India is jihad’s Disneyland
In the days after 9/11, an American security specialist, briefing journalists in Washington, DC, confessed his biggest fear was not that Al Qaeda would target another high-profile, high-value target — say, the Empire State Building or the State Department. “Imagine,” he said, “if they went and fired randomly in suburban malls in five small cities in the midwest, in the heart of America, ordinary locations with ordinary people. It would make Americans feel extremely unsafe, right in their neighbourhoods.”
Thankfully, America has escaped further attack since that tumultuous Tuesday in September 2001. Yet, in 2008, the Washington security wonk’s nightmare scenario has become all too real for India. From Jaipur to Ahmedabad, Delhi to Guwahati, terrorists have bombed markets, public parks, even hospitals. The victims have been, broadly, working class and middle class folk.
Now, by invading the Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi-Trident hotels, the terrorists have established that there is no class discrimination to their evil. India’s rich and famous, its show-biz stars and its business elite have been told, starkly, they are not insulated.
There was a time when India was a laboratory of political and economic ideas — from planning to free enterprise, socialism to liberal democracy. Today, it has become a playground for a wide variety of Islamist terror tactics and methodologies. It is jihad’s Disneyland.
Like in December 2001, there is a constant threat to politically super-important targets such as Parliament. Soft targets such as parking lots and ordinary bazaars — where low-end, easy-to-assemble bombs are hidden in garbage bins or occasionally lobbed from speeding motorcycles — are a dime-a-dozen.
About the only terror practitioner India lacked was the suicide bomber — there have been no suicide bombings outside Jammu & Kashmir, an indication of the perverse hierarchy domestic jihad still has to climb. Yet, Mumbai has offered an alternative — the suicide gun-fighter.
In a sense, Mumbai’s chilling experience this week was a throwback to an earlier age of terrorism, before suicide bombers became, callous as this may sound, common. In the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinian terrorists — and fellow travellers like Carlos, the Jackal — seized ships and buildings, held people hostage and negotiated release of imprisoned comrades as well as a getaway plane for themselves.
Later, the suicide bomb — or even the left-behind bomb, detonated using a mobile phone in some cases — was found to be more effective in that it killed more people. Yet, it was not the subject of drama. It was done in an instant; the shrieks and the bodies remained but the horror was not stretched out live over hours, right before the cameras and television audiences.
Islamist groups are extremely conscious that, unwittingly or occasionally otherwise, the media is a force multiplier. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the second plane that hit the World Trade Center in New York did so at a time when it knew the entire planet’s eyes and news networks were watching. The first plane had already flown into the Twin Towers — leaving people wondering if it was sabotage or a bizarre accident. The second plane removed all doubts — it was a made-for-television terror strike.
The Mumbai massacre — or massacres — had similar inspirations. The masterminds married the superficial tactics of the 1970s Palestinian hostage crises to the crazed religious motivations of more recent suicide bombers. This was jihad as urban guerrilla warfare. Far from shock-and-awe, spectacular but time-determined terror attacks, it had its origins in conventional military doctrines.
For example, when President George W Bush prepared to attack Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein knew his troops would not be able to fight off the United States Army and stop its inevitable march to the capital. However, what Saddam Hussein did promise the Americans was a battle to the death in Baghdad — street-to-street, house-to-house fighting, with sniper fire, grenades thrown from windows and terraces.
Eventually, Saddam Hussein did not deliver on his threat. Yet, his promised asymmetrical war plan now seems to have been adopted by Islamist terror groups. The geography of Mumbai — narrow lanes, houses close together, a warren-like network of alleys and lodgings — allows for such a form of urban terror.
Copycat jihad is possible — even probable — in London or New York, which have similar urbanscapes. It is less likely in, say, Lutyens’ Delhi or downtown Washington, where it is difficult to jump from roof to roof, and where wide avenues and larger perimeters will allow security forces to cordon off hijacked buildings and minimise collateral damage to neighbouring communities.
It is futile to look for the one controller or perpetrator of Indian jihad. In reality, there are several layers. The Indian Mujahideen uses commonly available chemicals to engineer low-tech bombs. The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami and its affiliates use Bangladesh as a base and India’s east and North-East as a workplace. The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba seems to take direct operational charge of sophisticated missions — such as the Mumbai train bombings of July 2006 and, maybe, the November 26-28 barbarism as well.
Yet, the interoperability and skill-sharing mechanisms of these different jihadi groups cannot be discounted. For instance, the Mumbai terrorists borrowed from the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Islamist terror machine in the Phillipines. Starting with its April 2000 attack on the Malaysian beach resort of Sipadan, Abu Sayyaf has smashed into several sea-front locations in its speedboats, killed people and captured hostages, thrived on media publicity, and lived to tell the tale.
In Sipadan, it captured Westerners but set free two Malaysians who happened to be Muslims. At the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai, the terrorists did something very similar. They spared a Turkish couple after confirming they were Muslim. Three Christian women who were with them were, however, shot.
To defeat this enemy — and defeated it must be, not because foreign investment will suffer or some such trivial reason, but if we are to leave any sort of stable nation and society as an inheritance for our children — it is important that India redoubles its physical and intellectual anti-terror infrastructure. Legal tools, weapons, even modern bulletproof vests — which could have saved Hemant Karkare’s life and which, the Government now says, will be imported by winter 2009 — and an acute study of the techniques and toxic philosophy of the global jihad conglomerate are necessary.
Yet, more than any of that, India requires a mindset change. Its people — businessmen, opinion-makers, ordinary citizens, police forces, not just politicians — have to prepare for a war, not a sporadic law and order problem. A change of Government will not be enough; the nature of the state needs to be transformed.