Suicide attacks in Pakistan worry India

Posted in Terrorism | 03-Jun-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

Damage is seen inside a Shiite mosque after a suicide bomber blew himself up injuring more then a dozen people during evening prayers in Karachi, Pakistan on Monday, May 30, 2005.

NEW DELHI: The sectarian violence and suicide attacks on places of worship of Shia’s in Pakistan is being viewed with increased circumspection by New Delhi, with intelligence agencies as well as the foreign and home ministries closely studying the implications of the attacks on Indian security.

While the most proximate cause for the attacks is seen to be linked to Iraq where the Sunnis have been divested of power, in the post-Saddam Hussein scenario, such bold suicide attacks do not portend well for India. Friday’s attack that happened in Islamabad killing 19 and injuring 65, mostly Shi’ites, is the worst attack ever in the Capital. The bomber blew himself up in a gathering of minority Shi'ite Muslims at a festival also attended by majority Sunnis.

The Monday's attack on a mosque in Karachi is being seen not only as a spurt in sectarian anti-Shia violence in Pakistan that has rocked Pakistan since it joined the war on terrorism after the September 11 attacks in 2001. New Delhi sees the attacks of the past week as powerful indicators of the re-grouping of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which has been orchestrating suicide attacks in both India and Pakistan. Apart from links with the al-Qaeda, the JeM is also suspected to be behind the assassination attempts on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in 2003.

Taking note of the attacks, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has offered proposals to consolidate the ongoing confidence building measures with Pakistan. However, he has warned that peace talks between the two countries were still vulnerable to the next terrorist attack. “If we have a major attack like the one on parliament (December, 2001), that could upset the whole process,” Manmohan told a group of foreign correspondents he had invited to his residence to mark his one year in the office.

There have been several intelligence reports that some of the top officials of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, not necessarily owing allegiance to Musharraf, have recently met jehadi leaders like Hamid Gul, Masood Azhar and Syed Salahuddin. Indian sources believe the rebirth of Jaish as well as the attacks in Pakistan follows these meetings.

Until the late 1990s, the Hizbul Mujahideen (operating mostly in Kashmir) which had perfected the art of remote-triggered explosions, created havoc in India. It took the Indian Army years to counter the tactic. As the security forces got wiser about Hizbul’s tactic and got around its IEDs (improvised explosive devices), Hizbul was marginalized. It was then that the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and still later the JeM shot into prominence with their suicide squads.

The attention on JeM has come about due to the other more international terrorist outfit the LeT facing the heat from the US as well as the United Nations. Both the US and UN have imposed bans on the group, with the UN including the LeT in the banned list recently. LeT's post-9/11 global character may have made it too hot to handle, hence the transfer of attention to Jaish, feel Indian officials.

It should, however, noted that terrorist outfits only play to the already simmering angst in Pakistani society. According to the Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis group, Pakistan's sectarian terrorists are thriving because Musharraf uses and panders to religious groups to counter civilian opposition. ``While the tentacles of sectarianism in Pakistan are spread far and wide terrorism is its most pernicious expression.’’ Thousands of Shi'ite and majority Sunni Muslims have been killed in religious unrest in Pakistan in recent years, with attacks including bomb blasts, suicide bombings and targeted killings. Last year 160 people died.

Bracing against suicide attacks

Although there is no foolproof protection, in the last few years India has undertaken a massive exercise to bolster security in the country to stave off potential suicide attacks. This followed bold attacks on the Indian Parliament (December 13, 2001), the Akshardham temple in Gujarat (September 2002 that left 40 dead), the Jammu & Kashmir assembly (October 1, 2001, 50 dead) as well as the Raghunath temple (November 2002, 12 killed, 45 injured) in the same state. The LeT and Jaish have also been linked to the September 11, 2001 fidayeen (suicide) attacks on the world trade towers.

The Indian efforts had followed orders from then deputy prime minister L K Advani, also holding the charge of the home ministry, to clear all pending proposals for modernization of the police forces following the spate of suicide attacks. Advani, incidentally is currently on a week long visit to Pakistan, as leader of Opposition and met Musharraf. His visit is part of efforts to bolster the peace process.

Intelligence agencies have been involved in the preparation of graphic outline of places of worship that are threatened. The seeds of such a commitment had been sown after the attack on Akshardham, but formal instructions were issued following the attack on the Raghunath temple. It was no coincidence that the national security guard (NSG) commandos who landed in Jammu after the Raghunath temple attack carried a detailed map of the temple.

The execution of the plan has involved training of personnel to deal with situations arising out of fidayeen attacks, upgrading technology and a makeover of the policy parameters and tactics used by the various central police organizations and the national security guard. Tactical changes that have been fine-tuned include the problem of doing a job too ‘neat,’ that leaves no scope of further investigations. No one was captured alive to be questioned after the attacks on Akshardham, Raghunath temple, Parliament or Ansal Plaza (the attempt was foiled).

“The process of countering suicide squads is always evolving,” says Brigadier Raj Sitapathi of the NSG, who led the operations at Akshardham. “Not only we but security forces all over the world are yet to evolve foolproof methods,” he adds.

What is needed, say officials, is that suicide attacks be tackled in police-style rather than a military one. Apart from being a law-enforcing agency, the police are also an investigating agency. The use of force, according to counter-terrorism theories, should be at the last stage when the State acts to exterminate terrorism. The modus operandi of the police needs to be inculcated in the paramilitary forces as well, say officials. Among the other steps being undertaken to re-train personnel is the purchase of firearms-training simulators with emphasis on tackling strikes on places of worship, schools and hospitals. The simulators that have been procured are to assist in shooting training, specially AK-47s and Insas rifles, most commonly used by suicide squads.

Getting to the bottom of cellphone interactions that is most commonly used by terrorists is one more aspect that is receiving a lot of attention. Interrogations of several criminals arrested have revealed that they now routinely use e-mail and SMS (short messaging service) to plan strikes. It is easy for the police to monitor a mobile phone, but almost impossible to check SMS. It is on the basis of cell phone conversations that the Delhi Police have cracked the recent bomb attacks on two film halls in New Delhi. The attacks are allegedly the handiwork of Sikh militant group, the banned Babbar Khalsa International.

While the preparations may be in full swing, no system can be infallible. A long term solution can only be at the political level.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist)