The reported death of Rashid Rauf raises some important questions and highlights the dilemmas being faced constantly by those who are trying to protect their country’s citizens from terrorism.  Rashid Rauf has been described by many media reports as the person believed to be the mastermind behind the alleged plot to use liquid bombs to blow up airliners flying from the UK to the United States.  His arrest in Pakistan triggered the raids in August 2006 that led to a significant number of people being arrested in Britain and three people being convicted of conspiracy to murder this September with a further trial pending.  Subsequently, Rauf escaped from custody in Pakistan under strange circumstances while on his way to an extradition hearing.  He has now apparently been killed by an American airstrike in Waziristan part of Pakistan’s FATA  (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).

In an ideal world, he would have been extradited from Pakistan to the UK (he was a British citizen) and his guilt or innocence would have been determined in a court of law.  If the suggestions that he was the mastermind of the 2006 plot are correct, then there would have been every reason to suppose (and no doubt the US would also have been acting on current intelligence reports) that his recent activities might have been directed towards masterminding some further attack.  If that were true, the US would no doubt argue that their airstrike has prevented the deaths of hundreds or maybe thousands.  So the question we all have to ask ourselves is: have the ends justified the means?

There are plenty of other questions, although it is not clear whether knowing the answers is necessarily helpful.  Were the Pakistani authorities complicit in Rauf’s escape from custody and were they complicit in the air strike that appears to have killed him?  Or were different elements within the Pakistani state complicit in the escape and the air strike?  The Pakistani government, both under Zardari and under Musharraf, treads a complicated path in trying both to be supportive of Western attempts to clamp down on terrorism and at the same time not to alienate elements of popular opinion in Pakistan that are sympathetic to Taleban or al-Qaeda rhetoric.

American airstrikes (often using remotely-controlled unmanned drone missiles) into the FATA are inevitably wounding to national pride in Pakistan.  The Government both protests against these strikes but is at the same time accused of having secretly agreed to them.  The more such strikes there are the more vulnerable will the Government become and, if the Government were to fall, it is not clear what the stance of any successor might be. 

The airstrikes are also no doubt feeding the “single narrative” used to persuade people down the path towards violent radical extremism and the flow increases every time an airstrike goes wrong and kills “innocent” people.

On the other hand, there is also no question that the removal of key people in the al-Qaeda hierarchy does reduce that organisation’s effectiveness and ability to plan and coordinate terrorist activity around the world.

The other certainty is that the frequency of the airstrikes will continue to increase over the next few weeks as the Bush administration desperately tries to be able to declare “mission accomplished” and announce the death of Osama Bin Laden before it leaves office.

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