For the past twenty five years, almost as if in keeping with our millennia old history, India’s major security threat has come from the north-west. We are not talking about the Pakistan armed forces, which are a given, in the India-Pakistan context. The problem has seen the Pakistan army’s proxy war against India using a powerful mix of religious fanaticism and simpler incentives like money. We have dealt with successive waves of terrorists, each with more skills than the previous. We may now be standing at the cusp of an even more terrible future. The coming year could see India confronted with suicide bombers.
The attack on the CRPF camp in Rampur is only a warning of things to come. It points to the depth of the roots that the jehadis have been able to establish in India’s Muslim population. Till now, cells with extensions reaching out to Jammu & Kashmir and Bangladesh have conducted strikes using improvised explosive devices. Launching an attack on an armed police camp would have involved much more sophisticated planning and logistics—identifying and checking out the target, sheltering the attackers, providing the weapons and conveying them to the launch site.
While suicide attacks have a history going back to the first century AD, modern suicide terrorism began on October 23, 1983 when two massive explosions destroyed the barracks of the American and French contingents of a peace keeping force in Beirut. Both attacks were carried out by Hizbollah members who drove trucks loaded with explosives into the compound before setting off the bombs and killing themselves as well. Though this tactic was thereafter employed against US and Israeli targets in the region, it was not a “Muslim” thing. Between 1980-2000, the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched as many as 168 suicide strikes in India and Sri Lanka. The Hizbollah actually were a distinct number two with 52 attacks, with the Kurdistan Workers Party at number three with 15 attacks. The Palestinian groups—the Islamic Jihad and the Hamas— used the weapon sparingly at the time. .
Another watershed was Nine- Eleven, itself the most devastating suicide attack till now. About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In Afghanistan, too, the suicide bombings have come in the wake of the Iraq experience, with the first attack directed against German forces in June 2003.
The first suicide attack in Pakistan took place when, in 1995, an Egyptian bomber rammed his explosives-laden truck into his country’s embassy in Islamabad. In the following years, such attacks were few and far between, though always deadly when they occurred. In 2007 the number of attacks went up sharply to an estimated 65 attacks that have taken the lives of nearly 1000 people.
These are not the suicide terrorism of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, born out of a sense of helplessness in front of relentless Israeli power. This is a weapon of choice, used well before the others are even employed. But unlike the inanimate gun or lump of explosive, this weapon has to be shaped with great care. But once you have the methodology, you can mass-produce it. Many of the Pakistani bombers are unemployed, illiterate, and poor. They are easy prey to their “handlers” who convince them that not only are such attacks religiously sanctioned, but that in carrying them out, they will be fighting the kafirs of the west who are killing Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. According to reports in Pakistan, about a dozen master handlers or motivators have emerged in the NWFP to train people identify and train people to carry out such attacks. Many of these are local imams or madarsah teachers who should know that suicide does not have any sanction in Islam. But the people they are targeting are either semi-literate, or young and impressionable. These “handlers” are proficient in human psychology and will use emotional crises, such as the death of a near and dear, to push a potential recruit to make a commitment to the “cause.” Once identified, the recruit is isolated and provided “spiritual training” to make him feel that he is one of the chosen. Once the person is fully brainwashed, he may be assigned any task—driving a truck bomb at an army convoy, blowing himself up to kill a target, launch fedayeen attack on police or army checkposts.
Suicide attacks are an attractive tactic for terrorist groups. That the attacker is expected to die ensures that he or she is not captured, tortured and made to disclose the larger conspiracy. It also minimizes the effort the group needs to put in to plan the getaway of an attacker.
So far, only Israel has been able to reduce the number of suicide attacks. They have done this by ensuring physical separation of the Palestinian and Israeli populations and harsh measures such as destroying the houses of people involved in such attacks. In a multi-religious and multi-ethnic democracy like India such tactics will not be either feasible or desirable. But these need not be the only tactics. Suicide terrorism can be challenged by disrupting its organisational chain—the recruiters, handlers, bomb-makers, the safe-houses. In addition, there is need to make police and security personnel across the country aware of the need to build their camps and establishments with the presumption that they, too, could be targeted.
In the past few years, attacks in Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi and elsewhere have shown that terrorist cells have struck local roots. Terrorist strategy run by faceless leaders and organizers has become much more sophisticated. Because terror strikes are followed by often mindless repression, gross violation of the rule of law and due process, an army of new recruits is always available.
Unfortunately, India’s battle is being fought tactically, rather than in pursuit of an established strategy. The country’s security forces have won many tactical engagements. But, as Sun Tzu famously said, “Tactics without strategy, is the noise before defeat.” Insulated in their security cocoons the political and bureaucratic establishment do not realize that their tactical war against terrorism is merely pushing terrorists towards an escalating cycle of attacks.
So what is the strategy that we must follow ? Clearly it must be a mix of the political, economic and social. But most important, it requires consensus between those like the BJP which believes that only harsh repression will yield results and others, including many in the Congress who feel that unless the root causes of poverty and alienation of the minority community are addressed, nothing will change. Both the Congress and the BJP have in the past contributed to the climate in which terrorism is flourishing by ignoring issues like the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi, the Babri Masjid demolition and the 2002 Gujarat killings. Good strategy requires an acknowledgment, even an implicit one, that this is a problem. Only then can the mainstream parties work out a set of consensual policies which may range from measures for the uplift of poor Muslims, more effective legislation to tackle terrorism, as well as the creation of a federal instrumentality to combat it.
This article appeared in Mail Today January 2, 2008