Terrorism Update
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Preparing for the Next Wave

There is of course a certain semantic opportunism in the claim that there has been "no terror attack" in India for more than a year after 26/11. The South Asia Terrorism Portal database tells us that there have been at least 2,197 terrorism-related fatalities across the country through year 2009 (till December 28) – with the bulk of these coming from the Maoist conflict, accounting for 977; Manipur, 415; Assam 389; and Jammu & Kashmir, 373. Obviously, "terror attack" in this interpretation refers narrowly to Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist attacks in major urban centres outside Jammu & Kashmir – an interpretation that provides a window into the minds of those who rule India, and their attitudes to what they regard as the country’s ‘periphery’. Nevertheless, there is cause to appreciate Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s candour in admitting that the absence of even such a ‘terror attack’ must be credited largely to "dame luck" rather than any extraordinary initiatives by India’s security establishment.

Such sagacity of perspective, however, does not encumber leaderships elsewhere in the country. In Mumbai, crucially – the location of the 26/11 attacks – the administration boasted of new protocols to respond to "a nuclear, chemical or biological attack". The fact that this was considered a subject suitable for public mention indicates a degree of unfamiliarity with reality that is, indeed, astonishing. Protocols or no protocols, the truth is that no country in the world is actually or sufficiently ‘prepared’, in any meaningful sense, to thwart or to respond to a WMD (weapon of mass destruction) attack, and for Mumbai to see fit to brag about new and untested SOPs (standard operating procedures) in this context is certainly disingenuous. Worse, virtually every intelligence and security agency in the countries targeted by Islamist terrorists now concedes not only the possibility, but, indeed, the imminence of a future catastrophic attack, potentially involving WMD technologies. In some such countries certain systems for the containment of the impact of such an attack have been put in place. There is, however, at this juncture, a comprehensive vacuum in terms of any strategy of response to such an attack. The tremendous dispersal and decentralization of Islamist terrorist forces across the world make the design of an effective, targeted, response nigh impossible, exponentially multiplying the uncertainties that would necessarily result from a catastrophic or WMD attack anywhere in the free world.

There is, in India, little comprehension of the magnitude and the evolving nature of the threat of terrorism, and this takes much of the discourse on the subject into the realm of make-believe. Administrations continue to quibble over institutional forms – a bifurcated Home Ministry, a National Counter-terrorism Centre, National Intelligence Grids, and so forth – or to focus on incremental augmentations in capacity, with little reference to the fact that contemporary terrorism has engineered a generaltional shift in the fundamental nature of warfare, and this has disempowered even the most powerful states in the world. This, indeed, is the core lesson of the current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the overwhelming technical, technological and resource superiority of US and coalition Forces in these theatres, victory remains elusive and most analysts would suggest that the US has, in fact, suffered significant reverses. It is useful to recall, crucially, that this pattern of irregular warfare, sometimes referred to as Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), even without recourse to WMD technologies, "stands unique thus far as the only type of warfare that has defeated a superpower, and it has done so on two occasions" – in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. Contemporary terrorists use asymmetric warfare strategy and tactics within a protracted war model, and systematically elaborated over time, which seek to evade decisive engagements with a more powerful enemy, to gradually erode the political will of the enemy, rather than to control or administer territory. The essence of this method is ‘disruptive dominance’, the capacity to ensure that the stronger side – the state and its agencies – is unable to exercise the minimal functions of governance and the protection of life and property over the jurisdictions it controls. The objective is not to defeat the enemy militarily, but "to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit." The increasingly importunate advocacy within the Indian policy establishment, of the necessity of a ‘compromise’ on Kashmir and a ‘negotiated solution’ with Pakistan, is an index of the degree to which this objective has already been consolidated.

With rare exception, India’s strategic and policy establishment continues to prepare to counter nothing more than the last terrorist attack, substantially oblivious of the continuous process of reinvention that terrorists are engaged in. Islamist terrorist ideologues and leaders, for instance, have been evolving theories of war that rely on the use of "the most deadly weapons possible", and have created a new model aimed at drawing individuals and small groups into a ‘leaderless’ global jihad. One of the architects of this new way of warfare, Mustafa Sethmariam Nasar aka Abu Musab al-Suri, is known to have been involved in efforts in Afghanistan, during the Taliban regime, to train fighters in the use of "poisons and chemicals". A 1,600 page document on ‘Global Islamic Resistance’, authored by Nasar, was long in circulation on the internet, and ideas such as these have been widely disseminated among Islamists and their handlers for years now.

While India continues to rely on ‘luck’ to come to terms with the fallout of a conventional attack by ten terrorists, equipped with small arms and grenades, it is useful to look at emerging projections of the potential of catastrophic terrorism, which we continue to refuse even to contemplate. Specifically, the greatest potential lies in the sphere of biological weapons which, commentators note, "have the capability to kill many more people than a nuclear attack." One study, Dark Winter conducted in 2001, for instance, simulated a smallpox attack on three U.S. cities. In a period of 13 days, smallpox ‘spread’ to 25 states and 15 countries in several epidemiological waves, after which one-third of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who contracted the disease died. It was estimated that a fourth generation of the disease would leave 3 million infected and 1 million dead. The exercise was terminated at that time.

Terrorism is undergoing radical, generational shifts, and when this transition manifests itself in a new wave of catastrophic attacks, the resultant shocks could destroy almost all capacities of response within the target systems. Our conceptualization of counter-terrorism, however, remains trapped in the past, as we equivocate over the definition of terrorism and over ‘developmental’ and ‘political solutions’ to the global jihad. India’s security apparatus must prepare, not for the possible recurrence of another 26/11 – which currently exhausts our efforts and vision – but with the challenge of neutralizing the exponentially evolving threats of this new way of warfare.

(Published in The Pioneer, December 31, 2009)





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