The National Security Council is Crucial for Secular Democracy and Rule of Law
Dr. Jamaluddin Ahmed
As Bangladesh’s political polarisation reaches historic highs and local jihadist groups forge links with transnational movements, conditions are ripe for new forms of militancy that could threaten the country’s security and religious tolerance. Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam, dominate today’s jihadist landscape; a faction of the former appears to have consolidated links to the Islamic State (ISIS) while the latter is affiliated with al-Qaeda’s South Asian branch. Both have perpetrated a string of attacks over the past few years, some targeting secular activists, others Bangladeshi minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat. Its crackdowns on political rivals sap resources from efforts to disrupt jihadist activities. Instead, it should invest in reinforcing the capability of the security forces and judiciary and build political consensus on how to tackle the threat.
The country’s recent history of jihadism dates to the late 1990s, when veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan returned to Bangladesh. A first wave of violence, involving two groups, the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh and the JMB, peaked on 17 August 2005, when the latter group synchronised bomb blasts in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Successive governments subsequently took action against the JMB’s leadership, but the group has revived itself, albeit in a new form. Another group, Ansarul Islam (or Ansar), has also emerged, while a JMB splinter – dubbed the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” by law enforcement agencies – calls itself the Islamic State-Bangladesh and has funnelled fighters into Iraq and Syria.
Ansar portrays itself as the defender of Islam from those who – in its leaders’ view – explicitly attack the religion. The JMB, on the other hand, has named a longer list of enemies: it considers perceived symbols of the secular state and anyone not subscribing to its interpretation of Islam as legitimate targets. The Bangladesh police allege that JMB operatives have played a part in attacks claimed by ISIS on prominent members of minority communities and religious facilities and events, including Ahmadi mosques, Sufi shrines, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Shia festivals. An attack on a Dhaka café on 1-2 July 2016 that killed over twenty people, mostly foreigners, appears to have involved loose cooperation between different groups, including both rural-based madrasa students and elite urban young men.
Bangladesh’s contentious national politics have played a role in enabling the jihadist resurgence. Ansar found its initial raison d’être in the Awami League government’s post-2010 trials of people accused of war crimes perpetrated in the 1971 war of independence. Those trials, targeting the senior leadership of the largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), prompted criticism for violating due process, lacking transparency, and involving intimidation and harassment of defence lawyers and witnesses. The prosecutions were used to crush the JeI, a close ally of the Awami League’s main political rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and to discredit the BNP itself. They provoked widespread anger among Islamists, which was mostly expressed through mass protest, not jihadist violence. Yet Ansar, depicting the trials as an assault on Islam, recruited urban, educated youth, albeit in relatively small numbers, and perpetrated brutal attacks on secular activists and bloggers who had demanded harsh punishment for those prosecuted.
Political polarisation has contributed to the growth of militancy in less direct ways, too. The marginalisation of the BNP through politically motivated corruption and other trials of its leadership, including party chief Khaleda Zia’s 8 February 2018 conviction and five-year sentence for corruption, and of the JeI, through the war crimes trials and a ban on its participation in elections, have eliminated most democratic competition and encouraged the growth of a jihadist fringe. A purge of BNP and JeI sympathisers from the armed forces has elicited animosity within some military circles toward the Awami League, which the jihadists also appear to be seeking to exploit. The BNP, for its part, has on occasion used terrible violence, or supported groups that do so, fuelling political animus and deepening schisms.
The influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August-December 2017 also raises security concerns for Bangladesh. Jihadist groups– including ISIS and Pakistani militants–have referenced the Rohingya’s plight in efforts to mobilise support. For now, though, little suggests that the refugees are particularly susceptible to jihadist recruitment. Bangladesh’s response to the humanitarian tragedy should focus primarily not on counter-terrorism but on providing support for refugees and redoubling efforts to assuage potential friction between them and host communities.
The state response to the surge of jihadist violence over the past few years has relied primarily on blunt and indiscriminate force, including alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Such tactics have eliminated large numbers of jihadists and weakened militant groups. But they undermine intelligence gathering. Security officials fear the ability of jihadist movements to recruit, raise funds and conduct operations remains intact. To make matters worse, Awami League leaders have exploited the threat to further discredit the BNP and JeI, accusing them of complicity in high-profile attacks. The government continues to use security forces to target its opponents, motivated, it appears, by the imperative of victory in the December 2018 general elections. Prof Barkat’s study on the Economics of Fundamentalism, Terrorism, and their current economic and military strength can be good example to understand the gravity of threat to the security of Bangladesh politics and democracy.
While the past year has seen a lull in attacks, marginalising the mainstream political opposition is likely to play into the hands of jihadist groups. Politicised, the police force and judiciary will continue to struggle with the detailed investigative work necessary to disrupt networks that now tap not only madrasa students and their families in deprived rural areas but also privileged students in wealthier quarters of the capital. While the Awami League appears little inclined to do so ahead of this year’s vote, reversing the polarisation that creates an enabling environment for jihadists and building political consensus on how to tackle the problem, while investing in a professional police and judiciary, are likely prerequisites of forestalling further jihadist violence. Without a change of course–and particularly if the December elections trigger a crisis similar to that around previous polls – the country could face another jihadist resurgence. This article documents the historical background and practice of the United Kingdom, The United States of America, Republic of India, Israel, application of technology for national security and finally a recommendation for Bangladesh.
National security at the centre of government United Kingdom
The origins of committee coordination-The Committee of Imperial Defence: To put the NSC in its proper context, it is necessary to start with the origins of the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916 and to consider an even earlier body, the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) Strachan, H., (2013). Many of the today’s challenges to successful central coordination of national security issues were foreshadowed in the early 1900s, whether inter-departmental rivalries, potential capacity gaps between central secretariats and departments, or the level of prime ministerial backing for the coordination process. Prior to 1916, the British Cabinet had functioned without dedicated secretariat support: ‘no minutes were circulated, no agendas were set, no decisions were recorded (Naylor, JF (1971). Cabinet meetings could be long, rambling affairs; ministers departed with little idea of what had been decided. Their private secretaries would then write to each other discreetly, trying to clarify the details. For example, an appeal to one of Gladstone’s private secretaries stated that ‘there must have been some decision...My Chief has told me to ask you what the devil was decided, for he be damned if he knows. Will you ask Mr. G. in more conventional and less pungent terms (Naylor, JF (1971). The areas of foreign and defence policy–or ‘imperial defence’ as they were then conceived – were the first to benefit from improved secretariat support. A Colonial Defence Committee (CDC) had attempted to coordinate metropolitan, dominion and colonial defence arrangements from (1885 (Gordon, D.C. 1962) But it was Prime Minister Arthur Balfour who in 1904 converted the existing ‘weak and informal’ Defence Committee (set up in 1902) into the CID by establishing a small permanent secretariat to support its work (Johnson, F.A. (1961).
At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Head of the CID secretariat, Maurice Hankey, placed it at the disposal of Prime Minister Asquith’s attempts to coordinate wartime decision making. None of Asquith’s efforts to coordinate between the civil and military sides of the war effort succeeded in establishing a strong grip. From December 1916 Asquith’s successor, Lloyd George, ‘established a war cabinet of five, so as to avoid any repetition of divided governmental authority [Naylor, J.F. 2004 . It was this change that ultimately led to the development of today’s Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretary role. The CID continued to develop until the outbreak of war in 1939. It subsumed the Colonial Defence Committee (CDC) within its network of subcommittees (Gordon, D.C;1962) and developed a series of other sub-committees, including the Chiefs of Staff Staff Committee (Stanbridge, B.G.T.,1973). After a short-lived. Foreign Office attempt to create its own centre for political intelligence assessment to complement the military services’ assessment of military intelligence, (Goldstein, E., 1988) the Joint Intelligence Committee was also established as a CID subcommittee in 1936. To begin with, therefore, the JIC was a purely military organisation (‘a mere adjunct to the Chiefs of Staff organisation’) (Cradock, P., 2002) but the civilian intelligence agencies were formally added as members in 1940 and in 1957 the JIC was moved into the Cabinet Office, reflecting growing civilian involvement and the increasing importance of political intelligence (Goodman, M., 2007) Key to the CID’s coordinating and delivery function was the assembly of leading figures from each department and service around the CID meeting table. In 1947, it became the Defence Committee, but its membership was little changed from that of the CID in previous decades, comprising (Johnson, F.A., 1961): Prime Minister; Minister of Defence; Lord President of the Council; Foreign Secretary; Chancellor of the Exchequer; The Service ministers; Minister of Labour; Minister of Supply; The Chiefs of Staff.
