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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Soft target needs an antiterror strategy


NEW DELHI -- The grisly July 11 Bombay train bombings, the latest in a series of major terrorist attacks in India, are a reminder that the country needs to move from hand-wringing to a credible counterterror strategy against jihadist groups.

Whenever India is tested by the horror of terrorism, it responds in a preset way -- with brave words that serve as a cover to do nothing. Since last October, terrorists have staged major attacks in New Delhi, the high-tech center of Bangalore, the Hindu holy cities of Varanasi and Ayodhya, and now Bombay, the commercial capital. The terrorists have demonstrated they can strike across India at will.

Ever since the 2001 failed attempt by Islamist gunmen to eliminate India's elected leadership by storming the Indian Parliament, the terrorists have settled for an easier way to undermine public morale: indiscriminate attacks on citizens in public places. The bombings in Bombay, like the earlier attack in Bangalore, also appear intended to undermine investor confidence and derail the booming Indian economy.

The return of terror to Bombay, where several hundred people were killed in 1993 in bombings of the stock market and other financial centers, bears the signature of al-Qaida, whose leader Osama bin Laden cited the Kashmir dispute and spoke of "a Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against the Muslims" in a message broadcast last April. Al-Qaida-constituent groups based in Pakistan, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, have been linked by Indian investigators to most terror attacks in recent years.

The two groups have enjoyed long-standing ties with the Pakistani military, especially its infamous agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, which reared them as part of its covert war in Kashmir and its success in bringing the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. The ISI has an octopus-like reach within Pakistan and is seen as a state within a state. According to the report of the bipartisan 9/11 commission in the United States, the ISI "was in bed with Osama bin Laden."

What India needs is a concerted and sustained campaign against terror. But what it gets is little more than rhetoric from its weak, aging leadership.

The reason India has come under siege from the forces of terror was evident from its response to the deadliest terrorist strike in its capital last Oct. 29. More people died in the synchronized New Delhi bombings than in the worst terrorist attack ever suffered by Britain, Israel, Australia and several other democracies that see themselves on the frontline of terror. Yet, within days, India put the bombings behind it and went back to political squabbling.

The Indian and U.S. responses to terrorism are a study in contrast. No Americans have been killed by terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11 because the U.S. military has gone after terrorists overseas, despite the Iraq invasion serving as a recruiting boon to al-Qaida. India, in contrast, has suffered its biggest terrorist strikes since 9/11.

Jihadists see India as a soft state that imposes no costs on those attempting to inflict death by a thousand cuts. Little surprise that methodology employed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Office of Terrorism Analysis shows India with the dubious distinction of having the highest number of terrorist incidents.

India has become such an easy prey for terrorists that several major acts of international terror have first been tried out against Indian targets before being replicated in Western democracies. They include attacks on symbols of state authority, midair bombing of a commercial jetliner and coordinated strikes on city transportation systems. In using India as a laboratory, the jihadists have been guided by the logic that if the world's largest democracy can be shaken, so can other democracies.

The 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, for instance, replicated the midair bombing over the Atlantic of an Air-India commercial flight from Canada in 1985. The 1993 Bombay bombings served as a model act of mass terror to international jihadists.

If any state strikes deals with terrorists, it not only promotes stepped-up terrorism against its own interests but also creates problems for other nations.

A classic case was India's ignominious surrender on Dec. 31, 1999, to the demands of hijackers holding passengers aboard an Indian commercial jetliner at the terrorists' lair at the time, Kandahar, Afghanistan. In a surrender unparalleled in modern world history, the Indian foreign minister personally chaperoned three jailed terrorists to freedom in a special aircraft, including one who went on to finance 9/11 and another who formed the Jaish-e-Muhammad group and masterminded the attack on the Indian Parliament.

Even as India has risen as a knowledge powerhouse, terror attacks continue to expose its frailty on internal security, which historically has been its vulnerable spot.

India has to fight terrorism as an existential battle that will determine whether it will stay a free, secular, united state. It needs to begin by recognizing that it cannot combat terrorism merely as a law-and-order issue, such as by increasing security and adding more police on patrol. The only defense against the sly, murderous terrorists is offense aimed at hounding, disrupting and smashing their cells, networks and safe havens. Instead of waiting for terrorists to strike, India has to go after them and ensure they are on the run.

India's counteraction has to be at multiple levels: Domestic policy (formulating a coherent counterterror strategy); legal (forming a political consensus at home in favor of antiterrorism laws, with adequate safeguards against their misuse); law enforcement (identifying and destroying terrorist sleeper cells in cities); intelligence (building assets to operate behind "enemy" lines and target a particular cell or hideout at an opportune moment); and strategic (dissuading the sponsorship of terrorism, including through the imposition of costs).

Without a concerted response to terror attacks, no system can keep up morale and gain necessary leads from citizens on the movement or hideouts of terrorists.

Brahma Chellaney is strategic studies professor at the private Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.


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