To fight terrorism, be proactive

Defensive measures alone won’t suffice


Terrorism cannot be fought as a law-and-order problem. What India needs is a comprehensive approach that blends different key elements to form a credible counter-terror strategy. An excess emphasis on defensive measures would only play into the terrorists’ designs to instil a siege mentality.


Brahma Chellaney

The Hindu newspaper, December 20, 2008


For nearly a millennium, India was repeatedly invaded, raped and subjugated by those who came primarily to plunder its wealth, with some staying on to rule by conquest. Now again, raiders from the northwest are repeatedly assaulting India, not to cart away its riches but to undermine its rising economic strength after a long historical period of humiliation. That is why India’s commercial capital has been repeatedly attacked by the raiders, who have chosen their targets there carefully — from the stock exchange and financial institutions in 1993 and city trains in 2006 to its landmark luxury hotels in 2008.


That India is an island of stability, economic growth and democratic empowerment in a sea of turbulence stretching from Jordan to Malaysia also makes it a magnet for terrorists from a particular quasi-failed state that seems intent on taking India down with it as it sinks. Such is the tyranny of geography that India is wedged in an arc of failing or authoritarian states that try, in different ways, to undermine its secular, multiethnic, pluralistic character.


Pakistan-based jihadist groups are now carrying out increasingly daring assaults deep across the border. Compounding that threat is the fact that Pakistan is not a normal state but the world’s Terroristan. For the foreseeable future, it will remain the epicentre of global terrorism, with India bearing the brunt.


The big question thus is whether India will keep running to the U.S. for help and sympathy after each terror attack or — despite a growing congruence of Indo-American interests — wage its own fight in a credible, coherent and deterrent fashion. India has been too interested in collecting and presenting evidence of Pakistan’s terror links to the outside world than in initiating its own steps to effectively combat terrorism.


Stemming terrorism demands at least four different elements — a well-thought-out strategy, effective state instruments to implement that strategy, a credible legal framework to speedily bring terrorists to justice, and unflinching political resolve to stay the course. India, unfortunately, is deficient on all four.


It has no published counter-terror doctrine. Furthermore, not only is there no political will, the Indian system has also become so effete that the state instruments are unable to deliver results even on the odd occasion when the leadership displays a spine to act. Nowhere is India’s frailty more apparent today than on internal security, which historically has been its Achilles heel.


If the government did one thing right during the Mumbai terrorist attacks, it was to stick to its newly declared doctrine foreswearing negotiations with hostage-takers. By ordering commando assaults on the terrorists holed up in Mumbai’s two luxury hotels and Jewish Centre, the government denied them and their sponsors the opportunity to help focus international spotlight on a plethora of demands — from the release of “mujahideen” from Indian jails to some Kashmir-related ultimatum. That commendable decision, more importantly, spared the country the humiliation of being held hostage for days on end.


The frontal commando storming of the besieged sites took the terrorists by surprise and forced them to defend themselves, thus helping limit the number of fatalities. Otherwise, the four terrorists in the Taj hotel, for example, would have killed far more than the 32 people they did, many in the initial minutes of their attack. Despite the considerable and extended investments that went into training the attackers, including in imparting military-style amphibious assault skills, the terrorist operation did not go as well as had been plotted by the Pakistan-based masterminds. The capture alive of one of the suicide attackers also helped unravel the plot.


More broadly, one problem is that India is always trying to prevent a repeat of the last attack rather than seeking to forestall the next innovative strike. Almost every major terrorist strike against an Indian target since the 1985 midair bombing of the Air-India Kanishka jetliner has involved novel methodology. The likelihood of a repeat attack by terrorists arriving on inflatable dinghies and striking luxury hotels is thus close to zero. Yet, in a manner akin to closing the barn doors after the horses have bolted, security cordons now ring luxury hotels and resources are being invested in setting up a coastal command.


It is the refusal to think ahead and try and anticipate how and where terrorists would strike next that results in India being taken by surprise again and again. The aim should be to stay at least a few steps ahead of the terrorists, rather than to prevent the last type of attack through beefed-up security. Heavy security at hotels, railway stations, high-rise buildings, malls, etc. will still leave open other targets for innovative terrorist strikes but help portray the country as beleaguered.


Make no mistake: Improved maritime patrols, better police training and preparedness, a new federal agency for investigations, regional commando commands and intelligence revamp — although necessary — are all defensive measures. However well designed and put into practice, such steps by themselves cannot stop terrorist strikes. Yet, in the aftermath of the Mumbai strikes, the government is overly focusing on such defensive mechanisms.


The proposed National Investigative Agency and a strengthened Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act seek to plug some glaring weaknesses. But in a country where, despite the rising incidence of terrorism, not a single terror-related case has been successfully prosecuted in many years other than the one involving the attack on Parliament, the setting up of a new agency can hardly bring much cheer. Also, it doesn’t show India’s leaders in good light that more than 15 years after investigators established clear links between Dawood Ibrahim and the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai, they do little more than periodically complain that he remains ensconced in Pakistan.


Worse, terrorism has been treated as a law-and-order issue requiring more policing, training and hardware. To regard terrorism as a law-and-order problem is to do what the terrorists want — to sap your strength. No amount of security can stop terrorism if the nation is reluctant to go after terrorist cells and networks and those that harbour extremists.


Against an invisible enemy, defensive mechanisms can only have limited utility. To stay a sitting duck against the sly, murderous extremists is to risk not only the lives of innocent people, but also political and psychological damage to the national psyche.


Defensive measures, in any event, can be meaningful only if they are accompanied by a proactive component that entails going after the terrorists before they strike. That means, among other things, hounding, disrupting and smashing their cells, networks and safe havens; destroying their local network;, cutting off their funding; and imposing deterrent costs (through overt or covert means) on those that promote, finance or tolerate terrorist activity.


Merely to step up defensive measures and build higher fences and VVIP security is to play into the terrorists’ designs to bring India under a terrorist siege. The more India has been terrorized in recent years, the more it has betrayed a siege mentality. Every time India is tested by terror, it characteristically responds by talking tough but doing nothing — the trait of a battered victim.


For India, terrorism is an existential battle that will determine whether it stays a free, secular, united state. India’s counteraction has to be at multiple levels: domestic policy (formulating a credible counter-terror strategy); legal (forming a political consensus in support of special laws that carry adequate safeguards); law enforcement (identifying and destroying terrorist sleeper cells in cities); intelligence (building assets so as to operate behind “enemy” lines and target a particular car, cell or haven at an opportune moment); strategic (keeping terrorist patrons on tenterhooks); deterrent (imposing calibrated costs on the masterminds); and public relations. It is odd, for example, that sections of the foreign media continue to misleadingly label the predominantly Punjabi, "global jihad"-spouting Laskar-e-Taiba as a “Kashmiri separatist group” without New Delhi mounting any effort to make such news organizations face up to simple facts.


Against external sponsors of terror, a range of discreet options are available to India, including diplomatic, economic and political. Between the two extremes — inaction and military action — lie a hundred different options. These are options that no nation discusses in public. Rather they must be weighed in private and exercised quietly.


The key point is that terrorism cannot be fought as a law-and-order problem. The only way to stem that scourge is to develop a concerted, comprehensive approach that blends different elements into a single, pointed, sustained campaign. To fight the unconventional war being waged against it, India perforce needs to employ a range of unconventional tools to strike at the heart of terrorist networks and disrupt their cohesion, operational capacity and logistic support.


The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.


(c) Copyright 2000 – 2008 The Hindu

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