Thursday, Dec 14, 2017 | Last Update : 03:11 PM IST

9 years after 26/11: Is a major attack in offing?

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 27, 2017, 4:09 am IST
Updated : Nov 27, 2017, 4:12 am IST

The past nine years have seen a revolution in technology, which has helped transnational terror groups in no small measure.

Indian troops at the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack site. (Photo: AP)
 Indian troops at the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack site. (Photo: AP)

Anniversaries of major events like the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack which left 166 people dead must be marked collectively. This will raise people’s awareness about counter-terrorism and remind them that it is everyone’s responsibility, not just of the intelligence and security agencies. Nine years after 26/11 it should be abundantly clear that India has been relatively safe, notwithstanding the violence and strife in J&K and some other states. While Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota may have been targeted by Pakistan-sponsored terror groups as part of its proxy war against India, there have been minimal civilian casualties in these acts of terror. That, however, shouldn’t make us too complacent as threats loom on the horizon, perhaps far more serious than what India has seen in the past.

Accusations of India being obsessed with Pakistan-based threats must be taken in their stride as every indicator shows nothing much has changed in Pakistan. Frustration with the recent success of Indian forces in J&K is one of the prime reasons why Pakistan-based terror groups, with the backing of Islamabad, seek success elsewhere. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba had serious setbacks in Kashmir, with much of its leadership decimated. To retain its image of being a thorn in India’s side and a force multiplier for Pakistan’s “deep state”, it must make its presence felt more decisively. It tries to do that by attacking high-profile military targets or a mass casualty strike against civilians. Lashkar boss Hafiz Saeed seems to have a grip on the Pakistani establishment. Despite efforts by the US and the international community, though half-hearted, he has flouted every law and is again a free man. With high political ambitions and a new political party to boot, a high-profile event targeting India by LeT will send his stock soaring in his increasingly radicalised constituency.

Terrorists live in a competitive world. Jaish-e-Mohammad, founded and brought to notoriety by Maulana Masood Azhar, has apparently lost its wayward ways. It was shunned for some time after an unsuccessful bid to assassinate Pervez Musharraf. It’s now back with the ISI’s support. It has made a reasonable entry with success at the tactical level against some prominent targets, mainly with suicide attackers, the so-called fidayeen. Upending LeT will be one of its aims, although cooperation in the J&K theatre is probably grudgingly done under ISI tutelage.

There can be a variety of reasons for a potential high-profile terror act with antecedents in Pakistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prestige and standing in the international community is not perceived positively in Pakistan. It is felt there that lowering this image will also dilute Mr Modi’s confidence and his ability to take bold decisions on J&K and boost India’s strategic interests. Political embarrassment is possible if a successful mass casualty strike is executed.

The past nine years have seen a revolution in technology, which has helped transnational terror groups in no small measure. Innovative ways of targeting objectives have also been successfully experimented with, widening the scope of tactics that may be used. The easy availability of better communication networks, the Internet, use of social media for recruitment, influencing, inciting and training, have made it simpler to put together a lethal transnational terror act. While India must still look at traditional methods and secure itself on the land and sea frontiers, it is also necessary to examine “small footprint-high achievement” acts which have been the modus operandi in the West. The use of vehicles as kinetic weapons needs high motivation, that can be used under the tutelage of external mentors. Its pre-execution detection feasibility is low and its mass casualty effect medium. “Lone wolves” operating in this mode need very few resources and even lesser time to prepare and execute attacks. Suicide bombing, which has largely eluded our environment but exists in the neighbourhood, is something we also need to guard against.

While the Islamic State may not have dented Indian Muslim society, its effect has not entirely evaded the community. Sponsoring a frustrated “lone wolf” after identifying him through the Internet or even by physical contact is not difficult; there are many people who bear grudge against society. The chances of ISIS making a demonstration attack in India seems less likely. But it’s possible that individuals radicalised under its influence are identified and sponsored by Pakistan’s ISI. The old world system of a full module existing for months, backed by extensive networks and reconnaissance, may be a less likely mode now, making detection more difficult. A single successful “lone wolf” attack could have a cascading effect. Since electioneering and large political rallies, and events like half-marathons and cricket matches, draw massive crowds, they are potential targets. I am not suggesting, though, that module-based and infiltration-related terror acts are passe, as these have a more devastating effect. Modules can still stay under cover with impunity.

Terror groups are also extremely competitive, trying to match earlier attacks or repeat them with greater intensity. Within Pakistan, terrorists struck the Army Public School in December 2015. It’s also well known that the attack on the Samba garrison was really aimed at the Army Public School. This means terrorists are often copycats. It’s not hard to figure out what could be potential targets in India. Civilian casualties in attacks on military stations, with long standoffs, probably stand high in the hierarchy of such acts. Whatever mode the terrorists employ, it is surprise, ingenuity and innovation that will be their focus; something unique to be remembered by and easy to deny. Copycats too will never blindly ape past methods.

While we cannot allow our daily life to get paralysed due to such threats, we need to sensitise people more effectively on how to protect themselves and their community — through frequent meetings in clubs, social groups and even online through the social media. There are awareness talks and counselling sessions at educational institutions, but rarely on security awareness. This is one area where corporate social responsibility — in raising public awareness about security issues — could well pay rich dividends.

Tags: 26/11 mumbai terror attack, hafiz saeed, masood azhar, pervez musharraf