Militants get stronger, states weaker

After the Mumbai terrorist attack, every Tom, Dick and Harry has become a counter-terrorism expert. Drawing room experts and newspaper columnists hold forth on how incompetent the authorities are, and how the attack could have been foiled if only this strategy or that institution had been in place. Alas, modern technology and communications are every day making terrorists stronger and states less able to combat the problem. Nothing looks like altering that ominous change in the balance of power.

Anybody today can look up the internet to learn how to make a lethal bomb from easily accessible materials like fertiliser and fuel oil. Automatic weapons are easily available in many countries. Satellite phones, GPS and wireless internet have given individuals better communications than were once available to superpower armies. Militants can keep government forces at bay for decades without any foreign support (as in Sri Lanka).

Now, in some places like Pakistan, terrorists have indeed received support from governments (just as the Tigers once got the Indian government support). But the militants are not dependent on such support, and the withdrawal of such support will not enfeeble them. The Afghan Muslim militants armed by the US to fight the Soviet Union have become an uncontrollable force in their own right. So have many Islamic groups in Pakistan.

The Indian media are chock full of suggestions of how the Mumbai attack could have been prevented. I agree with the proposed solutions — better intelligence, training and equipment — but still doubt if they will stop all attacks. It is almost impossible to stop an attack by motivated terrorists willing to die. Not even the most sophisticated, super-efficient intelligence systems can stop determined terrorists. Israeli experience proves that conclusively.

Israel, with all its high technology and formidable intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, has been unable for decades to stop suicide attacks, and is now building a wall along its entire border to limit the incidence of attacks. This is not an option for India, which has porous borders through which lakhs of migrants come both legally (from Nepal) and illegally (from Bangladesh and may be Pakistan). It is not like the US, which is lucky enough to be separated from terrorist hot-spots by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

India is bang inside the pan-Islamic terrorist zone, and some of its own citizens are part of that pan-Islamic network. So, like it or not, we are condemned to live with terrorism till such time as Islamic terrorism ceases to attract adherents. That means for the foreseeable future.

The media are having a field day with stories of how many intelligence warnings were received of a possible attack on Mumbai from the sea. Some journalists (and politicians writing in the media) claim that the authorities had clear warning of a possible attack, yet were so incompetent that they did nothing.

Really? If you have a wide intelligence network, you will get a hundred warnings every day of terrorist plots, suspicious behaviour and possible attacks. Some will be the fantasies of thousands of disgruntled people (of whom only a tiny fraction will be dangerous fanatics), some will be rumours, some will be time-pass speculation. US intelligence, the most sophisticated and high-tech in the world, has received thousands of warnings of imminent attacks in the last seven years, and has on many occasions put many cities on red alert, yet all the warnings have proved false alarms.

Former home minister Shivraj Patil told Parliament in 2006 that the government had received warning of possible sea-borne attacks. Today media critics accuse him of doing nothing. But what should he have done? Suppose for three months in 2006 he had deployed the NSG, Army and Navy in full force, tried to check every ship and fishing boat, and tried to check everybody entering a tourist spot or hotel. The same media critics would have raised an uproar accusing him of harassing people, putting off tourists, and wasting public money on a false alarm.

You cannot convert every city into an armed garrison because of intelligence reports of a possible attack. In the event of any attack, the first line of defence, even in super-efficient states, is the police. Indian police are woefully under-equipped and under-trained. But can even the best-armed police stop suicidal fanatics with AK-47s, willing to die rather than surrender?

If indeed the government rushes out commandos and troops after every intelligence alert, real terrorists will soon amuse themselves by sending a thousand false alarms. Al Qaeda says that its strategy is to exhaust the west financially while deploying very few of its own resources. It can easily exhaust India’s resources too.

Even if a country develops good intelligence and early warning systems, these can easily be combated by terrorists. In 1994, the Germans knew that the UK and US were planning to land troops in northern France. The allies spread false intelligence that the attack was going to be at Calais, and even sent a diversionary force there. German intelligence knew Calais might be a false alarm, yet could not possibly ignore it. Pan-Islamic groups can easily send alarms via the internet and telephone about a dozen false landing sites to confuse the authorities.

Can nothing be done? Well, improved intelligence and security systems, improved training and equipment, will certainly be a help. Some people point to the US as a good example. But, unlike the US, India is bang inside the pan-Islamic zone, rather like Israel. So, like Israel, India can at best diminish but not stop all attacks.

In sum, the future looks grim. Theorists will say the solution is to change the mind-set of potential terrorists. Alas, that is beyond the control of India: pan-Islamism has international roots. Besides, the march of technology relentlessly increases the power of non-state actors to inflict ever-more damage. With Herculean efforts, the state may become strong enough to combat Maoists in the central Indian jungles and assorted insurrectionists in the north-east. But even with the best efforts, I doubt if we can stop determined suicidal fanatics, Islamic or otherwise.


What do you think?