In mid-July 2022, as I was about to proceed towards the Rhine Falls from Hotel Hilton in Zurich, I decided to hire an Uber taxi instead of boarding trains from Zurich Central railway station. It was about 14 hours local time. I was late as my travel agency had intimated that the Rhine river cruise would wind up by 16 hours. I had to hurry and move towards the spot at the earliest. Uber was the only choice. The driver appeared to be a European. However to my dismay, he introduced himself as a Kurdish Muslim from Iran. Zubair (name changed) knew several languages and was fluent in English. He had lived in Europe as a refugee and finally gained the citizenship of Netherlands. Nonetheless, as per his own admission, he moved to Switzerland with his Dutch passport so as to grow richer. He drives Uber in the afternoon and works in a restaurant in the morning. What however alerted me was the story he told about his colleague in the restaurant. That his colleague, another Muslim, believed in decapitating people who would criticize Islam and its tenets. Zubair was quite informed about the recent happenings in India – especially of the row over the Prophet emanating from a television show. If a peaceful city like Zurich could house such radicals like Zubair’s restaurant-colleague, then it is not at all surprising that terrorist havens like Pakistan could be the origin of several apocalypses.
As India is celebrating Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav [AKAM] – the glorious 75 years of its independence from colonial rule, the Anti-Terrorist Squad [ATS] of India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh has arrested a nineteen-year-old individual for having links with the banned terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed [JeM]. As per the security officials, the person was also in touch with handlers in Pakistan and Afghanistan through social media. This event occurred just after the arrest of Mohammad Nadeem, a twenty-five-year-old terrorist of the JeM. Nadeem was supposedly to carry out a suicide attack on Ms Nupur Sharma – the suspended spokesperson of India’s majoritarian political party.
And as if the looming threat of Islamist terrorism was not enough, India faces two major insurgencies as its internal security threat – one in the north-eastern part of the country, which is inundated with multiple terrorist groups claiming secession from the mainland and having cross-border linkages. The second major component of insurgency has been tamed of late to a large extent, and is that of the Maoists. Overall, India’s security forces have done a commendable job since the Mumbai siege in 2008. Even the Maoist violence saw a constant dip in its lethality and geographical reach in the last decade or so.
Nonetheless, the threat that India faces from global terrorism and insurgency is not at all in the realm of imagination, even when conventional wars develop in the form of Ukraine conflict and Taiwan crisis. In India’s north-western fringes, Taliban ruled Afghanistan is of late perturbed by the terror network of Islamic State Khorasan Province [ISKP]. It is natural that spillover of ISKP’s activities are sure to disturb the ambience of Jammu and Kashmir and beyond inside India’s heartland. Amidst a multitude of definitions and from the perspective of legal parlance, India define a ‘terrorist act’ as per section 15 of The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Section 16 of the same act delineates the punishments for committing a terrorist act. Obviously, from a logical point of view, such terrorist acts include insurgent acts too.
At the international landscape too, in August 2021, India called for adoption of convention on Terrorism, as the United Nations’ Security Council [UNSC] considers, fears that fighters will return to Afghanistan – and in fact the rise of terrorist activities by the ISKP is a clear indication of that portent. In an exceptionally realist move, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s Minister for External Affairs addressed the UNSC:
“Let us always remember that what is true of COVID is even more true of terrorism — none of us are safe until all of us are safe”.
He adumbrated an eight-point action plan, which include calls for measures to discourage exclusivist thinking and guard against new terminologies and false priorities. He also stressed, among other things, to list and delist terrorists objectively and not on the basis of political or religious considerations. Dr Jaishankar further focused on the requirement to recognize the links between terrorism and organized crime. Accordingly, he urged for strengthening the Financial Action Task Force and more funding for the United Nations Office of Counter Terrorism (UNOCT). In the same meeting, deep concerns were expressed on the rapid spread of the Islamic State in Africa – from Mali into Burkina Faso and Niger, from Nigeria into Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and from Mozambique into the United Republic of Tanzania.
There is no gainsaying of the fact that counter–terrorism strategy of the Western world, and especially the United States, has largely been propelled by the Global War On Terror [GWOT] since the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda. The strategy involved strikes on terrorist sanctuaries, key global networks. This was compounded with rigorous domestic surveillance on actual and potential networks. Steve Killelea tells us that ‘as terrorism is becoming more centred in conflict zones, underpinned by weak governments and political instability, while in Europe and the US politically motivated terrorism has overtaken religiously motivated attacks’. He further states that ‘the decline of terrorism in the West coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic…..restrictions on freedom of movement, travel and the immediate threat to personal health may explain some of the fall’.
From the point of view of data, Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates were the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2021, despite deaths attributed to the group declined from 2,100, to 2,066. In 2022, IS has thrown the gauntlet at the Taliban – openly challenging its authority in Afghanistan. The worst attack of 2021 occurred when an IS suicide bomber detonated two bombs at Kabul International Airport, resulting in about 170 deaths. In fact, terrorist groups responsible for the most deaths in 2021 were Islamic State (IS), Al-Shabaab, the Taliban and Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). These four groups were responsible for 3,364 deaths from terrorism, representing 47 per cent of total deaths in 2021. In this context, it is needless to mention how India would be an affected party due to the greater IS presence in Afghanistan. Fuelling fundamentalist radicalism within India and providing fillip to cross-border terrorism in the Kashmir valley would be two straight forward implications of the growth of IS in Afghanistan.
India’s crusade against terrorism
A couple of days before being eliminated, holed up inside the Golden temple complex with few hundred of his men and boys and confronted with thousands of soldiers of the Indian Army, on the 3rd of June 1984, Khalistani insurgent leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale said: “Sheep always outnumber the lions. But one lion can take care of a thousand sheep”. In a video posted in the Al Furquan media of the Islamic State [IS], the group’s erstwhile leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi lauded the suicide bombers of the April 2019 church and hotel blasts in Sri Lanka: “Your brothers in Sri Lanka have healed the hearts of monotheists with their suicide bombings, which shook the beds of the crusaders during Easter to avenge your brothers in Baghouz.”
Baghdadi however had to commit suicide in a nondescript village in Syria near the Turkish border barely six months later as counterinsurgent forces chased him. A frail heart patient, Charu Mazumdar – the chief ideologue of India’s communist/Maoist insurgency – died of custodial interrogation on the 28th of July 1972. Yet he spoke of ‘class annihilation’ and destruction of the bourgeoisie by an armed insurrection, to be operationalised through squad level guerrilla warfare in the villages.
Be it the army or the police or their combination, the braggadocio of the terrorists/insurgents is tamed by a thoughtful philosophy of Counterinsurgency/Counterterrorism (CI/CT), aided by planning, technology, leadership and execution. Mazumdar’s comrades were made to bite the dust by Operation Steeplechase – a joint execution by the Indian Army, paramilitary and the police in July-August 1971, while it was Operation Geronimo performed to precision by the American Navy SEALs on 02 May 2011 at Abottabad inside Pakistan which sealed the fate of Osama bin Laden, almost ten years after the collapse of the twin towers.
The targeted elimination/killing of the top leadership of Al Qaeda and Taliban fused pretty well with the Counterinsurgency [COIN] campaign (in the Afghan rural hinterlands) propounded under the doctrinal aegis of the meaty American Field Manual on COIN. The people-centric COIN approach was put to work in the tribal areas of Afghanistan because that model had yielded tangible results in Iraq which aided the withdrawal of the combat troops from the region.
Nevertheless, whether the job is of ‘winning hearts and minds’ in ‘classical COIN’ paradigm or conducting drone and stealth operations to target insurgent leadership or camps, ‘intelligence’ holds the key. Progress in technology notwithstanding, human intelligence [HUMINT] in COIN operations still stands in good stead, as was genuinely reflected in the elimination of former IS chief Baghdadi in October 2019. STRATFOR’s Fred Burton concurs with HUMINT school of thought as he asserts: “All this surface-level discussion (of sovereignty etcetera), however, largely ignores almost 10 years of intelligence development in the hunt for bin Laden”.
HUMINT becomes more than pertinent in an environment where the insurgent leaders – the main targets for the counterinsurgents – start to shun ‘technology’ and rely on human couriers. Osama in his last years at Abbottabad hardly used the internet. It was the human courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who ultimately paved the way for nabbing Osama. And “an IS-defector reportedly provided, via clandestine communication, a room-by-room description of the building in which Baghdadi was hiding, as well as the leader’s personal items,” wrote Eyal Tsir Cohen and Ellora Katz for the Brookings. Similarly, top Maoist leaders of India, their spokesperson Cherukuri Rajkumar and media-savvy politburo member Mallojula Koteswara Rao alias Kishenji were eliminated by Indian security forces, specifically based on HUMINT.
Although it was the Spanish guerrillas in the modern world of 19th century who harassed Napoleon to the extreme and made look his COIN campaign questionable, in order to trace the genesis of COIN, David Kilcullen cites the victory of the Ptolemies in Egypt over the Seleucids in 218 BCE, reflecting the logical inference that both insurgency/terrorism and CI/CT existed since the formation of the state. Furthermore, the US Army/Marine Corps COIN Field Manual (Army Field Manual, 2006) asserts that ‘insurgency and its tactics are as old as warfare itself.’ Apart from its military component, CI/CT campaigns include attempts to wean away the local population by socio-politically discrediting the insurgents.
Furthermore, considering the fact that The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2020 has ranked India as the 8th most impacted (or vulnerable) state to terrorism, following Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan; India ought to stick to its CI/CT approach in right stead. Since 2002, India had been in the top five countries most impacted by terrorism and, for four of these years, was at the second spot, right after Iraq, even when the war in Afghanistan had commenced. As India celebrates, truly and deserving, its 75 glorious years of independence, the challenge of terrorism and insurgency ought to be well countered for the recent future. With the proper legislations and security approach in place, India’s victory in the war against terrorism is well established.
-The author is a Joint Director in India’s Central Civil Service. He is a prolific writer on insurgency, counterinsurgency, history and foreign policy. Any opinion expressed here is that of the author’s own. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda