Thursday, October 16, 2008

Need for Discovering New Paradigms to Fight Terrorism

Need for Discovering New Paradigms to Fight Terrorism
*Ajit Doval, K.C.
October 2008
Source: Eternal India: A New Perspective Monthly, Vol.1, Number 1
High threats make security problems serious; not knowing how to deal with them make them dangerous. Terrorism is one such problem. Nations of the world, affected states, law makers and enforcers, all alike, are still groping in darkness for right solutions and at an ever increasing cost. For want of policies that can deliver, strategies that can subdue the threats and tactical response which could be executed, credibility-deficit statements or politically motivated stereotypes are masqueraded as response. There is no scientific study or analysis to sustain those sweeping generalizations. Over a period of time the establishment itself starts believing its own bluffs in the absence of anything better to substitute them.

For a scientific enquiry, access to data which is relevant, reliable and comprehensive on one hand and its objective painstaking analysis on the other is necessary. Studies of contemporary terrorism lack both, leaving answers to key questions required for policy formulation or execution unanswered. A researcher has no direct access to information about the terrorists, their organizations, sources of finances, procurement and distribution of terrorist hardware like weapons and explosives, their internal communications or relationships of the militant groups with the state and non-state entities supporting or opposing them. The data that would be required to analyze their psycho-sociological profile, emotive and material elements influencing their individual and group behaviour, content and style of leadership and unique mode of command, control and coordination are still more distant. Even the limited information available, if scientifically analyzed could provide answers to some critical questions. But this remains buried in classified files of security agencies, who have little time or talent to use it for a painstaking scientific enquiry. For justifiable reasons of security the data cannot be made public. Consequently most of what passes off as source material, if its origin is traced, will be found emanating from one or the other interested party, interested in projecting a particular point of view to subserve their perceived advantage. The literature or websites of the terrorists, books authored by sympathetic ideologues, tapes and press releases of terrorist leaders, their threats, claims and justifications for terrorist actions have its use but is contaminated material for research. Moreover, they do not answer the vital questions that a researcher need to seek. Equally incomplete and unreliable are the assertions of the governments regarding the terrorists, their organizations, sources of support and sustenance, morale and motivation, strengths, capabilities and intentions. Besides emanating from bona-fide knowledge gaps, these infirmities are consequented by understandable, higher considerations of national interest and public good. Governments do not run their business for the comfort of researchers and hence cannot be found fault with their ‘perception management approach’, except when they produce results, contrary to what was intended, or the governments become victims of their own propaganda. Both often happen.

Most of the writings and researches on terrorism have tended to focus on causes and history of terrorist uprisings, their political dimensions and ideologies, organizational and structural architect, incident analysis – either in statistical or case study mode, etc. Prescriptive responses are suggested based on these findings – the two having sub- optimal direct relationship. Nevertheless, these studies have substantially contributed in de-mystifying terrorism and help policy formulations, particularly in the western countries, where independent research and governance have developed an institutionalized linkage.

For responding to terrorism there is needed an approach which differentiates between tackling terrorist movements and the terrorist groups. Terrorist movements are essentially political or ideological beliefs which its adherents believe are attainable through instrumentality of violence. Only few among them are practicing terrorists. Terrorist groups on the other hand are well organized, trained, equipped, controlled and commanded formations who can operationalise the idea of violence and convert it into ground reality. Terrorism manifests its coercive power through terrorist groups. The rise and fall of terrorist movements and the groups may not be co-terminus but terrorist movements cannot survive for long in the absence of terrorist groups. And even when they do, they do not constitute a grave threat. Fighting terrorism is just like talking about fighting poverty or illiteracy- more a political gimmick than an action plan. At empirical level, it is the terrorist groups- their leaders, activists, supporters, infrastructure, weapons, funds and infrastructure which have to be degraded to defeat terrorism. The first shortcoming of our approach is undue focus on fighting terrorism rather than the terrorists, which deflects the discourse from practical action to theoretical domain. You can never fight let alone defeat an enemy that you cannot define in tangible terms. If problem identified is itself abstract, the solutions suggested cannot be otherwise.
Terrorists Lifespan
Terrorist groups are not endless entities as they sometime appear to be. They have a life cycle which includes their birth, ascendancy, peak and decline; eventually leading to their demise. When at their zenith, these groups appear to be endless but when they eventually wither away one only wonders how could they demonstrate the resilience for so long before meeting their logical end. Audrey Kurth Cronin, a noted authority on terrorism observed that “Studies of groups that use terrorism, across regions, cultures and historical areas, reveal that terrorism is by no means a promising vocation. Over and over, these case studies point to how difficult it is to maintain the momentum of a campaign. By any objective measure, the average lifespan of a group that relies on terrorist attacks is short.”

U.S based Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) examined about 521 terrorist groups around the world to study their lifespan. They found that the lifespan of 243 (46.6%) of them worked out to be below 10 years while 104 (19.96%) survived from 10 to 20 years and 119 (22.84%) for 20 to 30 years. Only 3.646% endured beyond 50 years. Nearly 90% of them thus consumed themselves within 30 years, the average lifespan of a terrorist group working out to be 5 to 10 years. For governments it may be a long game of patience but seen in historical perspective it offers hope for success. What is more important is that it is only in minuscule of cases where terrorist groups become extinct after achieving their political goals. Serious research is required to identify the factors that hasten the demise or prolong life span of terrorist groups. Both, horizontally, across regions, and vertically, across time, there is a commonality in the group behaviour of terrorist outfits and largely identical factors contribute to their decline and demise. There is a weak relationship between the causes of their birth and those of their death. The reasons for which violence is initiated, within two to three years undergo a metamorphis and new causes for their survival or death start replacing the old. Initial goals start getting eclipsed by subsequent external and internal pressures. The studies bring out that governments often inadvertently play a contributory role which delays the termination. Indecisiveness, weak initial actions, appeasement and opening the political door without convincingly subduing them are just few in the long list.

Unfortunately, once a terrorist group disappears from the conflict arena, very little attention is paid to analyze the course of its life span and the causes that led to its demise. For the governments and their security bureaucracies, once these groups become inactive an amnesia sets in that prevents the states from learning from their own experiences. This leads to unique tendency of the states to commit the same mistakes again and again hoping that next time the results would be different. For intensive study of extinct terrorist groups, which can provide useful basis of formulating counter strategies, it could even be easier for the governments to make the old interrogation reports, terrorist documents, their internal communications and other official materials available to selected researchers under controlled conditions. Interestingly, all new terrorist groups very closely study the history, methodology, tactics, organizational structure, reasons of failures etc. of their predecessors to ensure that they don’t repeat the earlier mistakes. Aware that state responses are more ‘precedent’ driven stereotypes and hence predictable they are able to innovate methods to maintain secrecy and deny intelligence to the enemy, bring about tactical improvements, camouflage their movements, take care in recruitment, carefully select targets, introduce elements of surprise in their operations, modus operandi, communications etc. As a matter of strategy, terrorist groups invariably leverage their strength through faulty or inadequate actions of the state. When the governments acquiesce to it, either by default or design, the war against terrorist groups becomes prolonged and costly. There are vast lessons to profit from historical experiences as to how terrorist groups gained strength not by their superior organization, resources, infrastructure or greater supporter base but acts of commission and omission of the states – both at strategic and tactical levels.
Common Features
A study of terrorist groups that met their end, both in India and abroad, brings out some interesting features of commonality. Firstly, neutralization of top leaders and activists proved to be one of the major contributory factors in their demise. At strategic level, their neutralization led to ideological dilution and confusion, demoralization in the ranks, doubts about movement’s ability to deliver promised goals and loss of invincibility image. At tactical levels, it leads to struggle for leadership, disruption of established sources of funding and weapon procurement, interruption of inter- group and intra- group communications and abandonment of plans in the pipe line. Further, the questioning of top leaders often provides strategic and tactical inputs, which if pursued diligently and imaginatively, substantially weaken the movements. Inherent in their interrogations is the answer to group specific actions that can lead to their destruction. At times, they agree to become active, join the government’s counter terrorist effort and wherever it happens their contribution is substantial.
Illustratively, CPI(M-L), which, during 1969 to 1972, perpetrated wide spread naxalite violence, with Charu’s death on 28th July, 1972 lost its revolutionary steam and became faction driven. By 1974, the movement got splintered into many small groups due to fight for leadership. Leaders with limited local influence like Nagi Reddy and Pulla Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Mahadev Mukherjee and Sharma in West Bengal and Bihar etc. emerged as weak centres of the movement. Large cadres, disillusioned and demoralized, left the organization and in many parts like Kerala, Punjab, U.P, Tamilnadu, the leaderless groups became defunct. In 1974, Subrato Dutta again brought pro-Mao, pro-Charu and anti-Lin Piao factions of the CPI(M-L) together rechristening them as CPI(ML-Liberation), but following Subrato Dutta’s killing in 1975 the group could not pursue its agenda of violence any more and had to embark on “Rectification Movement”, distancing itself from politics of violence.

Similarly, in Punjab, the neutralization of top terrorist leaders like Harjinder Singh Jinda, main killer of united KCF, Gurbachan Singh Manochahal, Chief of BTKF, Labh Singh, Chief of KCF etc. fragmented Punjab militancy and led to splintering of the movement and inter group clashes for supremacy to control funds and Gurudwaras. However, Babbar Khalsa was the only group which remained intact for quite some time as its leaders like Sukhdev Singh Dasuwal, Wadhawa Singh and Mahal Singh remained out of the net. However, within six months of its chief Sukhdev Singh Dasuwal getting neutralized the organization lost much of its sting. Similarly, in Kashmir, dozen of terrorist out-fits ceased to exist following neutralization of their top leaders. The termination of Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen following the killing of Hilal Beg, Muslim Mujahideen after arrest of Hyder Salim Zarger, Muslim Jaanbaz Force with arrest of Babbar Badr, Alah Tiger with arrest of Air Marshal Noor Khan etc. are illustrative. When in 1996, some of the senior commanders of terrorist groups like Kukka Parry, Majid Osman, Liaquat, Javed Shah etc. had a change of heart and decided to fight on the side of India, the Kashmiri component of the movement got heavily degraded and Pakistan had to bring in foreign jihadis under the banner of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Ansar. These reformed terrorists played a major role in kick starting the long stalled electoral process in 1996.
Experience Abroad
The experience abroad also reinforces the fact that decapitation of top leadership gives a major blow to terrorist organizations. The examples of Shining Path in Peru, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and the Real IRA in Northern Ireland are illustrative. The arrest of Abimael Guzman, charismatic leader of the Shining Path, on 12th September,1992, led to its decapitation and within a year the violence levels fell down by 50%. Today the group exists only in name. The Real IRA’s activities declined sharply after the British government arrested Michael (Mickey) McKevitt on 26 May,2000. From prison, McKevitt declared that further armed resistance was futile and that was the end of Real IRA. Shoko Asahara, cult leader of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to death in a trial that ended in 2004. Asahara’s arrest was a devastating blow to the group, which was essentially built around the personality of Shinrikyo . His exit was followed by factional disputes which combined with decisive police action practically heralded its end.
Thinking the unthinkable
The other hypothesis which deserves to be researched is that wherever conventional and predictable options have been exercised by the state, the lifespan of the terrorist groups has tended to get elongated. When terrorist groups plan and operate they make a careful estimate of the counter-action that will follow. When the state out-smarts them by not doing what they expect and doing what they don’t, they are caught totally off guard. Unlike the governments, their resilience and capacity to absorb unexpected shocks is too low while capacity to absorb expected shocks is very high. They can absorb shocks of their degradation in terms of their cadres, equipment or infrastructure, which they anticipate and hence are prepared for. In May 1998, during operation Black Thunder, the militants were expecting and were prepared for an attack by the security forces after they shot at then DIG, CRPF S.S. Virk. A repeat of Blue Star of 1984 would have only been disastrous. But unexpected killing of Panthic Committee Chief inside the Golden Temple due to suspected inter group fight triggered suspicions and infighting that influenced events thereafter. The subsequent deft handling cashing on mistakes of the militants and assault through the media in which liquor bottles, implements of torture, shameful evidence of immoral activities inside the holy temple and surrender of hundreds of terrorists, all of which people could see on their TVs, led to mass-revulsion and anger. It overnight polarized the Sikh masses against the militants. The sight of scores of dreaded names amongst terrorists meekly surrendering to the security forces with their raised hands demolished their contrived image of invincibility and valour. The use of ‘Cat System’ of keeping some arrested militants duly camouflaged at vantage points led to arrest of many hard to identify terrorists in Punjab, Kashmir, North East etc. However, with surprise element over after some time - thanks to media- results started petering out. Time tested methods in invisible warfare are the worst methods. A method that has proved useful must be discarded and substituted by new one as fast as possible. It requires leadership at various levels to think the unthinkable and develop capacities to execute it.
Audry Kronin’s research of terrorist movements that failed brings out another interesting point. He, with evidence, blows a popularly held myth that the best way to end terrorism is for states to engage in politics designed to win the sympathy of the populations from which terrorist groups emerge. This kind of “hearts and mind” approach, he feels, “does not work” even though these methods may be “desirable for many other reasons”. He asserts that groups regularly self destruct by range of mistakes they commit and weaknesses which creep in. Over a period of time, operational errors, burn out factor, internecine splintering, doctrinal infighting, targeting errors or a backlash in the constituent populations start sapping the energy of the movement within. The heart and mind approach at times reverses it. Instead of sending signals that can be mistaken for weakness- a life elixir for dying terrorist groups- governments can take measures to indirectly catalyze the process of their making strategic and tactical mistakes. He concludes that in ending terrorism, government’s “top priority should not be to win people’s heart and minds, but rather to amplify the natural tendency of the violent groups to lose them”. Unfortunately, quite often the governments do just the opposite. Inviting ULFA for talks every time it was under pressure only helped it to convince the people of their viability and strength giving it a new lease of life. To cite an example at tactical level, when Mir Waiz was killed by Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists in Kashmir on 21 May, 1990, there was unprecedented anger against Pakistan. A huge funeral procession shouting anti-Pakistan and anti-terrorist slogans was on the streets. Overreacting to some commotion in the crowd, a panicky CRPF officer ordered firing and the whole scenario in the Valley changed. The funeral procession suddenly became slogan- shouting anti-India demonstration. The serious mistake of selecting a wrong target by Hizbul- Mujahideen could not be cashed in and instead just the opposite was done. The terrorists groups for their survival look forward to mistakes by the governments which they exploit to the hilt while the governments in real time are not even able to see the opportunities which come their way.

Che Guvera the doyen of guerilla warfare in Latin America had propounded a doctrine that the efforts of the terrorists should be aimed at grounding enemy forces to static formations. Higher the security personnel on static duties lesser the bleeding of the guerillas. Terrorist groups, world over, have internalized this doctrine. We should have conducted research to determine how could it be undone. The visible heavy deployment of the troops, including army, builds pressure on the terrorist groups is a myth that all in the government, including senior police officers and policy makers, believe to be true. It at best makes few targets inaccessible to them but still leaves plenty for a free hit. All personnel on protecting the VIPs , installations, bridges and culverts, airports and power houses and own formations of security forces deplete most of the man power which in offensive mode could create serious pressure on the terrorists. In India over 75 to 80% forces, which includes army, is either on self-protection mode or protecting the likely targets. Wherever planners have been able to reduce this number to the minimum, degradation of terrorist groups has been very high and fast.
Devil lies in Detail
To conclude, terrorism has to be fought by emaciating and decapacitating terrorist groups which in turn involves degrading their leadership, image, resources and infrastructure. Most of the battle has to be fought and won at tactical level and perfecting the tactics to out-smart the terrorists should in itself constitute a major component of the strategy. Devil lies in the detail and a strategy without tactics is only a noise before the defeat. The other part of the strategy should be to employ policies that bring to surface the illegitimacy of the movements and erode their credibility, both in terms of objectives pursued and means adopted. Illustratively, holding of regular elections, after 1996, in Kashmir has been one single step that proved to be a serious setback to the separatist- terrorist movement.
This approach requires a deep understanding of historical, political and social context in which the war on terror has to be fought. Formulating doctrines that can deliver will require in-depth research, based on authentic data which is relevant for answering critical questions. The civil society response, which is vital for fighting terrorism, in different socio-political and cultural settings also varies widely. Intensive situational and area specific research is hence necessary for contextual insight.
*The author is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau.

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