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Rediff.com  » News » 2008 is not our worst terrorism-hit year

2008 is not our worst terrorism-hit year

December 31, 2008 14:05 IST
Next to Israel, India has been waging the longest fight against jihadi terrorism of the home-grown as well as trans-national variety. Israel's fight against jihadi terrorism started in 1967 and is 41 years old. The end is not yet in sight. India's fight against jihadi terrorism started in 1989 and is 19 years old. The jihadi terrorism faced by Israel is sponsored by a medley of States -- particularly Syria and Iran now and Libya, Iraq, and many other States in the past. The jihadi terrorism faced by India is sponsored by Pakistan and facilitated by Bangladesh.

In terms of numbers, jihadi terrorists have killed more innocent civilians in India than in Israel. But if one keeps in mind Israel's small size and population, proportionately Israel has suffered immeasurably more than India. More innocent blood has flown in Israel than in India.

The jihadi terrorism faced by India falls into two categories -- that in J&K, and in the Indian territory outside J&K, which for convenience's sake will be referred to as hinterland India, an expression which Ajit Doval, former director of the Intelligence Bureau, often uses.

As 2008 ends and we move into 2009, one has been seeing extremely gloomy accounts of 2008 triggered by the attack by terrorists of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayiba in Mumbai from November 26 to 29, 2008, and the serial explosions that preceded it in  Jaipur (May), Bengaluru ( July), Ahmedabad (July) and Delhi (September). Some analysts have even called 2008 the worst year in India's fight against terrorism.

We have faced worse years: in 1985 when Khalistani terrorists blew up Air India's Kanishka aircraft off the Irish coast killing 329 innocent  civilians of different nationalities and in 1993 when a group of Indian Muslims from Mumbai recruited by underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and trained and equipped by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, targeted a number of establishments of economic significance in Mumbai and killed 257 civilians. It was the first coordinated attack on the economic infrastructure of India's financial capital -- similar to what we saw in Mumbai from November 26 to 29, 2008. It was also the first coordinated attack on the economic infrastructure by terrorists anywhere in the world.

The March 1993 terrorist attack, even though more lethal, did not have the same traumatic impact on the Indian nation and the international community as the November 2008 attacks  because it was over in a couple of hours and did not last about 60 hours as it happened in Mumbai this time round. Moreover, private TV channels had not yet mushroomed in India. The Mumbai 1993 attack was in the form of explosions. TV viewers saw the carnage only after it had happened. The November 2008 attack was in the form of a prolonged urban battle between some terrorists entrenched inside famous  hotels (the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi/Trident) and inside the offices of a Jewish cultural and religious centre located in Nariman House and the security forces, including the National Security Guards, the special intervention force. This entrenched battle was preceded by nearly an hour of cold-blooded killings of civilians in public places such as a railway station, a hospital, a pub etc with hand-held weapons. TV viewers saw live coverage of the entire terrorist attack.

We had faced a very bad year in 2006 when a group of jihadi terrorists -- Indians and Pakistanis -- carried out a series of explosions in suburban trains in Mumbai killing 181 innocent civilians. It was copy-cat terrorism based on what had happened in Madrid in March 2004 and in London in July 2005.

The four terrorist strikes in Jaipur, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Delhi were instances of heat of the moment acts of reprisal by sections of our own youth angered -- hopefully momentarily -- by local events such as what they saw as the severe sentences awarded to convicts for their role in the explosions of March 1993, the campaign for the early hanging of Afzal Guru for his involvement in the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, by the LET and the Jaish-e-Mohammed as compared (by the jihadi terrorists) to the absence of a similar campaign for the hanging of those found guilty in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a resolution allegedly passed by the Bar Association of Lucknow that no lawyer should defend jihadi terrorists etc.

The terrorist attack in Mumbai in November -- like the attack on Indian Parliament in December 2001 -- was not heat of the moment act of reprisal terrorism. It was an act of terrorism planned and orchestrated from Pakistani territory for a mix of strategic purposes -- creating nervousness in the minds of foreign businessmen about the security of their lives and property in India, creating doubts in the minds of the Indian public and the international community about the capability of the Indian counter-terrorism community to protect lives and property, disrupting the developing close relations of India with the West in general and the US in particular and with Israel.

Combined with these larger strategic dimensions was also an element of anger against the NATO forces for their operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and against Israel for its policy towards the Hamas. This would be evident from the barbarity to which the Israeli and other Jewish victims (9 out of 25) were subjected by the Pakistani terrorists and from the fact that the Westerners killed by the terrorists (12 out of 25) came from countries which are fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- the US, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Australia. It was definitely not Kashmir-related terrorism. Nor was it related to the grievances of the Indian Muslim community against the Government of India.

The Mumbai attack of November 2008 also marked the emergence of the LeT as an international jihadi terrorist organisation on par with the Al Qaeda and also indicated the first possible role of the Al Qaeda in mentoring, if not actually orchestrating, an act of strategic jihadi terrorism in Indian territory directed against Indian, Western and Jewish targets to compensate for its inability to repeat 9/11, Madrid and London till now. The Al Qaeda's suspected orchestration was meant to demonstrate to the world that it is alive and kicking and will strike where it wants to and where it is able to, and not where the world  expects it to.

