Terror stalks India's progressNEW DELHI - Terrorists are targeting areas at the forefront of India's economic progress. A major tragedy was averted on Monday when police in the information-technology (IT) hub of Hyderabad foiled a plot to trigger bomb blasts by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).
The plots, which included suicide bombings, targeted Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the two states that lead the software and outsourcing boom in the country. Police seized 14 kilograms of explosives and said two arrested terrorists were planning to attack the office of the city's police chief, police headquarters and buildings housing top IT companies.
The arrests follow last week's shootout at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, considered India's Silicon Valley. A well-known Delhi professor was killed and several others injured.
The assailants barged into the well-guarded campus in a car and opened fire at delegates comprising India's top scientists who had assembled for a seminar. The terrorists fired from an AK-56 rifle and lobbed grenades, a clear indication they were well trained. Police said they suspected the attack to be the work of the banned Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), considered a front of al-Qaeda and with origins in Pakistan.
Analysts and intelligence reports have been emphasizing that terrorists are likely to attack symbols of India's technological might and economic success. The winter months are the most likely for such attacks to be orchestrated as the usual terrain of operation of terrorists in Indian Kashmir becomes inhospitable because of snow.
Attacking software hubs hits at one of the most international symbols of Indian success and can set off a wave of panic reactions from potential foreign investors as well as multinationals, which can hobble the rapid pace of India's economic progress. Such economic and cultural destabilization can only be the handiwork of international terror outfits that seek out targets that inflict maximum damage to people as well as pass on a symbolic message. After the events of September 11, 2001, economic terrorism has been the hallmark of al-Qaeda attacks whether in Kenya, Bali, Morocco, Turkey or Egypt.
October witnessed the worst terrorist attack on the Indian capital New Delhi, where serial bomb blasts, including one in a busy market, left 62 dead and more than four times that number injured, with more than 30 in critical condition. The attacks took place at the height of the festival season, when business is brisk.
In a bid to allay fears after the Bangalore shooting, the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) said in a statement: "The Indian IT industry already has in place many security measures. This incident emphasizes the need to review and upgrade these. NASSCOM and the IT industry will work, in collaboration with the police and government, towards tightening security measures to create a safer working environment for the industry."
A national newspaper said: "The country is waking up to a new reality - its success in IT and concomitant economic boom has excited malice in certain quarters, who would like to attack symbols of that success. Within the frame of this inchoate rage against modernity, an international conference of scientists [at the IISc] is also a target."
Bangalore, apart from Hyderabad and Chennai, has been described as a prime target - the garden city of 6.5 million people is home to more than 1,500 technology and back-office outsourcing firms, including global giants such as Intel, Motorola and IBM. The city accounts for a third of India's US$25 billion software and offshoring business that employs more than a million people. Several Indian defense, space and scientific research institutions are also based in the city.
The federal Ministry of Home Affairs warned four years ago that the city could be a prime target of terrorists with installations there such as the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). In December 2004, police unearthed a plot to attack software offices in Bangalore.
Some observers have also drawn a link between Pakistan's efforts, with the help of China, to ramp up its IT industry and the attacks in India. China and Pakistan have enjoyed strong relations that include close military exchanges. With the US having identified India as the only country to match the might of China in the Asian region, analysts say Beijing by default will reach out to Islamabad to curb India, if needed. And in the changed global scenario, economic might counts as much as military strength to win friends and strategic partners.
However, the predominant thought among security agencies in India is that the top Pakistani establishment, including President General Pervez Musharraf, is for peace - at least for now. It is the middle and lower levels that have long fed off the spoils of a proxy war with India that are the main threat. These will have to be tackled by India independent of Islamabad's ability or predilection to take them on.
Officials also say Pakistan is not the only front through which terrorists manage their operations in India, especially in the south, which leads the IT boom. Bangladesh is being seen as an important base, with both the JeM and LeT active in the country, with direct links to Saudi Arabia instead of Pakistan.
Last year, the annual report of India's Ministry of Defense said Pakistan and China have been replaced by Bangladesh as the country that India needs to guard against the most.
The US "war on terrorism" has concentrated its efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the report said. Although India has repeatedly warned against Bangladesh turning into a terrorist hideout, the US considers the battlefront to be elsewhere, thus providing a free run for extremists in India.
Proximity with the military regime in Myanmar, with its poor record against terror outfits as well as a weak law-enforcing apparatus, has made the situation worse.
The LeT has a history of orchestrating attacks in India, and its cadres are well connected as well as very savvy with computers and other high-tech gadgets, making them very difficult to track. Attacks include an attempt to storm the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001, which triggered a military standoff with Pakistan and brought the neighbors close to a fourth war; India also holds the LeT responsible for killing 37 and injuring more than 80 Hindu devotees assembled for prayer in September 2002 at the Akshardham temple in the state of Gujarat. The attacks were seen as revenge killings in retaliation for the communal riots in the state earlier the same year in which more than 2000 Muslims were killed.
The LeT terrorists are also known to seek out cultural ambassadors. According to reports, international stars such as New Zealand's Russell Crowe are targets. Indian cricketers such as Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly have been provided elaborate security because of the threats they face.
Security agencies have their task cut out.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.