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Ashutosh Kumar asked: What is the difference between sleeper cells and hybrid militants?

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  • Adil Rasheed replies: In recent times, the term ‘hybrid militant’ has been the subject of intense scrutiny and discussion. The term is used by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police for youths who are not listed as militants in its records, but who carry out terrorist attacks and then keep living as regular civilians, without going underground. As these youths live two lives—overtly acting as peaceable civilians, while secretly operating as militants—the name ‘hybrid militants’ has been given to explain the two-faced nature of their method.

    The earlier generation of terrorists in J&K, like Burhan Wani, used to openly announce their recruitment on terrorist websites and frequently posted their pictures and statements. However, the effective crackdown by Indian security forces against militants in recent years has apparently forced terror strategists across the border to devise a more insidious plan.

    By giving the terrorist the convenient cover and vulnerable face of an ordinary civilian, Pakistan-backed ‘hybrid militancy’ is trying to play jiujitsu politics with the international audience. However, the J&K Police have exposed the Pakistani plot. To understand hybrid militancy, Inspector General of Police (IGP Kashmir) Vijay Kumar says “we need to go back to December 2020, when Pakistan planned to use people who are not on the police radar…Hybrid militants get online training in pistol and hand-grenade use. Then a task is assigned to them. Once they carry out attacks, they live a normal life with their families and inside society…As such, there is no physical contact between a hybrid and an active militant.”

    To some people, hybrid militant and sleeper cell operatives are similar in that they hide in plain sight, until they get activated on receiving instructions from their shadowy handlers. However, intelligence experts like Scott Stewart from Stratfor point out that “sleeper cells” operate at a far more sophisticated level than any jihadist group—including al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—has ever been able to set up or operate. According to Stewart, even 9/11 terrorists did not technically qualify as ‘sleepers’.

    In the terminology of espionage, a ‘sleeper’ is an operative (typically an officer of a foreign intelligence service) who infiltrates the society, or even the government, of a targeted country and does not carry out any operational work until activated by a pre-determined signal or event to conduct a specified task. Developed during the Cold War, sleeper cells require a level of sophistication, funding and degree of patience that non-state violent actors would hardly ever have the will or capacity to invest in.

    The hybrid militants in J&K are mostly radicalised youth and not trained intelligence officers. They operate far more freely in committing wanton acts of terror than any dormant and dedicated ‘sleeper cell’. In fact, a sleeper is carefully selected and trained to bear the stress of operating inside enemy territory often as part of a long-term, strategic project that may take decades to reach fruition.

    Posted on 17 February 2022

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.