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Archive | August, 2013

The field narrows, the noose tightens

Recent arrests point to welcome progress in the evolution of India’s counter-terror capabilities.

The capture of Yasin Bhatkal by Indian intelligence officials on Wednesday represents an important milestone in India’s counter-terrorism efforts. Yasin Bhatkal played a pivotal role in the Bangalore, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and other bomb blasts in India and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Indian citizens.  This article in the Indian Express summarizes the extent of his crimes against the country:

Yasin Bhatkal is wanted in at least eight cases in Maharashtra, of which four involve blasts or terror conspiracies. He is named as a wanted accused in the Mumbai blasts of July 13, 2011, as the bomb-planter in the 2010 blast at Pune’s German Bakery, where he was seen in CCTV footage, and as an accused in an aborted attempt (by Qateel Siddiqui, since dead) at planting a bomb at a temple in Pune. In August 2012, the state ATS named Yasin a wanted accused for a conspiracy to carry out blasts across the state.

He is also wanted in connection with a fake SIM card racket, the theft of two motorbikes for the 13/7 blasts, and will also be booked for the theft of cars from Navi Mumbai that were used to plant bombs in Ahmedabad and Surat.

[Himayat] Baig and Yasin allegedly carried the explosives to Pune in a series of  vehicles. “Yasin planted the bomb in a haversack at the bakery around 5 pm and triggered it with the help of a mobile triggering device at 6.50 pm,” the chargesheet says. Baig has been sentenced to death and has appealed in High Court.

Yasin Bhatkal was allegedly involved in the twin bomb blasts at Dilsukhnagar on February 21 this year, and those at Gokul Chat Bhandar and Lumbini Park in 2007. The AP anti-terror agency Octopus had filed three chargesheets in May and June 2009, named Yasin and the Bhatkal brothers. The NIA, which is investigating the 2013 blasts, is believed to have procured CCTV footage showing a man resembling Yasin carrying a bag in which the explosives may have been. [Indian Express]

Further interrogation of Yasin Bhatkal will provide law enforcement agencies in India with valuable insight into the Indian Mujahideen’s organization and structure, domestic and international support structures (including ties with SIMI, LeT and the ISI), training and sources of funding and inspiration.  These may in turn equip us to better combat terrorism in the country.

It is needless to say here that the threat of terrorism in India will not diminish merely as a result of Bhatkal’s arrest.  First, as far as we can tell, the IM, unlike the LeT for example, is a largely loosely-knit collection of disgruntled domestic actors with no real central command and control, supported though they may be from outside India.  Other IM key operatives Abdus Subhan and brothers Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal remain elusive.  These actors will continue to plan attacks against India and its interests.  Indian citizens continue to be recruited, both at home and abroad, to carry out attacks in India.

Second, the jihadi ideologues who nurture and sponsor the IM continue to operate with impunity from Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Until their ability to instruct and fund terrorism in India is significantly disrupted, the potential for attacks in India will not diminish.  It isn’t likely that this is about to happen; in fact, there is every indication that the military-jihadi complex in Pakistan intends to refocus its efforts on India once the U.S. winds down operations in Afghanistan.

Third, India’s intelligence and state and central law enforcement agencies continue to suffer from a lack of resources (technical as well as human), funding and coordination.  These are structural challenges that need to be addressed to counter current and future threats to the country.

The good news for India is that Yasin Bhatkal’s arrest, as well as those of Abdul Karim TundaAbdul Sattar and Abu Hamza, tells us that India’s much-maligned intelligence and law enforcement agencies are slowly making progress in developing capacities to counter terrorism directed at India.  These arrests, taken together, point to a process now being in place, with the cooperation and assistance of foreign governments, to track and extradite individuals involved in terrorism in India. Thus, the immunity that terrorists once enjoyed merely by taking a flight out of India no longer appears to be guaranteed.  And this progress in the evolution of India’s counter-terrorism capabilities is welcome.

That some of these foreign governments that we now appear to have an understanding with would not want to be named works to the advantage of both the foreign governments and India.  Indeed, the lack of public acknowledgement of cooperating with India allows these foreign governments to protect sensitive relations with countries in our neighborhood. For India, the lack of full public disclosure also enables our intelligence agencies to protect sources and methods, allowing us to track and extradite other terrorist operatives absconding from India.  The field narrows, the noose tightens.

 

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Bloodbath in Egypt

The House of Saud picks a side.

There is chaos in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood and their leader Mohammed Morsi were ousted from power by the Egyptian military in a soft coup last month.  The Brotherhood hasn’t taken kindly to being deposed from power.  This week has seen violence of an unprecedented scale in recent history in Egypt.  Over 750 civilians have been killed since Wednesday.  Without the active intervention of the U.S. and regional powers, that number will rapidly increase and the possibility that Egypt will descend into a long, protracted civil war isn’t far-fetched.

What we’re seeing is a battle between the Old Guard and resurgent Islamist groups in Egypt.  The military-security apparatus’s decades-long dominance is being challenged and neither the Islamists nor the Old Guard are ready to back down.  The victims of the ensuing confrontation are, unfortunately, the ordinary Egyptians.

In the midst of turmoil, Saudi Arabia appears to have picked a horse:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called on Arabs to stand together against “attempts to destabilise” Egypt.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government stood and stands by today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” he said in a statement read on state TV on Friday, backing Egypt’s military leadership.

“I call on the honest men of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim nations … to stand as one man and with one heart in the face of attempts to destabilise a country that is at the forefront of Arab and Muslim history,” he added.

Saudi Arabia “has stood and stands with its Egyptian brothers against terrorism, deviance and sedition, and against those who try to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs… and its legitimate rights in deterring those tampering with and misleading” its people, he said. [al-Jazeera]

The House of Saud’s endorsement of the Egyptian military may appear odd given Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood’s commitment to conservative strains of Islam.  However, it is important to distinguish between Wahhabism as a religious and philosophical movement that the Saudis promote (for example in Afghanistan or Pakistan) and the political movements that draw inspiration from Wahhabism.

The Saudis are happy to promote Wahhabism, but have always been very cautious about political Wahhabism.  It should not surprise us then that they are very uneasy with the Brotherhood because they see the movement as a threat to monarchy in the Gulf.  Other Gulf monarchies also endorse the distinction.  The UAE, for example, arrested 30 Egyptians and Emiratis in June on suspicion of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This also explains why Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t gained the kind of foothold in the Gulf that it has in Egypt and the Islamic maghreb.  The absence of the Brotherhood’s mass participation in the politics of the Gulf is not by accident, it is by design.  None of the Gulf monarchies are eager to see the Brotherhood operate in their neighborhood.

Further, where Egypt is concerned, the Saudis have always been among the military-security establishment’s most important supporters.  Gen. Nasser and Mubarak drew strength from Saudi Arabia’s backing.  In fact, it should be surprising that Saudi Arabia’s endorsement of the military-security establishment wasn’t made apparent sooner.

In India’s neighborhood, similar parallels can be drawn with regard to Pakistan, though for different reasons.  The Saudis are likely to always back the Pakistani army over political parties such as the JUI (that draw inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood).  This is unlikely to change as long as the Saudis see nuclear Pakistan as a bulwark against Iran.  Of course, the Saudis will continue to support the proselytizing of puritanical Wahhabism by religious jamaats in Pakistan, but not to the extent that they begin to pose a challenge to the Pakistani army’s primacy in dictating policy in that country.

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The LoC Incident

Manmohan Singh must meet with Nawaz Sharif in New York.

Even as we begin to fully understand the circumstances that led to the killing of five Indian jawans by Pakistani troops last week, we are informed of yet another Indian soldier succumbing to injuries today from a Pakistani attack on August 5 in J&K’s Samba district.

In New Delhi, Dr. Manmohan Singh has maintained a steely silence (as is his wont) on both incidents.  His defense minister made a dog’s meal of the incident in Parliament for which he was so thoroughly pilloried by the opposition that he had to recant his statement the very next day.  Meanwhile, opposition parties are engaged in hyperbole and political theatrics with May 2014 in mind.  What should have been dealt with at more tactical military level has now morphed into something larger, and unnecessarily so.  There are now even ludicrous demands that India recall its high commissioner from Islamabad.

As mentioned in the previous blogpost, LoC attacks by Pakistan are nothing new.  Cross-border attacks have continued to increased year-on-year over the past five years, from 31 in 2008 to 108 in 2012.  These sorts of attacks are both routine and expected and should have been dealt with as such.  The Indian army has a demonstrable track record of being able to deal with these sorts of transgressions.  Had the prime minister condemned the attack and issued a timely statement to the effect that the army was on alert to respond to Pakistan’s provocations, he would have ensured that the incident would have been dealt with through appropriate channels.  And as long as the Indian army’s mandate to respond in kind to Pakistan’s aggressions along the LoC was not curtailed, an appropriate punitive response would have assuredly been delivered to Pakistan.

Instead, the UPA has bungled badly in its dealing of what should have been a tactical military issue and allowed it to get commingled with the larger, political issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.  The prime minister’s over-enthusiastic commitment to a so-called “peace process” with Pakistan (which possibly explains his silence on the killing of Indian troops and the defense minister’s statements) has left him with yet another political mess on his hands.  The Pakistanis, themselves, are always happy to oblige in any endeavor that publicizes and promotes visibility of India-Pakistan issues on the world stage, so a latent upping of the ante with Pakistan is of no real value to India.  It should be of no surprise to us, then, that Pakistan is behaving the way it is.

The BJP now wants the PM not to meet with Nawaz Sharif in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA in September, but it must realize that its position is untenable.  If India wants to see progress on the 26/11 trial in Pakistan and those responsible for it brought to book, is cutting off communication with a man who has, ostensibly, promised to work towards improving ties with India a wise course of action?  The question for India isn’t so much whether or not it must talk to Pakistan, but what it should be talking to Pakistan about.  On 26/11, some measure of justice was delivered to the victims and their families with the sentencing and hanging of Ajmal Kasab in India, and by the sentencing of David Headley and Tahawwur Rana in the U.S.

Yet, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leaders and their state-supported backers who financed and supported the attacks in Mumbai continue to evade justice in Pakistan.  It is no secret that Nawaz Sharif’s ability to deliver on promises has always been questionable.  The last time he attempted to defy the Pakistani army, he was lucky to find himself with a one-way ticket to Jeddah. But India’s options with regard to the 26/11 trial in Pakistan are few and far between.

Therefore, it is appropriate that Dr. Manmohan Singh meet Nawaz Sharif in New York.  His message to his Pakistani counterpart should be clear: deliver on the 26/11 trial and we’ll have something to talk about.  No progress on the 26/11 trial means no composite dialog, no discussions on J&K and no visit to Pakistan.  How Nawaz Sharif elects to go about to the process to bring the 26/11 trial in Pakistan to a satisfactory conclusion is up to him.  Potentially, there are fissures between Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the LeT operational chief who is already in “custody,” and Hafiz Saeed that could be exploited to deliver a result that India will appreciate.

Nawaz Sharif says he wants to improve ties with India.  Let’s see if he can translate intent into action.

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Business as usual

The paralysis in decision making in New Delhi is adversely affecting India’s national security.

Pakistani troops ambushed and killed five Indian soldiers belonging to the 21 Bihar regiment and 14 Maratha Light Infantry on Tuesday.  The Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control into Poonch to carry out the attack.

Several theories have been put forward to explain the attack on the Indian patrol.  Was this retaliation to news reports in Pakistan which claimed that Indian troops kidnapped four men from PoK?  Is this just another manifestation of Pakistan’s escalating hostilities towards India in Afghanistan?  Are hardline elements in Pakistan’s armed forces attempting to discredit and derail Nawaz Sharif’s alleged attempts to make peace with India?  Interesting questions, and maybe they will be answered in time and as more facts pertaining to the attack are revealed.  But reactions to Tuesday’s incident, like those during the January 2013 incident, point to a larger crisis in national security management in India.

A quick word first about Nawaz Sharif.  Whatever his intentions are with regard to India, India must judge Pakistan by its actions and not by warm and fuzzy notions of a trans-Punjab lovefest.  The problem with Pakistan’s peace brigade is that there is a significant gap between purported intentions and their ability to deliver on them.

The net result to India is that its neighboring environment continues to remain hostile and threats to its internal security persist. In this regard, it would be silly for India to get entangled in a debate over whether Nawaz Sharif wants peace with India or not.  Instead, India must judge Pakistan by its actions and not by the supposed intentions of some of its leaders.  As my colleague Nitin Pai argues, there is no case for India to engage the Nawaz Sharif government in dialog until there is credible proof of intent.

But to return to the August 6 attack on Indian troops, such incidents along the LoC are hardly new, regrettable though the loss of life is.  The Pakistanis have always attempted to stir up tensions long the LoC to aid in the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC or to elevate the visibility of tensions with India on the global stage.  Tuesday’s attack wasn’t the first of its kind and will not be the last.  There will surely be a tactical Indian military response to the provocation, and the Pakistanis are well aware that the response will come sooner than later.  This isn’t war mongering but merely a reflection of the realities of the situation along the LoC.

However, what should be of concern to us is the manner in which Indian leadership has chosen to respond to the attack.  Browse through statements issued by representatives of India’s political parties and it becomes apparent very quickly that objective number one was to either blame or deflect blame (depending on who you were) for the attack.

BJP MP and former External Affairs minister Yashwant Sinha asked whether the Congress was with Pakistan or India (I mean, really?), while Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi affirmed that “the entire Congress party, as indeed the entire country” stood with the families of those killed. As ever, party first, country second.

In fact, further reading into statements issued in response to the attack tells us that there isn’t much consensus of opinion even within the UPA, much less between the UPA and other parties.  Defense Minister AK Antony, whose indifference to defending anything beyond his own reputation is now a thing of legend, alleged that the attackers were in fact terrorists masquerading as Pakistan army regulars, which contradicted the positions of almost every other UPA leader to have spoken on the subject.  It also happened to contradict the position of the army.  What is the Indian citizen supposed to make of the political theatrics that get played out with each bomb blast or border incident?

Confidence in India’s political leadership and national security institutions is eroding.  There has been systematic atrophy of existing institutions charged with managing India’s national security.  Worse, vested parties, both political and otherwise, have effectively stonewalled urgent reforms needed to our national security apparatus.  This includes the implementation of a recommendation first made  14 years ago in the Kargil Review Committee report that would allow the prime minister of the country to receive direct and timely military input.

The acute paralysis in consensus-building and decision making in New Delhi is now affecting India’s national security.  This cannot continue to be swept under the carpet.  If India’s leaders can’t even evolve political consensus on an expected and routine Pakistani provocation along the LoC, what sort of response do we imagine we can expect when we are faced with more serious challenges to our national security?

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