As with the NSC today, other ministers attended CID meetings at the prime minister’s behest, as appropriate to the subjects under discussion. The CID’s first head, Sir George Clarke, was able to bring to the CID many of the bureaucratic routines – regular minute-taking and marshalling of a network of subcommittees – he had long honed as the head of the CDC secretariat.
Clarke recognised the challenges to any prime ministerial adviser facing competing departmental centres of power and influence, lamenting that he had to operate by ‘the gentle pulling of strings’ rather than ‘being able to speak with power’, given his inferior standing and resources as CID Secretary vis-à-vis minister and service chiefs (Gooch, J., 1975).
The CID’s secretary from 1912, Maurice Hankey, used the CID model to form the basis for the cabinet committee structure and secretariat that is still used today (Johnson, F.A.,1961). The structure for defence and security issues was, and still is, closely bound up with the relationship between prime ministerial, ministerial and collective cabinet responsibility: who took the lead was about which bodies dominated.
In the face of inter-departmental and inter-service tensions, prime ministerial support was crucial for the CID’s effectiveness. This was not always forthcoming. During its first decade, the CID suffered from a general lack of prime ministerial commitment to ensuring its decisions were implemented. Under Balfour, the CID met on average more than once per fortnight, but under Campbell-Bannerman it met just 15 times in over two years. Moreover, Balfour did not ‘turn to the departments and insist that the conclusions of the Committee should be the basis on which they worked. He did not urge his ministers to follow the new ideas through’. Campbell-Bannerman was allegedly ‘not interested in defence’ and, although he permitted the CID to continue meeting, he ‘did not set it to work on any major issues.’ Things were little better under Asquith, with the CID meeting ‘rather less than once every two months between April 1908 and the outbreak of war in August 1914 (MacKintosh, J.P , 1962).
Despite this chequered record, the CID was significant in establishing several breaks with previous practice at the centre of government (Johnson, F.A.,1961). Its secretariat provided much-needed support to the prime minister and facilitated strategic planning and decision making. Politicians and career service leaders served as equal and active participant members. At a time of inter-departmental rivalry, it was a coordinating committee, bringing together representatives from the military services and civil departments, with a flexible membership determined by the Prime Minister on an ad hoc basis. The pre-war CID and Lloyd George’s War Cabinet foreshadowed many of the key operational challenges and structural features of the NSC. As CID secretary, Hankey needed to cultivate a reputation for ‘honest brokerage’ between the Prime Minister, departmental ministers and service chiefs.
Indeed, Hankey probably over-involved himself in the post-war years as a prominent member of Lloyd George’s travelling entourage, although the choice was not so much his as the Prime. The pre-war CID and Lloyd George’s War Cabinet foreshadowed many of the key operational challenges and structural features of the NSC. As CID secretary, Hankey needed to cultivate a reputation for ‘honest brokerage’ between the Prime Minister, departmental ministers and service chiefs. Indeed, Hankey probably over-involved himself in the post-war years as a prominent member of Lloyd George’s travelling entourage, although the choice was not so much his as the Prime Minister’s. Resentment was particularly keen in the Foreign Office, perhaps unsurprisingly given that (Warburg, R.,1972).
The CID and Cabinet Secretariat were part of the permanent machinery of government, but, as relatively recent creations, they were strongly marked by the personal stamp of Lloyd George. This mirrors the position which the NSC and National Security Secretariat will face at the May 2015 General Election. That led to doubt whether the CID and Cabinet Secretariat would survive Lloyd George’s downfall in 1922, but Hankey was flexible enough to adjust to ‘the different temperaments of the five premiers he served (Naylor, J.F., 2004). The secretariat needed to strike a careful balance to maintain the co-operation of relevant departments: ‘If the secretary and his staff became a separate department having independent interests and policy-making powers, the CID would fail. The cabinet leaders would almost certainly combine against such a threat to the sacred principle of cabinet responsibility for executive action.’
Furthermore, like the NSC on occasion, the CID also became ‘a bi-partisan forum, as several times the Leader of the Opposition joined subcommittee discussions (Johnson, F.A.,1961) .’ Moreover, the CID secretariat was ‘designed, not to take action, but rather to see that action was taken by constituted departments after decisions had been made.’29 Departments owned delivery, but the CID coordinated and drove the overall process. The CID demonstrates the enduring challenges to coordination of foreign and defence policy at the centre of British government. Active prime ministerial backing is crucial for the success of any committee set up for these purposes. The mere existence of a central coordinating committee does not, in itself, guarantee harmonious inter-departmental cooperation. Effective coordination requires a skilled and diplomatic figure at the centre, enjoying the confidence of key participants. Hankey performed this function for over 20 years, at the same time as discharging the responsibilities of Secretary to the Cabinet, setting a precedent for his successors, few of whom had his long experience of defence, intelligence and foreign policy issues.
Organising national security, 1979-2010
While it is possible to see clear similarities between the CID and the NSC, it is also instructive to look at how the NSC differs from its more immediate predecessors. The NSC seeks to bring together foreign, defence, security, resilience and intelligence policy under the auspices of one committee and secretariat structure in a way that was not a feature of earlier arrangements. This is partly because the concept of national security has shifted. Over the last century, Cabinet committees and other structures have handled individual aspects of this portfolio. Previously, different connections were seen between defence (particularly during times of war), foreign policy, security (terrorism), the nuclear threat (pre-eminent during the Cold War) and intelligence, let alone resilience and civil contingencies. Reflecting the salience of the terrorist threat, ‘national security’ has a significant focus on coordinating intelligence and anti-terrorism efforts. The Foreign Secretary’s exclusion was not absolute; he attended many meetings of the War Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s invitation, but not as a full member.
Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, Sir David Omand was appointed to a new role as Security and Intelligence Coordinator to oversee both the intelligence agencies as a whole and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. Another of Omand’s responsibilities was to chair the Permanent Secretaries’ Intelligence and Security Committee, PSIS. In 2005, the coordinator was again rebadged, as ‘Permanent Under Secretary: Intelligence, Security and Resilience’. In this role, Sir Richard Mottram combined the existing Coordinator’s duties with responsibility for the Joint Intelligence Committee. On Mottram’s retirement, these roles were again separated (Alex Allan, 2007).
The cabinet Secretary took over responsibility for oversight of the Single Intelligence Account until this transferred to the newly-created National Security Adviser post in 2010 (Hansard, 2011) and the JIC chairmanship was retained as a separate post, held successively by Alex Allan and Jon Day. Following the Iraq war, the Butler Inquiry report had recommend ed that the JIC chairmanship should be filled by officials with sufficient experience and stature to be able to defend the independence of intelligence assessment from policy – meaning that these would be likely to be officials who were close to retirement (Butler, R., 2014 ). This stipulation about keeping intelligence assessment separate from policy advice is, perhaps, one reason why the JIC Chairman and Assessment Staff were not formally incorporated within the National Security Secretariat serving the NSA, even though the NSC increasingly shapes the JIC’s workflow.
Alongside intelligence, there have been significant changes in coordination of the government’s responses to terrorism and its approach to wider issues of security and resilience. Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the 7 July 2005 London bombings, the Islamist terrorist threat has become the defining national security issue and triggered substantially increased investment in intelligence and security. The need for a coordinated response led in 2003 to the development of a counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) and the establishment of a Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) and, in 2007, to the creation of a new Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) based in the Home Office – both of which aim to increase the cross-departmental coherence and capacity of the effort against terrorism [UK Home office Policy Paper 2014].
Until 2007, Cabinet discussion and decision making concerning international terrorism took place through an OD subcommittee on International Terrorism (OD(IT)), chaired by the Prime Minister. Detailed work was driven by its Home Secretary-chaired subcommittee on Protection, Security and Resilience (OD(IT)(PSR)). Shortly before his 2007 resignation, Blair reorganised this system, replacing the OD(IT) subcommittee with a new Ministerial Committee on Security and Terrorism, which also encompassed the counter radicalisation aspects of the Cabinet’s Domestic Affairs committee [Hennessy, P., (1945-2010, Penguin pp 378-381)].
What this shows is a high degree of flux in efforts to coordinate different aspects of the security and intelligence brief, particularly since 2001. The massive pressures to address international and domestic terrorism – and the priority role for intelligence in this effort – saw new organisational solutions pursued with great frequency. Perhaps it also reflected the style of the Labour government at that time, adapting the machinery of government at frequent intervals and experimenting with changes in organisation at the centre and cross-cutting Whitehall. Though these changes were in some ways about intelligence coordination and the management of the assessment process, they also reflected changes in the wider security sphere, of which intelligence is but one part. The move towards a more over-arching national security machine can be seen as an attempt to provide greater stability, seniority and more coherence to areas of overlap that the centre had struggled to coordinate effectively. The formal creation of an integrated national security secretariat and committee process in May 2010, overseen by a national security adviser, could be seen as a further step along this path of central coordination.
Advising the prime minister
On top of the machinery for coordination sit senior advisers to the prime minister. Although there are a number of cabinet ministers with relevant portfolios, the prime minister has a particular responsibility for ensuring a coherent approach to national security, for the conduct of policy and for overseeing the response to crises. There have been different constellations of senior officials acting as adviser to the prime minister on these roles. The NSA post was created to provide a single focal point for the coordination of many of these issues, but other voices remain influential. These include the most senior officials and military officers, the heads of various secretariats, services and agencies, the Cabinet Secretary, the prime minister’s chief of staff and other political advisers.
The traditional model of prime ministerial support had been for there to be a single foreign affairs private secretary in No.10, whose role was to draw on the key departments of state – principally the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Ministry of Defence (MoD) – for advice. But in the 1980s that began to change. Margaret Thatcher, ‘in light of her disenchantment with the Foreign Office as a result of the Falklands experience... wanted a senior figure on her personal staff who would alert her to coming problems and if need be offer independent advice (Cradock, P., (1997). Initially retaining the part-time services of the recently-retired UK Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Sir Anthony Parsons, Thatcher ultimately employed another experienced senior diplomat, Sir Percy Cradock, as her long-serving Foreign Policy Adviser. Cradock, who survived the transition to John Major and retired in 1992, supplemented the advice of the foreign affairs private secretary but had little other support of his own, with the services of ‘a secretary to type his minutes and little else...If there was to be a contest with the hundreds of high-powered operators across the road in the Foreign Office, it was going to be a very unequal one. As noted in the previous section, when Sir Percy retired he was replaced by another career diplomat, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who like Sir Percy combined this role with the JIC chairmanship. As we noted in Centre Forward, the private office for this period relied primarily on a single foreign affairs private secretary, not gaining an additional private secretary until later in John Major’s prime ministership.
Sirstephen Wall has written that, as Jphn Major’s foreign affairs private secretary the early 1990s, his responsibilities were wide-ranging, from foreign policy to Northern Ireland and defence issues. Even though he was part of the private office, Wall felt that he did not have the capacity to substitute his efforts for the deeper contribution of the relevant departments of state. However, both Cradock and Wall noted that Wall’s predecessor as foreign affairs private secretary, Charles (now Lord) Powell, had, in spite of the same dearth of support, encountered resentment in the Foreign Office due to his close relationship with Margaret Thatcher and the perceived influence this gave him over her foreign policy (Wall, S., 2008).
Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, himself an ex-diplomat, took a lead both on Northern Ireland51 and on other foreign and security issues. Things started to change significantly in Blair’s second term as he looked to boost his ability to drive his priorities from No.10. In June 2001, the Cabinet Secretary conceded that the foreign affairs capacity available to the Prime Minister could be increased by ‘double-hatting’ both the Head of the Cabinet Office European Secretariat and the Head of the OD Secretariat as respective prime ministerial advisers on Europe and Foreign Policy. This brought the capacity of the secretariats behind the advisers. Lord Wilson has testified to the Iraq Inquiry that he saw this move as ‘the lesser evil’ at a time when a merger of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office had been mooted (Wilson, T.J., 2011).
The arrangement survived under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with Sir David Manning, Sir Nigel Sheinwald and Simon McDonald occupying the double-hatted role. Sir Stephen Wall, who performed the parallel role of Prime Minister’s Europe Adviser for Blair from its inception until his retirement in 2004, has reflected that it was ‘no more than common sense...for the Prime Minister to have a small team dealing with foreign policy rather than a one-man band.’ Wall argued that Blair’s 2001 reorganisation created ‘greater capacity for independent origination of ideas, for negotiation, on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and for implementation of policy than existed before. The risk in this lay not in the structures themselves but in how they were used within the overall framework of cabinet government (Wall, S., A. 2008).
Jamaluddin Ahmed PhD FCA is the General Secretary of Bangladesh Economic Association, Former member of Board of Directors of Bangladesh Bank, Former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Janata Bank Limited and Former President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Bangladesh.