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Terror Changes Its Spots

Col Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 14, 2012

    The terror strike targeting an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi in February 13 2012 has suddenly raised the concerns to higher levels both for the police and intelligence agencies - the primary instruments of defence against terrorism in any country. This is not the first strike against a soft target. July 13, 2011 witnessed bomb blasts in Mumbai’s Dadar, Opera House and Zaveri Bazaar area, leaving 26 dead and 131 injured. On September 7, 2011, the Delhi High Court was shaken by a briefcase bomb, which killed 12 people and injured 76. However, the choice of Israel’s diplomatic corps as the target of the strike raises both the pitch and the implications.

    The previous terror strikes in India have followed a familiar pattern. Most were seen as attacks against the Indian State, even though some specifically targeted foreign nationals as witnessed during the 26/11 Mumbai attack and German bakery blast in Pune. The possible aim of these terror strikes included challenging the secular character of the State in pursuance of an ideology, give a local character to terrorism and create a religious divide through an expectant backlash, thereby enlarging the ensuing conflict. The selection of seemingly random targets also had certain common characteristics. The strikes targeted soft civilian groups. Invariably, the blasts took place in major cities. Even in these cities, it was timed to focus on crowded areas. The blasts were aimed at creating fear psychosis, partly due to the gory scenes at the sites of attack and even more from the 24 hour shrill and relentless beaming of real and at times imagined threats.

    The shift in the nature and pattern of the 13/02 strike is significant for a number of reasons. First, the strike appears to have been planned simultaneously with another one in Tbilisi, Georgia, yet again against an Israeli diplomat. The coordinated action and commonality of target has raised the possibility of Iran or Hezbolah being the alleged perpetrator, a linkage alluded to by Israeli Prime Minister who indicated that the incidents were “traceable to Iran”. This virtually makes India a proxy battleground for terrorists willing to operate beyond their shores.

    Second, while the terrorists chose a high profile target, they did not select a populated area, as done in the past like the chaos of a marketplace, judicial court or eatery. The choice is clearly indicative of a selective, demonstrative and punitive strike against a defined adversary.

    Third, the choice of material, though still unclear, raises a couple of options. The use of Nitroglycerine as an ingredient was discovered by Alfred Nobel as early as 1847 and it was later perfected to make dynamite sticks. However, its instability remained a concern and subsequently led to improved explosive materials like TNT and RDX. Despite the availability of these latter, the liquid form of Nitroglycerine and the relative ease of smuggling it led to its use by terrorists like Ramzi Yousef, who smuggled it on-board a Philippine Airline flight on December 11, 1994. That is the first option. The other option is an RDX based IED, an explosive compound used in limpet mines like Maindeka, considered amongst the most effective and deadly in the world.

    Fourth, going by the Israeli assertion, if the attacks in India have indeed been planned and executed by Iran, then the choice of country selected for the strike is disturbing. It indicates Iran’s decision to retaliate against suspected Israeli targeting of its nuclear scientists, even at the cost of executing it in a country that has been sympathetic to its international isolation. This, as the early debate indicates, has already forced India to answer awkward questions from US lawmakers and powerful Jewish interest groups, who see India supporting Iran despite obvious terror linkages.

    Fifth, the strike is probably the first, where a bomb has not been planted on a static, nondescript target, but instead on a temporarily halted vehicle, by a rider on a motorcycle, who reportedly followed the car, planted the device and drove off in a matter of seconds. The characteristics of the mine resemble those of a Limpet Mine, which, classically magnetic in nature, was used against hulls of ships below the water line (the name limpet is derived from marine mollusks which are invertebrates with a shallow cone and a large muscular foot). The name of the mine is attributed to Major Millis Rowland Jeffries and Stuart Macrae, who developed it in 1939 and subsequently used it during the Second World War. It has not only been used against ships by militaries, but also by terrorists, who have employed it as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against ships and motor vehicles, in ways similar to the strike in New Delhi. Interestingly, most initial devices employed chemical time delays for initiation to enable a quick getaway for the perpetrator, historically a very useful function, as was witnessed against the Japanese in the Singapore harbour, in September 1943. More recent ordnance devices, like Maindeka, have also used mechanical or electronic timers.

    The use of a limpet IED in the Indian context raises serious concerns. One, besides being used against a moving vehicle, it is also the first instance of the use of a magnetic IED. Two, the nature of the operation indicates a level of professionalism, which has not been identified with the Indian Mujahideen (IM) or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in the past, raising concerns about their direct or indirect involvement if any. Three, the strike could have been engineered or at least coordinated by a foreign expert, with logistic support from groups like IM or LeT in India, which exposes the weakness in detecting the entry of suspects into the country and the planning, reconnaissance and execution of terrorist act. On the other hand, if the strike was outsourced, then it highlights concerns about the nature of tactical expertise far beyond the existing capability of local groups and, in the process, raises their threshold level to undertake similar strikes in future as well.

    Sixth, unlike in Georgia, the attack in India could not be detected and averted. It also took place a few hundred metres away from the Prime Minister’s residence. Despite the sensitivity of the area concerned, the close circuit television footage being used to analyse the incident is being sourced from a private residence. This raises concerns about defence against similar attacks in future and about the procedures and systems in place to guard against such attacks.

    The success of the 13/2 terror strike may not be measured by its perpetrators from the number of casualties inflicted, but it will be seen in their ability to strike deep into the heart of the largest democracy in a manner, which was as yet untested. It may also become a successful test run for similar attacks in the future, which could well be more ingenious and sophisticated in their concept and execution. The strike also exposes India to the possibility of a more potent and professional group, which may have already raised the capability levels of indigenous terror cells and created a threat which is both real and potent.