The attack also demonstrated that Osama bin Laden's April 2006 warning -- in the wake of President George Bush's visit to India -- of a global jihad against Christians, the Jewish people and Hindus was not an empty threat. November 2008 marked the opening of a new front in global jihad. The terrorists came to kill Indians, Israelis and other Jews and Westerners. They did not come to damage or destroy property. If they had wanted, they had explosives with which they could have caused serious damage to the hotels similar to the damage which the terrorists caused to the Marriott in Islamabad on September 20, 2008. They did not.

After the serial explosions in UP in November 2007 and in Jaipur, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Delhi in 2008, there have been many superficial analytical articles written by analysts in India and abroad as if home-grown jihadi terrorism arrived for the first time in India in 2008. It was not so. India had been facing home-grown, but Pakistan-trained terrorism in J&K between 1989 and 1993 before the Pakistani organisations took over the leadership in 1993. Tamil Nadu had been facing jihadi terrorism unconnected to the ISI and the Pakistani organisations between 1993 and 1999 in the form of the Al Ummah. The March 1993 explosions were carried out by some Indian Muslims recruited by Dawood and trained and equipped by the ISI. The Students Islamic Movement of India was initially a home-grown movement though it subsequently came under the influence and control of the LeT and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, both of Pakistan.

What has been new since 9/11 is the emergence of a new group (not yet quantifiable) of Indians in hinterland India calling themselves the Indian Mujahideen and denying any links with the ISI and the Pakistani jihadi organisations and individual Muslims in the Indian diaspora in the UK without any proved organisational affiliation, who sought to help or emulate the Al Qaeda. The IM took to terrorism due to anger arising from Indian events and policies. Pro-Al Qaeda individuals like Bilal-al Hindi now in jail in the UK for assisting the Al Qaeda and Kafeel Ahmed who died in hospital after an attempted attack of suicidal terrorism in Glasgow in June 2006, took to terrorism for reasons unconnected with India. They were the first Indian global jihadi terrorists, who were motivated by what is projected by the Al Qaeda as global and historical injustice against the Muslims of the world.

Are there Indians in hinterland India who are similarly motivated by a global and historical sense of injustice and not merely by anger due to purely Indian reasons? No such person has so far been arrested, but one has been seeing openly expressed admiration for bin Laden among some youths. One saw it during the anti-Bush demonstrations in some cities during Bush's visit to India in March 2006, and in the interrogation reports of some arrested SIMI leaders. From admiration to action is just one step away.

Could any of these youth -- not yet unearthed -- with admiration for bin Laden have played a role in assisting the LeT in its attack in Mumbai? It will be unwise to rule this out just because no evidence in this regard has emerged so far. Lack of evidence does not prove a fact. It does not mean that a threat does not exist. A terrorist attack of this magnitude and precision could not have been so successfully planned and carried out without some local complicity. Only a local or a Pakistani member of the LeT who knew Mumbai well, would have known about the presence of many Jewish persons in Nariman House and about  the very weak security at the rear entrance to the Taj Mahal hotel.

The terrorist attacks of 2008 exposed the weaknesses in our counter-terrorism management as no other series of strikes in the past had -- lack of a culture of physical security and lack of coordination and of a culture of joint follow-up action on the intelligence available. Intelligence was available since September about the impending attack by LeT terrorists coming by sea. The available intelligence might not have been 100 per cent complete in all respects, but it was substantial enough to sound the alarm bells in Delhi and Mumbai and to trigger a joint response to foil the attack. There was a shocking failure of follow-up action on the intelligence alerts.

The police, the navy and the Coast Guard have to accept a major share of the responsibility for failing to act energetically to prevent the attack. The intelligence agencies cannot totally wash their hands of the tragedy by saying that their job ended with the collection and dissemination of intelligence. It was equally their responsibility to ensure that the implications of the disseminated intelligence were understood by the agencies responsible for follow-up and that required follow-up action was taken. If this was not done, it was their responsibility to alert the prime minister. It is for this reason that intelligence chiefs have privileged access to the prime minister. That access was not utilised.

In 1998-99, after the nuclear tests of May 1998, the Government of India revamped its national security management system with the creation of a National Security Council, a secretariat to service the NSC, a Strategic Policy Group, and a National Security Advisory Board -- with the entire architecture supervised and coordinated by a national security adviser who works directly under the prime minister and has his ears all the time. This system was further revamped in 2000 on the basis of our lessons learnt during the Kargil conflict of 1999. The revamped system consisted of an intelligence coordination committee and a technical resources coordination committee, both under the NSA, and a multi-agency centre in the IB to deal with terrorism to promote the culture of joint action.

The entire system set in place since 1998 to modernise our national security management on the pattern of good practices followed in the West and Israel failed. There was total dysfunction by the system as well as by those manning it. Our failure to prevent the November 2008 attack was due to systemic as well as human failures. The human failure was at all levels -- from the top to the bottom. A casual approach to security threats -- from State or non-State actors -- has been part of our culture. The Chinese took advantage of it in 1962. The Pakistanis tried to take advantage of it in 1999, but failed. The jihadi terrorists from Pakistan took advantage of it in November 2008 and succeeded.

To be continued

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com)

B Raman