Event ReportsPublished on Sep 18, 2010
The top priority of any nation in the post-9/11 era is to defend its territorial integrity. This goal faces a real threat from terrorists originating or based in foreign countries, said Mr Andrew T. Simkin, the Consul-General of the US in Chennai.
Nine Years After 9/11
"The top priority of any nation in the post-9/11 era is to defend its territorial integrity. This goal faces a real threat from terrorists originating or based in foreign countries," said Mr Andrew T. Simkin, the Consul-General of the US in Chennai. He was speaking at a discussion on "Nine Years After 9/11," organised by the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on Saturday, 18 September 2010.

Recalling the day of September 11, 2001 as a "scarring day for all of us," Mr. Simkin spoke about the need to prevent U.S. operations from being vulnerable to exploitation by terrorists. According to him, terrorists are not necessarily interested in causing the maximum number of casualties, but rather in inflicting terror, or having a psychological impact on both the Government and the civilian population. He also mentioned the disproportionate impact of acts of terror committed by foreign terrorists, as opposed to domestic groups. "Terrorists understand this fear, which is why they predominantly attempt their attacks using international commercial aviation," he said.

Mr. Simkin compared terrorists to submarines, which mostly avoid detection, but must eventually come to the surface. He said that strict immigration measures can inject some vulnerability and doubt into the minds of would-be terrorists. These measures include making travel documents secure against forgery, utilising biometric facial and fingerprint recognition, engaging with foreign governments, creating a database of suspected criminals and terrorists, conducting a rigorous interview for passport and visa applicants and organising a number of training initiatives for consular officers abroad.

In the Indian context, Mr. Simkin said that the 26/11 Mumbai attack might have had a similar psychological impact on Indians as 9/11 had on Americans. As a result, more immigration restrictions have been put in place, such as holders of multiple-entry visas to India having to wait two months between visits. In addition, he stressed the excellent coordination between India and the U.S. in terms of intelligence-sharing.

Chairing the session, Mr R Swaminathan, former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, praised the response of both the US Government and non-governmental agencies and institutions to 9/11. "A fine line exists between caution and paranoia," he said and added that no country can judge the response of the US or any other to terrorism, since terrorism is not rational. "India or the US can be as safe only as they are vigilant."

Mr. Swaminathan, however, pointed out that the measures adopted by the US seek to address the causes of past terrorist attacks, instead of anticipating future ones. Many experts believed that the efficacy of the US counter-terrorism measures is gauged by the absence of attacks on the US soil post-9/11. He opined that this is not indicative of the success of these measures since no such attacks had occurred pre-9/11.

During the discussions that followed, participants said that "target-hardening" measures like those adopted by governmental agencies produced a heightened sense of security and raised public awareness. The creation of the US Department of Homeland Security was also seen as a good response, although some felt that the US had over-reacted.

Participants also referred to travel and visa regulations in this regard. The perceived lack of travel restrictions on asylum-seekers, who do not require visas, could pose a problem. Mr. Simkin replied that even asylum-seekers can be denied entry, based on their prior biographical information.

It was suggested that U.S. passports should carry all previous names of the holder, as is seen in Indian passports. This may have prevented a terrorist such as David Headley, whose original name was Dawood Gilani, from entering India and helping to plan the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Another suggestion was to create a convention to decide on common visa regulations for all signatories. However, Mr. Simkin said that the U.S. liberalises visa regulations only through bilateral agreements. Also, regulating entry of individuals or groups is the sovereign right of the host country. In spite of post-9/11 restrictions, he stressed that the US Governemnt wants to appear welcoming, and also seeks to facilitate legitimate travel. The visa waiting period in Chennai, for instance, has been reduced from 18 days to two days.

(This report was prepared by Shakthi Manickavasagam, II Year M.A (International Studies), Stella Maris College, Chennai)

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