By Arul Louis
Ping pong diplomacy was reaching India and the then-Chinese Sports Vice-Minister, Hao Cheng-hung, was transiting through New Delhi in January 1975 leading his country’s team to the World Table Tennis Championship in what was still Calcutta. I went to the Palam Airport to cover his arrival for the United News of India news agency I was working then.
Amid the throng of welcomers was the ubiquitous contingent of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students. As the chants of “Hindi-Chini bhai, bhai” rose, some Naxalites, a break away communist faction of Maoists, tried to sneak in “Mao, Mao, Chin ki chairman hamara chairman (China’s chairman is our chairman).” The other students knew enough to separate themselves.
Back in office, my chief reporter cut out the sentence about Mao slogan, roaring an obscenity. Everybody around laughed and that was it. It was perhaps censorship, but with no 24/7 TV or social media the outside world did not get to hear about the sloganeering. Moreover, despite the border war of 1962, Peking hadn’t sent its citizens to attack Bombay or the Parliament.
About six months later Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother imposed the Emergency (1975-77) and JNU students were rounded up with the help of some from All India Students Federation (AISF), who were at that time hallucinating about hitching their red flag to the Congress’s khadi (handwoven cotton popularised by Mahatma Gandhi as a nationalist symbol). And those arrested didn’t have their day in court like Kanhayia Kumar, the JNU students’ union president and AISF leader who is now in the eye of a political storm on limits of free speech.
Now fast forward to 2009. I was the night editor at the Times Herald-Record, a newspaper outside New York City then owned by Dow Jones. A tale of how the United States holds the moral high ground on freedom of expression while subtly and effectively dealing with those who spew radical talk rolled out late one May night.
Police in combat gear descended on nearby Newburgh in armored vehicles to raid places connected to four Muslim converts of African descent who had been arrested and charged with plotting to shoot down military planes with missiles and bomb synagogues.
They had been nabbed as they were loading what they thought were bombs into cars near a New York City synagogue, officials trumpeted. In reality they were semi-literate petty criminals carrying duds. Their leader, James Cromitie, a.k.a. Abdul Rahman, had been speaking about avenging US bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan and making the fantastic claim that his parents lived in Afghanistan.
A paid FBI informant of Pakistani descent had been at Cromitie’s mosque spewing jihadi propaganda hoping to be a magnet for wannabe jihadists. He homed in on Cromitie and egged him on – all the while recording him and offering him money – till he came up with a terrorist plot and recruited the other three. The informant, identified in media reports as Shahed Hussain, also facilitated the four getting fake bombs and Stinger missiles.
The Newburgh Four, as they came to be known, were tried and convicted of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction despite the defence pointing out that it was entrapment. Federal Judge Colleen McMahon went by the letter of the law and sentenced them to 25 years. Nevertheless in a scathing criticism in her judgment of the tactic, she said of Cromitie that the government “came upon a man both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own. It created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry, and then made those fantasies come true.”
They appealed unsuccessfully all the way to the Supreme Court.
Informants and undercover agents are also used by officials on campuses to crackdown on jihadi talk with similar tactics of persuading them to graduate to specific plots so they can be decisively convicted without seeming to go after their right to free speech. This adds feathers to officials’ cap in the war on terror, while setting an example for other speaking in support of terror or glorifying terrorists.
The Gothamist web publication reported about a New York police detective who infiltrated the Brooklyn College Islamic Student Organisation claiming to be from a Turkish family. She was later involved in the arrest last year of two young women on terrorism charges, Gothamist said. One of them had written poems extolling terrorism and “martyrdom” in an al-Qaida magzine. The other had declared both of them to be “citizens of the Islamic State” and called Osama Bin Laden as her hero while they both were preparing for “pleasing Allah” with home-made bombs.
Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a Bangladeshi student in New York, pleaded guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and was sentenced in 2013 to 30 years in prison. He had fallen in with a government informant who led him on as he came up with a plot to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York and helped him getting a fake bomb, all the while building a terror case against him.
There are numerous cases like these where informants have gone after the loose-lipped and led them on to a failed terrordom. And that seals their fate as brave exercisers of free speech in the US, where terror threats and terror propaganda are taken seriously.
While the US displays sophistication in going after dissent that is terror propaganda, it is also a fact that even as the FBI, politicians and government chalk these up as victories in the war on terror, the Islamic terrorists in San Bernardino or Boston (despite a Russian tip) or Christian terrorists like Robert Dear ran free to pull off horrific attacks. And that’s the lesson for anyone in India – or elsewhere – eyeing American tactics.
In India the ham-handed authorities have also shown an astounding failure of intelligence when they went after Kanhayia Kumar and not those shouting slogans supporting terrorism or plotting attacks. And therein lie the real failures in the war on terror.
Perhaps politics overrides intelligence — in all meanings of the word.
*Arul Louis is Senior Fellow with the Society for Policy Studies who studied at JNU’s School of International Studies, 1973-77. He can be contacted at [email protected]