and terrorists for further indoctrinating and for ideological guidance. They also learn the tools and skills to be able to assemble an explosive device and carry out an explosive attack. It’s very much seen as a finishing school. Furthermore, the extremist schools, the Madrasas that still exist, they haven’t been clamped down upon and that’s still a problem in terms of there being a lot of the terrorist groups that operate there. General Musharraf, who is supposedly a very important ally in the war on terror, hasn’t done enough in clamping down on all these different elements. When you have a military dictator there, these problems usually increase. Whereas when you had a proper democracy in Pakistan there was greater control on the activities of the extremists.

Madrid11: That’s an interesting connection you draw between democracy and dictatorship in terms of controlling terrorism. When you mention that some British people are drawn to Pakistan for indoctrination, and recalling 7/7 and the riots in Paris this year, would you say there is a growing identity crisis that has increased in the last two years amongst British born or European born Muslims?

Sajjan Gohel: If we look at terror recruitment today, Europe has very much altered in the eyes of the terrorist from being a playground where plots and plans were being executed from abroad, to Europe now becoming the battleground where attacks are being orchestrated from within the major cities of the continent. People usually do the plots from that particular country that may have origin in another part of the world. People who are carrying out attacks or are behind plots are individuals who are 2nd or 3rd generation, well educated, and have a good middle class background. They posses the western social skills and the ability to blend into the civilian fabric of society without giving any indication that they are actually harboring their own resentment against their own society and are willing to turn against it. The problem within this has also been the issue of identity. They are somewhat confused about who they are, where they are, and whom they actually belong to. The extremists who give them their own answers, turn them around, cultivate and indoctrinate them into becoming ticking time bombs have exploited that. They are exploited, and turned around against their own society to kill and be killed.

Madrid11: If terrorists exploit that identity crisis, is there any responsibility on the part of European society or governments to resolve that crisis, and do you think it’s possible enough hasn’t been done?

Sajjan Gohel: The war on ‘terrorism,’ as we call it, is really a tactic. Terrorism is a strategy. You can’t necessarily defeat the strategy, but what you can do is try to counter the ideas and propaganda that are being used to espouse extremism and intolerance. It’s absolutely pivotal to defeat the ideology and rhetoric that people like Osama Bin Laden preaches. When Bin Laden issues a statement it involves a lot of rhetoric, a lot of content from the Koran, and what he’s done is misinterpret it for his own warped meaning. There is no one ever countering his arguments and ideas. Many of them are very weak, but unless proper discussions, public debates, actual counter arguments, those ideas will grow, infest into the minds of young impressionable individuals. They will eventually encourage them to become a part of a terrorist group.

Extremists know they can’t always attract everybody, but it’s a wide net. They hope that by throwing across their ideas they can attract a few people and those few people can still carry out an attack. Suddenly, Europe has become a major platform. We saw the attacks in Istanbul back in 2003 that were on the doorstep of the continent, and then we saw Madrid and London attacks, which were in the heart. It’s a problem that all European countries face, the threat of transnational terrorism. Therefore there needs to be a united effort in defeating the concept and ideas that are encouraging their own citizens to become extremists. In The war on terrorism, capturing and arresting people is a very important component, but the other vital component is defeating the ideas and propaganda that is used. Until we do that, terror groups will simply replenish their ranks, and they will never really be dismantled.

Madrid11: What does the deterrence of these attacks mean for British counter- terrorism?

Sajjan Gohel: The British authorities really need to be congratulated for their efforts in curtailing a large number of attacks. They have actively prevented a plot from being executed in the UK. After September 11, as well as after 7th July, they’ve disrupted a number of plots, and they‘ve had to face a lot of unfair criticism. However, they’ve had a very difficult job in assuring the country’s safe and basically preventing a terrorist attack from taking place. The authorities in the UK, as well as those in every country, have to be 100% successful all the time. The terrorists just have to be lucky once and that once can inflict a mass casualty atrocity. So for that reason, it is essential that there is understanding and support for the security force. It’s a very difficult job, and they don’t deliberately make life difficult for people. What they try to do is save lives.

What we’re seeing is greater cooperation taking place between countries. For example, the US and the UK have cooperated very closely since 9/11, sharing information and resources on potential individuals that could be connected to terrorist plots. When they work together, like we’ve seen with the recent plot that’s been thwarted, it’s a great result, it’s a success, it means lives have been saved.

We’ve also seen that the UK has cooperated with its European partners as well, and that’s very important because each agency has a piece of the puzzle, and it gives them a greater understanding of how wide and large a threat actually is. So, cooperation is essential, it always needs to be improved, and it’s getting to a point now where we can say it’s producing successful results in stopping acts of terrorism.

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