March 01, 2021
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Lessons Not Learnt

The inadequacies in our capabilities are spread right across the counter-terrorism spectrum--intelligence, policing, physical security, crisis management, investigation and prosecution.

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Lessons Not Learnt

One often talks of terrorism having become a global phenomenon. It is essentially jihadi terrorism, which has become a global phenomenon.

One can trace the origin of the globalisation of jihadi terrorism to the formation of the International Islamic Front (IIF) by Osama bin Laden in February,1998, for waging a global jihad against what he projected as the common enemies of Islam--namely, the Crusaders and the Jewish people. In April, 2006, he included the Hindus as the third common enemy of Islam. He now projects the global jihad as directed against the alleged conspiracy of the Crusaders, the Jewish people and the Hindus against Islam.

His success in the globalisation of jihadi terrorism has resulted in innumerable jihadi terrorist organisations, which were already operating in different countries for different local reasons and for different local objectives, coming together in a united front for helping each other, benefiting from each other's capabilities and  achieving a common pan-Islamic objective of a global Islamic Caliphate.

Under bin Laden's leadership, international jihadi terrorism has been drawing into its fold  educated, self-motivated Muslim youth of different countries, who are able to harness the latest advances in technologies relating to communications for building a trans-national networking. They have also shown a worrisome capability for innovative modus operandi (MO), often involving the use of explosive devices fabricated by them from commonly available material.  Their constant search for new MO is seen in the the way they used hijacked planes as  cruise missiles in their terrorist strikes of 9/11 in the US and in their present  quest after weapons of mass destruction material.

Self-motivation, ability to operate autonomously in small cells without undue dependence on a common command and control, graduation from the past use of hand-held weapons to extensive and devastating use of explosive  devices, suicide terrorism, careful selection of soft targets as well as targets, which have a significant economic, strategic or religious value, a willingness to inflict mass casualties  on the civilian population without worrying about its likely adverse impact on public opinion and skilful use of psychological warfare (PSYWAR) techniques through the Internet, FM radio stations and TV channels are some of the defining characteristics of the international jihadi terrorists.

Growing miniaturisation of international jihadi terrorism is another recent development. One saw the first evidence of it in the London explosions of July 10, 2005. This refers to self-motivated and self-directed individuals, not belonging to any organisation and not even subscribing to the pan-Islamic objectives of international jihadi terrorism, giving vent to their anger through acts of terrorism against the perceived enemies of Islam, with assistance from the members of the IIF.

International jihadi terrorists have demonstrated a capability for actions mounted from the air, the land and the sea. The tourist infrastructure, public transport and energy production and supply infrastructure have been among their favourite targets. They contemplate attacks on other critical infrastructure, including nuclear establishments and maritime trade.

The 11/7 blasts in Mumbai  mark the extension of the area of operation of international jihadi terrorism to India. The Madrid train blasts of March, 2004, have apparently provided the model.  More such well-planned and well-executed terrorist strikes in the Indian territory  are likely.  The success of the terrorists could be attributed to intelligence and physical security inadequacies.  There has definitely been a failure of the intelligence agencies of the government of India as well as of the intelligence branch of the Mumbai Police.  The failures have been in human as well as technical intelligence.

Physical security for the suburban trains has also been wanting. No lessons seem to have been learnt from the Madrid and London blasts, both of which were directed at mass transportation systems.  Inadequacies in the policing of Mumbai, which has been a frequent favourite target of the terrorists, is also evident. While the Central intelligence agencies are responsible for strategic intelligence collection, the collection of tactical intelligence is the responsibility of the local police.

The police collect tactical intelligence through methods such as city patrolling, local enquiries, surveillance of terrorist and criminal suspects and police-community relations, particularly with the community from which terrorists arise. If these methods are non-functional, intelligence flow will dry up.

The failure of the police to make a breakthrough so far in their efforts to identify and arrest the perpetrators of the blasts is  worrisome.  At a time, when the terrorists are steadily improving their capabilities, our capabilities have not been able to counter their improved capabilities effectively.  The inadequacies  in our capabilities are spread right across the counter-terrorism spectrum--intelligence, policing, physical security, crisis management and investigation and prosecution.

An important lesson of 9/11 was the need for an interlocking  system of fail-safe mechanisms relating to intelligence, policing, physical security and crisis management. The idea is that even if one component fails, others will compensate for the failure. For example, if intelligence fails, effective physical security should be able to thwart a terrorist strike even in the absence of preventive intelligence.

Another lesson was the need for a single nodal point to identify all vulnerabilities and co-ordinate all physical security arrangements. The Department of Homeland Security in the US is an outcome of this lesson. Unfortunately, we learnt no lessons  from others.  The jihadi terrorists are trying all the time to learn from each other's experiences. Counter-terrorism agencies have to constantly learn from each other too.

Since 9/11, there has been a number of acts of terrorism by international jihadi terrorists in different countries of the world. The details of those strikes, the MO used, the details of the investigations ,the results of any enquiries held by the local officials into possible intelligence and physical security failures should have been studied by governmental organisations as well as non-governmental think tanks and appropriate lessons drawn.

This has not been done on a systematic basis. Our Kashmir-centric approach to jihadi terrorism is no longer justified. Jihadi terrorism in the Indian territory outside Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) is not necessarily Kashmir related, though the Pakistani jihadi surrogates involved in J&K and outside are the same and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) acts as the common motivator and controller of all jihadi terrorist activities--whether in J&K or outside.

Jihadi terrorism in the Indian territory outside J&K has become part of the global jihadi terrorism. Our studies of jihadi terrorism can no longer remain exclusively influenced by our preoccupation with J&K. A global dimension to our studies is called for. Acts of jihadi terrorism in Indian territory directed against the IIF's global targets such as the US and Israel could be an outcome of India becoming a new front for the terrorists in their global jihad.

We need to strengthen not only our intelligence, physical security and policing capabilities, but also our anti-explosives capability. The international jihadi terrorists are relying on explosive devices and suicide bombers for over 75 per cent of their terrorist strikes. The explosion at the New York World Centre in February,1993, involved the use of nitrogenous fertilisers (ammonium nitrate) as the explosive material. This was perhaps the first time it  was used. Since then, Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist groups in different parts of the world have been increasingly using ammonium nitrate. For the Mumbai blasts of 11/7 too, the terrorists are reported to have used a mixture of ammonium nitrate, RDX and fuel oil. Ammonium nitrate is easy to procure without giving rise to suspicion.

In the London explosions of July last year, the suicide terrorists were reported to have fabricated their own peroxide-based explosives by mixing appropriate chemicals which were bought without giving rise to suspicion. The jihadi terrorists are graduating from military-grade and industry-made explosives to self-made explosives, which could be fabricated in one's bathtub.

How to prevent the terrorists from having easy access to explosives, commonly-used substances which can be used as explosives and commonly-used substances, which can be used for fabricating explosives is a question which needs urgent attention.

We have already dithered too long in giving a new shape and thrust to our counter-terrorism strategy keeping in view the new mutations of jihadi terrorism and its constantly improving capabilities. A new counter-terrorism strategy to counter the new jihadi terrorism is called for. It should, inter alia, include the following steps:  

  • The re-vamping of the police in order to strengthen its counter-terrorism capability. A dedicated task force with its entire focus on the role of the police in counter-terrorism should be set up.

  • A similar re-vamping of the counter-terrorism capabilities of the intelligence apparatus--at the central and state levels.

  • The setting-up of an independent ministry of internal security to co-ordinate all operational responsibilities in respect of counter-terrorism, including physical security, policing and crisis management.

  • A study by the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) of all incidents of jihadi terrorism in the Indian territory outside J&K since 9/11 in order to examine their mutations, identify bottle-necks in investigation, examine the reasons for poor investigation and prosecution  and understand  the evolution of the MOs used.

  • The NSCS should be entrusted with the responsibility for the regular monitoring of the investigation of all major jihadi terrorism-related cases so that the policy-makers could have an over-all picture of the activities of the jihadi terrorists in different parts of the country and suggest corrective actions as the investigations progress.

  • Measures for strengthening our anti-explosives capability.

  • Strengthening our capability for net-centric counter-terrorism. This would involve, inter alia,  not only the monitoring of terrorism-related communications through the Internet, but also of terrorism-related chatter through Internet chat rooms and blogs. This would also involve the study of the terrorists' PSYWAR and action to counter it.

B. Raman  is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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