Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

Outsourced Terror

Drastic shifts in strategy by the highly adaptive ULFA, Assam's frontline separatist group, have compelled the security establishment to carry out a major rejig in operations.

The counter-insurgency mechanism in northeastern India's largest state, Assam, was almost falling into a pattern nearly two decades after it was launched, but drastic shifts in strategy by the highly adaptive United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the state's frontline separatist group, have compelled the security establishment to carry out a major rejig in operations. 

In the past, kidnappings, selective killings and direct gun-battles with security forces were among the favourite tactics for terror and fund generation adopted by the ULFA, which was formed in 1979 to fight for the creation of a 'sovereign, Socialist Assam'. Of late, however, ULFA appears to have adopted a strategy to protect its cadres from the hands of pursuing army, police and paramilitary forces, by avoiding direct combat with the troopers. There is, as a result, resort to the use of hirelings, who may not even be sympathizers of the group, to carry out bomb and grenade attacks.

Security officials in Assam have described this new trend as 'outsourcing' by the ULFA, with the objective of inflicting maximum damage with minimum loss to the group itself. Aside from scores of ULFA rebels killed or arrested by the security forces in the course of the ongoing counter-insurgency operations, as many as 350 cadres have surrendered to the authorities just between January 2007 and February 2008. Although fresh recruitments could be on, the ULFA looks hard pressed not to lose its trained fighters.

Some of the principal tactical shifts the ULFA has undergone include the following:

  • In the past, the group used to recruit cadres and send them for prolonged military training at their bases in Bhutan, Myanmar or Bangladesh. The long absence of certain youths from a particular village or localities, and their reappearance after a considerable gap, made it easier for the security and intelligence machinery to ascertain if they were ULFA members and to keep tabs on them. However, in the wake of the loss of ULFA's staging and training facilities in Bhutan, following the Bhutanese military crackdown in December 2003, and the comparatively better cooperation from the military junta in Myanmar, the ULFA is sending fresh cadres for short-term training, mostly within Assam and along the Arunachal Pradesh-Myanmar border.

  • This strategy of sending recruits for short training courses has reduced the span of absence from their homes, and has lessened the possibility of suspicion being aroused in the minds of informers or the intelligence community.

  • Until 2000, the ULFA was engaged in shootouts with the security forces (SFs), but such direct engagement between the rebels and the troopers have now become a rarity. The ULFA clearly finds the costs of direct confrontations disproportionate with any calculable returns.

  • The new strategy adopted by the ULFA includes hiring youths, even students, who do not have any criminal records or do not figure in the scan list of the security forces, to lob grenades or plant improvised explosive devices (IED) at public places. These 'stealth attacks' constitute a zero risk to the rebel group in terms of potential loss of trained manpower.

  • This 'outsourcing' of tasks has been confirmed by the police even in ULFA strongholds in the eastern Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts as recently as in March 2008. The Assam police intelligence chief, Inspector General of Police, Khagen Sharma, told this writer that there were several confirmed cases where the ULFA had hired people outside the group to ferry and plant bombs.

The ULFA's shift in tactics obviously makes the task of counter-insurgency agencies more challenging. First, they are usually clueless as to who may be an ULFA bomb courier because they are people who do not figure in their list of suspects. Ever since the army, police and paramilitary forces (PMFs) in Assam were brought under a Unified Command on January 4, 1997, the counter-insurgency strategy focused on operations to flush out the rebels from their camps, hideouts or areas of influence. The crackdown was aimed at neutralizing known cadres of the ULFA. Now, the ULFA seems to have succeeded in creating a corps of over-ground handlers who do not figure in police records and who are either used to plant bombs themselves or entrusted with the task of hiring totally unknown people to execute such jobs. The fact that several bomb couriers have either been killed or severely injured while trying to execute their assigned tasks indicate their lack of training in handling explosives.

Clearly, significant adjustments in counter-insurgency tactics have been forced by the ULFA's tactical shift, which is still in a process of development. Elements of these adjustments, on the ground, as executed by the army, police and paramilitary forces, include the following:

  • A close watch on school and college dropouts, after intelligence agencies ascertained that militants had been using such youths to work for them. Profiles of such dropouts or unemployed youth in an area are increasingly being maintained by Police and intelligence agencies.

  • An increased focus by enforcement and intelligence agencies on front organizations, sympathizers and facilitators, who may provide the links to approach and hire mercenaries to execute bomb or grenade attacks. Significant in this context was the arrest of Lachit Bordoloi, leader of the Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity, a 'human rights' front, for his links with ULFA (Bordoloi was subsequently released on bail).

  • Pushing ahead with a well coordinated offensive to 'dislocate' ULFA cadres from their established camps/strongholds/areas of operation to newer areas. This is aimed at hitting at both the group's 'composition' and 'disposition'.

  • Intelligence agencies say ULFA men have been pushed by military operations to places in Nagaland and East Karbi Anglong, where they have not been able to establish their logistics or local support networks, affecting their ability to strike comfortably.

  • Such focused attempts at dislocating ULFA units, according to intelligence agencies, have forced different units of the outfit to come together. This has resulted in some lack of coordination and has affected command structures, because cadres of different units are not used to working together.

  • These problems have been compounded further by the fact that ULFA's bond with the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) is said to have become fragile, of late. According to intelligence agencies, this has compelled the ULFA to look for other locations to set up base, outside of Myanmar, where they had earlier secured safe haven under NSCN-K protection. This dislocation has made them more vulnerable to intensified SF operations.

  • ULFA is said to have already set up semi-permanent camps in Arunachal Pradesh. Counter-insurgency forces are focusing their attention on these areas and are putting pressure on New Delhi to remove the 'lacunae' in the legal framework that does not allow the Army to move more than 20 kilometres beyond Assam's borders, into Arunachal Pradesh, in hot pursuit.

In addition, there is increased emphasis on improvement of intelligence gathering and efforts to ensure that SFs maintain high standards of human rights protection during counter-insurgency operations. On March 17, 2008, the chief of the Army's Kolkata-based Eastern Command, Lt. Gen. V. K. Singh, met Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who heads the Unified Command in the State, and arrived at an agreement on the following vital points:

  • That intelligence gathering must be improved;

  • That security forces would be told in no uncertain terms to avoid any excesses while carrying out counter-insurgency operations.

The Army commander is already reported to have passed on this message to his field commanders, indicating that any violation of human rights in the name of counter-insurgency operations will be dealt with sternly. The objective of this measure is to ensure that the increased public anger against ULFA attacks and killings of innocent civilians is not diluted by any incident of excess by the security forces. 

There have been several highly publicized incidents of death of militants or suspected militants in the custody of security forces in Assam. The stress on avoiding such aberrations and the warning of stern action against any trooper violating human rights is itself part of the new counter-insurgency posture, particularly in view of the fact that ULFA, of late, has been at the receiving end of the people's ire over attacks in which innocent people have been killed. 

During 2007, at least 150 people, dozens of them Hindi-speaking migrant workers, were killed in bombings and shootings orchestrated by ULFA. Further, despite its denials, the ULFA has been accused by the security forces of carrying out a grenade attack at a gathering of tribes-people in Assam's easternmost town of Jonai on March 15, 2008, which killed four people and injured 50 others. An estimated 15,000 people, mostly belonging to the Mising ethnic group, were watching the celebrations of their biggest festival when two motor-cycle borne youth hurled a grenade and escaped. The incident led to general strikes in the area and open condemnation by several groups, including the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), the state's apex student organization.

The attack at Jonai served as a reminder of the August 15, 2004, bomb explosion at an Independence Day parade in adjoining Dhemaji, the headquarter of the district by the same name, which led to the death of 14 persons, including 11 school children. The ULFA was blamed for the Dhemaji blast, but the group had denied responsibility on that occasion as well. Few people, however, accept these denials, and ULFA continues to be blamed for the mindless attack in Dhemaji, where children lost their lives. 

Moreover, ULFA 'chairman' Arabinda Rajkhowa's statement on the group's 'Army Day' celebrations on March 16, 2008, appears to corroborate the security forces' claims. Rajkhowa sought to remind his 'beloved brothers in arms' that the people were opposed to, and not happy with, certain 'anti-revolutionary activities by revolutionary soldiers'. The ULFA 'chairman' exhorted his cadres to lead a disciplined life. An English Daily from Guwahati quoted Rajkhowa as saying: "The masses would be inspired if we could overcome our frailty and advance with renewed discipline."

This rare self-introspection by the ULFA is not without significance. It is too early to say if the ULFA will, once again, change tactics by putting a halt to roadside bombings that most often kill or maim innocent civilians. But if ULFA does decide to go back to its earlier tactics, targeting security personnel or people in trade and industry, the latter for ransom and to exert maximum pressure on the government, this would be no surprise, as public resentment against them mounts.

Tactics may change, but what is expected to remain a constant is ULFA's violence and the concomitant pressure on the government. The cat-and-mouse game in Assam, consequently, appears set to continue for some time to come.

Wasbir Hussain is Member, National Security Advisory Board, India; Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal