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Terrorism in the Hinterland

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  • July 30, 2008
    Round Table
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Twenty one serial blasts rocked the city of Ahmedabad on July 26, 2008 in which nearly 50 people lost their lives and several others were wounded. Earlier on July 25, a series of eight low-intensity bomb blasts rocked Bangalore. In the next few days nearly 22 bombs that did not blow up due to defective initiating mechanisms were discovered in the diamond city of Surat in Gujarat. The entire nation was in panic as unexploded bombs were discovered in major cities across the country in Kolkata and Chennai, revealing the vulnerability of the cities and their people to terrorism.

    In the wake of these attacks, the Internal Security Cluster at IDSA held a Roundtable on "Terrorism in the Hinterland," which was attended by researchers from some prominent think tanks in New Delhi as well as officers from the defence forces. A detailed presentation on the instances of urban terrorism in India since 2005 revealed that a total of 17 terror attacks, including two shoot-outs, had targeted various Indian cities. 11 of these were allegedly carried out by the proscribed Student’s Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and other local groups, some with the support of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B). There were approximately 550 casualties, with an average of 30 casualties in each instance. An analysis of the attacks also reveals the defining features of urban terrorism in India – such terrorism is aimed at destabilizing the nation, is rather unpredictable, targets innocent civilians and hubs of economic activities and often has overt religious motivation.

    The discussion brought forth several interesting factors for the consideration of the security community and policy makers.

    Difference Between the Two Attacks

    Although the recent attacks occurred on consecutive days, there are significant differences between the two. Firstly, fewer blasts took place in Bangalore (8) as compared to Ahmedabad (17). Secondly, the blasts in Bangalore were low in intensity, whereas those in Ahmedabad were of medium intensity. Thirdly, in Bangalore, bombs were planted in open places thus minimising the casualties, whereas bombs hidden in enclosed places claimed many more lives and caused much more collateral damage in Ahmedabad. Finally, while the attacks in Bangalore conveyed the message that India’s IT prowess would be targeted, there was an overt communal message in the target of attacks in Ahmedabad, where constituencies of the BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi and a hospital of the VHP leader Praveen Togadia were targeted. Despite these differences, it is clear that the perpetrators have gained in confidence, so much so that they could challenge the State by sending an advance warning of the attacks.

    Motive for the Attacks

    While the Bangalore attacks were intended to create fear and panic, the email warning issued by the little known Indian Mujahideen (IM) prior to the Ahmedabad attacks had a clear message: “Await five minutes for the revenge of Gujarat”. Snippets of the 14-page document received by the media reveal that the grievances run much deeper. It is therefore likely that the non-implementation of recommendations of several commissions related to instances of violence against Muslims, such as the Report of the Srikrishna Commission (1998), may be a major cause of the attacks. Given that the cities targeted symbolise an economically rising India, and have had an immediate impact in the form of the diversion of tourist flows, the economic imperatives of such attacks are obvious.

    Who could be Behind the Attacks?

    Circumstantial evidence points to a large number of operatives, operating with local help and supported by sleeper cells of the SIMI/HUJI(B). These attacks thus perhaps indicate the “Indianisation of Jihad”. The timing of the attacks, the targeting of BJP-ruled states in the run-up to the general elections and so close to the formalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal and the standoff between the Congress and the BJP on the cash-for-votes controversy, as well as the awareness of the Pakistani urge to act against India with ‘deniability’ suggests that radical Hindu groups might also be the ultimate beneficiaries of a communal backlash that such attacks might trigger. Hindu and Muslim radicals cannot, therefore, be ruled out nor can probable links to recent developments in Kashmir. Thus far, there has been no evidence of the role of the ISI in these attacks. However, considering the role of the ISI in abetting the LeT and the HUJI- B and the close linkages between these groups and the SIMI such linkages cannot be ruled out.

    Threats to National Security

    It is clear that national security in the age of urban terrorism cannot be limited to protecting national boundaries. Further, terror attacks of this nature cannot be classified simply as law and order problems created by criminal or indeed communal elements. They are perpetrated using easily available chemicals like ammonium nitrate with the dual advantage of avoiding detection of the source as in the case of RDX, thus belying the requirement of sophisticated technology. There are indubitable external linkages in areas of funding, training and more importantly ideational motivation; every-day technology is put to dangerous use; political failures and weaknesses are used as a justification for acts of terror. Domestic factors and international developments resulting in the alienation of certain sections of the community help in gathering foot soldiers and young technical hands for radical ends, to the detriment of moderate sections within the community; and existing networks of transnational crime and terrorism are activated The situation is worsened by the exploitation of such tragic events by political parties for electoral gains, which is perhaps the worst form of indictment against the secular credentials of the State. It is thus obvious that threats to national security emanate not only from external sources; the greater threats emanate internally.

    The Way Ahead

    Considering the range of threats to national security, a combination of responses was spelt out. Shoring up of the institutional response is urgent and imperative. One option is the creation of a new federal institution for intelligence gathering and investigation. However, equally viable alternatives are available; for example, the existing mechanisms with the Intelligence Bureau (IB) at the apex may be strengthened to gather ‘signal intelligence’. Further, in order to strengthen the intelligence radar, the abilities of central and state agencies to convert general intelligence into ‘actionable intelligence’ need to be geared up. Electronic surveillance using close circuit cameras, where appropriate, may be enhanced. Given the lack of training of the local police, it is preferable that this task is managed by Central agencies with offices in States. Also, given the unpredictability of the attacks in urban centres in a vast country like India, and given the limited numbers of local police, informal mechanisms like citizens vigilance groups may be created to strengthen human intelligence gathering in urban areas.


    The societal implications of urban terrorism being so serious, it is important that communal conflagration be avoided. This could be done by active proscription of political parties that exploit such issues by the civil society. Religious leaders of the Muslim community could be encouraged to issue fatwas against acts of terrorism, thus further isolating the radical elements. Police forces could be trained to be more professional in their handling of communally sensitive issues such as post-attack arrests. Finally, majority communalism ought not to be allowed to get the better of secularism and minorities must be made to feel secure. The strategy for counter-terrorism in any country home to so much diversity must inevitably encompass these elements, over and above a security response.

    Prepared by Dr. Arpita Anant and Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh