Terror operations of the kind busted by NIA recently are to be taken seriously even if they don’t immediately come across as especially threatening or dangerous.
Lieutenant General (retired) Syed Ata Hasnain explains:
It is surprising that doubts are being raised about the credibility of the recent successful operation executed by National Investigation Agency (NIA) across 17 locations in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, resulting in the recovery of a fairly big cache of arms, ammunition, explosives, and other war-waging wherewithal.
In addition, 10 persons have been taken into custody and six more are under interrogation for their involvement. A crude device earlier suspected to be a rocket launcher but later confirmed to be an improvised mortar tube of 51 mm caliber, was also recovered. The first thing is to professionally lay to rest anything suspicious about the seriousness of the catch purely from the nature of the recoveries. Subsequently, more observations about the network, the timing of the recoveries, and the overall potential will be analysed.
The revelation that some “sutli bombs” (crude, locally assembled explosive devices with gunny string wrapping) were present in the cache has raised questions as to whether the NIA recovery actually posed any threat to national security or was it a kind of hoax in pursuit of some political gamesmanship.
It needs to be remembered that potential terrorists at any time are in a state of preparation limited by resources, finances, and the pressure of keeping their intent hidden. It is always a work-in-progress, and the readiness or otherwise to execute acts depends on the spread of the network and the quality of leadership. Busted at an early stage, these recoveries may not be sophisticated, but are sufficiently lethal to ensure some casualties and enough pandemonium and panic at places of large congregation.
The sutli bombs could well have been decoys for initial blasts to be followed by more sophisticated bombs. Twenty-five kilograms of explosives is not a less amount in the fabrication of anti-personnel improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and this could well be the first installment of such recoveries with more to follow once the interrogation gets underway.
The crude mortar device could be used to lob bombs from a fair standoff distance to initiate an act of terror, with other explosive devices being subsequently detonated. In such acts, the initiative is entirely in the hands of the terrorists, with multiple options available to them to use various means for both surprise and effectiveness.
Interestingly, the recovery and arrests should be viewed from the context of the mega event scheduled to be conducted in Uttar Pradesh at the sangam (confluence) of rivers Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad (renamed Prayagraj) from mid-January 2019 onwards. The Ardh Kumbh will present one of the largest congregations of humans the world has known. Due to the contradictions of different faiths, it carries the danger of becoming the object of a potential terror attack. The intent would be to create panic, cause casualties, and lower the image of the government and security agencies while advertising a certain capability of the perpetrators.
The secondary intent would be to sow rumors through social media to trigger unrest and violence in other parts of India. A major coordinated act is not mandatory, even lone wolf attacks could be attempted depending upon the level of penetration and ease with which the perpetrators of terror can exercise their freedom of action.
An interesting deduction one can draw from the absence of the recovery of AK-47 rifles and the presence of more pistols in the cache is that terrorists in India have started realising the value of small acts that can become big in combination. The AK-47 is difficult to conceal and carry while pistols permit terrorists to close in on a potential target area with relative ease.
The absence of grenades is also glaring because hand grenades usually form an important element of the weaponry of terrorist groups.
So, it is highly undesirable for anyone to call the NIA action senseless or premature. What the NIA must do, however, is to ensure that investigation and interrogation are given a high priority both from the social responsibility angle as well as from the need to speedily follow up by ascertaining the extent of the network and existence of other such modules. If the arrested persons and detainees are found unconnected to the module in any way, action to release them under the media glare must be taken.
The longer the potentially innocent persons languish under arrest, the lesser becomes the credibility of investigation agencies, providing greater scope for politicisation and triggering of dismay and negativity in a community.
There are other observations related to the NIA operation and its timing. The handler is suspected to have been directing and motivating the mission from abroad, and it is further believed that links to Islamic State exist. The global terror group is believed by some to be in its last leg and with a loss of territory and resources in Syria and Iraq. There is little truth in this assertion as Islamic State still exists, firstly in a networked space with its planning and execution largely intact, and secondly, in a physical state with 5,000 fighters still willing to fight to the end at Hajen in Eastern Syria.
Hajen was to be assaulted by the Kurdish-majority Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) last week. The future of the anti–Islamic State operations is apparently in jeopardy after the withdrawal of support by the United States (US) and the impending move of the Turkish army against the Kurdish SDF. If Islamic State takes advantage of this, a minor revival may well give impetus to the group in other areas, where its links still exist.
The other interesting observation revolves around the fact that in the last four years, all the busted modules of Islamic State were discovered in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, or Tamil Nadu. Some earlier raids had also established links to West Bengal. Almost all the detained or arrested persons were those who were attempting to join Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, or had already gone ahead with that.
Bengaluru’s infamous Islamic State Twitter handle “Shami Witness” existed undiscovered for eight months. Now for the first time, we are finding the extension of modules into Uttar Pradesh, especially the areas also earlier known to house the modules of Indian Mujahideen. The network, therefore, has presumably spread nationwide, and the NIA will need to work overtime to get to book or neutralise it.
The prime reason for the effective spreading appears to be the online radicalisation efforts both from within India and outside. While the Ministry of Home Affairs has engaged in the business of counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation, its efforts have to be more visible with a vast array of moderate clergymen supporting it. The concept of Internet Imams who act as guides for the youth against misinterpretation of the faith needs to be adopted.
While the investigation and intelligence agencies do their outstanding work to secure India, the government must pay more attention towards information handling to ensure that rumour-mongering, fake news, and any other campaigns to ignite India’s communal cauldron are arrested well before they become effective and lead to more antipathy in society.
Information handling has to be professionalised through the setting up of a National Strategic Communication Body, which should have a Constitutional sanction. More on this in a subsequent piece.