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An Expert Explains | Terror’s new age: The threat that persists

While September 11, 2001 helped to focus global attention on the reach and expanse of global jihad, November 26, 2008 was a direct wake-up call for India’s security agencies.

Written by M K Narayanan |
Updated: September 16, 2021 7:15:50 am
9/11 attacks, September 11 attacks, Mumbai terror attacks, 9/11 anniversary, terror threat, Indian ExpressThe beginning and the end of the war. The ticker under ABC studios on Times Square. (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times)

History is relevant and most important when it comes to ensuring a proper understanding of threats such as terrorism, which have a long-term impact. Hence, even though by September 2001 India had already been a victim of cross-border terrorism for years, 9/11 did denote a paradigmatic change in the practice of violence. More to the point, India’s security establishment recognised early on that the attack had profound strategic implications.

Attacks on US, Mumbai

Already by the late 1980s, the broad sweep acquired by radical Islam had begun to be felt across the globe. The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during this period gave it a new impetus, apart from producing new patters of terrorism derived from a mixture of religious fervour and fundamentalist aims. The Afghan Jihad of the ’80s attracted volunteers from across the Islamic world, and among the volunteers was Osama bin Laden, for whom Afghanistan was a formative experience. It brought him into contact with Islamists from Egypt and Syria, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The thought process of the new breed of terrorists was influenced by the teachings of the Egyptian Syed Qutub and the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, together with the practical theology of Jalaluddin Haqqani. Two decades on, the broad shape of Islamist terrorism remains much the same, though there are many more variants today in existence.

September 11, 2001 alerted security experts and agencies to ‘new-age terrorism’. Though it took many more years for them to understand that these terrorists belong to an altogether different genre of terrorism, differing both in structure and morphology from those of the past, the lessons had hit home. ‘New-age terrorists’ had, for instance, far greater transnational reach. The attack that took place in the United States had its ultimate command and control in Afghanistan, while the attackers came from several Arab states.

The Expert

M K Narayanan was India’s National Security Advisor from 2005 to 2010, a period during which India saw the July 11, 2006 and November 26, 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, as well as the spate of jihadist bombings in towns and cities across India from 2006-10. Earlier in his career, Narayanan served as Director, Intelligence Bureau, and Special Advisor on Internal Security to the Prime Minister. Few others have seen the evolution of the security threat to India and the country’s national response to it as closely as Narayanan. He also served as Governor of West Bengal from 2010-14.

In the case of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the ultimate command and control was in Pakistan; the controllers relied heavily on technology to manage every phase of the operation; the terrorists were trained by official agencies in Pakistan; and an American national was used to carry out reconnaissance of targets to be attacked. From India’s viewpoint, employing violence indiscriminately as well as the concept of external sponsorship and support to non-state actors, revealed a new cognitive map of terrorism.

While September 11, 2001 helped to focus global attention on the reach and expanse of global jihad, November 26, 2008 was a direct wake-up call for India’s security agencies. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden emerged as the symbols of the new genus of terrorism following September 11, 2001, but what India realised with November 26, 2008, was that Pakistan had thrown down the gauntlet and would stop to nothing to achieve its ends. It had to, hence, gear up its efforts further to protect the Indian mainland.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda continued to wax and wane, but of special interest to the Indian security establishment was al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS). Of even greater interest to India’s security planners was the impetus all this gave to al-Qaeda acolytes such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, both of which operated from Pakistan and had been responsible for several large-scale terror attacks in India.

Taliban flags are sold outside the shuttered and abandoned US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Continuing ISIS threat

Following the elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and as the al-Qaeda core weakened, the world and India confronted a new threat, ISIS. The theology of the new organisation was not very different from that of al-Qaeda, but it leaned more towards the nihilism of Syed Qutub. It also offered a vision of a new and exclusive brand of puritanical Islam. The ISIS idea of a new Caliphate also ignited the imagination of Muslim youth across the globe, and it proved to be a powerful magnet to attract volunteers to the cause.

The ability to proselytise over the Internet became a key propaganda weapon in the armoury of the ISIS, with several thousands being recruited in this manner. Although India remained in the crosshairs of ISIS, and at various times ISIS claimed that parts of India were incorporated within the Islamic State of Khorasan, the activities of ISIS in India remained rather limited. It would not, however, be wise to underestimate the influence of the Islamic State in the region as a whole. Clear evidence of this was seen in the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka in 2015, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, even as it was facing setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

Notwithstanding the above, both the al-Qaeda and Islamic State, as well as terror outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, continue to be active even though the numbers of violent incidents have come down as compared to the past. Afghanistan has been the main area of operation for the Islamic State following the setbacks in Syria and Iraq. The emergence of the Taliban as the de facto rulers of Afghanistan may see attempts on their part to check the activities of the ISIS, but to what extent is too early to surmise.

26/11: one of a kind

The 26/11 attack was one of a kind, and while prior to this Pakistan had been carrying out a series of terror strikes, some by the Lashkar, some by Jaish, and some by other terror groups almost all of which were sponsored by Pakistan, the magnitude of the Mumbai terror attack shook the security establishment.

26/11 provided direct evidence of the involvement of the Pakistani state in terror activities. The choice of targets in Mumbai had been made after careful reconnaissance carried out under the aegis of the ISI, and implemented by a group of 10 handpicked LeT terrorists who had been trained for several weeks in Lahore and Karachi. The entire operation was masterminded by the ISI and the Pakistani establishment, with even telecommunications being controlled by an official of the establishment. Details of the plan formulated by the Pakistani deep state, which emerged from the computer of Zarar Shah, indicated that the LeT terrorists were to proceed by a mother ship from Karachi on the high seas, shift to a smaller sailing ship, and onto dinghies closer to land. After landing, the 10 terrorists were to split and proceed to their predetermined and previously reconnoitred targets. Seldom, if ever, in the annals of terrorism have there been instances of a government sponsoring an attack of this kind.

9/11 attacks, September 11 attacks, Mumbai terror attacks, 9/11 anniversary, terror threat, Indian Express Smoke covering New York City after the 9/11 attacks (AP)

Lessons India learnt

The intelligence available was undoubtedly sketchy, and proper anticipation too, was missing. Both have since been addressed to a large extent.

The first responders reacted gallantly. Arrival of the elite National Security Guard (NSG) was, however, delayed due to lack of transport and other administrative pitfalls. Several steps have since been taken to overcome these lacunae. The Coast Guard mechanism to police India’s long coastline has been strengthened and energised. Additions have been made to the number of NSG hubs. Better transport facilities for the NSG have been introduced. Intelligence coordination between the states and the central agencies has been strengthened.

While the good news is there has not been an attack anywhere on the scale of 9/11 in the US or 26/11 in India, the grim reality is that the ideology and the concept of nihilistic violence has not been eradicated. Confirmed figures about the number of Salafi jihadist fighters, worldwide and in our region, are not available but they run into several thousands including in our immediate neighbourhood. The Islamic State remains a potential threat. All this indicates that even though the terrorist threat may ebb and flow at times, terrorism remains an ever-present reality.

An uncertain coalition

However tempting it might be to think that the Global “War on Terror’’ and the international response to Islamist terrorism greatly helped shape India’s strategic relationships around the world, this is hardly the case. India often plays a lone hand in making the world understand the seriousness of the terrorist threat, and has had even less success in having individual terrorists like Hafiz Saeed designated as terrorists of international concern.

While many of the current Taliban leaders, including the acting prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, and some ministers like Sirajuddin Haqqani, have been included in the United Nations Security Council Terrorism List, India has had to wage a lone and uphill battle to include other names on the same terror list, despite providing enough evidence of their perfidy and terror links. The India-US nuclear deal of 2008 in fact, did far more to shape and strengthen India’s new strategic relationship with the US. The deteriorating relations between the US and China, and India and China, have further contributed to the strengthening of India-US strategic relations.

What lies ahead

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the generally unsettled conditions in that country, are matters of deep concern to India for a variety of reasons. Important among them is that the current Taliban interim government includes quite a few internationally listed terrorists. This could possibly make it easier for forces inimical to India, such as Pakistan, to use Afghanistan as a base to wage major terrorist operations directed at key targets in India. One obvious target is Kashmir, which has been in the crosshairs of Pakistani terror groups for over three decades. It is now possible to envisage Pakistan as exploiting the opportunity to enlarge its areas of operation and the ambit of its targets well beyond Kashmir, given its relationship with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. India’s ‘terror watch’ will as a result, need to be greatly enhanced.

The prognosis about a reduction in terrorism in the near future is distinctly unfavourable. The United Nations has a poor record in dealing with terrorism in any form, and does not give high priority to this subject. Any number of sponsored resolutions are likely to make little difference, and despite the Prime Minister seeking a universal definition of terrorism, it would appear that the fight against terrorism will largely continue to be fought by individual countries who are victims of such attacks. India must not lower its guard under any circumstances.

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