'You are dealing with a small gang of semi-literate terrorists. These are guys flying kites.'
'There is huge difference between flying kites and actually having a deliverable, executable, plan.'
In its supplementary chargesheet file in 2014, the National Investigation Agency, India's premier investigation arm, charged Indian Mujahideen co-founders Yasin Bhatkal and Riyaz Bhatkal with planning to nuke Surat in Gujarat and for which they had communicated with international terrorist outfits like al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The NIA, taking the help of electronic communication between the two Bhatkal brothers in 2013, charged them with plans to smuggle a nuclear weapon from Pakistan and explode it in Surat.
A Delhi court on April 3, 2023 ordered framing of charges against the Bhatkal brpthers and observed that there was enough evidence to put the accused on trial on charges of waging war against India and planning to launch a nuclear attack on Surat after evacuating Muslims.
This is perhaps the first time that a court has ordered framing of charges against a banned terrorist organisation like the Indian Mujahideen for planning to nuke an Indian city.
Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com spoke to Dr Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management and the South Asia Terrorism Portal, to find out how easy or difficult it is to access nuclear material to build a dirty nuclear device or smuggle a nuclear bomb from Pakistan and, equally importantly, is India prepared to contain the fallout of a nuclear attack, even if it comes from a dirty device.
"These are guys flying kites. Ideas like let's go and nuke Surat and before doing that let us tell all Muslims in Surat through informing people coming to mosques and whichever other way to run away from Surat. Anybody can talk and think of such foolish acts," Dr Sahni asserts in this two-part interview.
Could a terror organisation like the Indian Mujahideen have the kind of resources at its disposal to build a dirty bomb and try to nuke a city like Surat?
First of all, the (National Investigation Agency) chargesheet and whatever I have seen of it, has a lot of muddling over whether they (Yasin Bhatkal, a member of the terror organisation Indian Mujahideen) are trying to acquire a bomb from Pakistan or whether they are trying to build one.
The basic thing seems to be that they were talking to their friends across the border to try and get a nuclear weapon. Getting a regular nuclear weapon would be next to an impossible task. So the next stage is what you call a dirty bomb.
Now, a dirty bomb could be built by taking any waste from a hospital's laboratory (where radioactive material is used for treatment of patients) and tied up to a regular explosive, which would disperse the radioactive material across a certain area and cause some (nuclear) radiation impact.
So, could they have got their hands on such radioactive material? It is a possibility.
Whether or not they actually did is a question of evidence; whether or not they were anywhere close to doing so is also a question of evidence; whether they even understood the logistics of doing so is also a matter of evidence.
It has happened that a number of scrap dealers have come across radioactive material which was wrongly disposed of by various facilities and they were themselves exposed to (nuclear) radiation. We have seen a handful for cases of that nature.
So having a discussion on whether we should blow up Surat or not may be easy, but are you in a position to actually do that? It's not so easy.
As I said, radioactive material is available very widely because there are lot of non-military uses (of radioactive material).
Where can such radioactive waste found?
Normally, if disposal of radioactive waste is appropriate, then they will not be found.
But sometimes this waste is disposed off incorrectly. More importantly, these (radioactive material) are used in facilities which are not what you would call very high security facilities.
For instance, you may have radioactive materials in hospitals. Now there will be a protocol (for its use and disposal of waste). But it is very easy to bribe somebody in the hospital and get it.
I will not say that such material cannot possibly be acquired. But the minute you start trying to acquire it, you also expose yourself to the dangers of radiation and exposure of your plans.
If someone goes to a medical facility where such material is found, even as waste, and ask some low level guy about it, nine times out of 10 this guy is going to inform his superiors.
These things sound very easy in theory that such material is widely available in non-military facilities, which are not very high security areas, but actual access and handling it thereafter is not such an easy thing.
This does not mean that you and I cannot conspire (to build such a dirty nuclear device) and that the intent (to build one) is not there. That is a matter of evidence.
If they (the National Investigation Agency) have got records that show that they were having conversations of trying to acquire such material and blow up Surat and get most of the Muslims out of Surat before that, then it sounds rather fantastical.
To evacuate all the Muslims from Surat before such an explosion, what kind of effort does it take?
Let's understand who you are dealing with. You are dealing with a small gang of semi-literate terrorists. These are not scientists or people with administrative ability.
These are guys flying kites. Ideas like let's go and nuke Surat and before doing that let us tell all Muslims in Surat through informing people coming to mosques and whichever other way to run away from Surat. Anybody can talk and think of such foolish acts.
There is huge difference between flying kites and actually having a deliverable, executable, plan.
If the NIA charges are indeed true. then isn't it highly ambitious of these guys to believe that they could execute it or pull up such a destructive plan?
The point basically is did they actually have a plan or was just riding on wishes. That we will get our device and someone will tell us how to blow it up.
The other thing you must understand is that these are people who have eventually gone and mixed up with al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda had a long term plan of trying to get nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
It is one thing to have intent; it is one thing to go out and try to get in touch with a few people to try to acquire whatever you think you need.
Far superior (terror) groups -- with much better capacity, capability, resources, networks across the world, in countries where you have fairly reasonably educated people, technically competent people associated with terrorist organisations -- exist. Even they have failed to get effective access (to a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon).