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Home > India > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ B Raman

Why terrorists attack soft targets



May 14, 2008

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Soft targets are those that are not subject to special protection, that are frequented by the public, which could be local nationals or foreigners. Attacks on such targets cause many human fatalities and demonstrate the capability of terrorist groups to operate without being detected by the intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies.

Destruction of or damage to economic or other capabilities is not the primary aim of such attacks. The primary aim is to kill human beings, though destruction or damage of capabilities may also result from such attacks.

For such attacks on soft targets, a long period of preparations such as keeping surveillance on the target etc is not required. All that is required is the creation or infiltration of a sleeper cell to undertake such attacks and reaching to the cell, the weapons or explosive devices to be used.

A sleeper cell is a small group of operatives specifically raised to undertake a terrorist strike. The cell generally consists of persons, who will actually undertake the strike with the help of hand-held weapons or IEDs, and some others, who will provide the logistics such as smuggling in the weapons or explosives, storing them safely till the time for the strike comes, providing a hide-out for those who will actually undertake the strike if they come from outside the area and facilitating their get-away after they have carried out the strike.

Those, who carry out the strike, are generally specially trained in the handling of weapons and in the assembly of IEDs. Those, who help in the logistics, need not be specially trained, but they should support the ideology and objectives of the terrorist organisation, which undertakes the terrorist strike, and should enjoy its confidence.

Those who carry out the strikes are generally from outside the area where a target is chosen for attack. A resident of the area may develop qualms of conscience about killing people whom he has known and with whom he has grown up. Moreover, his absence from the area after the terrorist strike makes the identification of the perpetrators by the police easier.

An outsider is unlikely to have such qualms of conscience and his get-away may not attract attention. Those providing the logistics back-up could be from the same area or from outside.

Thus, a sleeper cell could consist completely of outsiders infiltrated into the area of intended operation or could be a mix of outsiders and residents of the area. These are called sleeper cells because its members are specially trained or have a natural aptitude for maintaining a low profile and are able to lead a normal life as students or in some occupation without attracting attention to themselves.

In the case of the Mumbai blasts of March 1993, the perpetrators were easily identified by the police because many of them except Dawood Ibrahim [Images] were normal residents of Mumbai and not from outside. Their get-away from Mumbai after the explosions attracted police suspicion.

A new modus operandi for attacks on soft targets noticed in recent years is the use of unconscious bombers by the sleeper cells so that the explosions cannot be easily traced back by the police to the real perpetrators.

The United Liberation Front of Asom in Assam has been periodically using this modus operandi by paying unsuspecting individuals for leaving bicycles fitted with IEDs in markets and other crowded areas. Al Qaeda [Images] was reported to have used this modus operandi in Casablanca in May 2003, and in Baghdad on February 1, 2008.

In Casablanca, an unsuspecting individual was asked to carry a package containing a remote-controlled IED to a third person. As the carrier was walking in front of a restaurant the IED was activated through remote control. In Baghdad, two mentally disturbed women, who used to beg in the market places, were fitted with IEDs and these were exploded through remote control as they were begging in the markets. The Chechens had also used this modus operandi.

There are various reasons for which terrorists periodically attack soft targets in widely dispersed areas. Firstly, they want to demonstrate their reach. They want to show that they can operate in any part of the country in the case of indigenous organisations and in any part of the world in the case of the pan-Islamic jihadi organisations.

Outside Jammu and Kashmir [Images], the pan-Islamic jihadi organisations have struck on soft targets in places like Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi, Lucknow, Faizabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai and Coimbatore. Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations have struck in places like Bali (twice), Jakarta, Mombasa, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid, London [Images] and Sharm-el-Sheikh.

Secondly, they want to discredit the intelligence agencies, the police and other security agencies in the eyes of the people by demonstrating their capability to strike despite the vigilance of these agencies. In their calculation, this could result in a gradual loss of faith of the people in the efficacy of these agencies.

Thirdly, they want to make the police and the security agencies over-react in response to their successful strikes. Such over-reactions often come in the form of large-scale arrests of the members of the community from which the terrorists have arisen and the alleged use of harsh methods to interrogate them. This creates animosity towards the police and the government in the victim-community and adds to their sense of alienation.

Such over-reactions could also create a divide between different communities, thereby resulting in the flow of more recruits to the ranks of the terrorists. Anger resulting from over-reactions facilitates their recruitment.

Fourthly, attacks on soft targets are also undertaken in reprisal for perceived wrongs allegedly committed by the government or the police towards the members of the community from which the terrorists have arisen or even towards the terrorists themselves. If they are not able to retaliate against hard (well-protected) targets, they retaliate against soft targets.

The LTTE in Sri Lanka [Images] often resorts to such attacks on soft targets in retaliation for the government's strikes against it. Such retaliatory attacks are meant to intimidate the security forces into going slow in their counter-terrorism operations. Reprisal attacks on soft targets may also be directed against foreign nationals, though local nationals may also die during the strikes.

The two explosions in Bali in October 2002, and October 2005, by the Jemmah Islamiyah were directed mainly against Australian tourists in reprisal for Australia's cooperation with the US in the so-called war against terrorism. Many Indonesian nationals also died during the strikes, but the possibility of such deaths of local nationals did not deter the terrorists from exploding IEDs in places crowded by Australian tourists.

During the subsequent trial of the perpetrators, they apologised in public for the deaths of fellow citizens and fellow Muslims, but did not regret their action in carrying out the strikes. Similarly, Al Qaeda's attack on a hotel in Mombasa in November 2002, and in the Egyptian tourist resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh in July 2005, targeted Israeli tourists in reprisal for Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, but many local citizens also died.

The three explosions outside courts in Lucknow, Faizabad and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh on November 23, 2007, were also reprisal strikes against soft targets to protest against the perceived harsh sentences awarded to some of the accused in the Mumbai blasts of March 1993, by a Mumbai court and against the alleged failure of the government of Mumbai to act against certain police officers, who were blamed by an enquiry commission for allegedly committing excesses against Muslims during the communal riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

An anonymous e-mail received by some television channels on the day of the explosions alleged that the criminal justice system in India was unfair towards the Muslims. While these are essentially tactical strikes, certain kinds of strikes against soft targets have a strategic purpose.

Strikes in certain places of economic importance like stock exchanges, crowded market places, offices of business companies and tourist resorts have the objective of disrupting the economy and discouraging the flow of foreign investments by creating a feeling of nervousness about security conditions in the minds of potential investors.

The Mumbai blasts of March 1993, and the Delhi blasts of October 2005, would fall in this category. Strikes in places of religious significance -- whether holy cities or places of worship -- are meant to create a communal divide in the long-term interests of the terrorist organisation.

The blasts in Varanasi in March 2006, in Malegaon in Maharashtra on September 8, 2006, in Hyderabad on May 18, 2007, and in Ajmer Sharif on October 11, 2007, would fall in this category.

Soft targets do not have the benefit of protection of physical security measures by the government, though some of them such as places of worship, business establishments etc may have their own physical security measures.

There are hundreds of thousands of potential soft targets of terrorists all over the country. It would be just impossible for the government to provide them with physical security. One cannot totally eliminate attacks on soft targets, but one can reduce them by effective intelligence capability and policing in order to detect and neutralise sleeper cells before they go into action, educating the public in matters such as looking out for suspicious-looking persons and objects, close police-community relations and close liaison between the police and those in charge of security in those cases where soft targets have their own security arrangements.

While there have been successful instances of sleeper cells being detected and neutralised in time by the intelligence agencies and the police acting in tandem, there are many other cases where the sleeper cells managed to evade detection and carry out the strike.

Every successful terrorist strike on a soft target is due to the failure of the agencies and the police to detect the sleeper cell responsible. The agencies and the police do face difficulties due to the fact that the terrorists operate in a vast area and keep moving from state to state in order to attack.

They operate like the old so-called criminal tribes, who used to keep attacking in different places in different times in order to make it difficult for the police to detect them. The only way of effectively countering this is through effective co-ordination of the police in all the states, the creation of a national database to which the police of different states can have direct access and the quick sharing of the results of the enquiries and investigations through this data base.

The creation of a Federal Counter-Terrorism Agency patterned after the FBI of the US, with powers to investigate all terrorism-related cases occurring in any part of the country, would facilitate action and prevention, but there continues to be strong resistance from the states to proposals for the creation of such an agency.

The ease with which the terrorists have been operating in different parts of the country is also due to deterioration in the quality of policing in the urban as well as rural areas. Normal tasks, which the police are expected to perform such as making enquiries about suspicious-looking persons in hotels, inns, railway stations and airports; making a random background check of arrivals from outside etc, no longer receive the required attention.

Similarly, intense police-community relations, which encourage the people to share with the police information, which could have a bearing on terrorism, are increasingly neglected. The public will come forward to share information only with a police officer whom they know and in whose discretion they have confidence.

Close interactions between the police and the security officers of private establishments is more an exception than the rule. Sometimes, I am invited to address gatherings of such security officers in different urban areas. Almost all of them complained of a lack of accessibility to senior police officers and the reluctance of the police to keep them briefed on developments having a bearing on terrorism.

They complained that it was rarely that police officers took the initiative in briefing them when the media carried sensational stories about the plans of the terrorists. When they asked for a briefing, they were asked to meet junior officers, who often were not in a position to brief them adequately and did not have the required self-confidence to be able to answer their questions.

It is important that senior police officers interact with the security officers of important private establishments -- particularly those from abroad -- at least once or twice a year as a matter of routine and also on other occasions, when there is a need for it. Senior police officers cannot be expected to interact with the private security officers of all establishments -- big or small, important or unimportant.

However, such interactions should take place with the private security officers of large establishments, which play an important role in our economy. Perceptions of police indifference towards them could have a negative impact on the investors' confidence in the security environment in the country and in their particular areas of operation.

The above is an extract from B Raman's forthcoming book Terrorism: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow being published by Lancer Publishers later this month.


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