Sunday, Nov 19, 2017 | Last Update : 08:27 AM IST

Lone wolf attacks: The threat to India is real

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Nov 9, 2017, 2:35 am IST
Updated : Nov 9, 2017, 2:37 am IST

Politics in India also has a nasty habit of turning from a perfectly normal run to something completely outlandish, more so when elections are due.

It’s quite possible, of course, that terrorist outfits targeting India could well be harboring innovative ideas and strategies to beat the effectiveness of the intelligence agencies. (Representional Image | AFP)
 It’s quite possible, of course, that terrorist outfits targeting India could well be harboring innovative ideas and strategies to beat the effectiveness of the intelligence agencies. (Representional Image | AFP)

Our intelligence agencies deserve some praise. Europe has found it difficult to cope with a flood of recent attacks, and there have been marked terrorist successes with innovative strategies they adopted in the past two years or more. India has been at the receiving end of sponsored terror, or proxy war, for longer than we can remember, but the success rate by terror groups has been comparatively lower; particularly in areas away from conflict zones like Kashmir. That is largely due to the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies. There has been insufficient effort to document and record their successes, so this appreciation must be done by those aware of it.

It’s quite possible, of course, that terrorist outfits targeting India could well be harboring innovative ideas and strategies to beat the effectiveness of the intelligence agencies. The transition worldwide from networked terror outfits with detailed logistics and financial support to self-sustaining, motivated and radicalised “lone wolves” has been faster than the trends indicate. The large-scale movement of personnel, finances, explosives and weapons to execute an act of terror now appears passé. The more intelligent and less obtrusive style of the lone wolf, using methods like driving trucks into crowds, has far lesser chances of early discovery as the electronic and digital footprint is far lower and stays under the radar much longer. Even after a successful terror attack of this kind, investigation is more difficult as the trails are often nonexistent.

Why should we be concerned about “lone wolves” in India? First, serious efforts have already been made in some of our cities which are not fully in public knowledge. Although ISIS efforts have led to over 100 youths going to Syria, this may not be a true reflection of the extent of influence it wields. It may be wise to recall the case of Shami Witness, one of the first Twitter handles working for ISIS. Mehdi Biswas, an Indian in Bengaluru, was found to be the man behind it, and he managed to stay under the radar and spew out jihadist propaganda for years. Although ISIS efforts have been on in many countries with sizeable Muslim populations, the degree of success in creating radicalised communities is not easily decipherable, except through statistics on the number of jihadi fighters who made their way to the “badlands” to fight on its behalf. ISIS’ new advisory that its followers should remain within their lands and launch attacks on its behalf may now be reinforced by the return of many fighters from Syria and Iraq.

The notion that Indian youth weren’t considered real jihadi fighter material and thus used mainly for logistics shouldn’t give us a false sense of security. “Lone wolves” aren’t exactly known for their fighting prowess. They are just hugely radicalised people, brooders about imagined injustices, who ratchet up their antipathy against society through Internet chatrooms and self-motivation. Their need for any financial backing or technical expertise is virtually nonexistent.

However, it’s not all negative. The trend of suicide bombings by explosive vest-strapped youth, so common in our neighborhood from Afghanistan to Pakistan and even Sri Lanka, didn’t really enter India’s terror environment, except briefly in the assassination of former PM Rajiv Gandhi and a few attacks in Srinagar. But that shouldn’t lull us into believing it will never happen. The ISIS will find its message reverberating as never before if an Indian Muslim is found involved in a suicide bombing or any lone wolf attack. We have great faith in India’s syncretism, but “lone wolves” are never part of the majority opinion even within minority communities. They may be alone – even within their families – in feeling victimised. The victim syndrome drives them to faith, seeing themselves as its protectors. Given recent developments worldwide, with radical ideology spewing unabated on the Internet, even India’s intelligence agencies can’t have an accurate idea of the number of possible malcontents within the walls of walled city areas in northern and central India, or in villages in southern India. What is really felt by young minds who have religious instruction courses imparted to them every day is not easily decipherable.

It may also be a mistake to believe “lone wolves” will always operate on their own in future. Radical groups, particularly those with overseas sponsors, could well change tactics and instead of serial bombs, they could execute coordinated vehicle attacks or any other kinetic activity that leads to mass casualties. It takes just one “lone wolf” to start a trend, almost  like a confidence-building exercise.

India could well be a “lone wolf” haven due to the fairly good Internet penetration into areas where people are reading without understanding too much about backgrounds; the dots, so to say, remain unjoined, leading to skewed ideas about history, victimisation and poor contextual capability. Foll-owing the social media makes it quite easy to glean how little depth is there in knowledge; but there is empowerment through expression. Pol-itics in India also has a nasty habit of turning from a perfectly normal run to something completely outlandish, more so when elections are due. What effect national trends have when mixed with local passions is hard to fathom. A readymade recipe is created for brooding individuals; and that’s where the scope for “lone wolves” begins.

What’s the solution? It all depends on good intelligence, as discussed earlier, but traditional intelligence and surveillance may not work as the potential “lone wolves” hardly leave a footprint behind them. Society, therefore, must play a role, but there are just not enough moderates who wish to reach out, and if they exist, each negative political event pushes them further away from such a mission. The quantum of antipathy which some television channels are spreading is mind-boggling. It’s not the news they report, but the way it’s put out that creates this. There’s a new television psyche evolving: a state of mind driven by channels; dangerous beyond repair. If our intelligence agencies can learn all this faster than the potential “lone wolves”, we can hope this new trend in terrorism, like many others earlier, will bypass India.

Tags: intelligence agencies, isis, jihadi fighter