The late Osama bin Laden never believed in carrying out terrorist strikes to mark important anniversaries in the history of Al Qaeda such as the anniversary of the terrorist strikes outside the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August 1998, the attack on USS Cole, a US Navy ship, off Aden in October,2000, or the 9/11 strikes in the US Homeland.
According to a prevalent belief among tribal sources in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt, he believed tight physical security on important anniversaries such as these would make a successful strike very difficult.
It was, therefore, no surprise that he did not carry out any major terrorist strikes targeting the US on the anniversaries of 9/11 till now. Now that OBL is dead and has been succeeded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian, as the Amir of Al Qaeda, can the position change? Can there be a terrorist strike coinciding with the 10th anniversary of 9/11? Will Zawahiri order a strike on this occasion to establish his ability to strike at the US and to demonstrate that despite the death of OBL, Al Qaeda remains as motivated as ever and remains determined to make the US pay a heavy price for the clandestine raid by US naval commandos at Abbottabad on the night of May 2, which resulted in the death of OBL?
A major reprisal attack by Al Qaeda or its affiliates directed against the US such as the catastrophic strike against seven CIA officers at Khost in Afghanistan on December 30, 2009, remains a strong possibility to be guarded against. After the death of OBL, there has been a major terrorist strike on August 5,2011, directed against a group of helicopter-borne US troops in Afghanistan in which 30 US troops, 22 of them US Navy SEALS, reportedly from the same unit that had participated in the Abbottabad raid, were reported to have been killed. This attack, which bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda’s conception and planning, was, however, believed to have been carried out by the Afghan Taliban, which did not project it as in reprisal for the Abbottabad raid.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had projected the mysterious attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan naval air wing PNS Mehran in Karachi on May 22 as in reprisal for the death of OBL. Its claim could not be authenticated. Moreover, considering that Pakistani elements—governmental or non-Governmental or both— had connived at OBL living in his Abbottabad hide-out for nearly five years, it is very unlikely that Al Qaeda would have targeted Pakistan in reprisal for the death of OBL.
The reprisal for the death of OBL is, therefore, yet to come and when it comes, Al Qaeda will ensure that it bears its signature and is worthy of it. When OBL was alive, it used to be believed that Zawahiri and some of his associates in Al Qaeda were unhappy over OBL’s decision to strike at the US in its homeland thereby inviting massive retaliation from the US in the Af-Pak region. They were reportedly of the view that Al Qaeda should have continued targeting the US outside its homeland as it did in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Aden subsequently.
If Zawahiri continues to hold this view and if his close lieutenants also share this, the reprisal attack may not come in the US Homeland. It could come in an area that has a strategic US presence and where Al Qaeda feels confident of operating with success. Among such areas, one could think of the Af-Pak region, Aden once again, possibly India and Germany, where the Islamic Jihad Union had come to notice in the past for planning terrorist strikes against US military establishments that were thwarted by timely intelligence.
Al Qaeda has never operated in India before. There was a suspicion of an Al Qaeda brain behind the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. This remained without concrete evidence to back it. Neither Al Qaeda nor its ideology has had many takers in the Indian Muslim community.
But India has undetected sleeping cells of jihadis of unproven origin who had carried out two major terrorist strikes after 26/11—in Pune in February,2010, and in Mumbai in July 2011. None of the terrorist strikes—major or minor— in Indian territory outside Jammu & Kashmir after 26/11 has been detected. All this shows that India has in its midst jihadi terrorist elements well-trained in planning and executing a terrorist strike and remaining undetected.
In the absence of its own jihadi foot soldiers, Al Qaeda could turn to such jihadi elements which are able to operate in India with ease like fish in troubled waters for its act of reprisal if it considers India as a possible theatre for its reprisal against the US.
In the absence of human and technical intelligence and interrogation data from detected and arrested cell members, one has to rely on circumstantial analysis.
Such analysis underlines the need for heightened alert by the Indian counter-terrorism agencies in the days to come. It also underlines the need for close interaction between the counter-terrorism agencies of India and the US.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and , presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.