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Defeating 'new terrorism': India must act

By Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd)
November 12, 2009 20:44 IST
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Like many other countries, predicts Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd), India is in for the long haul in the war on terror.

'Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It's a tactic... We're not going to win the war on terrorism.'

-- General William Odom, US Army, on C-SPAN's Washington Journal programme, November 2002

On November 26, the tsunami of 'new terrorism' hit India's commercial capital. Ten mercenary marauders from Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Tayiba, armed to the teeth, and trained, equipped and controlled by Inter Services Intelligence handlers, sneaked in undetected from the sea and unleashed wanton attacks on innocent civilians returning home after a hard day at work at the Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus at Mumbai.

During the course of the evening, they also attacked two upmarket hotels, a Jewish centre, a hospital and a cafe. By the time they were through with their devilish plans, they had left almost 180 people dead and over 300 injured, including several police officers and personnel.

It took India's National Security Guard, an elite counter-terrorism commando force, 60 hours to flush them out and end their orgy of violence. One terrorist was captured alive. Though he confessed publicly that he was from Pakistan, his country (initially) disowned him -- in keeping with its short-sighted policy of living in denial. Pakistan has not yet taken back the bodies of nine other terrorists who were killed by Indian security forces despite overwhelming evidence that they are Pakistani citizens.

The age of 'new terrorism' hit India with the Mumbai serial bomb attacks of March 1993, well before the term had become prevalent and in the same year when a group of Islamist extremists led by Ramzi Yousef had launched the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo underground with sarin gas. Soon after that, a large truck bomb killed 168 people in Oklahoma City and visions of apocalypse through terrorism began to haunt the world. The London and Madrid train bombings further heightened the pervasive fear psychosis.

Walter Laqueur, the well known terrorism historian, wrote in 1999 that the character of terrorism was assuming catastrophic proportions and changing in a revolutionary manner. 'Rather than the vicious yet calculated application of violence that everyone had become familiar with, the world was now confronted with terrorists whose aim was to liquidate all satanic forces (and destroy) all life on earth.'

The September 11, 2001 attacks were a catastrophic confirmation of a major shift in the trend lines of transnational terrorism and there is now ready agreement that the age of 'new terrorism' is well and truly upon us. However, 'new terrorism' is in many ways still a catchphrase that heralds change as no clear understanding of its characteristics is as yet forthcoming.

Even as the world attempts to enhance its understanding of what exactly has changed, four pointers can be clearly discerned.

Firstly, modern terrorist organisations are both diffuse and opaque in nature. They have cellular structures that resemble networks, rather than a clearly demarcated chain of command.

Secondly, they are increasingly more transnational in their geographical spread, with shifting centres of gravity and constantly changing recruitment bases.

Thirdly, their ideological motivations are driven by religious fundamentalism and they seek to achieve their political objectives through radical extremism even though no religion justifies violent means.

Fourthly, modern terrorism is far more violent than 'old' terrorism. In the mid-to-late-20th century, terrorist organisations wanted 'a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead' but this has changed and they now wish to inflict horrendous casualties so that they can impose their will on governments and societies.

India's response to the Mumbai terror attacks was slow and labourious and poorly coordinated among the central and state governments and their various agencies. Coastal security was virtually non-existent; the marine police were too few in number to effectively patrol the vast area entrusted to them; they were ill-equipped and inadequately trained; and, there was poor coordination between the Coast Guard and the marine police.

It took far too long to begin flushing out operations and then to eliminate the nine terrorists who were holed up at three separate locations.

The army battalion in Mumbai was only given the responsibility to establish a perimeter cordon when its could have launched flushing out operations at least three hours before the NSG commandos arrived on the scene and before the terrorists had consolidated their positions.

The media were telecasting live pictures of ongoing military operations when they should have been at least a couple of kilometres away from the scene. Generally speaking, the country's response left much to be desired.

Peter R Neumann has written: 'Regardless of whether governments are dealing with "old" or "new", the aim must be to prevent terrorist attacks whilst maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of the population. In doing so, governments need to "harden" potential targets; develop good intelligence in order to disrupt terrorist structures; bring to bear the full force of the law whilst acting within the law; address legitimate grievances where they can be addressed; and, not least, convey a sense of calm and determination when communicating with the public.'

This prescription cannot be faulted and Indian policy planners would well to draw up a counter-terrorism policy on these lines as part of a comprehensive national security strategy.

The Mumbai terror attacks have left a deep scar on the national psyche. The mood in the country, particularly in the urban areas that have been the victims of new terrorism, is that of anger and grim determination.

If there is another attack of a similar magnitude -- and given the extent of radical extremism and creeping Talibanisation, there will surely be many more such attacks -- the Indian people will demand military retribution against the perpetrators and their handlers. And that could mean war if a clear linkage can be established with State sponsors of terrorism from across India's western border.

Contrary to General Odom's rather pessimistic assessment that the war against terrorism cannot be won, there is no option but to successfully defeat the terrorist organisations that are inimical to India's national security interests and are determined to create a communal-sectarian schism with a view to destabilising India on behalf of their handlers in the ISI and the Pakistan army.

They must be prevented from launching major terrorist strikes in future and, in case some terrorists do manage to sneak through comprehensively organised and coordinated intelligence and police defences, they must be quickly eliminated -- with minimum collateral damage.

Like many other countries, India is in for the long haul in the war on terror.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retired) is director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

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Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd)