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Tag Archives | Terrorism

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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No withdrawal syndrome

India still has the ability to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected after 2014.

The U.S., with eyes set on a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, is attempting to engage the Taliban in peace talks in Doha, Qatar.  The talks are being brokered by the military establishment in Pakistan, much to the chagrin of Hamid Karzai.  Indeed, two of the most recent attempts to engage with the Taliban were scuttled because Mr. Karzai took offense to the Taliban claiming it represented the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”  Mr. Karzai apparently read the riot act to folks in DC, which was enough to call off talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, albeit temporarily.

If a preview was needed on what a post-NATO environment might look like in Afghanistan, the world got one on Monday.  The Taliban launched a suicide attack near the presidential palace and the offices of the CIA in Kabul.  But the U.S., for its part, now says it is unsure as to whether it even considers the Taliban to be a terrorist organization.

The irony should not be lost on us that it was the U.S. that was in no mood for negotiation (“Bring ’em on,” he said) when it launched a massive assault on Afghanistan in 2001; twelve years on, it is the Taliban that appears disinterested in working out compromises while the U.S. is engaged in nimble pussyfooting.

With the U.S. and NATO forces leaving in 2014, Hamid Karzai’s regime will be losing its security guarantor.  The Afghan National Army (ANA) is ill-trained and faces attrition and ethnic disunity.  It will be incapable of completely taking over security operations from NATO after 2014.  Therefore, deal or no deal with the U.S., when Mullah Omar and his faithful followers return to Afghanistan, the country will be plunged into yet another bloody and protracted civil war that will most likely leave the Taliban in a position of advantage.  Pakistan’s perfidy is bearing fruit.

For India, instability in Afghanistan will affect not only its infrastructure and exploration projects in that country, but could also have an impact on India’s domestic security.  Few in India have forgotten the Pakistan-engineered hijacking of IC-814 in 1999 to Kandahar that compelled India to release Maulana Masood Azhar (who later founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed) and Omar Sheikh (now sentenced to death for his role in the killing of Daniel Pearl) in exchange for Indian hostages.

Pakistan has continued to exploit the instability in Afghanistan to engineer attacks against Indian interests in Kabul; the 2008 and 2009 Indian embassy bombings come to mind.  It is very possible, therefore, that there will be a qualitative and quantitative escalation in attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan once the U.S. and its allies leave.

It is to the backdrop of these developments that the newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a tour of India and the Middle East.  In India apparently, he was given a frosty reception. Mr. Kerry is said to have addressed a largely empty India Habitat Center on Sunday.  We are told many in New Delhi are upset at the U.S. “abandoning Afghanistan” and negotiating compromises with the Taliban.  New Delhi is “livid” at John Kerry the “opportunist,” one report said.

But surely, the U.S.’s attempts to extricate itself from a messy situation in Afghanistan are the rational actions of a country that deems its exit from the region to be in line with its national interests.  How does one justify India’s apparent anger at the U.S.?  For over a decade, the U.S. has been the dominant guarantor of security in Afghanistan.  Chinese and Indian investment projects in Afghanistan have benefited greatly by the security provided by NATO.  Yet, neither India nor China has contributed significantly to providing security in Afghanistan.

Calls have been made in the past for India to deploy its troops and assist in the effort to secure Afghanistan.  In a 2010 article in Pragati, I made the case for India to provide training and equipment to the ANA in a more meaningful manner.  But apart from training a few army and police officers and supplying helicopters to the ANA, we have largely avoided accepting security-related responsibilities in Afghanistan for fear of exacerbating Pakistan’s pathological insecurities.

Indeed, even Mr. Karzai’s apparent last-ditch attempt to request Indian assistance in securing Afghanistan was dealt with great hesitance in New Delhi.  The free ride is now at an end; the U.S. and its allies are pursuing courses of action that they believe are in line with their national interests; India must do likewise too.

The generals in Rawalpindi are free to believe that they have played the great game with a superpower and that victory now is at hand.  But to draw parallels between the emerging regional environment and that of the 1990s, when Pakistan exerted unchallenged influence over Afghanistan, would be to misread the situation.  First, the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan will not necessarily translate into Pakistan getting a free hand to do as it pleases in Afghanistan.  The U.S. will still continue to maintain a small, but effective military presence in the region, including a contingent of armed drones.

Second, Pakistan as the source of a potential terror threat to the U.S. homeland will not diminish post 2014.  The U.S. will undoubtedly be aware of this, and as such, is unlikely to wind down capabilities needed to neutralize threats based in Pakistan.  Indeed, recent hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security (coupled with similar hearings in the Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2010) on Lashkar-e-Taiba — a Pakistan-supported terrorist group traditionally thought of as being India-focused, but posing no potential threat to the U.S. — points to a recalculation of assumptions on the LeT  in the U.S.

Third, Pakistan’s generals have filled their coffers with money provided as economic aid by the U.S. for over ten years.  But this source of funds will dry up with the U.S.’s departure.  In fact, it is likely that the U.S.’s first-hand experience with Pakistan’s duplicity on terror and nuclear proliferation will invite fresh U.S. sanctions similar to the Pressler Amendment.  Fresh sanctions directed at a country already on economic life-support can be an effective tool in curtailing bad behavior.

And fourth, Pakistan’s towns and cities are facing the consequences of the army’s poor choice of using militants as instruments of foreign policy.  Many have turned their guns on the state and its citizens, while insurgencies rage on in FATA, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.  This doesn’t mean, however, that Pakistan won’t continue to arm terrorist groups focused on India and Afghanistan; but the consequences of a spillover of the conflict from Afghanistan into Pakistan on an overstretched army will not be lost on Rawalpindi either.

Thus, even at this juncture and for all its inaction, India can still ensure that its interests — both in Afghanistan and in India — remain protected.  Old alliances can be renewed and new ones established; covert capabilities and information sharing with the Afghan intelligence apparatus and regional powers can be enhanced.  Closer cooperation with the U.S. amidst a convergence of perceptions on Pakistan could give India new levers with which to manage its relations with its difficult neighbor to the west.  Contrary to popular perception, this game is far from over.

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U.S. hearings on the Lashkar-e-Taiba

Convergence of perceptions augurs well for Indo-US counter-terrorism cooperation.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on June 12 on “Protecting the Homeland Against Mumbai-Style Attacks and the Threat from Lashkar-e-Taiba.”  As a precursor to the hearing, Peter King, chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, remarked that “The LeT is a terror proxy of Pakistan’s [ISI], which provides LeT with a safe haven and funding to train and prepare for terrorist attacks…”  Elected representatives of the U.S. would have hesitated in making such admissions even a decade ago, for fear of embarrassing Pakistan.

The LeT ceased to be an India-specific terror outfit after 26/11; its deliberate targeting of U.S., Western and Israeli citizens during the attacks in Mumbai meant that its orientation was now beyond targets only in India.  Thus, the convergence of common threat perceptions augurs well for Indo-U.S. cooperation on counter-terrorism and on the threats posed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba.  Salient excerpts from the USHOR testimonials follow.

Stephen Tankel on the LeT training Westerners:

LeT has long had a policy of training Westerners. The majority of them are members of the Pakistani and Kashmir diasporas in the U.K., but the group has been training Americans since 2000.

The first Americans known to have trained with LeT were from Virginia and were part of a coterie of would-be jihadists that ultimately became known as the Virginia Jihad Network. Sajid Mir, the commander in charge of overseas operatives, arranged for several of them to provide assistance to a British LeT operative who traveled to the U.S. on multiple occasions from 2002-2003 to procure military gear for the group.

Precisely what LeT or elements within it planned to do with this information is unknown, though they clearly were interested in both surveillance and expanding the group’s networks in the U.S. In 2005, two men from Atlanta Georgia with ties to the ‘Toronto 18’ as well as to a British Pakistani
who acted as a talent spotter for LeT identified possible targets for a terrorist attack in the U.S.

LeT has trained others living in America since then, none more famous than Daood Gilani, who took the name David Coleman Headley in 2006 to help facilitate his reconnaissance trips in Mumbai and elsewhere for the group. He joined LeT in February 2002, participating in the Daura-e-Suffa that month. In August 2002 he went through the Daura-e-Aama and then in April 2003 the Daura-e-Khasa, LeT’s three-month guerrilla warfare training program….

Given the benefits Headley provided to the group, it is reasonable to assume LeT may have increased its efforts to recruit and train other Westerners or to find ways for Pakistani members to acquire citizenship or residency in Western countries. [USHOR]

Christine Fair on the re-branding of the LeT as a charitable organization, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), and continued support from the Pakistani MJC:

To facilitate LeT’s pro-state message countering that of the various Deobandi organizations operating in Pakistan and against Pakistanis (e.g. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Pakistani Taliban), Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and the armed force’s Interservices Public Relations appear to direct Pakistani and international media to cover the ostensible relief efforts of JuD and its other alias, Falah Insaniat Foundation (e.g. during Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake and the 2010 monsoon-related flood). The media coverage of this humanitarian work seemed far in excess of the actual relief activities conducted. Subsequent research has shown that the organization did not provide the relief that the various media proclaimed. In essence, this media coverage handed the organization a public relations boon they did not deserve.

In survey work that my colleagues and I have conducted in Pakistan, we have found that the various state and non-state efforts to rebrand LeT as JuD in Pakistan have been successful. During survey pretesting in Pakistan in 2011, we found that Pakistani respondents viewed the two organizations as being quite distinct and engaging in different activities with the latter being seen more often as providing public services.

As I argued in 2011, this strategy is important. By fostering public support for the organization at home, the Pakistani state can resist pressure from the United States and others to work against the organization. Under these varied guises, LeT/JuD can continue to recruit, raise funds and support its message of jihad against the “external kuffar” such as the Indians, Americans, Israelis and so forth. The continued official investment in the organization and expanding public presence suggests that the Pakistani state is ever more dependent upon this proxy for both domestic and foreign policy requirements. [USHOR]

And finally, Jonah Blank:

On the issue of dealing with a Mumbai-style attack, one thing we can do is take a lesson from the citizens of both Mumbai and Boston. The reason the attacks in these cities were so jarring was that they stripped away the illusion of safety. A few weeks ago, however, the citizens of Boston confronted an unspeakable evil– not with panic but with quiet, rock-solid resolve. That’s what the citizens of Mumbai did in 2008– indeed, at leas t half a dozen times in recent years. Unfortunately, that is what other citizens, in the U.S. as well as elsewhere, will be called on to do in the future.

The Mumbai attack had special meaning for me: I used to live in Mumbai, just a few blocks from the site of most of the attacks. I used to buy American newspapers from the Taj bookshop, stop by the Leopold Cafe for a cold beer, watch a movie at the Metro Cinema, take trains from the terminal that locals still call by its colonial-era initials of “VT.”

One of the victims of the Mumbai attack was a friend of mine. He was man without whom I wouldn’t have been able to conduct my ethnographic fieldwork. He was an elderly Muslim cleric, easily identifiable as such by his white beard and skullcap– but the gunmen still shot him at close range. [USHOR]

These admissions in earnest would have been unthinkable even a decade ago in a Congressional hearing.  The U.S. may be withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014, but its threat perceptions are rapidly converging with India’s.  This is important at a time when the Pakistani establishment appears to be pitting its frankensteins against each other.

 

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Damned lies and statistics

On Aakar Patel’s attempts to convince us that terror has decreased under the UPA.

When I read Aakar Patel’s op-ed in Pakistan’s Express Tribune on the “successes” of the Manmohan Singh government in combating terrorism, I was reminded of a Sherlock Holmes quote about yielding to the “temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data.”  Except that in this case, the data wasn’t insufficient as much as it was either ignored or used out of context.

Mr. Patel writes:

Under Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, terrorism has decreased in India and Indians have become safer.

….It is correct to say that Indian citizens are as safe as the citizens of Europe and America against Islamist terrorism. You would think that a performance so demonstrably successful would earn Manmohan and his team applause. Instead, we have the inane commentaries that issue from a media that is convinced the Congress is doing something wrong here. [Express Tribune]

To support this very grand conclusion, Mr. Patel cites the South Asian Terrorism Portal’s (SATP’s) figures on the declining number of deaths from terrorism from 2005 (3,259) to 2012 (804).

This is great, except that it doesn’t prove that “terrorism in India has decreased.” If it proves anything, it is that fewer people have died from terrorism (but more on that and J&K later).  An examination of the actual number of instances of terror tell us another story altogether.  According to SATP data, the breakdown of the instances of terrorism outside of J&K and the Northeast is as follows:

2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
1 3 4 5 0 3 3 5 7 1 5 4 2 1

 

Thus, available data indicates that the number of instances of terror in India have not varied significantly during either the tenures of the NDA or UPA governments between 2000 and 2013 (barring a few anomalies).  Terrorism, therefore, has not decreased.

Mr. Patel would have been right if he suggested that fewer people have died in terror strikes in mainland India since 2005, but even this cannot be presented devoid of context.  Mr. Patel failed to indicate that the nature of the terror threat was evolving.  India and Pakistan have made two attempts at rekindling a “peace process” during the statistical period (in 2002 and 2009).  During these periods, there was a concerted attempt by Pakistan to appear to “play nice” with India, which meant that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)’s involvement in terror in India needed to be obfuscated.

Local terror groups, proteges of the military-jihadi complex, were thus needed to maintain the pressure on India. Beginning in 2003, local terror groups began assuming operational control over some attacks in India.  But misguided individuals or groups in India neither had the financial nor technical resources needed to carry out the sort of attacks that the LeT or JeM were capable of.  While the LeT and JeM attacks were sophisticated, including the use of fidayeen (having been provided facilities and professional training financed by Pakistan) groups like SIMI and the Indian Mujahideen have been capable of far less.  Attacks against India by local terror groups have been confined to IEDs and low-yield remote-controlled bomb blasts.Thus, there was a qualitative shift in the nature of terror being inflicted upon India beginning in 2003.

This has been the dominant pattern since the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.  By their very nature, these attacks inflict fewer casualties than those orchestrated by Pakistan-based groups. Thus, fewer people dying from terrorist attacks isn’t a credit to the performance of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government;  it is merely a reflection of a qualitative change in the nature of terror India is currently battling.

A word on Jammu & Kashmir, since Mr. Patel apparently suggests  that there have been fewer instances of terror in J&K since the UPA took over.  This is true, but needs to be presented in the context of a larger theme.  The insurgency in J&K is dying a slow and inevitable death.  The Pakistanis recognize this as much as the Indians.  The number of casualties as a result of terror has been consistently decreasing since 2001. The 9/11 and 13/12 attacks, combined with U.S. pressure on terror financing channels have effectively ensured that the insurgency in J&K is on its last legs.  This trend would have held regardless of whether the UPA or the NDA was in power.

But Mr. Patel’s embarrassing lack of research is most evident when he suggests that “figures under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) excluded all Maoist violence because that wasn’t compiled under ‘terrorism’ till 2004, when Singh came to power.”

Since he doesn’t provide support for his statement, we can only assume that he arrived at such a conclusion based on a note in SATP’s website which says “Data Till 2004 does not include Fatalities in Left-wing Extremism.”  But this just means that SATP’s data on Maoist terror is incomplete, not the Government of India’s!  In fact, official data on left-wing terror casualties has existed since at least 2000, when the BJP-led coalition was in power.  A cursory review of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Annual Report 2003-2004 (pg. 41) would have indicated as much to Mr. Patel, but it should already be clear by now that Mr. Patel was not on a fact-finding mission.

Which brings us back to Mr. Patel’s point that terrorism has decreased and India is safer under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s terms in office.  Even if we are to accept that there were fewer instances of terrorism — which they weren’t, as shown in the table above — it is ludicrous to say that India is safer today (forget being as safe as the U.S. and Western Europe, as he suggests!)  The infrastructure for terror continues to exist in Pakistan.  We know from news reports that the intent to hurt India remains undiminished.  We also know that local infrastructure for terror — however nascent — is being developed to challenge the state.

India’s ability to address these threats is hindered by a crippled internal security apparatus.  State and Central internal security agencies are experiencing systemic institutional atrophy.  The NIA — the UPA’s solution to our woes after 26/11 — hasn’t solved a terror case since 2009. Communication and coordination between various Central and State intelligence and police forces is poor.  Even worse, Centre-State mistrust on issues of national security has increased during the tenure of the UPA, to the extent that critical progress on the NCTC and NATGRID has stalled.  None of these reflect too well on Mr. Patel’s theory of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s “demonstrably successful” performance in making India safer.

Ultimately, the question is this: given what we know about the state of India’s internal security infrastructure, can we afford to take comfort in the various data points being bandied around by Mr. Patel?  That he may prefer the UPA and Dr. Singh over the BJP and its allies is understandable insofar as it is one’s personal choice.  But cherry-picking data points and drawing broad and inaccurate conclusions on an issue as important as national security merely to better market his party of choice is both irresponsible and dangerous.

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